DON THE BEACHCOMBER
Virgins and Cobras and Zombies! Oh my!
It seems funny to think of it now, but there was a time when the Polynesian thing—flaming torches, tiki statues, wooden masks—wasn’t considered nostalgically retro, but was the latest, cutting-edge fad in interior design.
During the Prohibition years (1920 to 1933) bars and nightclubs didn’t exist. Well, not officially, anyway. But the end of Prohibition in December of 1933, bars were allowed to come out of their closet, so to speak, and—shocking!—advertise and put up signage. No longer were they bound by the strict and disapproving tenets of the Volstead Act. Now they were free to stand out from the crowd. And, after 13 long dry years, there were a lot of thirsty drinkers around looking for a place with a comfy stool and a full bar of genuine liquor which wouldn’t rot your guts after the third round. Similarly, there were many ambitious bar-owners ready and willing to take their money. With so many joints hitting the market, the more astute ones knew they’d need to do something to stick out from the crowd.
In 1937, a guy with the long-winded name of Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt together with his girlfriend, Cora Sund, got the money together to open a bar at 1727 North McCadden Place, right in the heart of Hollywood. This was a block down from the Hollywood Hotel at the corner of Highland where the Kodak Theater (home to the Oscars) and Grauman’s Chinese Theater now stand. In fact the block where Don the Beachcomber’s once stood is now occupied by Fredrick’s of Hollywood, the infamous mail order supply house of naughty lingerie. But that’s a topic for another blog.
The first question Ernest and Cora needed to decide on was: what décor theme should they go with? The answer was obvious: the latest fad to hit America: Exotic Orient. This was a time when any place west of Catalina Island was considered “foreign” and “exotic.” The Chinese game of mah-jongg became a popular social past-time in the 30s, as did the dishes often served with it, like egg foo yung and fried rice. Then along came a guy named Victor Bergeron.
We know him now as “Trader Vic” but he was originally just a bar owner in Oakland, California who ran a place called Hinky Dinks. In the mid-30s, he embarked on his first South Seas adventure and completely immersed himself in island living and culture. When he returned to the States, he had one thing in mind: to bring the spirit of the islands into the lives of Americans, and in 1936, Hinky Dinks was transformed into Trader Vic’s, and the Polynesian thing really kicked off.
Soon, a number of places dotted Hollywood and Beverly Hills, bringing the Polynesian experience to L.A. The most popular ones were the Zamboanga South Seas Club, and the Pirate’s Den, and they were doing a roaring trade. The South Seas thing was just the look that Ernest and Cora were searching for, so they set about decorating their new bar, making it Hollywood’s first tropical venue.
When you got inside, you had to give your eyes a few moments to adjust to the low-lit atmosphere. Ernest and Cora decided on a series of small dining rooms, which bore names like “The Black Hole of Calcutta” and “The Cannibal Room.” These shrines to good taste were decorated with palm trees, bananas, coconuts, seashells, shields, shark’s jaws, headdresses and carved wooden gods.
To match the interior décor, the owners came up with a menu of cocktails, made largely from rum, the go-to liquor at a time when booze like vodka had yet to take its place as one of the more popular cocktail ingredients. (Rum was also the cheapest liquor around, which helped the bottom line.) Their cocktail menu read like titles from a pile of Fu Manchu novels: Missionary’s Downfall, Vicious Virgin, Cobra’s Fang and the notorious Zombie. They must have been as potent as they sound (the house rule was that nobody could be served more than two Zombies) because in July 1936 a wealthy businessman struck and killed a pedestrian with his car, allegedly while driving home after a night at Don the Beachcomber. The driver was Howard Hughes. Later, in 1944 when Trader Vic invented his signature drink—the Mai Tai (which is Tahitian for “the very best”) it soon found its way onto the menu at Don the Beachcomber’s.
But they didn’t just serve rum-based drinks with frightening names, Don’s also served food, which was largely Chinese. It seems a slightly strange fusion—Polynesian and Chinese, but, from what I’ve been able to gather, everything west of California was lumped in together as “exotic Oriental.” At one point the restaurant included a Chinese grocery store, gift shop, and lei stand.
And to complete the tropical experience, a visit to Don the Beachcomber’s came with artificial rainstorms designed to romantically pitter-patter down on the corrugated iron roof over everybody’s heads. Apparently there’s nothing like a steamy downpour to whet the appetite of rum-bound partygoers.
The place did so well that Gantt changed his name several times, using Donn Beach-Comber, then Donn Beachcomber, and finally settling on Donn Beach. The place on McCadden launched a chain of what eventually became 16 restaurants across the country, rivaling—but not besting—Trader Vic’s. His marriage to Cora, however, wasn’t as successful and the couple split. Ernest/Donn subsequently moved to Waikiki, where he opened a Polynesian village, which eventually became the International Marketplace in the heart of Honolulu.
That’s an admirable level of success to come from a round of Missionary’s Downfalls, a set of bamboo cups, and some paper mache masks. I hope to god they had fire extinguishers because I don’t like the thought of sitting in a joint covered in palm fronds where the chief source of light is a flaming torch. Pass me another Zombie, Don.