The life-size storefront silhouettes of musicians on Galveston’s Market Street suggest an entertainment venue for partygoers. However, upon entering the Maceo Original Spice and Import Company, you experience the aroma of spices from around the world. Established in 1944, the humble shop features spices and recipe ingredients, a small deli and shop walls covered with Maceo family artifacts. Few patrons know the “Maceo” name has legendary status in Galveston.
Originally from the island of Sicily, Rosario “Papa Rose” Maceo and Salvatore “Big Sam” Maceo were affluent Galveston businessmen by day and organized crime bosses by night. Sam, the handsome entrepreneur, and Rose, the muscleman, operated as major players in the “gray area” between solid citizens and the outlaw world of Galveston, Texas.
Although crime is not generally a component in weaving the historic fabric of American cities, Galveston gets high marks for embracing the presence of scoundrels. Islanders speak well of “colorful characters” and “notorious” places and events. Historically, with a shipping economy, as money and goods flowed through the port city, so did the pirates, smugglers and gangsters.
The Maceo families immigrated first to New Orleans in 1912 where they witnessed the role Sicilian organized crime (Mafia/Cosa Nostra) has played in many Italian-immigrant communities. Three hundred and seventy years after the first Europeans shipwrecked on Galveston Island, Sam and Rose Maceo arrived and added their names to Galveston’s story.
On this barrier island located 2 ½ miles from the Texas mainland, the Maceo’s discovered a unique “free will” mentality that occurred in the business and cultural societies. The legacy of pirates, smugglers, transient soldiers and immigrants fostered an acceptance for vice as a natural state of business. Gambling, liquor and even prostitution were accepted because they kept the economy booming.
Barbers by trade, the Maceo Brothers capitalized on “Isolation” and “looking the other way.” During Prohibition, they assisted other crime groups, the Downtown and Beach Gangs, by storing bootlegged liquors under their stilted houses, and offered their winemaking skills to discreet customers. As they watched and waited, rivalries allowed them to take over. Bribes, retaliation and false testimony kept the brothers in charge. Even Al Capone was told to stay away!
At the same time as Sam and Rose fostered good relationships with business, church and law officials, smuggling alcohol and promoting gambling made them super rich. When Texas Rangers raided their first nightclub, the Hollywood Dinner Club, a million dollars’ worth of gambling equipment was confiscated. This led to the ingenious design of the infamous and exquisite Balinese Room, the Crown Jewel in the Maceo’s empire.
Built on a pier that extended into the Gulf of Mexico, law enforcement raids were hampered by the length of the pier and elaborate alarm systems. Locals and tourists were happy with top entertainers, like Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and George Burns, playing the Balinese Room.
Even in the darkest days of the Depression, the super-wealthy came to Galveston for food and entertainment. Evidently the State of Texas moved to end bootlegging, rum-running, “Red Light” districts and flaunting the law on Galveston Island, so organized crime and the Maceo Brothers headed West to build a second empire at a placed called Las Vegas.
The Margarita – Invented at the Balinese Room?
While the origins of the margarita are widely debated, many stories say it was invented at the Balinese Room in 1948 where head bartender Santos Cruz created the drink for singer Peggy Lee. Supposedly Cruz named it after the Spanish version of her name, Margarita.
Maceo Spice & Import Co.
Stop by for Lunch, Shop and Visit
2706 Market Street
Galveston, TX 77550
Signage at Former Site of The Balinese Room
Galveston, TX USA