Magic Island, Houston outpost of glamour and illusion, may have another act

The club’s management plans to return with gambling in addition to dining and magic.

By Michael MarksMarch 20, 2024 3:39 pm,

For nearly 40 years, commuters along Houston’s Southwest Freeway have passed by a peculiar landmark: the head of an Egyptian pharaoh, looming eye-level with drivers on the upper deck. 

This was Magic Island – a private club that treated patrons to intimate performances and fine dining. It was a place to see and be seen, and to indulge in the stranger side of life.

Magic Island opened in 1984 and closed in 2008 after Hurricane Ike. But now it appears set to reopen. 

Jef Rouner, a freelance journalist based in Houston, spoke to the Texas Standard about the club’s past and future.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit about what Magic Island was like in its heyday.

Jef Rouner Well, you know, I grew up in the 1980s – I was born in 1981 – so I had all of those commercials in between Saturday morning cartoons when I was a kid. So I was always looking forward to going to Magic Island. It looked so glamorous and amazing. And, you know, when you’re a kid, magic is magic. That’s how it is.

So I finally got to go for my mother’s 50th birthday party in 2004, and this was obviously very close to the end of its run. Ike brought it down, but it had been going downhill for a while there. And I remember a place that at that time was quite threadbare, and the magic was, for want of a better term, kind of cheesy.

Nice prime rib. That’s the best thing I could say for it at that moment. But once the 21st century started, Magic Island felt more like an artifact than a venue of glamour.

So it back in its heyday, if you were to go into Magic Island, what would it have been like?

It was really something out of this world. For instance, people who had private member cards would have those cards taken from them by a robotic snake.

They brought in great acts from all over the world back when magic was having kind of a Renaissance period in the late 80s and early 90s. It was like Vegas-style magic shows.

So was this primarily a venue dedicated to magic performances, or was there more?

I would say that it was a place where you were trying to give people a Vegas vacation, much cheaper, for about an hour and a half.

It was very glamorous. People dressed up. It was clearly people who didn’t usually get to have those sorts of experiences having it right in the heart of Houston, which made it so wonderful.

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Who’s talking about bringing it back, and are they talking about a return to the good old days?

They have a new vision for it. So I’ve been doing this series for the Houston Chronicle where I go and visit either dying or being reborn landmarks. So I went in my crawl-around-in-the-heat-in-a-decrepit-ruin clothes.

I went to go to look at the door in Magic Island to see if there was going to be like a phone number, something to call. And across the parking lot comes this well-dressed, Vegas-style looking dude in a black satin shirt asking, you know, “what are you doing?”

And I said, “well, I’m from the Houston Chronicle.” He’s like, “well, would you like to come in and take a tour?” So I did get to go in and see exactly what they’re bringing in. And it is very nice inside, even at only 80% finished.

Well, so what does it look like? Could you describe it?

You’re talking about a really well-done ballroom, marble countertops. A lot of the Egyptian decor is still there, but it’s much nicer. It looks like fake museum rather than Saturday morning Egyptian-themed cartoon, kind of what it was in the old days.

They do still have a very nice upstairs, intimate theater where you can watch magic shows. They have a private gambling poker hall. They’ve got a disco hall where the roof is retractable.

They’ve opened up the patio with an awning so people can be there and get out of the rain and be seen for people coming down on their commute on 59. It’s it’s a very, very nice place.

You said that originally Magic Island was not a casino – it was like a casino, but not a casino. Is that still going to be the way they’re going to do it?

They are going to be doing private poker, blackjack and roulette in this private club; it will be members only. You will have to have what I believe they called the black club card – I don’t know if a robot snake takes it anymore.

But they will be able to get around state gambling rules because you can have private gambling so long as the house is not taking a cut. So you can charge an entrance fee, but you can’t take a cut of the winnings.

So what do you expect here? Are they thinking about more upscale clientele eventually, other changes. And what about an opening date?

The latest opening day I’ve heard is spring 2024, which we are in, so I don’t know what that means. I know that they are planning to have holiday parties come Christmas, so that is definitely something that will be happening.

They assured me that it will be open to the public, but I don’t think that that is their focus. I believe that they are looking more into the corporate events, weddings and gatherings, that sort of thing. They want it to be sort of an all-in-one venue, but they will be taking people from the public.

You know, a lot of folks hope for a return to some of those sort of iconic venues around not just Houston, but in other parts of Texas, too, things that people have special memories about. And I know that there have been several attempts in the past to try to bring back Magic Island. You think this one’s going to take?

I think that when you have reached the point that they are at, it would be more expensive for them to not do it than to do it. So yes, I am 96% confident that there will be an opening by mid-summer.

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