August/September 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 4
How sex, rum, World War II, and the brand-new state of Hawaii ignited a fad that has never quite ended.
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.
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.
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. Beach was often at the bar, a genial host wearing a gardenia lei that, he was quick to reveal, was for sale in the restaurant’s gift alcove. A myna bird presided over the premises, trained to blurt out, “Give me a beer, stupid!” In the boozy intimacy of late evenings, a gentle rain would often begin to patter on the corrugated metal roof over the bar—thanks to a garden hose Beach had installed. (Always the businessman, he had observed that late-night drinkers tended to linger for another round if they thought it was raining outside.)
Donn beach remained a fixture in Honolulu until he died in 1989 at the age of 81. The New York Times ran a brief obituary that painted him as a sort of Thomas Edison of the thatched-roof bar, the inventor of 84 bar drinks, including one immensely enduring libation called the mai tai.
This was not without controversy. “There has been a lot of conversation over the beginning of the mai tai, and I want to get the record straight,” Victor Bergeron, better known as Trader Vic, once said. “I originated the mai tai. Anybody who says I didn’t create this drink is a stinker.”
Victor Jules Bergeron was born in San Francisco in 1903, the son of a French Canadian waiter and grocery-store operator. Before he was six he had survived the great earthquake of 1906 and a ravaging bout of tuberculosis that claimed his left leg. In 1934, with $300 of his own and $800 borrowed from an aunt, he opened a small beer joint and luncheonette in Oakland. It was called Hinky Dinks, and it would likely have come and gone like so many other largely forgettable restaurants, but Bergeron, like Donn Beach, didn’t set low expectations for himself. Prohibition had recently ended, and Bergeron’s customers displayed an uncommon curiosity about cocktails—the more outlandish and inventive, the better. In 1937 Bergeron took a vacation to New Orleans, Trinidad, and Havana and sampled some of the famous cocktails then in fashion, like rum punch in Trinidad and daiquiris made at the legendary El Floridita in Havana. Back in California, Bergeron visited a tropical-themed restaurant called the South Seas that had recently opened in Los Angeles, then went on to visit a place everyone was talking about. It was Don the Beachcomber.
Bergeron headed back to Oakland and set about reinventing his restaurant and himself. He got rid of the name Hinky Dinks (which he concluded was “junky”) and cast around for a new one. His wife pointed out that he was always involved in some deal or trade. Why not Trader Vic’s?
Bergeron hastily spun a whole history to go with his new name: He now told his customers that he had lost his leg to a shark. Like Donn Beach, he filled his newly christened restaurant with South Sea detritus, lined the walls with dried grass mats, used palm tree trunks as columns, and hung fisherman’s floats, masks, and spears—all things that brought to mind the mysterious South Sea Islands, none of which he’d ever visited. Bergeron would take the idea launched by Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt and upon it build an empire.
Trader Vic’s both tapped into the zeitgeist and helped shape it. South Pacific culture had a small but growing hold on the American pop imagination in the 1930s, as the middle class began to embrace a bowdlerized version of an old avant-garde favorite. Primitive art from the South Seas had fascinated the cultural elite since at least the paintings by Paul Gauguin in the late nineteenth century, and through a sort of obscure cultural alchemy, these primitive forms became popularized and marketed in the form of the tiki statue—an outsized carved wooden figure of a human form, often grotesquely exaggerated. It soon took its place in the American living room.
The 1937 Bing Crosby movie Waikiki Wedding introduced more Americans to the exotica in their back yard. Then came World War II, which further directed America’s attention to a little-considered region of the world. When the war ended, returning servicemen brought home stories and snapshots of Pacific lands. Soon came the short stories of a talented naval reservist, who had spent much of his enlistment typing away in a Quonset hut in Vanuatu. He was James Michener, and the book he published was titled Tales of the South Pacific . It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and made it to Broadway as a musical entitled South Pacific , with songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
In 1947 the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl had set off from the coast of South America on a raft to test his theory that Polynesia had been settled by the Incas; his account, Kon-Tiki , became a runaway bestseller. In 1959 Hawaii joined the Union amid fireworks and hullabaloo, and two years later Elvis added his own brand of fuel to the South Pacific infatuation with his movie Blue Hawaii .
Disneyland opened in 1955, and among its first rides was a Jungle Cruise, in which boats drifted through tropical scenes; a few years later the park’s creator presented an attraction called the Enchanted Tiki Room, where 225 birds chattered and danced among “tiki gods” named Kor, Maui, Pele, Rongo, Tangaroa, and Tangaroa-Ru (this was Disney’s first use of “Audio Animatronic” figures). Aloha shirts took off, driven in part by the ukulele-playing TV host Arthur Godfrey’s fondness for them. If it had thatch and torches and colorful fabrics and little statues (which Donn Beach liked to call his “cannibal gods”), the public wanted more of it.
The American cult of tiki moved into the suburbs and beyond. Apartment buildings, bowling alleys, trailer parks, Laundromats, and corner restaurants were dressed up with tiki heads and masks, rattan walls, dried blowfish, and electric tiki torches.
A growing number of tiki bars and restaurants emerged as landmarks on the American cultural landscape, building and expanding on the foundation laid by Donn Beach and Trader Vic. Here one could briefly enter an exotic world and engage in curious rituals amid hula girls and seductively unfamiliar music. Temples of tiki cuisine cropped up throughout the country to meet the demands of what the tiki historian Sven Kirsten called the “modern primitives.” They offered easy escape for those who didn’t want to drop out of society and play bongo drums all day but weren’t content with the circumscribed life of the “organization man.”
Customers typically entered the tiki realm by crossing a low bridge or passing through a damp grotto, which offered a gentle transition from the pesky reality outside the door. It took a few moments for one’s eyes to adjust, as the restaurants were often windowless. Who wanted to see the harsh sun, the parking lot, and the road outside? The tiki restaurant existed in a sort of perpetual twilight, lit by propane torches, the fiery eyes of tiki statues, and golden flames licking off the pineapple-and-brown-sugar dishes delivered by a hula girl.
If there was a cult at the tiki palaces, it was that of the tiki drink. Few customers came to the restaurants solely because of the food. (Noting the flaming entrées, the Columbus Dispatch once wrote of the Kahiki that it “is one of the few restaurants in Columbus in which food can injure you.”) The lure was the drinks. Restaurants sought to outhustle one another in concocting the most outrageous cocktails, giving them names like Pele’s Bucket of Fire, Sidewinder’s Fang, Molucca Fireball, Tonga Surfrider, and the Aku-Aku Lapu. (Not all bars showed imagination; many saw fit to name their specialty simply The Mystery Drink.)
Tiki bars marshaled whole stockrooms of custom-made ceramic skulls, pineapples, barrels, Easter Island heads, and statues in which to serve their potions. Specific drinks were reserved for specific vessels; the Deep Six, for instance, was always to be consumed “from the horn of a water buffalo” (or a ceramic facsimile), which was often available in the gift shop.
The competition for the most elaborate drinks led to CIA-level secrecy, chiefly out of fear that a bartender might leave and take prized recipes with him. A 1948 Saturday Evening Post story observed that the bottles at Don the Beachcomber lacked the original labels and had been replaced by new ones with cryptic letters and numbers. Bartenders used coded recipes to mix these anonymous ingredients. “Infinite pains are taken to see to it that the service-bar help cannot memorize Don’s various occult ingredients and proportions,” the Post reported.
The tiki restaurant and the tiki cocktail persisted well into the 1970s—“an unprecedented lifespan for a drink fad,” writes the tiki drink expert Jeff Berry. Still, tiki gradually became tacky. The thatched roofs grew ratty, the hula girls passé, and the drinks too potent and elaborate for an emerging era of white-wine spritzers. In the 1980s the branch of Trader Vic’s in Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel—perhaps the most famous of them all—was shuttered by its owner, Donald Trump, who announced that the restaurant had “gotten tacky.” Bergeron eventually turned over control of the chain to his children and retired to pursue a quiet career as a painter and jeweler. According to The New York Times , he liked to paint “ice-skating nuns and perky otters.”
As with many trends pushed to the brink of oblivion, tiki enjoyed a revival in the late 1990s, led by hipsters who took the so-called loungecore movement in a more ironic direction. Tiki mugs that had languished in Salvation Army shops were snapped up and traded on eBay, and tiki aficionados gathered at tiki events and went on road trips to search out the survivors of the era. A surfeit of tiki cocktail guides made their way into print. At the trendy clothing and gew-gaw chain Urban Outfitters, shoppers could buy plastic coconut drink mugs.
Tiki soon became a generic term for anything vaguely tropical. The tiki historian Sven Kirsten has lamented the “Jimmy Buffetization” of tiki. The revival became all about kitsch: the faux-primitive statues, the blowfish lamps, the netting, the thatch over the home tiki bar, the scratchy albums of Martin Denny, whose jungle-rustic instrumentals provided the soundtrack for the tiki heyday in Waikiki Beach.
Yet, beneath the gloss of kitsch, a touching sincerity informs many of those who today seek out lost tiki culture, folks who view it not just as a campy safari into the heart of faux-Borneo but as a search for a genuinely lost American civilization. The tiki movement was as every bit as real an era in American history as the House of Kamehameha was in Hawaii.
Efforts to halt our cultural memory loss are well under way. Zines such Otto Von Stroheim’s Tiki News and John Trivisonno’s Mai Tai offer information-dense updates on tiki culture. There are published guidebooks, such as James Teitelbaum’s Tiki Road Trip , and Web sites, like Tiki Central (www.tikiroom.com) and Michelle Whiting’s Critiki.com, that offer reviews and information on some hundreds of tiki-related establishments extant today.
Then there are the tiki scholars, like Kirsten and Jeff Berry. Berry, in particular, has been assiduously documenting and re-creating the actual drinks, long since forgotten, in his Beachbum Berry’s series of guides, including Grog Log and Intoxica!
“With sense of wonder intact,” writes Kirsten in his Book of Tiki , “the Urban Archeologist realizes that one does not always have to search far to explore the mysteries of forgotten ancient traditions, but that strange treasures can lie right in your own neighborhood, hidden under the layers of progress and development.”
Donn Beach and Trader Vic, it turns out, were the Stanley and Livingstone of the mid-century American jungle, blazing a trail deep into the world of pop fantasy and artifice from which America has yet to fully emerge. H
Wayne Curtis is author of