The Balinese Room has long symbolized the island’s glamorous, outlaw past
Galveston Island is rich in history and culture and home to many historic structures. One legendary site in particular — The Balinese Room — has been more celebrated than most. Renowned stars performed at the famous nightclub on a pier over the Gulf of Mexico. Fortunes were won and lost there, legends born and at least one song was written about the venue, which also operated an illegal casino.
The ballad of the Balinese started shortly after the 1900 Storm devastated the island. Dates vary, but the story remains the same: Brothers Sam and Rosario “Rose” Maceo immigrated from southern Italy to New Orleans in about 1903 and eventually settled in Galveston in 1910. The brothers were barbers and opened a shave and shine business on the island. Sam and Rose Maceo were recruited by local crime boss Dutch Voight during the early Prohibition Era and traded their barber pole for bootlegging, and eventually gambling, capitalizing on both in several night clubs, one of which became the famed Balinese.
“Dutch ran the local beach crew and hired my uncles to run booze,” present-day Galveston business owner Ronnie Maceo said. Ronnie is the grandson of Frank Maceo, the younger cousin of Sam and Rose. “Back in the day, ships dumped cases of liquor several miles offshore and local runners brought it in. A lot of money was made and eventually the Maceos went out on their own. It was a natural progression from booze, to gambling, to night clubs.”
The original foundation and buildings constituting the Balinese Room date to at least 1926, according to the National Register of Historic Places. But they probably existed a few years before, said Dwayne Jones, executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation.
‘ESCORTED OUT RATHER QUICKLY’
Historic records show the club was originally named Chop Suey, then The Grotto and Sui Jen, before eventually being christened the Balinese Room. The Balinese, 2107 Seawall Blvd., stretched hundreds of feet over the Gulf of Mexico with a night club and gaming room at the far end.
“You didn’t wind up in the gaming room by accident,” Ronnie Maceo said. “The pier extended far out into the Gulf and had many checkpoints. First, you got the thumbs up from the walk-up window at the seawall. Then, you were allowed to proceed another couple hundred feet, down the pier, to the coat/hat check booth. You needed an additional ‘all-clear’ to proceed to the dining room.
“And, if you somehow got past all the sets of guarded doors, and you didn’t belong there, you were escorted out rather quickly.”
A teenaged A.R. “Babe” Schwartz, an island native who went onto to become a Texas senator representing Galveston, was among those escorted out rather quickly, Ronnie Maceo said. Schwartz made it past all the check points, only to be scooped up under his arms and escorted back to the seawall. Schwartz, for whom a Galveston beach was recently named, was banned from the Balinese Room after the incident, Ronnie Maceo said.
Few people, and even fewer locals, were allowed through the double doors in the back of the restaurant that led to the famed gaming club.
‘CAULDRON OF ILLEGAL BEHAVIOR’
“You had to have notoriety — and money, lots of money — to get through the final set of doors into the casino,” Ronnie Maceo said. “Some of the most influential men in the country came to Galveston at that time. World-famous entertainers came here to play. Big oil men came here to gamble. The island was booming.”
“Years of bootlegging, gambling and nightclub experience contributed to Galveston’s reputation as a cauldron of illegal behavior,” Galveston Historical Foundation’s Jones said. “The red-light districts and saucy night life thrived in complete denial of the state’s statutes prohibiting such activities. This reputation gave Galveston the moniker of ‘sin city,’ and contributed to its being referred to as ‘the free state of Galveston.’”
For the most part, local public officials, influential residents and law officers looked the other way, Jones said. Many believed the illegal activities aided the local economy, he said.
LEGENDARY FRIENDS, PERFORMERS
Historic records show some of the illicit profits from the Balinese Room were spent charitably in the community. According to the National Register of Historic Places, big band leader Phil Harris held a benefit supper at the Balinese Room on April 28, 1947, to benefit the victims of the Texas City Disaster, an industrial accident on April 16, 1947, that killed at least 581 people, including all but one member of the Texas City Fire Department. It was the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history.
Harris was a regular at the Balinese Room, Ronnie Maceo said.
“Phil was a great friend of Sam’s,” he said. “He honeymooned in Sam’s suite at the Hotel Galvez after marrying actress and singer Alice Faye. Sam had suites in all the big hotels on the island, but he had the entire seventh floor of The Galvez.”
