The Reo Palm Isle
Longview, TX

Longview is the county seat of Gregg County and is located in East Texas on the U.S. Interstate 20 and U.S. Highway 80 corridor 125 miles east of Dallas and 60 miles west of Shreveport, LA.


Symbol for F.M. (Farm to Market road) 1845

The Reo Palm Isle, located on the corner of Highway 31 and F.M. 1845 in Longview, was established during the oil-boom days which brought big money to depression-era East Texas towns, leading to the rapid growth of dance halls and clubs which catered largely to oilfield workers.


Oil Wells along US 80 between Gladewater and Longview, TX - ca. 1942
Photo courtesy Gregg County Historical Museum

Originally called the Palm Isle Club, it opened on September 12, 1935. It was built by the Palm Isle Amusement Corporation as the largest and finest dance club in Texas. It featured special lighting, the best sound-system, the largest dance floor, and was decorated with Palm trees and foliage taken directly from Florida. The dance floor was built to accommodate 1500 couples. The dress was formal and the best of the Big Bands and Swing played there.


The Palm Isle in Longview, TX - ca. 1930s
Photo courtesy Lanny Medlin

On July 28, 1937 the Palm Isle was purchased by Hal Cooper, owner and operator of the Cooper Club. The Cooper Club was another large dance club that featured Swing Bands and was opened on October 28, 1932 in Henderson, Texas. When Cooper bought the Palm Isle he leased the Cooper Club to, what would become a series of failed ventures. Cooper would have to take over running the club each time. Finally a buyer bought the club and moved it to Texarkana, Texas.

Hal Cooper owned the Palm Isle until he was inducted into the service in World War II. He leased the club to Mattie Castlebury on June 27, 1942. This lease was not formal, no written agreement, just a shake-of-the-hand promise. Mattie was owner and operator of Mattie's Ballroom the first large, permanent dance club in East Texas. It opened April 19, 1931 on the Longview - Kilgore Highway. On March 27, 1943 Mattie closed Mattie's Ballroom and officially purchased the Palm Isle Club on September 27, 1943. The club still named the Palm Isle club but was unofficially called Mattie's Palm Isle.


Mattie Castlebury
Photo courtesy Gregg County Historical Museum

The Palm Isle would regularly feature acts like Harry James, Louis Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jan Garber, Woody Herman, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra and many others.

In the late 1940s Mattie was diagnosed with cancer so she sought a buyer for the club. At the time, Lefty Frizzell was making it big in country music. In March of 1951 Jack Starnes Jr. and his wife Neva bought the Palm Isle. Starnes was managing Lefty Frizzell, while Neva would be managing the the day to day operations of the club. The club was still officially the Palm Isle, but unofficially called Neva's Palm Isle.


Jim Kelly, Vic Candis, Bobby Williamson, Buddy Griffin, Leon Rhodes and Lefty Frizzell - 1950
Photo courtesy Buddy Griffin and Rockabilly HOF

They held the formal opening on May 18th with 22-year-old Frizzell as the principal attraction the first two nights. The plan was be open five nights a week, Tuesday thru Saturday and feature other national  known names each week on Wednesdays but the venture was short-lived. Starnes sold the Palm Isle to Sherman Sparks and Glynn Keeling by the end of the year. Keeling has said that the club actually been sitting empty for a couple of months before he and Sparks called about buying.  Starnes would later start the Starday label in Beaumont, Texas with Harold W. "Pappy" Dailey, its name derived as Star from Starnes and Day from Daily.  Neva would later manage the Western Cherokees.


The Reo Palm Isle in Longview, TX
Photo by Odessa Sparks courtesy Cheryl Sparks Logan and Lanny Medlin

Sherman Sparks had owned a small club in Kilgore, Texas called the Reo that had burned down. He had no cash or credit but had been looking to manage another place. Keeling owned the local Kaiser automobile dealership in Kilgore and was a good friend of Sparks' son Cecil.  Keeling put up the money and Sparks agreed to be the day-to-day manager. Sparks added "Reo" to the Palm Isle name, hence the Reo Palm Isle. With the joint ownership the club continued the transition from Swing to Country, and ultimately a little Rock 'n Roll.


Sherman (in foreground) remodeling the Reo Palm Isle in Longview, TX - early '50s
Photo by Odessa Sparks courtesy Cheryl Sparks Logan and Lanny Medlin

Sherman Sparks loved to entertain. Any musicians traveling from Dallas to Shreveport could stop at the Reo Palm Isle and Sherman would feed them, that is if he liked them. The Reo Palm Isle was a place where Sherman and Odessa Sparks shared a life with their son Cecil, his wife Dorothy and their grandchildren Wanda and Cheryl.


