Today marks the 111th birthday of Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, better known to the tikiphile crowd as Don the Beachcomber or as his eventual legal name, Donn Beach.
So who was this fancily named fellow? