The jewel of Galveston’s Golden Era, the Balinese Room, closed its doors in 1957. One of Texas’s most glamorous dining and entertainment venues for decades, the Balinese finally succumbed to the determination of then-attorney general Will Wilson and his campaign to end the Free State of Galveston forever. The building itself and much of the original interior sat suspended over the beach waters for the past five decades, a destination for the never ending stream of gawkers, fans, or the simply curious. But this September, the club famous for gambling finally lost her bet with the Gulf. It was a damn good run.
To the very end, visitors, some from afar, still wanted to stare at this unimposing structure fifty years after it closed. The Balinese Room had a particular magnetism as historic buildings often do. And the mysterious pull was no doubt enhanced by its notorious past. The colorful parade of entertainers, high stakes gamblers, and food aficionados are now the ghosts of high times on the seawall. It is fun to relive mentally what might have transpired inside and perhaps through simple proximity hope to collect some of the residual energy.
All my life I have heard stories about the Balinese Room and the Maceos. Some were revealed when I was introduced. “Are you related to that family in Galveston?” Yes, that would be us. Other colorful anecdotes were happily revealed at the mention of the good old days. These stories were not from family. They were tossed into conversations from total strangers when the subject was Galveston’s colorful past. People were always eager to share their memories, and I loved hearing them. Their narratives were rich and meaningful, even when they didn’t know who I was.
Some of my best childhood memories were the nights I accompanied my parents at the Balinese. My father, Joe Maceo, was employed there and received a perk—a show and dinner for him and his family every other week. Those evenings were not the conventional night out with Mom and Dad. In the fifties, how many kids got to go to the family nightclub for a dinner and show? I went often. It was an amazing experience and a lot to take in for a six year old.
The fact that this lively club hung over the Gulf was definitely part of its mystique. The long and infamous raid-proof ramp leading to the club proper was only partially enclosed. I remember that long walk with great anticipation—the warm salty breeze, the waves crashing below. Then upon entering the first room the difference was striking. It was like walking into Shangri-La. I still recall the contrast going from the humid, warm air to the cool, dry, scented air inside. It is said olfactory memory is our strongest, and I still remember exactly how the Balinese Room smelled. It had its own scent. Perhaps it was a combination of Gulf-soaked wood and air conditioning mixed with the earthy smells of fiber mat and bamboo. I loved the wild carpet of swirling tropical leaves. And as I stepped in, the aroma was mixed with a display of colorful fish and the chirps and squaws of exotic birds.
Galveston’s palm trees were nothing like the lighted ones surrounding the Balinese stage. And anyone who has ever danced there remembers the dramatic effect of the black lights and the glow of white shirts. In fact, state of the art ultraviolet lights were installed under the toilet seats; a nice lady would hand you a towel after you washed your hands. You better believe that over-the-top South Seas decor was spellbinding with its fishnets and glass globes. The walls were lined with colorful murals of Polynesian women posed on the beaches, surrounded by oversized flowers and palms. I happily sat and watched the flaming shish kebabs pass by, sipped my Shirley Temple and waited for the show.
The shows were the best. I cannot remember the names of the performers, but at the time, I knew they were famous through the chatter and excitement of the grownups. It didn’t really matter whether the show was song and dance, magicians, or comedian. I was mesmerized by that whole bigger-than-life scene with the swishing of the brushes on the snare drum and the lively horns. Those nights at the Balinese were always the best evenings.
I never saw the back rooms. But in 2002, I heard about the restoration and reopening, and one afternoon my father and I decided to take a peak. At 82, my father made the long walk to the end of the pier. He was thrilled at what he saw. Much of the interior was remarkably the same. Scott Arnold, the new owner, gave us the grand tour. Dad shared some stories and history with Scott and chuckled that the massive six-foot-tall safe sat exactly where it had been in 1957. The back rooms, where the gaming tables were located, were unfinished, but I enjoyed seeing Grace John’s beautiful paintings on acrylic, which, I was told, were in the same place on the wall.
About seven years ago I got a call from a friend in Houston. My former art teacher and mentor had passed away. Her partner was calling with a most unusual offer. “Peggy, would you like a baby grand piano?” Pat asked. “Absolutely” was my stunned reply. But this overly generous gift was even more unique. Decades ago, when the couple had two homes (one being Galveston), they purchased the piano from the estate of Al Avalar. Al was their former neighbor and a talented piano player and musician. Al had purchased the piano from the Balinese when it closed. My good fortune sits in my living room now.
The building is gone, along with the great smells. Only a line of pilings remain, the lavish decor reduced to rubble by Hurricane Ike. I have some wonderful mementos: a menu signed by Phil Harris and Alice Faye, the Balinese wine list, some commercial pots and cookware from the kitchen, a tablecloth and napkins, and chips. And if I choose, I can recall those nights. I just put on a Sinatra record, and I’m right there again.