Chapter 10 - The Seawall Chronicles
Jun 02, 2019 11:56PM
The year 1950 ushered in an era that would provide enough nostalgic wax to keep its memories shiny and clean well past the turn of the century, and despite major setbacks and a complete shift in its culture, the Galveston Seawall was not immune to the picturesque trappings of bobby socks and rock n’ roll.
Splash Day and its popular beauty pageants were revived after a brief hiatus following World War II, and the bunkers of Fort Crockett, empty yet again, became a playground for children who would play hide-and-seek in the deep recesses of concrete and slide down the hills on cardboard boxes. The military camp turned playground occupied the stretch from 39th Street to 57th Street, and served as the far western boundary of the Seawall’s activities until 1953 when a new beach park and playground called West Beach was opened at 57th Street.
Stewart Beach remained as the unofficial boundary to the east, and its boardwalk, food bars, bath houses, skating rink, kiddie land, and dancing pavilion were some of the most popular attractions. Adventurous teenagers, however, would defy that border and cruise past it towards east beach and the South Jetty Lighthouse. Down that stretch of road, the Seawall is fortified with a concrete hill, nicknamed Cherry Hill, where youngsters would drag race their cars and go parking.
On February 1, 1950 plans were released for a new, modern bandshell at Menard Park, situated between 27th and 28th. A fixture of the Seawall since 1914, the park was originally established as a public resting area but had recently grown to include a small wooden roller coaster, racing carousel, and a wooden bandshell for live music performances which was now being torn down to make way for the more solid structure.
The Galveston Tribune raved about the new bandshell, which featured a “most modern design” that included all of the latest advancements in acoustics as well as a full lighting system with recessed illumination and spotlights. Plans were already being made for the upcoming summer season, during which Menard Park presented live band concerts twice weekly.
The latter half of 1950 would also bring a final end to the municipal drama surrounding the East End Flats. The grade-raising of the area between 6th Street and the eastward extensions of the Seawall had finally been completed, and the new subdivision built atop it, Lindale Park, made its debut. Two other subdivisions on the area that had previously served as a trash dump and breeding ground for mosquitoes would soon follow—San Marino (1952) and Harbor View (1954).
Sam Maceo remained fastidious in his campaigns to lure more tourists, gamblers, and convention attendees to the Island. But on April 15, 1951, Salvatore “Sam” Maceo died of cancer, and the effect of his death was felt even more than the palpable influence of his life.
The cloud that rolled onto the shores of Galveston with his passing was further darkened by a fire that gutted the Balinese Room on March 8, 1953, and then Rose’s death a year later on March 29, 1954. The brothers had been grooming their nephews Vic and Anthony Fertitta to take over their Galveston operations since the late 40s, but they simply did not inspire the same trust and loyalty as their uncles.
“Since the law was the enemy of the Maceos, then the law was the enemy of the people of Galveston County. This community participation of protection exasperated the [Texas] Rangers and left them in a trying situation” (Cheryl Lauersdorf, Lee College). However those ties began to weaken under the leadership of the Fertittas, and a piece in Life magazine entitled, “Wide-Open Galveston Mocks Texas Law” did nothing to bolster opinion. But the final undoing of Galveston’s syndicate came at the hands of Texas Attorney General Will Wilson.
He ran almost solely on a platform of shutting down Galveston’s illicit activities, and wasted no time in pursuing this end when he was elected in 1956. He set up the Rangers at a hotel near the Balinese Room, but their frequent raids were always thwarted by the long pier that connected the entrance to the club. By the time they got to the back rooms, gamblers had been alerted by a signal from the front desk and all evidence had “vanished.”
Trying a less overt tactic, the Rangers began to simply show up to the club and sit there, all day, every day. Business suffered, and then a raid devised with undercover agents was the last hurrah. The B-Room, as it was affectionately called, closed its doors on May 30, 1957.
The unbridled enthusiasm of the local population had disappeared with Sam, and the making of the city as a target by the state had been shameful and embarrassing. Once Wilson’s plans were completed and Galveston was unwillingly rid of all of its vice, life along the Seawall limped along, hoping to forget its pain by dancing to the projected innocence of the 1950s.
The Pleasure Pier was still in operation, hosting sock hops in the Marine Room ballroom eight times a week, and its Golden Garter tavern was the site of a stage show called the “Gay 90s,” where “Garter Girls” would dress in period costumes and perform 19th century melodramas. The exhibition hall was transformed into a carnival midway, and the pier also offered deep sea fishing and carnival rides like a Ferris wheel and tilt-a-whirl.
In 1958, the Army Corps of Engineers began their final extension of the Seawall with combined contributions from federal and county funding. The project originally began in 1953, but with the onset of the Korean War only one mile of it was completed. Five years later, the Seawall would extend westward another two miles, bringing its final length to nearly ten miles and cementing it as the longest continuous sidewalk in the world.
