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I have been researching the Mai-Kai in one form or another for over 12 years. I have been seriously looking into its history and people for a long time to document the past. I had thought I would do a book that was just pretty pictures. Once I began to talk to the people around this landmark, I found their stories amazingly compelling. Now the book will also have a wonderful story too.
I have worked on this book project in my spare time for years now. I have spent vacations in back rooms scanning images with my wife, and visiting old timers to hear their tales. I have tracked people down and interviewed people from Florida to California to Tahiti. I have a newfound respect for those who create books. It is a lot of work and time.
I hope to get the book ready in 2015 and get it published. Please support my efforts by simply liking the Facebook page first, and if you happen to have something you think will help the book, please email me and share it.
Only the mastery of Crazy Al could recreate this amazing carving from the Mai-Kai.
The latest piece in the Mai-Kai Memories Series is the Molokai Maiden. An unreal smaller version of the iconic masthead in the Molokai Bar. It takes a 7 piece mold to get this beauty made!
To get on the list to own one of these for the future additions and show your support, email Al at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More images on Swank Pad Productions Site.
And on Facebook in the gallery.
And the video is HERE.
To get on the list to own one of these, email Al at email@example.com.
To make the cocktail for this excellent receptacle:
The Molokai Maiden
- 1/2 oz fresh lime juice
- 1 oz fresh orange juice
- 1 oz soda water
- 1/2 oz simple syrup
- 1 oz Brandy (She was a fine girl.)
- 1 oz Vodka
- 1 oz. Dark Puerto Rican Rum
- dash bitters and a drop of orgeat or almond extract.
Shake or blend with crushed ice and pour into your Molokai Maiden mug with more crushed ice to fill.
This goes back to when the Tiki scene was young. At the request of the Florida Ohana who came to Hukilau 2002 in Atlanta, and with the huge efforts of our event partners Tristan and Bre-Elle Ishtar, we moved to the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale Florida. So many friends in this video. So many people who have become true friends.
This was also my first visit to the Mai-Kai and I had no idea it would become an obsession. Collecting the postcards and calendars at first, and now the stories for a book about this remarkable place.
We have promoted the Mai-Kai via Hukilau now for over a decade. I have given lectures on its history around the country and written about it in magazines and talked about it on NPR. It continues to dominate my life and it all started on this magical weekend 11 years ago.
Due to the great Lime Crisis of 2014, we are forced to re-evaluate options. In the past I have endorsed Nellie’s Key Lime juice as a back-up when fresh lime juice runs out. You know how it is. It’s 1AM and you’ve made Rum Barrels and a Demerara Dry Float and a Navy Grog for your guests and they want more, MORE! So your limes are all spent and you need to make people happy. You could use Nellie’s and cut it to maybe 3/4 strength and make a decent cocktail. Once I discovered the Santa Cruz Organic Lime Juice at the grocery store in the natural food section, I never touched the Nellie’s again. It is a spot on sub for lime juice. Only thing missing is pulp!
So, while limes have gone from robust and 25 cents each to puny and 90 cents each, or worse, disappeared, go to the healthy food section and grab a few bottles of this stuff while it is still reasonable.
Look for it at your grocery store in the health/natural foods section. Here it can be found at Kroger, Food City, etc. It is also likely at your more healthy/organic food grocery stores like Whole Foods.
Just added, thanks to a loan from a fan of the site, the 1968 Mai-Kai calendar!
I helped these guys quite a bit on this documentary. Sven Kirsten endorsed them heartily, so I threw my support their way as well.
I appear in the documentary along with a lot of my friends. It is centered around the Mai-Kai, which I have sent years researching, and on the Hukilau event which I started. How could I not be involved?
My biggest contribution to the project is hundreds of graphics and vintage video. Chances are, when you see a postcard, menu or mug splashed on the screen, it came from me.
I hope it helps ignite more people to seek out the Mai-Kai. It really is a destination unlike any other. It is showing in South Florida, Colorado and Alaska this week. Call or email your local PBS station to get it shown in your area! See details on air dates and contact to get it shown here.
Read Jim Heyward’s write up.
