Galveston became the largest city in Texas between 1830 and 1860, when shippers exported more cotton from its wharves than from any other American port. Italian brothers Rosario “Rose” Maceo and Salvatore “Sam” Maceo in time brought big-time gaming to the port city.
The brothers worked as barbers upon arriving in Galveston in 1910, but after prohibition began in Texas in 1918, the Maceos entered bootlegging, eventually gaining near-complete control of the illegal alcohol trade in the city. By this time, Galveston was attracting large numbers of tourists from the mainland, and in 1926 they built the Hollywood Dinner Club, a nightspot that boasted dining rooms, a ballroom, and areas where guests could wager at craps, blackjack, roulette, and other games.
Next, at 2216 Market Street, they erected the three-story Turf Athletic Club. Guests entered through a ground-floor restaurant, then took the elevator upstairs to the casino area, as well as to private gaming chambers.
Of all the Maceo enterprises, the beachfront Balinese Room, on a pier over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico across from the Hotel Galvez, was the most famous. The brothers’ business strategy was to attract well-heeled gamblers with elaborate meals combined with lavish floor shows. Among the nationally known performers who frequented the Balinese stage were Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and Bob Hope. “The atmosphere was so friendly,” reminisced one former customer, “that you almost enjoyed losing your money there.”
The Maceos also operated thousands of slot machines in stores and restaurants throughout the island. Mike Gaido of Gaido’s seafood restaurant once quipped, “The Maceos didn’t ask if you wanted their slots; they just asked how many.”
From time to time, locals and outsiders encouraged officials to “clean up” the town, but then the reform spirit passed. In June 1951, Price Daniel, the Texas attorney general, used state court injunctions to end walk-in casino gambling. Slot machines disappeared from public places, while gaming houses like the Balinese Room became “private clubs.”
In 1956, local attorney Jim Simpson and newly elected Texas attorney general Will Wilson recruited undercover investigators to gamble in Galveston, then prepare detailed notes about their experiences. On June 10, 1957, Simpson called for the gambling houses to cease operations. A week later, Texas Rangers began removing illegal equipment and destroying it.
Even without the court injunctions and raids, the Gulf Coast gambling operations faced doom. By then, legal high-stakes gambling in Las Vegas drew gamers from throughout the United States, and Las Vegas thus superseded Galveston as America’s “Sin City.”
For information on sites related to the Maceos in Galveston, see Gangster Tour of Texas, and contact the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, 866/505-4456.