Is Casino Gambling in the Cards for Galveston?

It might be tough times and diminished expectations now, but from 1918 to 1957, Galveston Island was known as a "wide-open" town, where prostitution, smuggling, bootlegging and gambling all flourished. Many remember the 1940s and early '50s as the glory days of "the Free State of Galveston," when the Balinese Room, brothers Sam and Rose Maceo's supper club/gambling spot, was the ace showplace of the whole Gulf Coast.

Today, many Texans envision that bygone Galveston as a sort of pre-Castro Havana of tequila-soaked tropical sin, cash and sex. While Hemingway swigged daiquiris at the Buena Vista Social Club to the tune of a Beny Moré bolero, here at the other end of the Gulf of Mexico, Peggy Lee was inspiring Balinese bartender Santos Cruz to invent the margarita and name it after his muse. It was not for nothing in 1947 that Life magazine, in a tone that mixed awe and scandal, called Galveston America's "last surviving sin city."

The Balinese was the site of the most glamorous of 20th-century Lone Star State lore. You picture Howard Hughes staking the rights to a Hollywood blockbuster on one spin of the roulette wheel and Groucho Marx waggling his cigar and cracking wise at the craps table. Nearby, Dino and Frankie Blue Eyes are busting each other's chops over high-stakes poker with the Texas Big Rich, all while Duke Ellington takes a dance floor full of buxom Jayne Mansfields and debonair Cary Grants on a ride aboard the A-train.

What's more, it was all right on Houston's doorstep. Bill Cherry, a Galveston-born realtor, musician and armchair historian, conjures up the time when moneyed Houstonians picked up stakes and summered in Galveston. "Daddy caught the train to Houston every morning and rode back in the evenings. The kids, mom and grandma and grandpa played at the beach during the day. When daddy got back to Galveston in the evenings, the kids were babysat at the hotel, grandma and grandpa went to the bingo parlors and mom and dad went to the Balinese or Studio Lounge."

Today, those days are gone as gone can get. The law pulled the plug on Galveston's casinos in 1957, and last year Hurricane Ike reduced the Balinese — which in recent years hosted biker bands and dinner theater — to little more than splinters and driftwood. But many in Galveston believe that swingin' Sinatra-style Sin City on the Gulf can be resurrected.

This talk of a renaissance has brought about a lot of infighting. And as with any civil war, the casino debate pits friend against friend, brother against sister and husband against wife: One co-owner of a prominent Strand District building refused to comment in the interest of domestic harmony — her husband was pro and she was anti.

Leading the charge of the pro-casino brigade is Dolph Tillotson, president and publisher of The Galveston County Daily News. In a city that relies on Houston TV and radio, the town paper remains the city's most important news source, and Tillotson has plenty of clout in shaping local debate. And since Ike, Tillotson has put the casino pot on his front burner.

In October, with Galveston's roads still studded with nails and debris piles lining the streets, Allen Flores, president of the Strand Merchants Association, kick-started the discussion with a pro-casino letter to city officials. Flores claimed casinos would create jobs, boost middle-income housing, augment the tax base and help fund beach restoration. What's more, Flores wrote, the casinos' spillover clientele would spark a boom for Strand businesses, many of which are still shuttered and/or being rebuilt. Following the major staff cuts and relocations of thousands of jobs at downtown institutions like the University of Texas-Medical Branch, Flores asserted that the promise of casinos could give some Strand business owners the hope they need to go on.

Tillotson gave Flores's letter prominent coverage, and in the months that have followed, the newsman has penned several pieces of his own and shared his bully pulpit with numerous casino advocates (and a few opponents).

Some on the pro side have included members of Galveston's leading families of Golden Age fun and sin. One such was Tilman Fertitta, the Galveston-bred direct descendant of Sam and Rose Maceo's sister Olivia and president and CEO of Landry's Restaurants, Inc. The casual dining/Vegas casino mogul broke his silence on the casino question in the January 18 issue of the Daily News. "The time has come for Galveston's leaders to go to work to bring gaming to the island," he wrote. "The Legislature has convened, and Galveston can no longer run from this issue. We must at least get into the discussion — immediately." (Another of Fertitta's assertions — that the Island needed casinos whether or not he was involved — inspired one local wag to crack, "Yeah, and I only read Playboy for the articles.") Another, Fertitta's cousin Vic Maceo, envisioned a Texas-style Monte Carlo, with a high-class gaming district of one or two small European-style casinos, while a third — Tony Buzbee, a Friendswood attorney whose Strand-area law office was ruined by Ike— declared in the Daily News that he was morally opposed to casinos until Ike, after which he became morally unopposed (see "Is Casino Gambling in the Cards for Galveston?: Getting Up a Game").

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax