A look back at the

history of East Texas

The honky-tonk heard around the world.

  Little towns the size of Longview, Texas seldom get a lot of national

attention, but 25 years ago if you stopped a country music fan

anywhere in the United States and asked them to name all the Texas

cities they knew, it would probably go something like this, “Dallas,

due to the TV series, San Antonio for the Alamo, Austin because it’s

the capitol, El Paso was always talked about in the old westerns, oh…

and Longview.” Longview…why Longview? Longview was put on the

country music map all because of a few acres of land and the large

open building located on state highway 1845 by the highway 31

overpass. That’s right, Longview was famous for its honky tonk, The Reo Palm Isle Ballroom, the place where East Texans had gone to have a drink or a dance since 1935. The Dorsey brothers and Glenn Miller had two of the most famous orchestras in the world; they played the Reo Palm Isle. Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll, played the Reo Palm Isle. Bob Wills, the king of western swing played the Reo. Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie and Waylon, and probably a hundred other famous musicians ranging from the 30’s to the 90’s all played The Reo. It was the East Texas home for the legends of the music industry. The Texas dance hall had a full, colorful life. It was born in 1935 and passed away some 68 years later in a passage that still brings mourning to the hearts of so many who have fond memories of meeting their favorite star, dancing with their spouse for the first time, or celebrating their official 18th or 21st birthday. As many have said, “The Reo was a rite of passage into adulthood for East Texans for so many years”.

  With the Kilgore oil boom of the late 1920’s the population of East Texas grew quickly. The economy was booming and the towns in East Texas were actually having major difficulty trying to accommodate all of the people flooding to our area. “Tent cities” were found in most of the towns. A lot of people from the country communities of the time suddenly had money in their pockets from the new economy. As people could afford to do so, they were looking for entertainment. Although no alcohol was officially served due to prohibition, small dance halls were popping up throughout the area within about a 30 mile radius of Kilgore, including Longview, Henderson, and Gladewater. The most frequented of these areas was between Longview and Kilgore where Highway 31 now intersects Interstate 20. It was known as Honky Tonk City, with 12 to 15 dance halls crowded into the popular area.  Most were small dives about the size of a modern day convenience store. Some offered live local music, mainly on the weekends. Others would depend on the local AM radio station for music, or later the five cent Nickelodeon record machine. In the early 1930’s just down the road at the intersection of Interstate 20 and “The Old Gladewater Road” stretching from Kilgore to Gladewater, Mattie’s Ballroom was thriving, residing in an old house just west of the current Lone Star Speedway location. Mattie Castlebury had earned an impeccable reputation for having the best dance music in the area at her place, partially perhaps because she kept the ballroom hopping. There was no slow music played at Mattie’s.  She would only book the best local talent and traveling bands, and her ballroom crowds had grown so much

by the early 1930’s she was starting to book nationally known acts of the era. The yellow wood

framed building was usually packed to capacity. Between the top music talent of the time and

the popular dime a dance taxi dancers, Mattie’s was being talked about across the nation.

  In the early 1930’s a young man named Hugh Cooper owned a small dance hall in Henderson.

Henderson had almost doubled in size since the oil boom and his club was doing well for the area,

but the young entrepreneur set his sights a little higher than the small town. Hugh Cooper sought

out an establishment in a more populated area. He studied the number of patrons driving from

Longview to “Honky Tonk City”, or even further to Mattie’s Ballroom. With prohibition coming to

an end, he looked for an area closer to Longview to build a dance hall that would shadow the

small venues down the road, maybe even Mattie’s. Reportedly with the help of a few investors

from Longview, Hugh Cooper bought land 2 miles outside of town and started to build at the

intersection of what is now Highway 1845 and Highway 31. Coopers club was going to be huge

by all standards of the time. It was a large framed structure that was 80 feet wide and 200 feet

long. The front of the building was bricked and lined with over a dozen windows to allow air in.

(Air conditioning was not common in those days, especially for a structure of this massive size.) 

Inside the dance hall were wooden floors, wooden walls, and a huge wooden dance floor. As you came in the front door on the                                                                                                     north end of the building, there was a bar speculated to extend                                                                                                               almost the entire length of the building down the right wall. At the                                                                                                         far end of the building the 20 by 30 feet stage that was centered in                                                                                                         the far wall. To the left of the stage was a grand stone fireplace, the                                                                                                         type you would expect to see in a large mountain lodge. This was the                                                                                                     sole source of heat for the majority of the building (Central heat in                                                                                                         the 1930’s meant your fireplace or stove was in the middle of the                                                                                                             room!). When the building was finished, the new $2000 facility was                                                                                                         prepared to hold 1800 people. It was the largest venue in East Texas.                                                                                                     The dance hall was named the Palm Isle Club.

  The Palm Isle Club opened to the public on Thursday,

September 12, 1935, with a promise to “feature the

largest, best, and most popular orchestras and musical

organizations in the country.” Cooper did exactly that.

Over the next few years national talent played the Palm

Isle almost weekly. Some the acts that performed there

during the 1930’s include: Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey,

Ozzie Nelson, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and

many more. People drove for hours to the town of L

ongview, Texas, to dance on the huge dance floor and

listen to those performing, who are now legends in

American music. The Palm Isle Club was a huge

success putting many of the small competitors out of

business in the Longview - Kilgore area, except for

Mattie’s Ballroom, which still stood strong with loyal

patrons.

     In 1939, to support its allies, the United States entered World War II and the draft started soon afterwards. As the young men of our nation were recruited by the masses to fight for their country in Europe, wives, mothers and children prayed their husbands, sons, and dads would not be next. In 1941, Hugh Cooper received his draft notice. He was going to war. What would he do with his successful business venture of The Palm Isle Club? He couldn’t close it. He still owed money on the mortgage. He would have to find someone to run the club for him while he served his duty. He turned to Mattie Castlebury. Mattie had taken a little frame building in Kilgore and made it world famous for music and dancing. She knew how to run a club. She had proven to be a very sharp business person and a straight forward lady. Though his Palm Isle Club had devoured competitors, Mattie’s Ballroom stood strong. He knew the reason. Cooper worked out a management agreement with Mattie. Mattie continued booking orchestras and acts in the Palm Isle Club and Mattie’s Ballroom for two years while Hugh Cooper was away.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   When Hugh Cooper returned form the war, he found larger audiences in his club than he had ever seen. Mattie approached Cooper upon and told him of her intent to buy the Palm Isle Club. She also surprisingly informed Cooper he would finance it for her. Mattie was not easily told “no”. Mattie bought the land, mineral rights, building, and equipment. She paid $5750; $2875 down and agreed to pay the balance off on the note at $150 a month 2 years. Mattie paid the balance in full in six months.

  Mattie Castlebury closed Mattie’s Ballroom at the end of March 1943. On April 3, 1943, Mattie officially took ownership of the newly named “Mattie’s Palm Isle Club”. Her opening night was a battle of music between two local orchestras. Admission was 50 cents per person, 25 cents for soldiers. Mattie went all in promoting her new business venture. She continued to bring in the biggest acts in entertainment, usually orchestras. Mattie’s Palm Isle was open Monday through Saturday. During the week there was no cover charge for the nightly nickelodeon (jukebox) dances. Friday nights were 50 cents per person unless there was live music. Then the price doubled to one dollar. Under Mattie Castlebury’s sharp promotion, her Palm Isle Club continued to grow into an East Texas benchmark quickly. It became the place where business men went to have a cocktail and close a business deal, where men took their wives dancing for special occasions, and where couples traveled from far away to see their favorite orchestra perform.

   Packed houses and great music continued over the next few years at Mattie’s Palm Isle Club. In 1949, Mattie was diagnosed with cancer. Mattie was a strong lady and ran the Palm Isle Club for two more years until her health would not allow it anymore. On May 10, 1951, Mattie sold the Palm Isle Club to Jack and Neva Starnes, who at the time were the acting management of singer Lefty Frizell. The new owners attempted to change the name to Neva’s Palm Isle but due to financial reasons they forfeited payments and the business once again belonged to Mattie.

  In December of 1951, Sherman Sparks and his partner Glynn Keeling purchased the Palm Isle Club from Mattie Castlebury. At the time Sparks had owned a small club in Kilgore called the Reo Club. They changed the name again from Mattie’s Palm Isle Club to The Reo Palm Isle. Sparks and Keeling ran the club together until 1956, when Keeling bought out his partner. The music was changing and so were the bands that played the Reo Palm Isle. Orchestras and big bands were being replaced by country singers brought to the forefront by artists such as Hank Williams. The younger generation was demanding some of the new rocking hillbilly music they were hearing on the radio and television. Many people in East Texas today can still tell stories of seeing Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and even Elvis on stage at the Reo in the 50’s. An elderly patron of The Reo recalls the first time he saw Elvis perform there in 1956, “We didn’t know who he was then. He wasn’t anything big yet. Most of the guys who sang there wore suits. Elvis came on stage wearing chartreuse pants and a black shirt. We didn’t know what to think of him. He got a lukewarm reception that night’. The music changed with the times and so did The Reo Palm Isle. People still came to Longview to spend the weekend just to visit the club. It was a local and state treasure for notoriety and even tourism.

                                                                                                                                March 3rd, 1962, disaster struck the East Texas                                                                                                                                          landmark. The Reo Palm Isle caught fire and burned                                                                                                                                  to the ground. Some speculate it was an electrical                                                                                                                                      problem that started the fire. With the club being                                                                                                                                      outside city limits, inspections weren’t held to                                                                                                                                            standard codes. Others said it was the huge fireplace                                                                                                                                and all of the interior wood. Regardless, there wasn’t                                                                                                                                much left but ashes when the fire finally died.  Owner                                                                                                                                Glynn Keeling went to work immediately to rebuild                                                                                                                                    his establishment. The new architectural designs and                                                                                                                                building are the Reo building that stands today, with                                                                                                                                the new entrance that was added in the late 1990’s.

  The new Reo Palm Isle opened in March of 1963. The Reo Rhythmaires, the house band, took the stage that night to welcome a packed house to their new honky tonk home. East Texas welcomed the reopened Reo with open arms. Gerone Mills, owner of GM Sound Studios in Gladewater was there that night and recorded the whole evening. In the recording the band leader apologizes for not having air conditioning yet. During one of his announcements you can hear someone paging, “George Jones, you have a phone call”. George wasn’t performing there that night. He was just there for the celebration. It was business as usual for the Reo Palm Isle through the 1960’s, and business was good. Keeling added a Wednesday afternoon dance that came to be called “pressure cooker Wednesday”. Former Rhythmaire drummer Johnny Mills explains the term, “It was before anyone had microwaves. The housewives could go dance for the afternoon and still get home and cook dinner in their pressure cookers before their husbands got home from work”. During this decade the house band also convinced Keeling to add more nights than Thursday through Saturday. The Rhythmaires would begin playing Wednesday through Sunday, with matinees on Wednesdays and Sundays.

  In 1971 Carl Johnson bought the Reo Palm Isle from Glynn Keeling. Carl had been managing country swing legend Bob Wills for several years. Carl’s son Rusty Johnson says, “I remember Bob Wills coming over to the house a lot when I was a kid. At that time he was already in a wheelchair”. Even though it was Carl Johnson’s first club to own, he took the reins and immediately went after the big stars of the early 1970’s like Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Ray Price, and the list goes on. In 1975 East Texas hit a second oil boom, bringing many more oil field related workers to our area. The Reo Palm Isle quickly became their new home under the neon moon. The concerts continued with Waylon Jennings, Johnny Paycheck, Marty Robbins, and the other superstars of the 1970’s. Many honky-tonk couples came to Longview from Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and even further to spend a weekend at the Reo. Texas Monthly magazine proclaimed the Reo Palm Isle as the best dance hall in Texas.

   Long before he bought the Reo, Carl was a frequent patron. One night he went out to see Ray Price perform. Carl began talking to and befriended Ray Price’s guitar player for the evening. The young man had been a

songwriter and musician for years and told Carl of wanting to become a solo recording act.

Carl was very supportive of the young man, and the songwriter/musician never forgot that.

The young man’s name was Willie Nelson. Years later in 1995, Carl and managing son Rusty

decided to throw a huge 60th anniversary party. Willie Nelson contacted Carl asking to be

booked for the anniversary party, no contract needed. The Reo Palm Isle was completely

sold out that night.

  During the 1980’s America fell in love with the movie Urban Cowboy and country music became the dominant music genre. The Reo’s “largest dance floor in Texas” was shoulder to shoulder night after night with old and new two steppers wearing their boots, Wranglers, and feather adorned cowboy hats. The renamed house band, The Reo Ramblers, cranked out songs recorded by Johnny Lee and Mickey Gilley for the Urban Cowboy soundtrack. Even a mechanical bull was installed in the Reo to challenge the movie fans who wanted to try out the honky-tonk rodeo event. The Reo was legendary, established, and the place to go to see the superstars of country music. In Longview when a young person turned 21 years of age, even if they never went back again, they went to the Reo Palm Isle to celebrate their arrival to adulthood. The concerts continued at least monthly, featuring up and coming stars mixed with legendary performers such as Merle Haggard, Randy Travis, Ray Price, Jerry Lee Lewis, Exile, Restless Heart, David Allen Coe, and so many more.

