Hometown Dallas, 1974. Early fall, late afternoon, a Friday.
Crump and I were barreling along the loop highway around downtown Dallas in her dad’s buff-colored beater of a Buick, windows down, wind in our hair, eager to put our mind-numbing clerical jobs small in the rearview and get the weekend started off right.
Footloose free spirits were we, flying along and happily engaged in a discussion about where to go for dinner that evening. Both of us barely nineteen years old (go ahead, cruel reader, do the math), and with warm hearts for the kind legislators who had recently lowered the drinking age to eighteen, just in time for the flowering of our young partyhood, the options seemed limitless.
Of course, we could have just gone home right then and whipped something up. Having thrown in together as roommates in our very first apartment at The Moors (corner of Hall and Carlisle near downtown, for my Dallas buds), that would certainly have been the cheaper option. Except for the bugs. What at first had appeared to be a nicely kept two-bedroom rental actually turned out to be a veritable Roach Motel. (“Roaches check in, but they don’t check out!” For once, truth in advertising.) Naturally, this persistent pestilence, whose numbers were truly incalculable, preferred the kitchen cupboards to any other dark refuge in the house, and the idea of food prep amongst the palmettos was an unsettling skin crawl. Dining out it often was. Dining out it would be tonight.
Still, we were undecided as to the venue, as folks with too many options usually are. Mexican? Always a favorite, but didn’t we have that a few nights ago? Chinese? Eh, usually good but never quite filling. Italian? Always good but perhaps a little too filling tonight. “I know!” an undisclosed one of us suddenly shouted. “How about seafood?!” Oh yes, seafood! A special delight indeed! But where to get it? Well, in land-locked Big D, there really was no good choice, not one that we could afford anyway. Apart from old reliable, Jay’s Marine Grill on Mockingbird Lane (that classic if by then somewhat tattered family favorite, with red-lipsticked waitresses old enough to be your grandmother), where could we possibly go?
And then, the epiphany. Why, south, of course! Due south! All the way till the road runs out, all the way down to Galveston! Where better to get fresh seafood than sandy, salty Galveston? Of course, with the newly minted 55mph speed limit, G Town was a law-abiding five and a half hours away, but so what? Crump and I were nothing if not spontaneous and weren’t about to let a little snag like that cramp our style. Not a chance!
With a quick pit stop at the apartment to grab our toothbrushes and some nice islandy garb (free spirits yes, but always nattily attired), we bid adieu to the six-legged horde and hopped back into the hooptie. Crump put her clog into it, pedal to the metal, and off we flew to Galveston. Dinner would be late, of course. Late as in Saturday. For Friday’s feed, we’d have to settle for road-fare sodas and chips, but the upcoming dinner on Saturday night would more than make up for it.
It was a long sit in the Buick and well into the night before we finally made island-fall, but one big whiff of that salty ocean breeze and our fatigue soon melted away. As all young revelers are wont to do, we made a beeline for the seawall in search of a cheap pillow, quickly spotted the Surf Side Motel (building still extant, catty-corner from The Spot), and wheeled in. Twenty years prior, the Surf Side had no doubt been a nice enough motel, but by now, it was a mangy dog. Still, car-weary and ready for a long nap, it fit the budget and was only a block off the seawall so we snagged a room and called it a night.
The next morning we headed straight for Stewart Beach. Back in the day, Stewart Beach was party central, so we donned our print bikinis and hit the sand, both to soak up some sun and to show off our wares. Toward late afternoon, it was back to the Surf Side to get cleaned up for dinner. This time, however, there would be no debate about where to go. Having only ever seen the Balinese Room from the outside, and burningly curious about it since childhood vacations, I knew our dining venue was as inevitable as a neap tide. The Balinese Room it would be. Goosebumps!