The following decade was also defined by one name, and one name alone—Carla. Although this time instead of a debonair host, Galveston got its first named hurricane. Carla struck on Saturday, September 9, 1961, and flooded 95 percent of the Island. Even though the Seawall provided lives and homes the protection they needed, tornadoes from the storm caused significant wind damage and destruction along the Boulevard. If Will Wilson had taken Galveston’s queen, Carla was the checkmate.
Although clean-up was accomplished relatively quickly after the storm, due in part to the good fortune that the Mountain Speedway had been demolished earlier that year, but for years the spectacular activities that had defined life on the Seawall came to almost an abrupt halt.
The Pleasure Pier suffered heavy damage and all operations ceased, the 17th Street Fishing Pier was obliterated. In 1962 the Houston Post assessed the condition of Galveston one year after the storm, and estimated that the city had suffered $127 million in damages, and in a vivid but dismal observation, reported that “the Balinese Room still stands, weakly, as if calling for an executioner.” Other sources report that damage from Carla exceed $250 million.
Some businesses persevered from the 50s, like the Silver Shell Gift Shop and Keith’s Drive Inn, and the old die-hards like Gaido’s stuck around through the bleak years that followed, as did the Galvez, Jack Tar, and Buccaneer hotels. Stewart Beach even added a Peter Pan Golf Course. Murdoch’s razed their bath house and souvenir shop but rebuilt it immediately, and a new hotel between 33rd and 35th called the Seahorse managed to spark a bit of interest with its curved, panoramic glass walls, sprawling lawn, and luxury swimming pool.
The Seawall also managed to keep in fashion by way of the popular teen hangout format known as the “drive inn.” Keith’s on 9th Street had been around since the 50s, but others soon began to appear, like Carl’s Drive Inn (52nd), Pier Drive Inn (19th), Surf Drive-In (37th), and Boulevard Drive Inn at 32nd that had twenty-five cent hamburgers.
Other popular eateries that sprang up after the storm were Hill’s Seawall Café, the self-proclaimed “Galveston’s Famous Seafood Headquarters,” and Turf Grill. The Bamboo Hut at 7th and Seawall was an all-day beach party that served sandwiches, pizza, and hot dogs, where teenagers danced every night, under the stars and on the sand, to live music every night from a gulf coast band called The 5 Dominoes.
Optimistic were the spirits of locals, despite the deluge of losses from the past five years. The 1964 City Directory speculates that “the historian of 20th century Galveston is likely to chronicle the year 1964 as the beginning of its promising Renaissance.” Indeed the seeds of revitalization were planted that very year, and in 1965 Galveston received a huge jolt by way of two new monstrous developments, the Flagship Hotel and Sea-Arama.
Even before Carla, the old Pleasure Pier had failed to produce the projected revenue, and so its subsequent damage was not seen as worth repairing. Then someone conceived the idea to renovate the pier and build a hotel resort in place of the amusement park.
The Nide Corporation entered into a 20-year lease contract with the City of Galveston to maintain what would be called the Flagship Hotel, the only resort hotel in American built over the water. Construction began in mid-1964, and the awe-inspiring complex that included restaurants, bars, parking, luxurious accommodations, and an above-deck swimming pool, opened on June 30, 1965.
A few months later and a few months behind schedule, Sea-Arama opened on November 8th. Located outside the then-city limits of town, the mammoth, multi-million dollar steel and concrete attraction was constructed at 91st and Seawall, an area known as West Beach.
The facility included the Oceanarium, a massive tank that held the larger species of the deep; the Aquarium, comprised of dozens of tanks that housed hundreds of specimens “from the colorful to the grotesque;” and the Aqua Ampitheatre, an arena for trained performing dolphins that held audiences of 1,000 people.
Sea-Arama also had a Mermaid Scuba Show, a Water Ski Comedy, a Gator Swamp & Reptile House that put on alligator wrestling and snake shows, sea lion and seal feeding, a waterfall, picnic grounds, snack bars, a dolphin petting zoo, a giant octopus, Otto the performing otter, and a penguin chorus line. All of this spectacle was available for an adult ticket price of $2.25. The city marketed it as “one of the most unique and complete marine attractions in the world.”
1965 also brought with it the purchase of the fated Balinese Room. After sitting vacant, unwanted, and in disrepair for nigh ten years, Johnny Mitchell purchased it after a public auction yielded not one bidder. He completed a $150,000 renovation, including adding the Asian-inspired façade that would define its appearance for younger generations. Its official re-opening took place on May 22, 1966, and what it was missing in ‘entertainment’ it made up for in nostalgic appeal.
These three landmark achievements would propel Galveston through the remainder of the decade, as the lots and buildings along the Seawall that had been vacant since Carla began to fill with businesses piggybacking on the popularity of the Flagship and Sea-Arama.
Texas Magazine wrote of Galveston that “1965 brought the salty old-timer some adornments that have perked her up considerably. Long the queen of Texas resorts, Galveston shows her age—but a few new baubles can make her shine again.”