Down at the Balinese: Galveston's past, present, and future come together in this island landmark
Gigantic Gaugin-inspired murals of island women adorn the walls. The unmistakable redolence of the salt sea air permeates the place. The thatch, the bamboo, even the towering man-made palms of this painstakingly preserved South Seas ballroom are all original, circa 1940s Galveston. Bright green swinging doors with 12 portholes create sleek passage, beckoning to the back.
I'm looking forward to passing through. What lies on the other side, I'm told, is history.
On this particular day in April, a jovial group of local amateur actors rehearse for a dinner-theatre spoof of the hit mob drama The Sopranos. The "Soap-ranos" is slated to run beginning in mid-May, right here, in Galveston's last standing reminder of her days as a gambling mecca, the resurrected Balinese Room.
"That fuzzy-headed kid right there is my son," says my host, the man behind the renovation of this Seawall treasure, pointing at one of the cast as he guides me through.
"This was the casino," he says, waving his hand. "The croupiers lounge was back here."
With nary a squint, it's easy to imagine graceful, stone-faced dealers sliding cards across the felt in this den of bright white deco delight. Recessed neon tubes light the boomerang drop ceiling; a wall of original glass etched with exotic Balinese dancers gives it a retro-mod feel straight out of South Beach.
"There were blackjack tables, crap tables, slot machines up against the wall. It was very colorful. There were no windows, you know," he reminded, as gambling was as illegal in the original club's post-World War II heyday as it is today. "It was all paisley, velvet, wallpapery," he grins. "Whorehousey."
The stories of the old Balinese Room and the many casinos on Galveston Island during that gin-and-tonic-soaked era are legendary. Stars like Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Doris Day, Duke Ellington, and even Old Blue Eyes appeared here. And those weren't the only appearances. Cops or sometimes even Texas Rangers would show up for raids. If the cops were pals of the club's honchos, Sam and Rosario Maceo, a few bills and a few blind eyes might turn and reports of finding nothing might be filed. But if these peace officers were genuine in their pursuit, they would approach it in earnest. Fortunately for the players inside, the casino extended out past the full length of the pier 600 feet out over the gulf buying plenty of time to disappear tables, cards, and chips into secret wall pockets and for gamblers to assume positions as respectable seaside patrons.
Today, the Balinese is the pet project of a respectable Houston attorney, developer/ entrepreneur Scott Arnold, who reopened the Gulf landmark in 2002.
In the original kitchen, Arnold walks past the old rows of stainless countertops to a spot on the floor. He lifts a plank of plywood revealing a sizable hole; waves surge just a few yards below. "This is where the Chinese cook used to fish!"
"True?" I ask in utter disbelief.
Arnold becomes giddy recounting the funky history of the place: "Yeah, and Sam Maceo came in and fired him for fishing through this hole. The newspaper got a hold of [the story]. There was such an uproar, and Maceo got so much publicity out of it, that he rehired him!" The cook remained at Maceo's joint for 20 or 30 more years. "One time he caught a fish that was so big that he couldn't get it up through the hole. He had a hatchet, and he was trying to open the hole up to make it bigger and get the fish through. They had to restrain him from hatcheting open the hole!" Then, Arnold becomes solemn, as if relating a ghost story. "The Chinese believe," he starts, "at least a certain sect believes that you've got to have rice to sustain you into your journey into the next world. After he died the cook was still working here up until he died they found in his apartment hundreds of pounds of rice that he'd been filching from the Balinese for years. All to sustain him through the next life."
Scott Arnold's affection for the stories and glories of this landmark makes him the right candidate to shepherd its resurrection without losing an ounce of its flair.
The Balinese Room, like Galveston and that rice-pilfering, hatchet-wielding chef of long ago, is enjoying its "next life." Arnold hopes to build enough of a local following over time by booking popular Galveston bands and events in the ballroom like the Soapranos or the wildly popular Fannie LaFaye's Burlesque Show. There's even talk about a USO show with 1940s gals in uniform.
Arnold is convinced that the time to make it all work is right now: The combination of the ever-encroaching Houston population and retiring baby boomers makes the island an obvious choice. "Galveston is one of the few places on the Texas coast with a significant amount of history, structure, and urban amenities beautiful old buildings and a great preservation ethic among virtually everyone."
Arnold's dream sounds vaguely similar to anyone familiar with the creative retrofitting of Austin's explosive SoCo and warehouse districts. "There are a lot of old buildings [in Galveston], solid 100-, 150-year-old structures you can buy them still for 50 cents on the dollar for what you'd pay in Austin or Houston that could be creatively and sensitively rehabbed to get a second lease on life and become viable for today's use."
And considering that so much of Galveston is seeing major new development, especially on the island's west end, Arnold sees a need for long-term vision and a little bit of soul. "Well, personally," he states, "I'd like to see two dozen guys like me pick a project and go for it. It would be great for Galveston. It helps all of us. Because you start getting some synergy, potential draw, if you've got the attractions."
The Balinese Room in Galveston is an ambitious and aesthetically delicious example of what can be done with old ghosts, a little vision, and a love for preserving and honoring the past. And of course our neighbor has the ocean.
The Balinese Room, 2107 Seawall Blvd., 409/762-9696. www.balineseroom.net