Don the Beachcomber's Tiki Haven

Photos from Saturday Evening Post, via Tiki Room

"If you can't get to paradise, I'll bring it to you." -- Donn Beach

Long before Jimmy Buffet turned the fantasy of beach bum living into a multi-million dollar corporate juggernaut, two rather lost SoCal transplants spun their South Seas Dream into one of America's first chains of theme restaurants. Along the way they introduced luau-light to a whole generation of middle-class, mid-century Americans, were responsible for the North American rum explosion, and spawned the tiki craze that endures to this day.

Their given names were Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt and Cora Irene Sund. Ernest was born in New Orleans and grew up in Texas. A restless soul and a spinner of tall tales, he claimed by the time he was 24 he had to have bummed around Jamaica, Tahiti, Australia and Papua New Guinea. By 1931 he was in Hollywood bootlegging and finagling his way as a "technical advisor" onto movies set in the South Seas. In 1933, he found a small storefront at 1722 North McCadden Place and opened a makeshift bar that he decorated with shipyard paraphernalia "borrowed" from local shipyards. A handmade sign announced that "Don's Beachcomber" was open for business.

While Ernest sold 25-cent rum drinks and tried to stay one step ahead of the liquor licensing board, Cora was making her own splash. Born in Minnesota, she had been a pretty, blonde, and bubbly school teacher when she met Captain Michael Paul, former officer of the Russian Army and current antiques dealer, at a resort on Lake Minnetonka. A love affair quickly blossomed and Cora followed him to New York to work as his personal secretary. They were engaged, but by 1935 the affair had gone belly up and Cora sued him for $150,000 for breach of promise. The sordid "love balm suit" made national headlines, with Paul's brother asserting that Cora had held a "negligee party" with another man, forcing his brother to cool towards her. Cora lost the suit after admitting that it was actually she who had called off the engagement, and soon was waitressing at the massive Tick-Tock Tea Room in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile Ernest was now calling himself Don Beachcomber (he eventually legally changed his name to Donn Beach). His great friend, David Niven, described him as a "good-looking, philosophical and raffish" character who would often disappear to the islands, returning only when he had run out of money. When Donn was in town, he was concocting drinks "wearing dungarees and a dirty white undershirt" in his flourishing shack-like bar. With the help of his knowledgeable Filipino bartenders, including former bellhop Ray Buhen, he created the Zombie, a rum drink said to be so powerful that there was a two-per-person limit. Drinks were invented for different times of day -- the Test Pilot for the afternoon, the Beachcomber's Gold (Marlene Dietrich's favorite) for sundown, and the famous Mai Tai for nighttime fun. Rum was always the main ingredient, and although Don later claimed that "rum holds certain therapeutic values and is the purest spirit made, the greatest of all drinks because it is distilled from sugar cane, and is easily assimilated into the body's system," the real reason was probably that demon rum, not yet a popular spirit, was very cheap during the Depression.

It was around this time that Cora and Donn met and soon married. Cora Irene, the former jilted and spurned good-time girl, was buried; Cora was now Sunny Sund, budding entrepreneur. Sunny saw great potential in Donn's Polynesian dreams and took control of the business part of the fantasy, moving Beachcombers to a bigger space at 1727 North McCadden Place in 1937. The extreme intimacy of the old Beachcomber, where often late at night Don would spray the roof with water from his garden hose to keep the customers inside out of the "rain," was gone. Covered in bamboo, and all the hipper for being hidden, the new Beachcomber not only still featured the sound of rainwater on the tin roof (this time from a more sophisticated system) but also boasted "exotic" theme rooms like "the black hole of Calcutta," and sold fresh leis in a little store in the front of the restaurant. They served kitschy Cantonese fusion food like Donn's famous Rumaki appetizers. A lei-draped Donn also played ringmaster, claiming to spend $7,800 on flowers in four years as he bestowed a lei of gardenias on the "loveliest lady" in the room every evening at midnight.

Donn and Sunny divorced in 1940, but remained business partners. After Donn was called up to serve in 1942, Sunny oversaw the expansion of the Beachcomber empire, with satellites eventually opening in Chicago, Palm Springs and Vegas, among other places. Sunny threw him a welcome home party in 1945, but Donn's wanderlust kicked in again and he signed the mainland restaurants over to Sunny, staying on as a consultant and figurehead, and headed to Waikiki, where he opened his own Don the Beachcomber. A myna bird squawking "give me a beer, stupid" greeted guests, many of whom were rich folk from SoCal drawn to Hawaii by their charming friend and the gentle, music-filled tropical nights.

And so it went. When Donn wasn't traveling the world, he was working in his Hawaiian office located in a bavan tree, always with a new scheme -- a floating restaurant called the "Hong Kong Lady" that served both Cantonese fare and Idaho baked potatoes, a series of upscale shopping centers -- and forever searching for the best rum and the prettiest ladies. Sunny stayed in Burbank, overseeing the increasingly staid but incredibly profitable Don the Beachcomber franchise, which at its height had 16 restaurants. It was sold to Getty Enterprises in 1968, and over the years slowly business died out, with the original Beachcomber location closing in 1985. Sunny passed away in 1974, Donn in 1989. But the tiki craze they ignited lives on in the hearts of drinkers, dancers, diners, and anyone who has ever been to Tiki Ti, the legendary bar on Sunset opened in 1962 by Donn's former bartender, Ray Buhen.

About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, actress and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. Her debut novel "Absolutely" is now available on Amazon.
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The Don the Beachcomber traditions still live in grand style at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale. Opened in 1956 and featuring the mixologist and chef from Donn Beach's Chicago location, this million-dollar Polynesian palace took the concept to a whole new level. More than a half century later, it's a time capsule from another era, still thriving with the same secret cocktail recipes and classy mid-century fine-dining that's become nearly extinct. More info here: http://www.slammie.com/atomicgrog/blog/2012/02/27/heeeeeeeres-the-rich-history-and-long-lost-stories-of-the-mai-kai/ and the official website: http://maikai.com