Requiem for the Balinese Room
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.