Something in them hills!Sean Chaffin charts the rise and fall of one of the most incredible gambling dens in history – the Top O’ the Hill casino in Texas. This illegal playground of the stars has undergone a dramatic change of scene since it’s 1930s heyday, swapping blackjack for bibles
Arlington, Texas, is a long way from Hollywood. But in the 1930s and 1940s, this town outside Dallas attracted some of the biggest names in film, sports and media. The nearby horse track proved a popular attraction, but it was another place only a few miles away that was the highlight for many stars’ weekends – the Top O’ the Hill casino, a high-class underground casino that managed to dodge law enforcement for almost two decades. Stars like John Wayne, Clark Gable and Frank Sinatra made their way to Texas for a fine steak, stiff drink and a night of casino action.
Midnight, August 1947. It’s hot and humid, and legendary Texas Ranger MT ‘Lone Wolf’ Gonzaullas and three others crawl several hundred yards through woods, grass, weeds, brush and insects. Any sound will arouse suspicion from nearby guards. Security is amazingly tight. Two guards are positioned at the iron gate guarding a 900-foot drive up to the casino, at the top of a hill overlooking the countryside. Lookouts armed with rifles surround the house. A buzzer allows guards to warn of pesky law enforcement. The house is designed so casino equipment can be hidden via wall panels and in underground tunnels in just a few seconds. A secret tunnel led gamblers into woods, where they could easily walk to the nearby tea garden. Half-eaten sandwiches and glasses of wine would be waiting, as if it were all just a gathering for a night under the stars.
A feared Texas lawman, Gonzuallas’s law enforcement career spanned four decades including work in the Texas oil fields and the Texas-Mexico border. As Gonzaullas crawled, two men guarded steel doors to the basement. The Rangers waited for an opportunity. After several attempted raids, the Rangers hoped to catch the casino in action and close it permanently.
As a guest entered, the Rangers burst through the doorway, kicking in two wooden and glass doors into the casino, filled with fifty players and eight dealers. The Rangers destroyed an estimated $25,000 in gambling equipment — $240,000 in today’s dollars.
The raid signalled a new stance on ‘wide-open’ gambling of the 1930s and 1940s in the Dallas area. Gonzaullas told the Dallas Morning News: “This raid is to serve notice on this place and any other in this area that they are going to be stopped if we have to call on them every night. This is not part of a campaign to make a few raids and then let the heat off. From now on we raid for keeps. This place and all the others are going to stay closed.”
And casinos remain illegal in Texas to this day.
The Top O’ the Hill Terrace had quaint beginnings. Beulah Marshall bought land and built a tearoom in the early 1920s. Lunches included fried chicken, and bridge games in the afternoons. From the tea garden, with its thick sandstone walls, fishpond and fountain, customers sat and enjoyed the picturesque view of the Tarrant County countryside. After running a plumbing business, local resident Fred Browning had a different career in mind – and he bought the 46-acre property in 1926.
“When he moved in, he always had gambling in mind,” says Vickie Bryant, head of Arlington Baptist College’s Heritage Collection. The college is located on the former grounds of the casino.
Browning hosted casino games at his home on the 1,000-foot Arlington hill, but he had bigger plans and construction was soon underway. The home was removed from its foundation and a basement twice the size of the house was added. Built into the facility were tunnels, secret passageways and panels for hiding casino equipment. The home was then moved back to its original location and the Top O’ the Hill casino opened its doors for an exclusive and wealthy client list.
Browning spared no expense. A brothel was even built onsite, according to Bryant. Gamblers enjoyed fine meals and high-end liquor from the elegant bar. All meals and drinks were free – a forerunner to Vegas freebies. The effort paid off, attracting celebrities and high-rollers for a night of craps, cards and slot machines. On weekends the gambling continued until daybreak.
“The horse track at Arlington Downs drew celebrities and big-money gamblers to the area, and Fred Browning's ‘clean house’ gave them a near-by place to drink, carouse and bet,” Bryant says.
Browning’s security measures assured privacy and kept out police. A hidden floor above the casino also allowed security staff to monitor the action through see-through mirrors – a forerunner to the modern casino’s ‘eye in the sky’.
