Podcast: Galveston's Balinese Room, A Tale of Luxury, Gambling, and Celebrity

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Walking or driving along the Seawall today, we can imagine the many bathhouses, hotels, and restaurants that used to sit on stilts over the temperamental Gulf of Mexico. At the foot of 21st Street, along the Seawall in front of the 1911 Galvez Hotel, it can be difficult to imagine a 300-foot pier outstretching over the Gulf of Mexico. It can be even more challenging to imagine the nightly activities, famous personalities, and cultural influence that once bustling 300-foot pier hosted and produced.

Galveston's own 20th-century Sicilian entrepreneurs, Frank, Rose, and Sam Maceo, purchased the pier to pursue a business venture on the bustling island that was steadily earning its nickname, the "Playground of the South."

The Maceo brothers purchased the Chop Suey Cafe at 21st and Seawall Boulevard, and in 1929 they opened "Maceo's Grotto" at that location.

Sam Maceo was intrigued by traveling to major cities to observe and replicate the highest caliber designs, services, and entertainers. On a trip to Memphis, Sam discovered a nightclub, music venue, and restaurant concept for the soon-to-be headquarters of the Free State of Galveston, the Balinese Room. It was the showroom in the Cartilage Hotel. He learned that it had been designed by Marshall Field's store designer Virgil Quadri.

Sam could visualize the Balinese room on his pier back in Galveston. He immediately caught the train for Chicago and hired Virgil Qadri on the spot. That's how the Balinese Room got to the island. A concept in high demand for a city with tourism on the rise. A high-class music, dinner, and entertainment venue stretching hundreds of feet over the Gulf of Mexico. Outfitted with the highest quality sound system available, the finest tableware, and the most well-respected wait staff on the island, the grand opening was delayed by a month due to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even though the United States was now at war, the allure of the Balinese Room lured guests from around the country to attend the fancy pier above the Gulf in formal attire.

The Maceo brothers quickly transformed the Balinese Room into one of the state's most luxurious and popular nightclubs, During this time, the Balinese Room became well known for its illegal gambling activities, making Galveston a hub of nefarious activity and night-time tourism.

Through the 1940’s and fifties, the Balinese Room was visited by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, George Burns, and The Marx Brothers, who came to the Club to perform and gamble. With all of the attention on Galveston, the Balinese Room became a popular target for political figures, including the then Texas Attorney General, Will Wilson, who campaigned to "close down Galveston" and its illegal casinos using the Texas Rangers. Shutting down the Balinese Room was no easy task for state and federal officials, as the local law enforcement would tip off the management of popular casino venues, including the Balinese, as the enforcement officials would cross the causeway. The gambling days of the Balinese Room was eventually shut down by the Texas Rangers through constant raids by land and oceanfront as well as daily pressure and attendance of the Rangers at the Club in 1957.

The heyday of the Balinese Room is even celebrated in a 1975 song by the band ZZ Top, named 'Balinese.' The Balinese room was resurrected, only by name, as an entertainment venue and shopping center through the late 20th century. Never again living up to the glory days of the Maceo direction and oversight.

The Balinese Room was eventually destroyed by Hurricane Ike in 2008. Despite surviving hurricanes Carla, Alicia and numerous smaller storms, the famous old Club was no match for the storm surge, waves, and wind of Hurricane Ike. Although the pier was higher than the Seawall, the 79-year-old structure could not withstand the storm's force.

The Balinese Room, the Maceo Brothers, and the Free State of Galveston have left an indelible mark on the history of Galveston, Texas. It will forever remain an iconic symbol of the city's past. Although the Club is no longer standing, its memory and legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of those who experienced its grandeur

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J.R. Shaw Creator & Host of Galveston Unscripted

J.R. Shaw is the creator and host of Galveston Unscripted Podcast & audio tour. Shaw recognizes that history is nuanced and learning it can be powerful. He's made it his mission to reduce the friction between true history and anyone who is willing to listen! J.R. Shaw focuses on telling the full story through podcasting and social media with the goal of making learning accurate history easy and entertaining for all who seek it.

J.R. grew up along the Texas Gulf Coast, where he learned to love talking with anyone about anything! He started Galveston Unscripted after he realized how much he loved talking to people about their stories related to Galveston Island and Texas History. "So much of our history is lost when we don't have the opportunity to hear from those who lived it or have second-hand knowledge."