April 6, 2009

The Balinese Room

A bit from the Wikipedia entry:

The Balinese Room was a well-known nightclub in Galveston, Texas, built on a pier stretching 600 feet from the Galveston Seawall over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. For decades a dance hall and illegal casino, the Balinese Room was remodeled and reopened in 2001 without the gambling.

Salvatore "Big Sam" Maceo with pianist Carmen Cavallaro and Galveston Mayor Herbie Cartwright

Operated by Sicilian immigrant barbers-turned-bootleggers Sam and Rosario Maceo, the Balinese Room was an elite spot during the 1940s and 1950s, featuring entertainment by Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, George Burns, The Marx Brothers and other top acts of the day. Patrons of the private club included Howard Hughes, Sophie Tucker and wealthy oil barons from nearby Houston. In 1997, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The following historical data is largely paraphrased from information provided by the library of my childhood, a place I spent many hours, the Rosenberg Library:

pic source

Before it became known as the Balinese Room, it was the 21st Street fishing pier, the Original Mexican Restaurant, and the first of two Pleasure Piers. Salvatore (Sam) Maceo and his older brother Rosario (Rose) Maceo invested in the restaurant, Chop Suey, in 1923. In May of 1928, the former restaurant opened as Maceo's Grotto.

The structure was damaged by a storm in 1932. It was remodeled with Oriental décor and a new 200 foot pier, and reopened as the Sui Jen Café. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the decor was modified.

On January 17th, 1942, the Maceos opened the Balinese Room. The interior had been remodeled in a South Seas motif, and the pier was again expanded, this time to 600 feet. Its private back room was equipped with the most modern gaming equipment, and long before Vegas attracted the big names, the Maceos lured high rollers to "Play on Galveston Island." Keep in mind this was before there even was a "Vegas Strip."

When this photograph was taken in April 1947, Sinatra was in Texas to perform at Houston's Shamrock Hotel at a benefit for victims of the Texas City Disaster. At the invitation of Sam Maceo, the singer made a visit to Galveston and the Balinese. Seated from left to right are, Anthony Fertitta, Jimmy Van Heusen, Frankie, and Sam Maceo.

In its heyday, the Balinese Room drew crowds from all over the country. The showroom featured stars such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Peggy Lee, Duke Ellington, and Jayne Mansfield among others. There is a story that the Balinese Room's bartender invented a new drink for singer Peggy Lee in 1948. He supposedly named it after the Spanish version of her name, Margarita.

Santos Cruz

That bartender's name was Santos Cruz. He later went on to become the night bartender at the Old Galveston Club (now a parking lot) in 1983. This is where my group of friends and I met him. We simply called him "Santos." He was a great guy and a very nice man to us. Of course, this perception was helped along by the fact he didn't hassle us too much for things like, say, oh, driver's licenses to insure we were of drinking age (which we weren't). Had I known way back then he had served Frank Sinatra drinks and invented the Margarita for Peggy Lee, I would have been waaay more reverential. He waited on us at the bar as if we were Sinatra, instead of what we were, i.e., the privileged, snot-nosed, wise-ass kids of Galveston's upper-middle class. R.I.P., Santos. We loved ya!

The Balinese Room was raided on 64 consecutive nights during the 1950s – without one charge ever made. When Texas Rangers would raid the establishment, a buzzer would sound in the back room, all gambling devices would disappear into secret floor and wall compartments, and tables would instantly be set with linens and silver. By the time the Rangers would reach the end of the pier, guests would stand and the band would strike up "The Eyes of Texas." On May 30, 1957, Sheriff Paul Hopkins raided the Balinese Room. With two undercover detectives already inside the casino, he demanded entrance. The charges stuck, and the gaming devices were confiscated and destroyed. This marked the end of the Maceos and the illegal gaming era in Galveston.

Around the time of its reopening

And so the Balinese sat, largely empty and unused, until a local attorney reopened it in late 2001, early 2002. Much of the original structure and decor had been either modified or destroyed over the years, but the South Seas interior decor of the large ballroom survived and was restored to match its 1940s appearance. The hallway of the long pier was lined with autographed photos of past performers and other memorabilia.

September 12, 2008

A bit more from the Wikipedia entry:

As Hurricane Ike approached Galveston on Friday, September 12, 2008, the storm surge raised the water level to a point where waves were occasionally topping the Galveston Seawall, sending water and debris onto Seawall Boulevard.

Later that night and early Saturday morning, Hurricane Ike barreled ashore, with the eye of the storm tracking into Galveston Bay. Although the pier was higher than the seawall, Ike's storm surge, waves and wind were more than the seventy-nine year old pier could handle. The Balinese Room, after having survived hurricanes Carla, Alicia, and numerous smaller storms, was completely destroyed. Only plywood, rubble, metal and the club's famed red door were left after the hurricane passed through.

October 2008

Deep in the South of Texas
not so long ago,
there on a crowded island
in the Gulf of Mexico.
It didn't take too much money,
man, but it sure was nice.
You could dance all night if you felt all right,
drinking whiskey and throwing dice.
And everybody knows
it was hard to leave.
And everybody knows
it was down at the Balinese.

-lyrics to "Balinese," from Z.Z. Top's album Fandango! (1975)

My photo from August 2009:
balinese room memorial


Gilligan said...

Fascinating. Well done. You can't hear me, but I'm clapping.

Chris said...

Thank you! High praise, coming from you.

MarianneR said...

A (Galveston) Texas Landmark will be missed!!!!!!!

Amy said...

That *was* fascinating! What a cool retro loungy place; such a shame that it was destroyed. Judging from the look of the construction it didn't stand a chance against Ike, did it?

Chris said...

Hey, a fellow Ball High Tor alumni! Hi Marianne. Yes, I get choked up just looking at the last pic in this post (sentimental fool I am).

Amy, the same could be said about Galveston, itself! Who in their right mind(s) would build a city on a barrier island?? It's that shared sense of potential, impending doom that shapes Islanders (especially BOIs - Born on Island, such as myself).

Anonymous said...

Santos Cruz is my Grandfather. I miss him, his stories, and great cooking.

Chris said...

Hi, Ginger. Thanks for the comment. I meant what I say in the post - I have nothing but warm memories of your Grandfather.

Anonymous said...

I am not certain of the accuracy of the Sinatra photo. The Shamrock was not completed until 1949. And, I believe the Texas City benefit was in Galveston, not in Houston.

Athena Karn said...

So I just started the Santos Cruz Fan page on Facebook. Inspired when I saw my grandfather's photo in the Old Galveston Club Album. Then I ran across this site. And have to admit, still get choked up when I see any mention of him from someone else's perspective. Funny too, I saw my cousin's entry, that really got a tear rolling.
Thank you for your Blog. :)

Chris said...

Hey, Athena. That's awesome! I am joining that Facebook page. You know, of course, Mike Burdeos started an OGC page.

As I mentioned to your cousin, I have good memories of your Grandfather - he was such a nice man.

Anonymous said...

I am in possession of a chair from The Balinese Room. My oldest son gave it to me for my recent birthday. Long story on how it was acquired but now I am trying to find pictures of the interior to frame and match up the chair. Any advice?

waiter said...

I worked at the Balinese,during Hurricane Alicia.I think it was reopened around 1982.Fantastic place

waiter said...

does anyone have a picture of the balinese sign,before Alicia hit? It read Beam Me Up ,Scotty .Would like to see that again