A Night at the Dragon Grill

Posted: October 23, 2020 9:00:00 AM CDT

A night at the Dragon Grill was top entertainment for the people of Corpus Christi from the 1930s through the 1950s. The luxury, splendor, and glitz one expects to find in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or New York City could be found first on North Beach then later in the heart of the city. It was “Doc” Linn’s Dragon Grill. There were three Dragon Grills over the years as Doc continued to upgrade the establishment. It was known as the real doo dad, they put on the dog every night except Sunday. Big bands, dancing, cigarette and hat check girls, a crescent shaped bar, glittering lights, lobsters were flown in from Maine and steaks from Kansas City. For a select crowd there was another room upstairs. Cards, dice, roulette wheels, slot machines, and chuck-a-luck were available with almost sky-high limits. Gambling was illegal and under the Volstead Act of 1910, drinking was illegal until 1933 when Prohibition was repealed. At that time in Texas, it was illegal to sell mixed drinks in private dinner clubs. If a patron became a member, for a small fee, the state liquor laws were upheld. Men who had flourished in the bootlegging era now were opening their own private clubs. Doc Mason was one of these men.

doc mason owner of dragon grillLinn Keys Mason was one of six children born December 3, 1902 in Monongahela, Pa.  His father who worked for the railways moved the family to Port Arthur to work for Gulf Refinery. After finishing the nineth grade Linn followed his father working in the refinery’s laboratory. He continued working there through World War I and at the age of 21 signed on a tanker out of Port Arthur. After a year on the seas he returned home then traveled to West Texas and managed the café section of a night club. He moved to Corpus Christi in 1926. After obtaining sufficient backing he opened the first Dragon Grill on North Beach in 1930. Bob Shoop, rumored to have been a bootlegger, owner of the popular Shoop’s Grill was one of his partners. The first Dragon Grill was located at 2724 North Water Street on North Beach. A few years later Doc built another club called the Oasis Dinner Club located at 4325 Timon Boulevard just past the draw bridge on the right when you came from Corpus Christi. Parking at the Dragon Grill was a problem, so Doc decided to sell the original Dragon Grill to Julius O. (Joe) Sheffield.  It eventually became the Sheffield Grill.

 dragon grill 1

First Dragon Grill site shown after 1940 when Joe Sheffield remodeled and open the Sheffield Grill (The Doc Fred K. McGregor Photo Collection of the Corpus Christi Museum.)

Doc Lin remodeled the Oasis Dinner Club on North Beach and renamed it the Dragon Grill in 1938. It became the city’s most posh nightclub and the place to go.

Guests danced to big band luminaries, ate the best steaks, and consumed the illegal liquor. The gambling room was located on the second floor, the house took a percentage, but the games were considered honest not fixed. It was a known fact among gamblers that Jackie Freeman ran the gambling in Houston, Sam Maceo in Galveston, Hiram Reed in Austin, and Doc Mason in Corpus Christi, GiGi Starnes noted in her article published in 1989 by the Nueces County Historical Commission.

 dragon grill 2 at day

Second Dragon Grill at 4325 Timon Boulevard on North Beach. (The Doc Fred K. McGregor Photo Collection of the Corpus Christi Museum.)

In 1937 Doc Mason married. Floy (maiden name unknown) was Doc’s second wife. Floy never inserted herself into Doc’s work and did not frequent the Dragon Grill except for an occasional family dinner with the children. “Doc was the master of his castle and I was his wife and the mother of his two daughters.” Floy in an interview with Starnes said in 1968. She describes Doc Linn as a wonderful person, an optimist who helped those in need. Every Christmas he took dinner to the children at the Carmelite Orphanage, treated his employees well and was known around town as outgoing but aloof. Floy states she did not know when he got into gambling, he was already in the business when they met. They had two children, both girls, the first named Toy and the second, Debra.

Doc was described by others to have a bad eye and a bad leg. He had lost one of his legs from the knee down and wore a wooden leg. The story of how he lost it is dim and confusing with either his sister or first wife named Ora who had accidentally or on purpose fired the gun that shattered his calf. It had to do with cleaning a gun or being upset when he was found with another woman. In what way or why the eye was bad was never explained.

dragon girll 2 at night

Nighttime at the 2nd Dragon Grill on North Beach (The Doc Fred K. McGregor Photo Collection of the Corpus Christi Museum.)

Doc Mason’s 2nd Dragon Grill was raided a couple of times, but the charges never stuck, and Doc never spent a night in jail. There was a quiet elegant atmosphere at the Dragon Grill, even in the gaming quarters upstairs.  Rowdy, disgruntled patrons were not tolerated. If a gentleman became angry or belligerent he was approached and told quietly, “You don’t want to gamble anymore tonight, friend.” He would be escorted outside by two men. A fire started in the kitchen in the early morning hours of January 15, 1944. Within an hour the Dragon Grill was engulfed in flames and burned to the ground. The place was a total loss.

Not to be deterred, Doc decided to move across the bridge into the city with the next Dragon Grill. He leased the Elks Lodge, a three-story building on Water Street. Doc’s leasing of the Elks Lodge is another fascinating story, resulting in a legal case involving the press and judicial actions by Judge Browning. The case, Craig vs Harney, ended up in the Supreme Court. Murphy Givens wrote an article concerning the case, which was published in the Corpus Christi Caller Times, October 12, 2017.

elks lodge before becoming dragon grill

Site of the Elks Lodge, before becoming Doc Mason’s new Dragon Grill which opened in 1946.  Water Street was aptly named back in the day.  (The Doc Fred K. McGregor Photo Collection of the Corpus Christi Museum.)

The doors facing the corner of Water and Starr Streets was the entrance to the club. After an extensive remodel by architect and interior decorator Oscar Nordstrom and Spanish artist Virgil Quadri, store decorator for Marshall Fields in Chicago, the club was ready for its grand opening. Doc Mason paid a cool $260,000 for the remodel. The corner entrance doors were made of solid hand-hammered copper.  On March 26, 1946, the club opened to 450 ticketed guests. GiGi Starnes writes, “The main floor dining room, the Zodiac Room, featured floor-to-ceiling Quadri murals that depicted the courtship and marriage of a Swedish couple. Between the murals were panels in coral and silver. A raised dance floor was made of maple parquet and the orchestra stand was covered with silver sparkled cloth and gilded chairs.”

copper plated doors of the dragon grill  dragon grill zodiac room mural

Copper doors above, Zodiac mural in Zodiac Room (Gigi Starnes Historical Corpus Christi Research Papers, TAMU-CC Special Collections and Archives)

The Zodiac Room was for families and became the place to go for the citizens of Corpus Christi and the place to meet for clubs and organizations.

The second floor included living quarters for the Chinese cooks and other workers and private motel like rooms were made available for out-of-town high stakes gamblers. Doc’s office was also located on the second floor.

The third floor was where the real action happened. Called the Jalna Room, an Arabic term meaning highest point of beauty, this was an elegant, sophisticated supper club. The Quadri murals were more exotic than the ones downstairs. They portrayed fairy tales from Arabian Nights with a sinister edge. A glittering horseshoe shaped bar, an orchestra stand, dancing floor, and dining area could accommodate 250 people. Starnes goes on to describe access to this club, “Access to the Jalna Room and the gaming tables beyond was strictly controlled with a system of warning lights and buzzers that signaled when law-enforcement made an unwelcome visit. Cards, dice, roulette wheels could be concealed behind secret panels and moveable walls. Behind the walls on the third floor was a maze of sliding panels, hidden rooms, and secret exits to the roof and back stairs.” 

The Dragon Grill was also famous for its luscious cuisine. Head chef Joe Ming who lived in a remodeled building next to the Dragon Club was in charge. Fresh lobsters in large tanks of icy water were displayed in a downstairs window to be seen by pedestrian traffic. Flickering candles graced each white linen tabletop, women came dressed in jewels in formal wear, men wore their best suits. Washroom attendants supplied linen hand towels and offered to brush down the men’s suits. The waiters sailed around the room as on important missions. The place became known and drew in people from all over the county. It reigned as the place to go and be seen for eight years         

Back stairs to freedom when law enforcement arrived

Then in 1953 the place was raided by a posh looking man with his lady friend who gained access to the third floor. They had frequented the Dragon Grill several times. Dining and dancing in the Zodiac Room on the first floor they became friendly with the doorman, Pop Powers. One sultry night in August 1953 they asked Pop if they might visit the Jalna Room. Cozily seated at a gaming table when the other players threw in their bets, Lamp’l the undercover cop, threw in his badge. Starnes said, “The raid killed the Dragon Grill, even though Doc Mason was charged with keeping a gambling house the grand jury returned a no-bill in the case.” Doc and his family lingered for awhile in Corpus Christi. He eventually sold out to the Town Club. Doc, Floy, and the girls first moved to Reno but later settled in Las Vegas. It was believed that Doc was in the gambling business all his life, thought of as a sharp cookie he had revenue streams from oil, a novelty company and part ownership in other clubs. Doc died in 1985 at the age of 83.

Notes taken from recent archive donation papers  by Gigi Starnes, an author of “Grandmother’s Tales: Storm of Darkness (Discovering Archaeology),”a member of the Nueces County Historical Society and Commission, and a fellow researcher of South Texas history with Anita Eisenhauer. Ms. Starnes interviewed many citizens of Corpus Christi in the 1960s to write the Dragon Grill article. The transcribed interviews are in her archive collection. Several Murphy Givens articles are also included in her collection and were noted in this blog. One of Given’s columns titled, “Looking back at 1950,” was published by the Corpus Christi Caller Times on January 12, 2000 another was “Craig vs Harney,” Corpus Christi Caller Times, October 12, 2017 and a third, “Legendary Dragon Grill was a Legacy of Prohibition,” published November 20, 2018 by Corpus Christi Caller Times.

 

 

 

By: Lori Atkins

Category: Books & More, Library Randomness, Today’s Special