- Historic Sites
How sex, rum, World War II, and the brand-new state of Hawaii ignited a fad that has never quite ended.
August/September 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 4
In December 1931 a somewhat adrift 24-year-old washed up in Southern California, looking for something to do. A native of New Orleans, he was named Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt. Curious by nature and something of a protobeatnik by choice, he had spent the previous months vagabonding on the cheap through some of the globe’s more humid locales: Jamaica, Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Marquesas Islands, and Tahiti. By the time he got to Los Angeles, his money had run out.
Gantt made do in the Depression economy through his wits and odd jobs—working in restaurants in Chinatown, parking cars at commercial lots, and doing a bit of freelance bootlegging in the months before Prohibition ended. Sociable and charming, he befriended such Hollywood personalities as David Niven and Marlene Dietrich and through them found occasional work as a technical adviser on films set in the South Pacific. Directors evidently were impressed not only by his knowledge of the region but also by his collection of South Pacific artifacts, which could be borrowed for set props.
A couple of years after he arrived in Los Angeles, Gantt happened upon a newly vacated tailor shop just off Hollywood Boulevard. It was small—just 13 feet by 30—but Gantt liked the feel of it, and entered into a five-year lease for $30 per month. He built a bar that would seat about two dozen customers and scattered a few tables in the remaining space. He decorated the place with his South Pacific gewgaws, along with old nets and parts of wrecked boats he scavenged from the oceanfront. He called his watering hole Don the Beachcomber.
He approached his drink menu the same way he approached his décor: with an eye toward frugality. Rum was the least expensive of the spirits, and Gantt had sampled a variety in his travels. He devised an exotic menu of rum-based drinks that complemented his theme and scratched the names on a board behind the bar.
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The combination of Gantt’s engaging personality and the novelty of his drinks proved irresistible to his patrons. Among those first drinks was the Sumatra Kula, which cost a quarter. A well-dressed man named Neil Vanderbilt came in one day and ordered one, then another and another. He said it was the best drink he’d had in years. He was a writer for the New York Tribune , and he soon came back with friends, including Charlie Chaplin. Word of Don the Beachcomberbegan to spread through Hollywood and beyond. “If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you,” Gantt told his customers. (It didn’t work for everyone; in July 1936 a wealthy businessman struck and killed a pedestrian with his car, allegedly while driving home after a night at Don the Beachcomber. The driver was Howard Hughes.) By 1937 the restaurant and bar had outgrown the tailor’s shop, and Gantt moved to a larger spot in Hollywood. He added more South Pacific flotsam and imbued the place with a tropical twilight gloom. The joint became so much part of his personality that he legally changed his name. Ernest Gantt was now Donn Beach.
And Donn Beach was the inventor of the tiki bar, a new kind of place that, over the next 30 years, would migrate from the cities to the suburbs and beyond.
Beach’s reign in Los Angeles proved relatively short-lived. When World War II broke out, he was commissioned and, while aboard a convoy bound for Morocco, his ship was attacked by a U-boat. Beach was injured, and after he recovered he spent the remainder of his enlistment doing what he did best: serving up hospitality. The Air Force put him in charge of hotels and restaurants where airmen could rest and recuperate—on Capri and in Venice, on the Lido and on the French Riviera.
Beach’s ex-wife, Cora Irene (“Sunny”) Sund, was left running the business back in California. She proved as natural an entrepreneur as her ex-husband. When Beach returned home, he found that Don the Beachcomber had blossomed into a chain, with a handful of restaurants nationwide. Beach had little to do but sit at the bar and cash his checks. (The chain would eventually grow to 16 locations.) Beach signed on as a consultant and then packed his bags for Hawaii, where he opened his own unaffiliated Don the Beachcomber in an up-and-coming resort area called Waikiki Beach.
Donn Beach was the inventor of the tiki bar, which in the next 30 years spread across the country.
His restaurant became an instant landmark, more Hawaiian than most of Hawaii itself. Beach amplified the faux-tropical theme with palms and thatch and a sweeping shingled roof, part space age, part ceremonial Polynesian meetinghouse. The popular arranger and composer Martin Denny played at the restaurant’s Bora-Bora lounge for nine months straight.