|By Harvey Rice, Houston
ChronicleMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
January 2, 2009 --GALVESTON -- A jumble of timbers piled high on Seawall Boulevard and a few broken piers protruding from the surf were all that remained after Hurricane Ike had its way with the historic Balinese Room, a symbol of Galveston's bawdy past.
The swanky nightclub and gambling den for high rollers that headlined the biggest names in show business during the 1940s and '50s will eventually be reborn, but owner Scott Arnold is contemplating rebuilding the Balinese Room inland.
"Nothing's off the plate, but my current thinking is that it would be safer on land," Arnold said.
The Balinese Room was a long, narrow structure stretching out over the Gulf of Mexico, its front door on the sea wall. A buzzer would alert the gambling room at the seaward end of the nightclub. By the time Texas Rangers negotiated the long hallway the gambling machines would be folded up into the walls like Murphy beds and green felt-covered craps tables converted swiftly to backgammon and bridge tables.
The fine food, excellent service and lavish decor combined with top entertainers and gambling to attract the wealthiest Houstonians.
The pier at 21st Street and Seawall Boulevard that would eventually become the Balinese Room housed a Mexican restaurant with a fishing pier behind it when brothers Sam, Rosario and Frank Maceo bought it in 1922, according to Bill Cherry, author of Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories.
Sam Maceo, who had movie star looks and charm, and his brother Rosario, the enforcer, took over organized crime on the island with the tacit consent of the three ruling families: the Kempners, Moodys and Sealys, according to Galveston, A History of the Island, by Gary Cartwright.
The restaurant eventually reopened as the Chinese-themed Sui Jen (pronounced Swee Rin) in 1932. The inspiration for the Balinese Room came when Sam Maceo visited a club with the same name at the Hotel Claridge in Memphis, Tenn., Cherry says. "It was, he thought, exactly what needs to replace the Sui Jen," Cherry said.
Maceo brought in a nightclub designer from Chicago and a New York architect to transform the Sui Jen.
Famous before Las Vegas
The Balinese Room opened Jan. 17, 1942, with the big bands of Phil Harris and Val Olman. It became a prime destination for the rich and famous in the years before Las Vegas built its first large casinos. The nation's biggest stars performed there, including Frank Sinatra, Spike Jones, Vaughn Monroe, Duke Ellington, Edgar Bergen and Alice Faye.
The club was one of the first with hi-fi speakers and black lights. It was also one of the first to pipe music remotely -- sending tunes over the phone lines to another Maceo club, Cherry said.
The black lights illuminated 6-foot-tall Polynesian-themed paintings and glass banana trees.
Local lawmen left the Balinese alone. Frank Biaggne, sheriff from 1933 to 1957, told a legislative committee in Austin that he never raided it because the Balinese was a private club and he wasn't a member.
Then came the Rangers
The club's popularity began waning after Sam Maceo died in 1951 and his nephew, Anthony Fertita, took over, Cherry said. An undercover operation in 1957 combined with court injunctions to deal the illicit gambling industry a crippling blow. Cherry says that later, Texas Rangers began a constant presence inside the club that made gambling nearly impossible.
The Balinese gradually faded and finally closed down in the early 1980s.
The club sat vacant for 17 years before Arnold purchased it in 2001 and remodeled its 23,000 square feet.
A Houston attorney and real estate broker, Arnold typically purchases a building, remodels it, then leases or sells it. But the Balinese Club was different.
"I got it to that stage and I said, 'I love this building too much,'â€‰" said Arnold, who added its management to his other duties.
When Ike struck Sept. 13, 2008, though, Arnold saw his investment reduced to a pile of debris. "I'm the kind of person who can take a punch pretty well," Arnold said.
He has since renegotiated his Balinese lease with the General Land Office, which must approve any structure built on the public beach, from the original 30-foot front to a 130-foot front.
Looking for the right spot
Arnold is considering filling the Balinese Room's spot on the sea wall with an icehouse made of shipping containers topped with a pavilion formed of steel masts, sails and canopies. He calls the concept America's Icehouse.
Arnold intends to rebuild the Balinese, possibly inland, but he's not sure when. "I've got a busy life," Arnold says. "I've got to clear enough space out of it to start that project."
When he does, he intends to be faithful to the original decor.
"The Balinese Room is an iconic structure and whatever is done can't be half (way)," Arnold said. "I'm not going to dilute the brand."
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