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…
If you are interested in helping with this project, please email me. I do not have every calendar.
Check back for updates!
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
When I heard that the Mai-Kai was having an open contest to redesign their logo to use on new gift shop items, the first person that came to mind was Mookie. His incredible work on my Tiki Daze calendar project blew me away. I knew he would do something great.
I had no idea he would do a lot of great images!
The 2 above are my favorite. See them all HERE on Facebook.