The Reo Palm Isle in Longview, TX - early '50s
Photo courtesy Lanny Medlin and Glynn Keeling


Wait staff at the Reo Palm Isle in Longview, TX - mid '50s
Photo by Odessa Sparks courtesy Cheryl Sparks Logan and Lanny Medlin


Wait staff at the Reo Palm Isle in Longview, TX - mid '50s
Photo by Odessa Sparks courtesy Cheryl Sparks Logan and Lanny Medlin


Fireplace and dance floor at the Reo Palm Isle in Longview, TX - early '50s
Photo by Odessa Sparks courtesy Cheryl Sparks Logan and Lanny Medlin

The club would feature all of the top acts of the day. Bob Wills was a frequent guest and others would include Lefty Frizzell, Tommy Duncan, Hank Thompson and Ernest Tubb. In addition to featuring top entertainers, music was also provided by a house band, along with local bands and singers like Jim Reeves and Ray Price.


Shep Fields and his Rippling Rhythm Orchestra at the Reo Palm Isle - mid '50s
Photo by Odessa Sparks courtesy Cheryl Sparks Logan and Lanny Medlin


Moon Mullican at the Reo Palm Isle in Longview, TX - mid '50s
Photo by Odessa Sparks courtesy Cheryl Sparks Logan and Lanny Medlin


House band at the Reo Palm Isle in Longview, TX - mid '50s
Photo by Odessa Sparks courtesy Cheryl Sparks Logan and Lanny Medlin

Jim Reeves was born in Galloway, TX, a small rural community near Carthage. Jim's first career choice was baseball. He won an athletic scholarship to the University of Texas. After college he played on the St. Louis Cardinals farm club for three years before his career ended with a severe sciatic nerve. After baseball he found work as a DJ. He worked with Tom Perryman in Gladewater and KWKH radio, the home of the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport.


Jim Reeves at the Reo Palm Isle in Longview, TX - mid '50s
Photo by Odessa Sparks courtesy Cheryl Sparks Logan and Lanny Medlin

Cecil Sparks liked to take credit for Jim Reeves success. At KWKH Jim got to sing between songs, but when he heard that the Reo Palm Isle was auditioning for a new band leader he tried out for the job. Sherman Sparks left it up to Cecil to choose between Jim and another tryout, Roy Shirey who had his own band. Against the house band's urging, Cecil chose Roy. Had Cecil chosen Jim Reeves as the Reo's bandleader, Jim would have quit KWKH radio and would likely not have been at KWKH and missed discovery when asked to fill in for a missing performer at the Hayride.


Cecil and bartender at the Reo Palm Isle in Longview, TX - mid '50s
Photo by Odessa Sparks courtesy Cheryl Sparks Logan and Lanny Medlin

Ray Price was born in Perryville, a small community west of Gilmer, TX. Members of his Cherokee Cowboys at times included Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Darrell McCall, Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Bush.


Ray Price at the Reo Palm Isle - mid '50s
Photo by Odessa Sparks courtesy Cheryl Sparks Logan and Lanny Medlin

Tom Perryman had been working at radio station KSIJ in nearby Gladewater since 1949 and also booked Hayride shows and single artists which was how he met Jim Reeves with whom he later came to manage and partner in various enterprises. He would also book some of these artists into clubs and honky-tonks like the Reo Palm Isle in Longview and in general was one of the busiest promoters in Northeast Texas.1


The Reo Palm Isle in Longview, TX - early '50s
Photo courtesy Steve Bonner


Perryman presents Hank Thompson - 1955
courtesy Lanny Medlin

On January 27, 1955, Elvis, Scotty and Bill made their first of four appearances at the Reo Palm Isle as a result of a bookings by Tom Perryman. Perryman booked them on a short tour with one of his acts, Jim Ed and Maxine Brown and they had played the night previously in nearby Gilmer.  According to Lee Cotten, they were paid $150 per show plus $10 a day for travel expenses.2  Glynn Keeling, however, recalled that Thursday night. He said, "I let him do it for the door, I didnít pay them nothing, whatever they took in at the door they split up."


