The Rice Hotel Speakeasy: Houston Music During Prohibition
Note: This is Part 2 in a series that timelines through bits of the first century of Houston's nightlife until about the start of what was found to be Houston's oldest running bar.
Rice Hotel dining room
Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries
The Rice Hotel (now the Post Rice Lofts) is located where the first capital of the Republic of Texas once stood. The Rice Roof at the Rice Hotel was one of Houston's top dance clubs among local elite and whatnot for some time.
By the time Prohibition came about in the early 1920s, the Rice Roof was where much of Texas' elite supposedly kept their private stocks of alcohol in individual cabinets. The Rice Hotel Dining Room Orchestra played here as well as several jazz "territory bands." One such group was Peck's Bad Boys, an influential local group led by Houstonian John "Peck" Kelley. They never recorded, though they were said to be largely popular while remaining generally ahead of their time. They possibly played at the Rice Roof and at college nights at the Lamar Spanish Dining Room, too.
Prohibition-era nightclubbing in Houston was said to happen in speakeasies made out of houses located in the Neartown area along present-day Westheimer, better known today as Montrose.
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There, at 1 a.m. on a given night, while the orchestra jingled and poured the swing of the latest stomp into the air buzzing with smokes and odors of fried foods and bootleg, people were treated more as equals in these speakeasies than anywhere else in town, at least, and the days' worries forgotten.
One kid borrowed a megaphone from the drummer and requested a number from the orchestra. He planned to sing. He made a bet. The vamp was struck up and he went. The applause turned generous, and he collected his stake. Back at his table, hands were all shook as they gushed over discussions in music and the kindred arts.
The King & Carter Jazzing Orchestra, 1921
courtesy of The Center for American History
In one unheard discussion, a disgruntled gunman confided to his companion how he "might turn the place into a race track." A bouncer leaned over to him and expressed hope that the services and entertainment are to his liking. This faltered his hip-pocket movement, and with his vanity appeased, he ordered dinner. A nearby group overheard and likewise ordered dinner, then the next table.
The orchestra transitioned into a low-down shuffle. The crowd was slow to react, so a girl who was waiting all evening for her chance rose in a far corner. It's, she flailed and stomped off beat or something, but the applause was dragging and roaring, and fitful with cries of "Hot Dog!" and someone sprawled at her and asked her to dance.
After a bit the orchestra tuned down to "Mon Homme" and the drummer wailed her own ringing translation. Some kid was carried away by the magnitude of life and happily cried into a plate of celery.
Story continues on the next page.
On any given muggy Houston day, people may go to a nearby icehouse. These icehouses were essentially country stores and hangout spots that sold produce, beer, and inevitably a lot of ice, as there wasn't air conditioning and refrigerators were iceboxes.
The West Alabama Ice House, then called a drive inn, has been open since 1927. It opened as a drive-in icehouse with several gas pumps and a garage specializing in Model T's.
While there were no explicit records of West Alabama Ice House selling alcohol until 1933, it was said that Texas icehouses sold beer anyway in spite of prohibition. Regardless, that's the one well-known bar establishment found open during the first century of Houston that's still running today.
Beers later, I spoke to current West Alabama Ice House owner Petros Markantonis, who confirmed, "The West Alabama Icehouse is indeed one of the few remaining original Texas icehouses."
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