Bygone beach clubs made island free-wheeling, fun-loving destination
Galveston once sparkled with Las Vegas glitter. Barbers-turned-bootleggers Sam and Rose Maceo built an empire so lucrative that for decades the island was better known as the “Free State of Galveston.”
The Sicilian-born Maceo brothers’ crown jewel was the Balinese Room, the South Seas-themed supper club and casino that stood astride the Gulf of Mexico at 21st Street. Rose Maceo was content behind the scenes, but Sam was legendary for his hospitality, playing the suave and gracious host as all manner of entertainers, oil tycoons and other midcentury swells traveled to Galveston for a little surfside revelry.
“The Maceos just took it to a whole other level,” local historian and author Kimber Fountain said. “They infused the island with this sense of luxury and almost single-handedly elevated the ambience of what to expect here.”
The brothers got their big break when Ollie Quinn and Dutch Voight, two of the Galveston underworld’s most prominent Prohibition-era figures, gave them a piece of a nightclub they were opening at 61st Street and Avenue S. First-class all the way, the palatial Hollywood Dinner Club was America’s first air-conditioned nightclub. And that wasn’t all.
“The Hollywood Dinner Club was the very first place in the nation where one could find high-end gambling, gourmet food and high-class entertainment all under one roof,” Fountain said. “Today, that is pretty normal, because we call it Las Vegas.”
The Hollywood’s posh amenities and plentiful gambling lures represented a clever way for the Maceos to strike back for all the money Galveston had been losing since the Houston Ship Channel opened in 1914. All but the wealthiest islanders were discouraged from gambling, but Houston oilmen, flush with new money, were sitting ducks.
That was the Maceos brothers’ main goal, Fountain said.
“And then on top of that, they started reaching further and further and started to attract the upper echelon of nationwide society,” she said.
What the brothers began at the Hollywood, they perfected at the Balinese Room, which they opened in 1942 on property they had owned for several years. The T-shaped Balinese was perhaps most famous for the casino in its back room, so situated because craps tables and other incriminating evidence could be safely hidden in the time it took a raiding party to reach the doors.
But even if they didn’t gamble, a who’s who of celebrities at the time — including Phil Harris, Alice Faye, Stan Kenton, Jane Wyatt, Mel Tormé and Jack Benny — came to soak in the plush Polynesian décor, including a fish-filled lounge known as the Aquarium. Frank Sinatra never actually performed at the Balinese, but every so often enjoyed hanging out there with his pal Sam Maceo.
“There have been plenty of times where I have tried to just close my eyes and transport myself into this place, because it was just magnificent,” Fountain said.
But, the Balinese was far from the only game in town.
By this point, clubs and casinos were spread out all over the island, including the cluster of beachside Black-owned businesses off 28th Street known as “Gus’s Alley.” For more than a decade starting in the early 1950s, the Manhattan Club was a popular meeting spot for African-American trade associations and social clubs. It also hosted concerts by now-forgotten bandleaders such as Bobby Scott, Al Goodlow and Willard Dickerson.
Still, it was the Balinese, and the Maceos that fixed Galveston in the public imagination as a freewheeling, fun-loving place — a poignant image that lingered long after the state of Texas successfully shut down the Balinese, and many others like it, in 1957. Hurricane Ike wiped it out for good in 2008.
“Take any image that was conjured when you think of 1930s Hollywood glamour: the women in the satin elbow-length gloves and floor-length ball gowns,” said Fountain, who wrote the 2020 book “The Maceos and the Free State of Galveston: An Authorized History.”
“It was high-class, and that was on purpose, because the Maceos looked at Galveston and they saw the potential of what it could be,” she said. “And they did it — they pulled it off for 40 years. We had absolutely no desire to be a family-friendly tourist town until after the Free State was shut down.”