Past Treasure of the Month – May 2007

Glamour, Glitz, and Gambling: Galveston’s Gaming Days

Long before Las Vegas became America’s capital of betting, drinking, and entertaining, Galveston was considered by many to be the “Sin City of the Southwest.” Bootlegging and gambling were major industries on the island from the 1920s through the 1950s.

Playing cards
Set of playing cards
used at the Sui Jen Café
and the Hollywood Dinner Club
(gift of Mrs. Courtney C. Washington);
$100 poker chips from the Balinese Room
(gift of the Estate of Joseph Levy);
and a $5 chip from the Turf Athletic Club
(gift of E. Burke Evans, M.D.).

During Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, a number of Galveston businessmen involved with bootlegging. Large sums of money could be made by those who illegally transported and sold liquor, and several enterprising individuals took full advantage of the opportunity. This venture led to an even more ambitious and more profitable industry: gambling.

Gambling was outlawed in the entire state of Texas. Galveston, however, had an “open city” policy, and casinos, though illegal, were more or less tolerated by law enforcement officials. Four island establishments — The Hollywood Dinner Club, the Turf Athletic Club, the Sui Jen Café, and the Balinese Room — offered cocktails, gambling, and entertainment. Some of America’s most popular artists, including Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and Bob Hope performed in Galveston clubs.

The Hollywood Dinner Club, located at 61st Street and Stewart Road, opened its doors in 1926. The club, outfitted with elegant crystal chandeliers and a large hardwood dance floor, offered fine dining and top-notch live entertainment. Nationally known bands, orchestras, and singers performed regularly at the Hollywood Dinner Club. Although gambling was illegal at the time, it was permitted at the club.

The Turf Athletic Club and was another local hot spot situated in downtown Galveston. The three-story building, which was located on 23rd Street between Market and Postoffice, housed a nightclub, a restaurant, a casino, a gym, and a betting parlor for sporting events. The posh Studio Lounge at the Turf was touted as being one of America’s first air-conditioned clubs.

Sui Jen Café postcardPostcard of the Sui Jen Café.

In 1923, the Chop Suey restaurant and gambling parlor opened on Galveston Island. Built as a pier overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, the Chop Suey (later called the Grotto) was located at 21st Street and Seawall. In 1932, the facility was remodeled as an oriental café and night club, and its name was changed to the Sui Jen (pronounced “swee ren”). It was another chic venue for gambling and music, and famous American performers were booked there regularly.

The Sui Jen was completely remodeled and renamed the Balinese Room in 1942. The Balinese Room was a restaurant and nightclub with a South Seas-inspired décor. Its interior design featured bamboo and reed wall coverings, neon and copper palm trees, and colorful murals.

Things began to change in Galveston when Will Wilson became State Attorney General in the late 1950s. Determined to stop illegal gambling in Galveston, Wilson sent undercover agents into bars, nightclubs, and casinos to monitor the illegal activities that were taking place in the city. By June 1957, there was sufficient evidence to force 47 island establishments to close their doors permanently. Hundreds of slot machines and gaming tables were smashed to pieces and dumped into the bay. Stashes of weapons and business records were also confiscated. Galveston’s days as a gambler’s paradise had come to an end.