Sunday, November 09, 2008

Mae West: Texas Elite

MAE WEST featured saloons and gambling joints in her motion pictures. Now word has come to light about an elite underground casino the actress had visited in Arlington, Texas during the 1930s.
• • According to journalist Michael E. Young: Before this was Arlington Baptist and before it was Bible Baptist Seminary, these 46 acres on West Division Street were known by another name: the lilting Top O' Hill Terrace. And in the 1930s and '40s, it was the fanciest gambling joint around — — a forerunner to Las Vegas looming over the Texas plains.

• • Top O' Hill was the vision of Fred Browning, who had run some gambling operations in Fort Worth, Texas but was weary of the efforts of the Rev. J. Frank Norris of the First Baptist Church to put him out of business.
• • He bought the property in 1926 from a pair of sisters who'd operated a tea room and garden there and promptly dug a 6,000-square-foot basement beneath the restaurant for a casino and showroom large enough to house the big bands of the day.
• • Vickie Bryant, wife of Arlington Baptist president David Bryant and a tenacious investigator of the school's history, said Mr. Browning and Dr. Norris were inextricably linked.
• • Even as Mr. Browning built his casino's reputation, attracting many of America's best-known players to his tables, Dr. Norris fought to shut him down, vowing that one day, "We will own that place."
• • Mrs. Bryant recounts their stories before leading the tours through the old Top O' Hill's attractions. And she still marvels "how God has taken this place from poker to preachers."
• • When Mr. Browning bought the property, he told his wife, Mary, that he'd build a fortress there, "so those pesky Baptists and the law couldn't break in," Dallas historian and writer Jim Gatewood said.
• • And that's exactly what Mr. Browning did.
• • Twenty guards, some working with attack dogs, protected the property. It took a password, repeated several times at various points, to gain access to the stairway leading down to the casino. And Mr. Browning ordered his staff to ensure the anonymity of his guests.
• • But over the years, names trickled out — — Mae West, Clark Gable, Hedy Lamarr, Tom Mix, and Howard Hughes. John Wayne visited. So did Frank Sinatra.
• • Gangster Bugsy Siegel gambled there, and so did Bonnie and Clyde. A young Ginger Rogers tap-danced there. The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra entertained, and so did fan dancer Sally Rand.
• • Top O' Hill drew Texas' new oil millionaires, too, including H.L. Hunt, Mrs. Bryant said.
• • The subterranean casino deterred too much snooping. But gambling was illegal in Texas, and Dr. Norris, Mr. Browning's nemesis, rarely rested.
• • So he designed the place with hidden rooms to hide the gaming tables and slot machines and built an escape tunnel so gamblers could scramble to the nearby "tea garden." There, food and drinks were always set out so arriving Texas Rangers would find the guests relaxed and happy in the hilltop garden.
• • Still, word spread and the raids began in 1935, with at least four more through 1947, when Texas Ranger Capt. M.T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas led several officers through an open doorway, arresting dozens of gamblers and staff and destroying the gambling paraphernalia. . . .
— — Excerpt: — —
• • Article: Arlington Baptist College offers tours of grounds' casino past
• • Byline: Michael E. Young
• • Published in: The Dallas Morning News
• • Published on: 8 November 2008
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• • Come up and see Mae every day online:

• • Photo:
• • Mae West • • none
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Mae West.

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