June 9th, in support of my recently released book on the history of the greatest Tiki bar on earth, the Mai-Kai, I will once again be giving a presentation at the largest Tiki event outside of California, The Hukilau.
This year I am holding a sort of Mai-Kai reunion and doing a live panel discussion with many of the people I interviewed for the book. Their first hand stories were the driving force behind the work. I had thousands of fantastic images and I knew a few stories, but getting the history straight from the people who were actually there was a truly rare experience. These folks are now in their 70s, 80s and even 90s, and it is harder and harder to get them together. This will be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Come get your book signed by those featured in it!
Here are some of those who will be in attendance:
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.
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
I have interviewed the founders of this legendary place, along with the varied people who have worked there as performers, servers, mixologists and owners. And I have heard the many tales of those who took their first drink there and patronized it for decades.
For Tiki Oasis 2011, I am bringing the story of this great place to everyone. You’ll find out how the Mystery Drink was invented, and who was the first legendary girl auditioned for the job. Learn how the Thornton brothers used the best parts of Don the Beachcomber’s and added to it to make the grandest Tiki Palace in existence. See amazing images and never before seen vintage video and get the chance to receive the Mystery Ceremony done by former Mai-Kai performer Marina!
Get your tickets via the Tiki Oasis website and join me for a fantastic trip through 60 years of Tiki history!
If you are heading to Fort Lauderdale for Hukilau next week, you might want to take a little side trip as you drive to the Mai-Kai and see other places designed by Mid-Century master Charles McKirahan. McKirahan worked with the Thornton brothers to design the stunning A-frame of the the original Mai-Kai, and also has many surviving grand designs in the area. A couple of side turns as you go will give you the chance to see these great buildings.
- Premiere Hotel – Just off A1A as you go to the Mai-Kai.
- Sea Chateau, now the Alcazar Resort – Now a gay resort.
- Manhattan Tower – Great neon, so check it at night. Near the Premiere and on your way to teh Mai-Kai
- Birch Towers – Now condos along the way to the Mai-Kai
- Birch House – Also on the way
- The Jolly Roger – now the Ramada Sea Club – On the left as you go
- Coral Ridge Yatch Club – Just past Sunrise on your way
- Coral Ridge Country Club
- Breakwaters Towers – As you come in from the airport
- Ocean Manor – Further up the coast
- Maybury Mansions – Further north
As you can see (if you looked) if you turn in around Bayshore Drive before you get to Sunset, and just cruise around those streets, you’ll see lots of great mid-century places. This area was home to the first Hukilau in 2003, but we outgrew the Holiday Inn very quickly!
History and preservation site to browse: HERE
I have always believed that the Mystery Drink was created at the Mai Kai and copied by the Kahiki. I had wondered why my early Mai Kai drink menu copyrighted 1957 did not have it in the list. I knew it came later. In fact, I was told this last weekend at Hukilau that it was first served in 1962.
The Kahiki opened in 1961. The oldest menu I have from there has the Mystery Drink on it. The bowl it shows on that menu is exceedingly rare. That bowl shows up in a few pictures of celebrities at the Kahiki from those early days. But for the Kahiki to copy the Mystery Drink, it would have to come at the very earliest, in 1962. More likely even later.
If there are images from their opening showing the Mystery Drink, dated 1961, then the invention of this classic height of Poly Pop is now in doubt. I will search out my own archives later for the photographic evidence. Post your pics if you have it already before you.
UPDATE: The Kahiki ran an insert in the newspaper on September 24th, 1961, with an image of the Msytery Bowl, and mentions the Mystery drink and where the Mystery Bowl was made. That stamps a clear date on the Kahiki Mystery Drink as 1961. If the Mai Kai served the first Msytery Drink in 1962, they were copying the Kahiki.
Does anyone have more proof on the Mai Kai doing a Msytery Drink before 1961?
UPDATE 7-23-07: Kern Mattei, GM of the Mai Kai says the Mystery Drink was announced in their “Happy Talk” newsletter. If you are in possession of a pre 1961 “Happy Talk,” please check it for mention of the drink and report the facts!
UPDATE 7-30-07: I asked Mimi Payne, who runs Arkiva Tropika to look through her collection for a Happy Talk to try to prove this mystery. No luck on the Happy Talk, but, she did find in her collection that the Okole Maluna Club menu had the Mystery Drink on it, and was dated 1958. Sure, that’s not 100% factual, but, nobody is going to make up a date on something like that. I consider this proven. The Mai Kai invented the Mystery Drink. Proof. And far earlier than was thought.