Sure, it’s a great Asian themed mid-century home, but, it is also over the top! The dimensions are huge. The flag stone walls, the huge open rooms with those amazing ceilings. It is so over the top! I am saving the images here for posterity. The buyer may rip all this crap out and renovate the shit out of this amazing classic at 1228 17th St., West Des Moines, IA 50265.
Pulling up to the house gives you a good clue. The trim, the stones, and garage door.
The Japanese garden style yard with stones for the yard and mini-pagoda. And a turret on top?
Great details that show an attention to detail and to a guiding hand in the build.
Okay, we’re inside and starting to grasp the depth of this house décor. Those doors! The carpet, mirrored wall and of course the rock wall and statue are classic.
Sectional sofa, Phsssh! Ours has like 7 sections! The bar to the left is greta and it looks like matting on the ceiling, and well, it’s freaking curved in those recesses!
And they did a flagstone wall on the other side! And that giant art piece back there is crazy great. This whole room with the vaulted ceiling and exposed beams…
Of course there is a fireplace built into that wall! I’ll have a Dr. Funk please!
I can’t quite tell what the bar top is, but I am sure it is fantastic.
A red sink? Yes.
Not sure about this bedroom, or the red wagon…
And the other living room. I guess this one it the fancy one. And it is fancy!
So, let’s add a mirrored section to the ceiling. And make it curved…
And I want the theme in the kitchen with a red sink there too! And a red microwave.
How did this bathroom get in here?
Yes, and I want a black toilet on a dias… Great sconces.
Nice use of sea grass matting… Okay, we’re done here. Fantastic.
From the early days after we moved Hukilau to the Mai-Kai, I had heard about a black velvet painting of Mireille Thornton. The painting had been vandalized and the description of the damage made it sound horrible.
Mireille was current owner of the Mai-Kai, having taken control when her husband, original owner Robert Thornton, had passed away in 1989. Mireille was a performer in the Mai-Kai Islanders show and in 1963 she became its choreographer. She is still in that role today! I will always be proud that Mireille made me an honorary member of the family.
For years I kept hearing about this painting and that it was removed from the Mai-Kai after someone “defiled” it. It became my mission to restore it to the Mai-Kai.
The black velvets at the Mai-Kai were painted by J. Craig Hille III. Though there may have been Leeteg paintings there at some time, he painted the big iconic pieces that are there today. He became known more widely for his portraits of celebrities.
After nearly a decade of catching small hints about the painting, I finally heard that the damage was actually a moustache drawn on it. Accomplished painter James Owens had recently moved back to Tennessee and getting to know him, I knew he was the man who could fix whatever was wrong with the paining the right way. He had brought many vintage items back to life and his skill as a painter was unparalleled. He agreed to take it on.
I got the measurement of the painting and set out to get it from Fort Lauderdale to Knoxville and back. It is two by four feet and had to be transported without damaging it. I constructed a box with just enough room to add padding. I added a place to put a handle and caster to make it easier to get this beast through the airport. It came just under the weight and length limits for the airline. I had to take it apart and rework it many times to get it under those limits. I mounted the casters with bolts and wing nuts so I could easily take them off and put them back on. It was a sturdy box to carry this precious cargo. But it was damned heavy and big!
Just getting it from the curb to the check-in was tough. When I got to Fort Lauderdale, I discovered that the holes for the bolts had shifted and I could no longer mount the handle or the casters! I was sweating and cursing as I found a way to get it through the airport after my flight was hours late. It just barely went in the back seat of the rental car. That would have been a nightmare had it not fit!
I got my little painting casket to the Mai-Kai and got to see the legendary painting for the first time. It was not nearly as damaged as I imagined. It looked like a smudge on her upper lip. My box worked well and it fit like a glove. I managed to get it back to Knoxville and to James intact.
In the light of day, the first big issue was that it was filthy. Whether it got that way from years hanging in a restaurant or in storage was anyone’s guess. It had been hanging in the Tahiti Room since the 1970s. Mireille was born in Takaroa and it was in Tahiti that she caught the attention of the future Mai-Kai manager who hired her. That room was “hers” and after she and Bob were married in 1971, her portrait graced that room, newly added to the now sprawling eatery.
