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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.
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.
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.
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.
The event will be March 15 – 17th and is centered around the Modern design of the Fort Lauderdale area. One of the architects celebrated will be Charles McKirahan. Besides designing several Modern buildings in the area of the event near A1A, he also worked with Bob and Jack Thornton to design the modern primitive Mai-Kai in 1956.
As part of the activities there will be a double-decker bus tour of buildings and the first stop is the Mai-Kai. I will act as docent and lead a tour, highlighting the design elements and designers who left their imprint upon the place and the genre.
I hope you can join us!
As a public service, let me bring to your attention the fact that the year 2013 is exactly the same as the year 1963. So you can re-use that 1963 calendar this year, and you can print out the 1963 Mai-Kai calendar for this purpose from my site!
For this year I included the calendar pages.
See it HERE.
p.s. You can also use the 1974 calendar this year, but that actual calendar part is not on the site.
If you don’t yet own the Mini Mai-Kai Mystery Bowl, well, go get one HERE. Follow along regardless.
To make the ice volcano that goes in the center of the Mystery Drink, here is my plan. If you have your own, great! This is how I tackled it.
First you need finely crushed ice. I have sworn by my vintage Oster Snoflake for years and it still is the champ as far as I know.
I have found them in antique, vintage and thrift stores, but they are also on Ebay.
The result is a tray full of fine crushed ice.
Perhaps the more difficult aspect is finding the best sized vessel to form the ice volcano. The inner ring in the mini bowl is 2 inches. So you need something that tapers and is smaller than 2 inches at the top of the volcano form. I went through the cabinet and picked some small juice glasses. I had pilsners, but they had too steep an angle and the top would have been too small for the fire container.
I lightly packed the ice into the glass with s spoon as scoop about 3 inches deep. The quicker you do this, the better. Any melting can make the bottom of the glass fill with water and become a very smooth slick surface.
Then put them in the freezer for maybe 15 minutes to freeze your forms.
When they come out they will be frozen to the glass. You can just set them on the counter for a minute or two until they thaw enough to slip out. I can’t wait, so I use my hands to try to warm the glass. Then carefully slip them out and set them in the inner ring of the bowl.
Pour in a nice Scorpion Bowl recipe.
For the final touch, and to do it like the Mai-Kai, cut the end off a lemon and mash it with a juicer to make a “bowl”. I also cut the tip off to make it flatter. Pour some 151 proof rum in it and set it on the volcano. Light, serve and enjoy!
As the drink begins to melt the volcano, it may tip. Just press it back down and you can make the base flat again.
They are on sale now at the Swank Pad Productions website and next week in the Mai-Kai gift shop!
I was proud to share some of my Mai-Kai research at the Mai-Kai during Hukilau this year. My presentation went over well and several said it brought tears to their eyes. A good sign. There were a dozen or so Mai-Kai veterans there who gave me lots of info to move forward with. And after my talk, I was interviewed for an NPR piece. If you have not heard it, then here it is: Mai-Kai and Hukilau on NPR.
On April 20th, I will give a much updated version of my Mai-Kai history presentation as part of Hukilau. I have many more stories and images and long lost videos than when I was at Oasis, plus, I will have many of the people whose stories I am telling, right there in the room with me!
I am really looking forward to this once in a lifetime event. I hope you will join me as I share the tales that will greatly deepen your appreciation of the Tiki Mecca.
Come meet the man who invented the Mystery Drink, see the Mystery Girl on the Tonight Show, hear how the Mai-Kai was able to recreate Don the Beachcomber’s recipes so perfectly, and how so many incredible people are linked to this incredible place.
Tickets at The Hukilau
In researching the Mai-Kai’s history, I come across a lot of things that I am not sure will ever make it into a book, or a lecture or anywhere besides me and my wife. This weekend, with spare time due to the holidays, I did some digging. I have an October/November 1965 “Happy Talk”, a news magazine published by the Mai-Kai, and it is full of great stuff. The cover announces that Mariterangi will begin performing in the Molokai soon. I had not heard that name come up before, so I searched for the story of her life. There is not much.
There is a ton of her music online. I found Dub DJs with her in their list of music to mix. She, like many of the performers at the Mai-Kai, was from Tahiti, born in 1926. The fast tempo of the Tahitian drums is a draw for creating a live show I am sure. Toti was the lead there. Mireille was the choreographer and dancer from Tahiti. They likely knew of Marie and when she landed on the mainland of the US, they worked to recruit her. Marie came to the US via Hawaii, like many of the island performers, and created her own troupe. She started at the Bora Bora in San Francisco in 1960. That location became a Skipper Kent’s in the late 60′s after the owner was shot by his wife. Few even knew it was ever anything else. It stayed a Skipper’s into the 80s.
There were local island natives who would come to the Mai-Kai and as the evening came around, they got out their guitars and began to play and sing the songs of their homelands. It was simply a natural thing and it was enjoyed by the snowbirds as well. The Mai-Kai recognized the beauty of it and made this a standard practice there. Marie may have been the first formal player in the Molokai.
Sadly, Marie passed away of cancer in 1971. She was honored in her homeland, along with her sister Emma with a stamp. Her music lives on forever. Her voice is so full of emotion. If you can find her “Tahiti Nui”, it is a classic.
And today, the tradition lives on. It may be Mua and his guitar or any number of other musicians playing in the Molokai. Singing the songs of the islands…