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:
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.
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 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.
Thank you dear for the drinks! Our lovely server who danced in the dinner show later.
This Hukilau was very different to me. I took a friend with me, and what that meant was that I had no obligations and was able to spend lots of time talking to and getting to know the many wonderful people that come to Hukilau. It is these very people that made the event worth doing year after year though I lost money (sometimes lots of it!) on what was essentially a year long job. The stress and work was worth having these great people come together and have such a wonderful time. I met more people by Thursday afternoon than I think I had in the previous 4 years.
It is always a great day when you can spend time in the Mai Kai, but exploring it with Otto Von Stroheim and playing around with Bamboo Ben and Holden Westland and King Kukulele in the Mai Kai is way better. Sharing it with people who love it the way I do is fantastic.
Bre-Elle as the Mermaid was a treasure.
Pablus on stage at the Mai Kai stopping everything with the power of his song and his sweet voice was amazing. I am lucky to have him come around and sing in my Hapa Haole Hideaway regularly, so I know his magic. Everybody tasted it then.
Tiki Diablo and Basement Kahuna carving
Basement Kahuna and I already have plans to make next year even better!
The Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale is my favorite place on Earth. It’s far beyond words. Knowing the owners only makes me love it more. If you don’t know about the Mai Kai, look at my page HERE for a little information.
As part of my love for the place I started work on a Mai Kai fan site a while back. If I had more time, it would be done by now, but, you know how that goes. I have managed to get images of every vintage postcard the Mai Kai produced (as far as anyone can tell me.) So, here is that sampling of the Mai Kai ephemera catalog.
Early card showing the cannibal trio of tikis on the sign.
Perhaps the earliest photo card. The coverig for the valet area is not there yet. Look how few trees are around. It really was out in the middle of nowhere.
A slightly later image, now showing the covered valet area. These two are some of the most common pastcards.
Another early photo card.
Early interior shot.
This was the bar before the renovation in the 1970s that created the Molokai Lounge. I am told it was really an incredible room and this single image does it no justice. There was some sort of mural that I am told was incredible.
I assume this is an early card just because it is linen. Linen postcards went out of style a long time ago in favor of chrome. I think this is likely where the garden area is now.
This is perhaps the oldest card. It seems to be an architectural drawing of the Mai Kai, done perhaps before they opened in 1956.
The famous iconic Mystery Drink Lady. This piece of Polynesian Pop was invented by the Mai Kai.
A classic luau scene at the Mai Kai.
The friendly wait staff of the Mai Kai.
The pouring of the Flaming Coffee Grog.
This is a little later than the second card above. The covered valet area is there now.
This is also perhaps a very early card from before they opened showing an architectural rendering of the Mai Kai.
The coasters on the bar and the style of the Rum Barrel tell that this is a very early image. Likely 1950s, maybe early 1960s.
Here is his counterpart. I think this card is dated 1963. I know that’s got to be a wig, but, wow, what hair! The picture is taken in exactly the same spot as the one above. It could be the same photo shoot which would make the above image not 1950s.
An exterior shot from the road. This tiki is still there in front of Bora Bora. My guess is that this is from the mid 1970s, but I am not sure.
A wider shot of the with the same tiki. You can see the city now coming to meet the Mai Kai. The car is early 70s. I think this is an image after the remodel that added to the Mai Kai in the 1970s.
The first of a trio of paintings of the Mai Kai that were made into postcards.
A long picture card.
A linen card of the Molokai Lounge. That means it came out in the 1970s, but the style is old. Maybe this is also an architectural image of an uncompleted lounge, before it was opened.
The performers of the Mai Kai. I think this is from the 1970s as well.
I think these are interior images from before the renovations.
I think this is a later shot. Maybe 1970s.
This shows the room that would become the gift shop after the remodel. I think it is from the early 1970s.
A recent postcard.
I think it is all of them. If you have any not here, please send me images of them.
If you have not been to the Mai Kai, you need to put it on the top of your to-do list and think about coming down in a month to Hukilau when it will be filled with enthusiasts from around the world. It is truly greater than any description can give.
UPDATE: Another new one found.
I have been sharing a few of the images from my slide collection here on the Blather for a bit. I am going to take the set of the best slides with me to Hukilau and have a showing of them over the weekend. It will probably occur late at night, in the room in which everyone is congregating. So just look for Pablus or the giant batch of rum cocktail mixed by Basement Kahuna after the main event somewhere in the Bahia Cabana. I’ll be there with the vacation slides of a few dozen trips to the islands taken 40 years ago…
I think the Mai Kai stopped making these calendars in the early 1990s. I have never asked why. Maybe because times changed and people didn’t buy them any more. Maybe they were mostly given to members and they just decided to cut costs. Maybe it just didn’t seem politically correct. I doubt the last one. The Mai Kai has always done things their way and made it work and not bowed to a few people’s opinions. These calendars are certainly not racy.