Jim did a fantastic job cleaning and restoring the piece. It required a bit of paint touch-up where someone’s attempt to clean the moustache took off the paint. Cleaning it was tricky as it was not an oil paint and the paint came off with the dirt if you were not careful.
My next trip to Fort Lauderdale was for Hukilau in a few weeks. In the interim, we would be in Mexico for 10 days. We took the painting to be framed and realized it would happen while we were gone. If anything went wrong, we would not know. And I departed for Hukilau just 3 days after returning from Mexico! No chance to fix it or reschedule! It also hit us how freaking expensive it is to frame a two by four painting! I was thankful the Mai-Kai picked up that tab. We left it in their hands and hoped the wood we picked would be in stock and the glass would arrive in one piece, etc., etc.
It all worked out. But how was I going to get it to Florida now that it was bigger and heavier? It was over the length and weight limits for the airline now, and it was even more fragile. I sent out a call to Hukilau attendees driving down and passing through Knoxville. I got a big break when a local friend was going and had room in the cab of his truck. Transport locked it!
I had hoped to have it hanging in the Mai-Kai that Saturday night at Hukilau, but no one was sure where it had hung before, and when we tried it in the spots we guessed, the new frame made it too big to fit. So we settled for just presenting it and figuring out how to hang it later.
The presentation was a surprise for Mrs. T. We hid the painting in the office and when the time came during the dinner show, I found her with friends in the Molokai and asked her to come on stage.
I made Mireille cry that night, and was happy to do it!
It is a great honor to have the Mai-Kai trust me to do something like this and I was so happy to do something for Mireille. Her image is always there now as her guiding hand has been there for decades.
I wanted to like the Peter Kern Library. I do like the space. I certainly like the idea of craft cocktails being served in Knoxville. Heck, I was going to open my own bar just a few doors down from there about 10 years ago. However, the drinks here just miss the mark.
On our first visit, we tried a few drinks. My first I could not finish and so we traded. I didn’t really love the other one either. Neither of us loved our second round. But we liked the place and the attempt and our server and recommended it to friends.
Our second visit was a shock. We heard the head bartender was there and we were excited to talk shop with someone who maybe knew more than the typical hi-ball server.
I was probably a little less enamored of the place and so I was realizing every recipe was on the sweet side. Muddled fruit, honey and Crème de Violette. The only tart drink we tried last time and even my tart loving wife didn’t care for it. I realized none of these drinks looked appealing.
Ah, there is a “Classics” section with an “Old Fashioned” and a “Sazerac”. I decide on an Old Fashioned, but having been served in the last few years in typical places, I asked if they muddled oranges in them and could I have mine without orange fruit. The classic recipe calls for lemon peel, though I was served a fantastic version at The Gin Joint in Charleston with orange peel and it was great. But this made our bartender angry and I could either have it her way, which would be the best one I ever had, or I could have it my way. I felt like I might have been asked to leave if I wasn’t sitting with her regular customers, who I had told to come there in the first place. I wanted it my way. Or, well, the right way. I wanted the classic. No fruit.
What I got was okay. Not a craft cocktail. Not bad, but nothing beyond what I could tell the bartender to make me at the bar at the Holiday Inn Express.
I sampled all the drinks ordered and found nothing to be very good. My wife’s two drinks were forced down and she likely would have not finished if we weren’t with friends and obliged to stay longer than we wanted.
The drink list is overly sweet, and those that are not sweet are super hot or overly weird and just too strong in their flavors. Nothing was balanced. Nothing was tart in a good way. And nothing much was bigger than about 3 ounces. It all seemed to be 3 ounce cocktails served up.
The attitude was unforgivable.
I suppose I should go easy on the home town place that is trying, but, how will they improve? I am not going to take my cocktail nerd friends there. We’ll just go to my house and have good drinks instead. Should the bartenders at PKL visit some of the other good bars around and revise their palette and recipes, I’ll give them another chance. For now, they need to start over. Leave the décor, toss the recipes.
I suppose this proves that Knoxville will support good cocktails. If they are filling this small space to capacity on weekend nights, a better option might do more business.