Ad for January '55 shows in Hawkins, Tyler, Gilmer, Longview and Gaston
Photo courtesy Ger Rijff

Early that month the Colonel and Tom Diskin had gone to Shreveport to see them perform on the Hayride and subsequently made arrangements to book them on an upcoming tour with Hank Snow.  Peter Guralnick wrote, at this time the Colonel and Tom Diskin begin spreading Elvis' name throughout their world of show--business acquaintances. Diskin writes to a booking agent in Chicago looking for a TV spot for a "new boy" who he believes will be one of the "biggest things in the business." He goes on to explain that Elvis gets the girls as excited as Frank Sinatra used to, as well as being "as good looking as all heck." 2

 


Ad for March 31, 1955 appearance
courtesy Lanny Medlin


Elvis at the Reo Palm Isle - March 31, 1955
Photo by Odessa Sparks courtesy Cheryl Sparks Logan and Lanny Medlin

Perryman had first introduced the boys in the area before the new year with several dates in Gladewater and they had since begun to build a local popularity.  Sid Tutt, a lifelong resident of Longview, was a senior in high school when he attend this show. Tutt recalls that Elvis played Teen Night at the Reo Palm Isle. After his set, Elvis joined Sid and several friends at their table for soft drinks.2

Their second appearance at the Reo Palm Isle was on March 31, 1955 and they shared a bill with Onie Wheeler who had opened the show on several dates that month and would the following.2


Ad for August 11, 1955 appearance
courtesy Lanny Medlin

Their third appearance was on August 11, 1955. They had played the night before in nearby Gladewater during a weeklong Tom Perryman tour with Jim Ed and Maxine Brown. Hayride drummer D. J. Fontana, who has played with the group occasionally both in Shreveport and on Hayride tours, joins Elvis for the first time on a regular basis, but unlike Scotty and Bill he is not a percentage participant but a salaried member of the band. Days later a new contract is signed that names Colonel Parker as "special adviser," with control of virtually every aspect of the operation. Bob Neal would, however, officially stay on as manager until March the following year.


Ad for November 18, 1955 appearance
courtesy Lanny Medlin


Bill and Elvis at the Reo Palm Isle - Nov 18, 1955
Photo courtesy Steve Bonner

On November 18, 1955 they ended a week long tour with Hank Thompson with a four hour show and dance at the Reo Palm Isle. Charlene Arthur was also on the bill. It was their last appearance there and with one more appearance at the Gladewater High School the following night, also one of the last appearances the boys made in East Texas. Three days later Elvis signed with RCA.

In July of 1956 Sparks sold his ownership in the club to Glynn Keeling and in 1962 it too, burned down.  It was rebuilt though the following year.2


The Reo Palm Isle in Longview under renovation - Oct. 17, 2010
Photo © James V. Roy

The new Reo Palm Isle continued in the same tradition to bring entertainment to more generations. Its 3,000-square-foot dance floor has been lauded as the largest in East Texas. Other features include pool tables, a mechanical bull, and a restaurant. It was rated the best dance hall in Texas Monthly magazine in 1976 and one of the state's top ten clubs in Texas Highways. In the early 2000s the owners of the club were Max and Sharon Singleton.


The Reo Palm Isle in Longview under renovation - Oct. 17, 2010
Photo © James V. Roy

Over the years the Reo Palm Isle has provided a venue for established and ascending stars, including Fats Domino, Bill Black's Combo, the Ink Spots, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Waylon Jennings, David Frizzell, Boots Randolph, Loretta Lynn, Shelly West, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kenny Sarrett, Frenchie Burke, Willie Nelson, Joe Stampley, Jackie Ward, Johnny Paycheck, Alabama, Boxcar Willie, Hank Williams Jr., Ronnie Milsap, Lee Greenwood, Ricky Skaggs, Delbert McClinton, David Allen Coe, Mickey Gilley and many others.


The Reo Palm Isle in Longview under renovation - Oct. 17, 2010
Photo © James V. Roy

page added August 13, 2011

1 according to "Last Train To Memphis" by Peter Guralnick 
2
excerpt from according to "Did Elvis Sing in Your Hometown?" by Lee Cotten
3
excerpt from "Elvis Day by Day" by Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen

This presentation on the Reo Palm Isle is courtesy of Lanny Medlin and is a subset of his research and work initially presented on his site, Lanny Medlin's Albums.  Many of the photographs were taken by Odessa Sparks and provided to him, along with insight and stories by her granddaughter, Cheryl Sparks Logan.  Lanny is currently working with the Texas State Historical Association to correct this history for The Handbook of Texas Music, in both print and online editions.

 

All photos on this site (that we didn't borrow) unless otherwise indicated are the property of either Scotty Moore or James V. Roy and unauthorized use or reproduction is prohibited.

 
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