At nineteen, I knew absolutely zero, zippo, squat about the famous Balinese Room, its legendary status, who built it, who ran it, when or why. I had never heard of Sicilian-born brothers Sam and Rose Maceo whose brain-child it was, knew nothing of their big-time bootlegging and illegal gambling operations on the island back in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, had no inkling that the Balinese Room had once been nationally famous, the swankiest nightclub on the Gulf Coast, catering to a high-stakes gambling clientele and presenting seasonal entertainment that included some of the biggest headliners of the day. Nope, I had no clue about any of this. I was operating strictly from an aesthetic. On a pier at the foot of 21st Street that stretched 600 feet out over the rolling ocean, the Polynesian facade of its seawall entrance was simply the most exotic-looking building I had ever seen. For me, the Balinese Room was a siren’s call to my innate wanderlust and yearning for adventure—even if, in this case, it only meant dinner.
So that evening, dressed to the tropical nines, Crump and I made the long stroll down the bamboo-lined breezeway that ultimately opened into the expansive dining room. As we stepped inside, my teenaged heart almost stopped. Spread out before us was a breathtaking interior, intoxicating in its beauty, exciting in its foreignness, that instantly transported us Texan two to a far, far distant shore.
At one end of the great room was a recessed stage where a black grand piano was positioned. Bordering the stage was a dance floor of intricately inlaid wood above which hung a large, lazily draped fishnet, with strings of colorful floats suspended along its perimeter. Surrounding the stage and filling the rest of the space was dinner seating in islandy rattan, each table topped with crisp linens and candlelight. The walls were covered in woven reed trimmed with cane in geometric patterns. Overhead, a gently curved ceiling of Bali Sea blue was softly lit, and underfoot, a lush carpet in hues of deep green.
But the true stars of this fantasy paradise were its two unique and captivating features. First, along the walls at intervals around the room was a series of large, brightly-colored, handpainted murals, each an exquisite work of art. The paintings depicted scenes of lovely Polynesian women in patterned wraps on a mythical beach filled with exotic flowers and fruit. And anchoring the four corners of the dance floor was the other showstopper: life-sized, stylized palm trees, their languid fronds, illuminated by blacklight, gracefully topping trunks of gleaming copper. But the whole of this fanciful Shangri-La was far more than the sum of its parts, and the ambiance thus created was, in a word, mesmerizing.
It would be decades later before I would learn about the talented Chicago designer who created what he himself called his masterpiece or its connection to a Galveston artist who painted the stunning murals. For now, it was enough to let it wash over me like a gentle, incoming tide.
In short order, a polite and neatly dressed waiter seated us at a table and presented the dinner menus, which featured an appetizing array of main courses fresh from the sea, as well as a list of fine wines and tropical adult beverages. I don’t remember what I ordered for dinner except that it was delicious. I do remember what I ordered to drink. It was mildly sweet, slightly fizzy, pink and perfect. Swept up as I was in the faraway ambiance, and being nineteen and legally entitled, on a whim I selected an intriguingly named drink called a Singapore Sling. I’d never heard of it, had certainly never sampled it, but the name caught my eye equally with my imagination. Singapore Sling, I mused. An exotic name befitting an exotic place. Turns out, it was velvety smooth, an elixir. In fact, I may have had two…
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That one memorable evening at the beautiful Balinese Room was a singular experience in more ways than one. Not only was it unique and truly unforgettable, it was also my one and only visit to that legendary venue. Nevertheless, its impact has been large and long-lasting. The proof of that you are reading now.
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On the morning of Saturday, September 13, 2008, I was sitting at my laptop in my shop on Marrowstone Island in the Pacific Northwest, nervously watching the news coverage on CNN as Hurricane Ike ripped into the Texas coast. I was already in the planning stages of my move back to Texas, and as I watched the ticker roll across the bottom of my screen, a news flash suddenly appeared: “Historic Balinese Room and pier destroyed by Hurricane Ike.” I was dumbstruck. In seconds, I was sobbing as if I had just lost an old and dear friend, which indeed I had.
What Ike destroyed that awful day wasn’t just a building or even a landmark, but an irreplaceable link to the most exciting, most colorful, and most elusive period in Galveston’s history. What Ike didn’t destroy, and couldn’t, was a long-cherished memory of one magical night … and the legend of the Balinese.