America

Galveston

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The Galveston Seawall was always a little raunchy, but on the evening of September 13, 2008, we were still sorry to see the Balinese Room and its pier vanish into the jaws of Hurricane Ike.

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Opened in 1942 by the mobbed-up, bootlegging barbers and brothers, Papa Rose and Mr. Sam Maceo, the Balinese Room featured Sicilian food, exotic drinks, illegal gambling, and entertainment as varied and famous as Frank Sinatra, Burns and Allen, or the Marx Brothers. My jitterbugging mother-in-law Louvelle never missed a chance to strut her stuff on the big-band dance floor here when Guy Lombardo came to town.

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In 1951, the well-connected club gave rise to one of the greatest all-time excuses for corruption. When hauled before a committee of the Texas Legislature, Frank Biaggne, the Sheriff of Galveston County, explained that he couldn’t shut down the notorious venue because he wasn’t a member and couldn’t get in the front door.

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Sixty-four consecutive nights of Keystone-Cop raids by the authorities failed to find a single incriminating chip, until, in 1957, the Texas Rangers finally figured out the scam. Led by Captain Johnny Klevenhagen, the 17 men of  Company A found a mother lode of gambling equipment stashed at the already defunct Hollywood Supper Club. In one night, they tossed more than $2 million in chips, machines, and tables into the Houston Ship Channel–and sent with them one of the more colorful eras of Texan history.

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Before Ike laid waste to the Seawall, we used to walk from the nearby USS Flagship Hotel on Pleasure Pier (also wrecked) and guzzle on the Margaritas, supposedly invented here in 1948 by the bartender Santos Cruz for the visiting Peggy Lee (and named after her). Today, all that remains are an occasional wooden pile and a stray memento along the wall.

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Galveston remains a favorite spot for seafood and drinks, but the Seawall will never be the same. And yet… Visitors like us probably said the same thing after the 1900 Galveston Hurricane killed thousands and caused even greater havoc. After Ike’s initial shock,  the locals don’t seem unduly fazed by the catastrophe. Like the true Texans they are, they’ve just picked up and moved onward into the future.

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