The brothers Maceo had an impressive circle of friends and the list of world-famous entertainers who performed at the Balinese Room is legendary. Photos, yellowed with age, still hang on the wall at Ronnie Maceo’s downtown business, Maceo Spice & Import Company, 2706 Market St., famous in its own right for spice blends, specialty foods, muffalettas and other fare.
“On these walls hang photos of the original gang and their friends,” Ronnie Maceo said. “Sam and Rose and my grandfather Frank, with Dutch Voight; old man Moody; Vic and Anthony Fertitta; the Kempner boys; a young geologist they hired named George Mitchell; Phil Harris; Guy Lombardo,” to name just a few.
“The paparazzi followed the group everywhere they went,” he said. “They had 16mm cameras. We had reels and reels of footage.”
Sadly, most of the memorabilia was lost when Hurricane Ike swept the island in 2008, he said.
‘THE EYES OF TEXAS’
The list of entertainers who performed at the Balinese Room is as long as it is impressive.
“But I’ll tell you who didn’t perform there,” Ronnie Maceo said. “Frank Sinatra. Frank never performed at the Balinese Room, although it’s often been reported that he had. Frank would hide out in Sam’s suite at the Hotel Galvez. Sam would run him over to the clubs for dinner and gambling and no one would ever know Frank was in town.”
The death of Rose and Sam in the early 1950s, and damaging storms and fires helped to seal the fate of the Balinese. But so did a crackdown on illegal gambling.
In 1956, Will Wilson was elected Texas Attorney General after campaigning to “close down Galveston” and its illegal casinos using the Texas Rangers, according to reports. The Rangers set up shop in a hotel near the club, and raided the casino often. But their efforts were thwarted by the length of the pier, known as the “Rangers Run,” according to reports. By the time they ran down to the end of the long, narrow club, tables, cards and chips had disappeared into secret wall and floor pockets, according to historians. The band often would strike up the song “The Eyes of Texas” to signal the Rangers’ arrival.
In 1957, the Texas Rangers shut it down permanently as a gambling establishment. It closed and remained vacant until 1965, when oil tycoon Johnny Mitchell repaired the damage and restored the club. He kept it operational during the 1970s and 1980s. The building eventually closed in 1989 and remained vacant and crumbling into the Gulf until local lawyer and real estate developer Scott Arnold acquired it in 2001.
Arnold did extensive repair work and remodeled the pier, salvaging some original décor, including the famous copper and Lucite palm trees.
“First, we made the pier structurally sound,” Arnold said. “Then, we redid the casino bar with an art deco look with a multi-stacked-up circular stage and lots of mirrors and deco lines. We used a lot of glass to feature the spectacular views of the Gulf and we turned the adjoining kitchen into a rustic ice house. We lined the pier with retail shops and a coffee and cigar bar and another cocktail bar up close to the seawall.”
‘BLOWIN’ AND GOIN’
Arnold also built a life-sized sculpture of Billy Gibbons, lead singer and lyricist of the rock band ZZ Top and had it installed on the pier. The Houston-based band performed live at the Balinese and released the song “Balinese” in 1975. Gibbons’ father, orchestra leader and concert pianist Freddie Gibbons, had performed at the Balinese Room in the 1950s, Ronnie Maceo said.
Live music continued to be a mainstay of the Balinese Room until Hurricane Ike, which struck in September 2008, pulverized it, leaving jagged heaps of the building’s remains piled in traffic lanes on Seawall Boulevard.
“We went from blowin’ and goin’ one weekend, to a pile of rubble the next,” Arnold said. “The debris spread for blocks down the seawall.”
“It took some time to recalibrate,” said Arnold, who still has a 50-year lease to rebuild on the premises. He’s in the process of preparing a third architectural draft of the new Balinese, he said. His new plans include using a larger seawall frontage area. Arnold also plans to keep with tradition and book live bands to play at the new Balinese, he said.
So, while the future of the Balinese Room in Galveston looks promising, its famed past is cemented in the history books and in pop culture.
In the words of ZZ Top:
“Deep in the South of Texas, not so long ago, there on a crowded island, in the Gulf of Mexico. You could dance all night, if you felt alright, drinking whiskey and throwing dice. Everybody knows it was hard to leave. And everybody knows it was down at the Balinese.”