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 one great thing I credit myself with in the whole Hukilau event, is being able to promote and in some ways really help make the Mai Kai more well known and popular. We all love the place, but I love the people that run it. They are the best. The staff as well. Mai Kai.
I noticed there was not a good set of images of this magazine article on the web, so I thought I’d scan it and put it out there for everyone.
Considering all the images of this Barrel of Rum mug, you’d think they would be around, but I have seen this mug on Ebay once in maybe 5 years.
In a follow up to this popular post on the Hawaiian Village in Myrtle Beach, SC, I add this vintage postcard of the exterior.
Great sign, and what looks like a 15 foot tiki out front.
It is good to see more of this place….
UCLA has made a library of LA photos from 1920-1990 available and searchable online. I tried the names of some Polynesian Pop locales to see if I got a hit on the Luau or Tropic’s or Latitude or Tiki or Trader, etc. Nothing. This was the only teaser. A 1946 picture of Hilo Hattie (center) hamming it up at a Polynesian Society luau.
And who wouldn’t love to go to this 1949 Swimming Club Luau? I just noticed the lady second to left has a flower that appears to be taped to her chest. No straps on that dress…
I would almost say this isn’t quite a tiki bar, but just tropical, but there are all of Don the Beachcomber’s recipes on the menu, so it must be part of the “family”. This site says it opened on November 27th 1935.
This is a pretty impressive menu. More of an advertizing mailer really. Sugie really seemed to have a way with the celebrities. Beachbum Berry talks a little about this place in his discussion of Ray Buhen, the famed bartender of the Tiki Ti. Ray worked at the Tropics and probably brought those recipes with him.
I was surprised to find nothing on Tiki Central about the place. Tiki Road Trip says that it later became The Luau, Steven Crane’s first tiki bar.
The menu is impressive when fully folded out. It has “quotes” from various celebrities about the drinks, including: Bob Hope, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Mickey Rooney, Lucille Ball and Bette Davis, among others.
Apparently many people blatantly ripped off Sugie’s Tropics. There are at least three places who use his images and phrases, in Denver, Dayton and Hollywood.
3D breasts on this matchbook too, a Sugie “signature” idea.
Also has raised boobs on the match cover
Dayton Ohio Tropics
withdrawing my support of Hukilau. Editing all the links to point to hukilau.org insteadPablus and The Crazed Mugs
One of the things I most look forward to at Hukilau and other East Coast Tiki Revival gatherings is the sounds of Pablus and his uke. He’s a good friend and drops by the Hideaway semi-regularly with his uke, and his company and playing are always a great pleasure.
There are a variety of people and groups out there playing Hapa Haole and island music, but when it comes to writing new songs, there are not that many doing that. And when you narrow the field to those folks who are into Polynesian Pop, it gets smaller. And then you think about who is active in the community and actually writing about the community of tiki lovers, it gets down to just Pablus.
Being the only one doing a particular thing isn’t really enough though. But, with Pablus you have all you could want. First, he is an excellent musician and surrounds himself with excellent musicians. Second, he owns one the best recording studios in Florida. Third, he really writes great songs, and forth, he really gets it.
What you end up with it an incredible sounding, well performed CD with a few standards done with feeling and some new songs that will bring a smile to the mug collectors and Beachbum Berry mixologists out there like nothing else.
Target has a line of outdoor and garden stuff this year called “Mai Tiki.” I’m sure Wayne Coombs is furious! Thay sell a couple of styles of 3 foot plastic tikis for your yard.
It seems the people who design the new items are not looking to Polynesian cultures for their inspiration as much as they are looking at old tiki mugs and vintage bastardized Polynesian Pop culture.
There is plenty of room to complain about true Polynesian culture being usurped by Americanized Polynesian culture. But I am glad to see vintage Poly Pop being promoted and 1950’s and 1960’s Hawaiian icons coming back in style, rather than the very bland American culture that washed away the traces of uniqueness that used to define Hawaii. At least bastardized Polyneisan culture has some roots in the original.
Now if they will just get the Coco Palms back open as it was when Elvis was filming there…
This menu came up on Ebay and it is a glimpse at why tiki collecting is so intriguing for me. The restaurant is simply named “The Polynesian” in Torrance. Here is why serious collectors collect drink menus. Inside this menu are images of the bowls and mugs used to serve their rum soaked cocktails. Note the Gardenia floating in the left hand bowl. Classic. With the menu you can match a mug to its original locale and maybe pour the correct mixture into it if you dare.
The images on this menu are phenomenal! These mugs kick major tiki butt. If you have one of these treasures in your collection, please share. The menu auction ends Sunday.