“It was very high-tech for back then,” Bryant says. “By the time the police and Texas Rangers got in, it would be converted into a dining hall. And all that would be left were employees and they’d be sitting around singing hymns.”
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, business boomed at the Top O’ the Hill. Average nights saw 50-100 guests and a quarter-million dollars ($4 million today) could change hands in a night. Tuxedo-clad dealers manned the tables, bootleggers supplied booze and celebrities flocked to the nightly action.
“You didn’t get through the front gates unless you were famous, infamous, had a lot of money or were an invited guest,” Bryant says.
Bryant has extensively researched the casino, and believes visiting Hollywood gamblers were numerous including Lana Turner, Gene Autry, Will Rogers and more (see sidebar). Infamous guests included Jack Ruby, who later gunned down John F Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, and famed criminals Bonnie and Clyde Barrow. Browning also managed boxers and an Olympic-size swimming pool and sparring ring were installed onsite. Boxers Jack Dempsey, Max Baer, Joe Louis, Lou Brouillard and Lew Jenkins trained – and gambled – at the Top O’ the Hill.
The casino may have left a larger impression on the gambling world. New York gangster Bugsy Siegel gambled there and is believed to have modelled his Flamingo Hotel and Casino after Top O’ the Hill. Siegel was gunned down in 1947 at the Los Angeles home of his girlfriend, actress Virginia Hill, but the Flamingo set the stage for the modern Las Vegas.
Raids at the casino throughout the 1930s proved useless. Officers wouldn’t find gambling equipment or it would be sitting unused. Equipment might be confiscated or destroyed, but the gambling would resume. But gambling in Arlington had an unrelenting enemy in J Frank Norris, a fiery Baptist preacher. Norris was pastor of a Fort Worth Baptist church from 1909 until his death in 1952, and opposed ‘wide-open’ gambling. He spearheaded efforts to close the Top O’ the Hill, even testifying before a grand jury and helping with a raid in the 1930s. He vowed to purchase the property when it was shut down.
After World War II, Browning experienced financial trouble. He was a horseracing enthusiast, but his racing ventures were unsuccessful. As debts mounted, a well-known Dallas gambler, gangster and casino legend began bailing him out.
“Whether this was a favour to Browning, a business arrangement, or a hostile takeover is unknown, but by 1946 Benny Binion had become the power behind the Top O’ the Hill,” writes Gary Sleeper in I’ll Do My Own Damn Killin’, his definitive book on the Dallas gambling wars. Binion went on to found Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas and the World Series of Poker. Binion ran Dallas casinos and numbers rackets throughout the 1930s and 1940s. While living in Las Vegas, much of the Top O’ the Hill’s profits went to Binion’s empire.
After Gonzaullas’s raid in 1947, however, the tide had turned against the Top O’ the Hill and other gambling joints. Law enforcement cracked down and stars stayed away. Vegas offered high-class casinos with much less risk. The casino remained open a few more years but Browning died in 1953 and the gamble was over.
Norris’s prediction came true in 1956 when he bought the property for $150,000. The former casino now housed seminary students, and any remaining gambling equipment was destroyed. The school was renamed Arlington Baptist College in 1972, and just a few relics of its past remain. Some poker chips are kept in the college’s museum as well as pictures of Browning and his racehorses.
After years of concealing its casino past, the college has embraced it, offering tours of what remains of the Top O’ the Hill. The tearoom house is now the administration building and the casino is a kitchen. The three-foot wide escape tunnel still lit by a single light bulb lies at the rear of the kitchen. Outside, the tunnel’s exit on the hillside overlooks homes covering the area. Escaping gamblers could quickly scamper up a series of steps to the awaiting tea garden. Also remaining: the swimming pool, sandstone walls, iron fence and guard towers.
“Details of the college's fascinating past have drawn attention from those who would never have been interested in a Bible college,” Bryant says. “This has resulted in millions in free media coverage and scholarships for the students in memory of the family of the former horse trainer at Top O' Hill. Students are enthralled and glad that their college is now ‘on the map’”.
And while the glitz may be gone, the story of Fred Browning and his Texas casino lives on.