I got this little menu on Ebay a while ago. I thought it was maybe just a mini ordering menu, perhaps for a luau or small event. This weekend at Hukilau, I found out what it was.
The “Big Bamboo” is of interest to this story.
Having the “Cobra’s Kiss” and “Deep Sea Diver” marked out I thought meant it was just not available at the time the menu was passed out. Not so.
The real answer came during Beachbum Berry’s talk. He had introduced Mai-Kai original mixologist, Mariano Licudine’s son to the crowd and had him come up to answer questions. He had been around the Mai-Kai since it was being built when he was a lad of twelve. His Dad had supervised every minute detail of the building of the bar.
He told about one of the recipes on the menu today which was a weakened version of the “Big Bamboo” recipe. The “Big Bamboo” was a drink you only got after you had worked your way through the “Okole Maluna Club”. This little menu was for that club. You got a drink marked off as you tried it and when you had tried all the drinks, you got a big bamboo mug of your own and got the “Big Bamboo” drink as a member of that club. That is why there is a “Cobra’s Kiss” marked off on this menu! That is what it is for and the drink is right there on the back! The only way to get the “Big Bamboo” was to try all these drinks.
So many great things come from Hukilau. I want to know more and more! He also said the origianl doors to the Mai-Kai looked like this and the original drink menu with the tikis on one door and “Mai Kai ” on the other, carved in Mohogany. Where are those doors now Kern?
Basement Kahuna arrives here today and we depart for Tiki Eyeball in the morning.
I am in my office today, listening to my Exotica and islands music playlist and I am excited. It’s like when I was a kid and we were going to Disneyworld in the morning. I hear the music and I’m there, at the Aku Tiki Room, Navy Grog in hand. Dim lights, fish floats, Orchids of Hawaii and Witco decor… I just can’t wait! Giddy. Even though its a 9 hour drive for me. I am excited to get to go to that magic place again.
My attitude is a little different these days. I go there as a fan, but also as a researcher and a documenter too. I take my photography equipment to get the best pictures possible and plan to talk to anyone I can about the history and write it down. I want to share it as well as experience it.
I’m looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting some new people. I am really looking forward to the rare treat of having someone else mix my tropical concoction, and it be really good. I’ll savor it.
This is the lot of most of us tikiphiles. The only tiki bar near us is our own. We get to visit the real deal just a few times a year, if at all. I ache for it.
I may not be able to sleep tonight!
The Watauga Building – which at one time was a hotel, at the corner of Gay and Park Avenue.
Finding this place took some detective work and help from the community. First was Park Avenue. The answer to that came on the forums:
In the late 1850s-1880s, this street was called Craig Street in the town of Shieldstown, east of First Creek, and was called Park Street in the city of Knoxville, west of First Creek. The streets were in separate towns, neither was a main thoroughfare, there was no bridge over the creek, and the streets did not meet. The main streets out to Chilhowee Park were East Fifth and Linden, and the early streetcars, horse-drawn, took these routes in the 1870s and 1880s.In the 1880s or 1890s, Brian Branner, mayor of Knoxville, who lived on Craig Street in Shieldstown, renamed Craig Street after his mother Magnolia Branner. At some point Park Street in Knoxville was renamed Magnolia, probably to match the rest of the street. This would most likely have been after the bridge was built over First Creek connecting the streets, after trolleys were running out Magnolia Avenue, or after Shieldstown and its subdivisions, known as Park City, were incorporated by Knoxville.
That placed the Watauga at the corner where Regas is today, but across from the Regas is Whist Court, which is not at all right and the other two corners were leveled for the Interstate. Being that the Regas is only two stories, the Watauga must have been destroyed right? Take a look at the picture:
Photo courtesy Wes Morgan
Notice a remarkable resemblance? Were there two buildings built with the same plans, one 2 stories and one 5? The answer came from Jack Neely:
As weird as it seems, the current Regas building in fact does comprise the first two stories of the old Watauga Hotel, one of several hotels that used to be clustered near the Southern station. The three upper floors were razed in the early ’60s because they were empty and considered a fire and crumbling hazard. In those days, there wasn’t much motive to fix them up. Regas wasn’t always there–it started as the ‘Ocean Cafe,’ on Gay near old Commerce. But it has been there since the early-to-mid 1920s. It was originally in a much smaller luncheonette-sized space of the Watauga, but radically remodelled in the ’50s, I assume about the time the Watauga closed, taking up most of the floor.
Thanks for your interest,
The Watauga lives! The whole thread is HERE