                                                                                                       With the 1990’s came another surge in popularity for country music                                                                                                      as Garth Brooks blasted onto the music scene. Boots and Wranglers                                                                                                      were once again in style. Garth himself had played the Reo before                                                                                                          his hit, “Friends in Low Places” skyrocketed him to the top. Anyone                                                                                                        who had a name in country music had played the Reo. It seemed                                                                                                            every artist in Nashville had their own Reo Palm Isle story. The                                                                                                                  musicians and singers in the Reo Rambler house band changed, but                                                                                                      the Reo continued to offer live music nightly, but times were                                                                                                                    changing again in East Texas through the 90’s. With the old                                                                                                                      fashioned unchanged honky-tonk décor still exactly the same from                                                                                                          the 1962 rebuild, perhaps East Texans desired something more                                                                                                                modern or updated. Although the people still filed in for the                                                                                                                    concerts, the nightly business was starting to drop off, despite                                                                                                                extensive media marketing campaigns. Country music was changing, and it seemed to be dividing into classic country and a new, young country, the latter of which had more overtones of rock than country music. What would they play at The Reo Palm Isle? If traditional music were played, the young crowd would go somewhere else. If they played all new style country, the dedicated patrons from years past would surely leave. It was a major dilemma. Another  local club, The Levee, was also starting to be a major competitor. Although a much smaller venue, their contests and promotions were big, offering prizes like cruises, vacations in Las Vegas, and trips to the National Finals Rodeo. This had an impact on the Reo’s business income. AT the same time it seemed area residents were actually going out to clubs less and less, narrowing the number of potential patrons. When an additional club, Graham’s Central Station, part of an established national chain, opened in Longview, the bar crowd was divided into even smaller portions. The large facility of the Reo Palm Isle seemed almost empty when occupied by only an average size bar crowd. 

 

 

 

 

         

       In 1997 Max and Sharon Singleton bought The Reo Palm Isle from Rusty Johnson, who had taken possession of the club when his father Carl had passed away. The Singletons had high hopes and plans to rejuvenate the 62 year old dance hall.  They continued to hire live bands, market the club, and book the best national talent the business could afford, but attendance seemed to continue to dwindle. In 2003, the doors to the former “best dance hall in Texas” were closed. The 300 square foot dance floor was now empty. No more would music echo throughout the dance hall into the narrow alley behind the building where so many legendary singers had parked their busses during their night on stage at The Reo. The legend was over. Though stories would be passed down through the generations about the experiences, good times, and celebrities seen there, there was just not enough interest from East Texans to keep the honky-tonk alive anymore.

  Over the past few years there have been efforts to reopen the Reo Palm Isle with little success. The location of the building which had originally been two miles out of downtown is now within the Longview city limits bringing numerous specifications from city codes. It’s now a 60 year old building needing constant upgrades and maintenance. Tall tales and rumors have been told about the venue that has seen music history live within its walls. How many times have we heard that Neal McCoy, Tim McGraw, or numerous other country stars have bought the old honky-tonk to restore it to its heyday? Of course, it was all rumors.

     The once world-famous Reo Palm Isle building has been renovated many times since its closing a honky-tonk in 2003. The face lifts have removed the stage from which Willie, Elvis, and so many others so proudly sang, and the entry foyer no longer boasts the numerous autographed 8x10’s of the numerous legends that have performed there. Those who grew up listening to our parents and grandparents stories of the time they saw their favorite legend perform there,  or the turning of age to create our own memories there, it almost brings a tear when you step through doors to see the huge dance floor… but no longer hear the sounds of Willy stepping out on stage as the intro to Whiskey River riles the crowd, or see the flash or lights reflecting from the ceiling off the saddle “mirror ball” that greeted the customers as they entered the dancehall once known around the world. The next “Garth Brooks” will be heard first on YouTube, or seen on the latest social media trend, and to see them in concert you’ll have to travel to a stadium in Shreveport or Dallas instead of making the short drive out to the corner of 1845 and 31, but the building still stands as a memory of the place that put Longview in the country music history book. The Reo Palm Isle, 1935 - 2003.    

The entrance to the Reo Palm Isle as it stands today.

An early rendering of the Palm Isle Club.

The original fireplace of the Palm Isle Club. The building's single source of heat.

The Reo Palm Isle in 1956. The Cadillac in the photo was reportedly Elvis Presley's.

Photo courtesy of Johnny Mills and Morris Shelton.

left: The Reo Palm Isle

Rhythmaires from the

1960's.

Right: Former owner, 

Glynn Keeling holds a

large photo of his newly

remodeled Reo Palm 

Isle in the late 1960's.

The Reo Palm Isle sign that stood lighted in the Reo parking lot has been restored back to its original location.

The Reo Palm Isle

Ballroom

Written by Tony McCullough

Mattie Castlebury, owner of

Mattie's Ballroom

The Reo Palm Isle, renamed from the Palm Isle Club in the 1940's by Mattie Castlebury.