Requiem for the Balinese Room

Categories: Catfish Reef

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All artwork courtesy of balineseroom.net

“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.”

- ZZ Top, "Balinese" (Fandango, 1975)

With all due respect to Brennan's, the Houston area's greatest cultural casualty of Hurricane Ike is - or was - on a Galveston pier overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. The Balinese Room, the legendary nightclub, restaurant and casino, fell victim to the storm surge when Ike came ashore late Friday night and was completely washed away. A satellite photo of what little remains - mostly the pier - is here.

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Postcard from the Balinese's previous incarnation as the Sui Jen Cafe; the Maceos changed the name in 1942.

Opened by Sam and Rosario Maceo, members of Galveston's notorious Maceo family who set up businesses like barbershops to cover their true trade of bootlegging, the Balinese gradually transformed from the modest Chinese restaurant it was ("Chop Suey") when the brothers bought it in 1929 to the Gulf Coast's premier pleasure palace of the 1940s and '50s.

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Frank Sinatra (third from left) at the Balinese

The Maceos made a mint from the Balinese's gambling operation, and lured most of the era's top entertainers to perform at the club, a list that includes Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, Duke Ellington, Gene Autry, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme and Guy Lombardo, to name but a few.

Conveniently located next to the then-lavish Hotel Galvez, the Balinese was a prime R&R spot for the Gulf Coast elite, including Houston-born eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes and top executives of the city's oil companies. Its casino, which was hardly a secret, gave law enforcement fits - or some law enforcement, anyway. In one famous story, when the Texas Legislature asked the then-current Galveston County sheriff why he hadn't shut the place down, he told them - under oath - that he couldn't get into the club because he wasn't a member.

The Maceos used the Balinese's 600-foot pier to thwart authorities - those that weren't already on their substantial payroll, that is - for years. Anytime a raiding party came, a red light would come on in the casino and the staff would quickly turn over the gambling tables and stash the chips and cards in various secret wall and floor compartments. When the law finally reached the entrance, it looked like any other nightclub.

Will Wilson was elected Texas Attorney General in 1956 after campaigning to "close down Galveston," and the Texas Rangers finally brought the club to heel - not by raiding it, but simply showing up and hanging out, which drove enough business away that the club closed in May 1957. Ownership eventually reverted to the State of Texas, and the Balinese sat vacant for decades.

Houston attorney Scott Arnold bought the property in 2001 and reopened the Balinese; until last weekend, the club's Seawall Bar featured live music Friday and Saturday nights. ("We don't usually have a schedule for these bands, so you kind of have to check it out," the club's Web site said.) Recently, rumors circulated that Meridian owner Bob Fuldauer was interested in either buying the Balinese or just taking over booking, but obviously that's off the table now.

Not surprisingly, the Balinese was also said to be haunted. A page on the club's Web site contains several stories from employees of various supernatural experiences, ranging from mysteriously locking and unlocking doors to radios strangely tuning in to '40s and '50s music. Gina Vail, the employee who compiled all the information, says she glimpsed the ghost of Sam Maceo himself in a mirror - "pinstripe black suit with a red tie, a cane, and a black hat on."

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Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, the Balinese Room lives on in ZZ Top's 1975 song "Balinese" (see above), and was used as a location in the 1989 film Night Game, which also filmed at the Astrodome. Rocks Off emailed Arnold to see what (if any) his plans are, but hasn't heard back yet. Texas has lost a true musical landmark, not to mention one of the last surviving links to Galveston's wild and wooly gangster past. This one really hurts. - Chris Gray

For further reading on the Balinese Room, see Texas Monthly contributing editor Gary Cartwright's excellent 1998 book Galveston: A History of the Island.


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