Today we morn the loss of a tiki palace, or, in a manner of speaking, two. Today Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach (or Surfside, or Sunset Beach, depending on who you talk to, but Google says it’s in Huntington Beach) closes. While this was not the site of the original, the location was just as historic.
We visited last Friday to say our farewell, as we had plans Saturday and figured it was just going to be plain crazy come today.
I suppose our slightly convoluted tale should begin with the location, because that’s what is really special here. This Don the Beachcomber location, and its iconic swordfish sign actually began way back in 1923 a bait shop, called Sam’s, evolving into a fish market, before becoming a full restaurant, Sam’s Sea Food, at some point in the 1940s. However, on February 17, 1959 a fire leveled Sam’s. But by now tiki was a cultural phenomenon, and the owners rebuilt, with a new A-frame style front, carved tikis, and bamboo galore. In 2007 Sam’s closed, and became Kona, which lasted only until 2009, when the owner got the rights to use the name Don the Beachcomber (a defunct, but historic chain), but much of the interior decor and murals were done when it was still Sam’s.
So, now let’s backpedal a bit…As I said, this isn’t the original Don the Beachcomber. The original opened back in 1933 in Hollywood. Now, Don wasn’t quite a real person…not yet anyway. Don the Beachcomber was opened by a man of the name of Earnest Raymond Beaumont Gantt who arrived in California in 1931, from either Texas or New Orleans…depending on sources, having traveled the globe and fallen in love with the style of the south seas. After working several odd jobs in Hollywood, and reportedly being a bootlegger and speakeasy owner, he opened up a modest, but well themed to the South Pacific, bar on Hollywood Blvd., calling it Don the Beachcomber. Gantt created a plethora of rum based drinks (Don’s and Trader Vic’s both claim to have invented the Mai Tai) and one day a reporter from The New York Tribune entered, and hailed Don’s Sumatra Kula as the best drink he had had in years, and promptly returned with friends, including Charlie Chaplin. Soon Don’s was hoppin’ with Hollywood elite, like Marlene Dietrich and one of my personal favorite stars, David Niven! Gantt loved his successful little bar so much he legally changed his name to Donn Beach.
Donn married a gal by the name of Sunny Sund in 1937, and they became business partners. World War II found Donn in the army, and his bar under the control of his wife, who, while he was away, expanded to six…or sixteen (depending on sources) locations. Donn and his wife divorced in 1940, and in the settlement his wife got the restaurants, and apparently leaving Donn unable to open another Don the Beachcomber within the United States. Donn then packed up and went to…take a guess…Hawaii, which was not yet a state, and opened up another, unaffiliated Don the Beachcomber.
The locations dissipated, as many themed restaurants did in the 1980s, and Donn himself passed away in 1989 in Hawaii.
So, while this location wasn’t the original Don Beachcomber, or even one of the historic locations opened by his wife, it is still a place rich with tiki history, and it’s sad to see it go. Currently Don the Beachcomber is looking for a new location, and I hope they can find place that is just as unique and historic. I also hope to be able to update this post soon with info on their new location! As for the building, well, there were rumors it was going to be torn down, but during our visit the front of it boasted a large “For Lease” sign. So who really knows what will happen!?
Personally, I had only been to Don the Beachcomber perhaps a dozen times over the last three and a half years, for a variety of reasons – Charles Phoenix shows, birthdays, even tiki themed markets, as the location boasted a massive banquet rooms that were available for event rentals. But it was still always a joy to visit, because I love a good themed restaurant, especially when it has an indoor water feature. Seriously, tell me a place has an indoor waterfall and I’m sold.
I chose to wear a dress that had a slight special meaning. This was dress actually the first vintage tiki dress I ever bought, and I found it at a thrift store for I believe $14.99…it may have even been $7.50 because it was a half off sale…I don’t recall, but the point is I wore it for years not knowing it was a Shaheen! All because the label was in the waistband, and I never looked there! For those unfamiliar, Alfred Shaheen dresses are among the cream of the crop of vintage tiki dresses, often meriting price tags of at lest $200, and upwards of $500 depending on print and cut!
On a more another note…this will be the last post with this version (the blue and pink version with a photo of me at the top) of Atomic Redhead. This upcoming week Patrick and I will launch the new and improved Atomic Redhead! You as a reader don’t have to do anything, we’ll still be right here with the same URL and content! Just a new theme!