When I was at the Mod Weekend event last weekend in Fort Lauderdale, I was talking with other fans of vintage modern and thought it would be great to document these places on a map so other people can find them easily. I have taken out of town guests on tours myself a few times. The map would allow people to guide themselves.
I came home and have explored the idea. The first effort is HERE. Vintage Knoxville. I started it tying it into my website pages, but am expanding to add various cool spots.
If you’d like to help with the project, drop me a line. Do this for your own city! It is not hard, just takes time.
Now if there was a mobile app for this to drop a pin on the map as we drive, that would be super!
Just a bump so you know I finally added images of this fantastic Lustron home here in Knoxville.
In 1933, Don Beach’s place was one of many thousands of bars that opened the day after Prohibition ended. No one knew then that his bar would invent a whole new genre and be copied across the globe for the next 30+ years. “Don the Beachcombers” set the bar by which not just restaurants were judged, but cocktails especially. It was the dawn of the cocktail era, and Don Beach was the undisputed king of tropical mixology. In an era of cocktails of 2 or 3 ingredients, his secret recipes were mixed with 2 or 3 rums and 8 more ingredients to create drinks like the world had never seen before or since.
In 1956, the brothers Bob and Jack Thornton of Chicago set out to open their own Polynesian restaurant. These brash young men were well versed in the ways and tastes of “Don the Beachcombers” as well as his imitators Trader Vic and Steve Crane’s “Kon Tiki” restaurants. Their ideas would far surpass those from whom they drew inspiration. When they teamed up with Robert Van Dorpe, the inside man at Don’s place in Chicago, they got an ally that went beyond their imagination. With his help, they not only hired away a top chef and bartender from Don’s, but also got the source for all the glassware, artwork, kitchen equipment and most importantly, secret ingredients to make those world famous cocktails. When the Mai-Kai opened in late 1956, at a cost $350,000, it was the most perfect copy of Don’s plan imaginable, but taken to new heights.
The Mai-Kai quickly outshined its predecessor. The Mai-Kai earned all the prestigious awards like Don the Beachcomber, but also became the biggest seller of rum in the nation. It was the haunt of celebrities such as Johnny Carson and Jackie Gleason. The Mystery Girl – a Mai-Kai invention – made her way onto Johnny’s “Tonight Show,” twice!
In 1989, both Don Beach and Robert Thornton, who bought his brother Jack’s portion in 1970, passed away. In Don’s case, the last of his restaurant empire closed soon afterward. The Polynesian Pop era was all but gone. In the next 2 decades, almost nothing survived except the Mai-Kai. By the year 2000, there were only two places on earth to get Don’s “Rum Rhapsodies” made the way he created them, and only the Mai-Kai still had the grandeur of Don’s golden days.
Today, the craft cocktail is coming back. Those in search of great concoctions are returning to the master Don Beach and finding nothing to compare. They are in awe of his ability to make deep, balanced, incredible masterpieces of rum and flavorings. And they are returning to the cocktail Mecca that is Mai-Kai. There they can taste the drinks as they should be, and served in the specialty glasses with ice shells or fresh pineapples and seasonal coconuts. In the Mai-Kai, it is as if Don and the Thorntons never left. Carefully made, complex drinks are served with wonderful food and the utmost gracious service. All this is done in the most reverie inducing environment on earth.
It is time travel.
On Saturday March 16th, Mai-Kai historian Tim “Swanky” Glazner will give a presentation on the people and stories of this great place. The very people of the Mai-Kai who witnessed and made 55 years of its history will be on hand for a Mai-Kai Family Reunion.
The Molokai will open at 2PM for the event with Happy Hour and my presentation will be at 3PM.
It will also be a reunion of the Mai-Kai veterans, the living history of the greatest Tiki Temple on earth. Last year we had Molokai girls, perfomers, Maitre d’s and others who had worked there as long ago as the 50s.
Please join us for a greater understanding of the Mai-Kai’s place in Polynesian Pop history and an appreciation of the 80 year legacy they represent. This is your chance to hear the stories first hand.
Also check out Mod Weekend occuring that weekend as well. I will be giving a guided tour of the Mai-Kai Sunday moring as part of that event.