I came across this article about the Mai Kai today that’s a very interesting read for fans.
This first sampling is Kainoa. She retired from the difficult schedule of dancing for the Mai Kai a while ago due to a knee injury. She dances with Polynesian Proud now, at least sometimes. She danced for the opening of Hukilau 2004 and it was a highlight for me. She is an un-aging island beauty like Mrs. Thornton, who is as beautiful today as ever. And I had the pleasure to meet Kainoa’s mother and, well, they could be sisters, and they could be 20!
A man I would like to meet (have met?) The head mixologist at the Mai Kai, Mariano Licudine. HERE is a nice article on him. He started out at Don the Beachcomber’s before coming to the Mai Kai. He is best known as the inventor of the “Derby Daiquiri,” one of my favorite drinks. I was given the back rooms tour of the Mai Kai by General Manager Kern Mattie and this area is what you don’t see in the Molokai Lounge.
What this picture says is still true today. There are many people at the Mai Kai who have been there for decades. The owners treat their staff well because they know that a good staff is important to making the Mai Kai great.
For a perfect way to experience the Mai Kai and it’s magic, (okay I am a bit biased about the event I started and brought there in 2003) come to Hukilau in October when the Mai Kai will be filled to capacity with fans.
I recorded very little video at Hukilau 2002. I was way too busy working my ass off and sweating! But, I put this little slice together and posted it on a site a long time ago that I had forgotten about. I have uploaded it to a new location that I hope will be more permanent.
In 2003, 2004 and 2005, we rented about 35 rooms at the Bahia Cabana to Hukilau guests. This year it’s filled with Hukilau guests for the first time. That should make for a very great weekend.
The Bahia Caban sits on the spot of the hanging of a pirate in Fort Lauderdale.
The Mai Kai is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year, and is still run and owned by the same family. It remains the number one “must see in my lifetime” destination for many. This is the best time to see it too. Filled with several hundred people who all walk in the place and never want to leave. People who relish the mood that takes them so very far away from normal life, to an oasis.
Knowing that nearly every person you pass at the Bahia Cabana is a Hukilau attendee should insure meeting lots of new and old friends and a great time. Someone once said you could hold Tiki Oasis at a Motel 6 and it would still be an incredible time because of the people. This will be one of the best times, with some of the best people.
Dr. Cocktail exorts those who make their own versions of cocktail elixirs this month. In October, Hukilau will have a mixology seminar headed by Beachbum Berry. At his side will be a few friends of mine whose drinks I have imbibed with pleasure: Pablus, Kuku Ahu and Basement Kahuna. Thes guys have the drive for perfection that has caused them to make their own liqueurs when the original stock has dried up.
Basement Kahuna is a drink detective. Months after being at the Mai Kai last, he hands me a drink at Coon Tiki and asks how it compared to their “Black Magic.” He had been deducing the formula in his lab and thought he found the correct concoction. I think he is right. He’s reproduced a few of their recipes and made some great ones of his own.
Pablus tends to make his drinks in gallons. Crates of fresh fruit from the groves and it all comes together. He is a great soldier in the quest for perfect Falernum, and has indeed made his own! It was he who put together the great Falernum tasting of Hukilau 2004. He even sings songs he has written about Falernum and cocktails with his band The Crazed Mugs.
In my bar I have a bottle of Pimento Liqueur made by JTD and have sampled that made by Ahu. He has made his own Passionfruit Syrup, Grenadine, Pimento Liqueur, and tried his hand at Falernum and any number of mixers. Ahu has a background as a chef and brings that huge knowledge to bare on the drink making.
These guys have a great wealth of mixing knowledge, talent and taste. There are only a handfull of us who spend the hours and dollars to make our way through all the recipes in Berry’s books. These guys are some of the best.
And besides the seminar, you can check out their work in my room at Hukilau on Thursday night as the Fraternal Order of Moai host their bar there. Look for the guys in the blue Fezes.
In the mean time you can catch me and Ahu enjoying the Kahiki’s head bartender’s drinks at the Hot Rod Hula Hop 2 this August in Columbus. If you live near me in Tennessee, you can maybe get invited to my luau this month where I and Basement Kahuna will make a lot of classic and new tiki cocktails for my guests. And as always, visit your local tiki bar and encourage the classics!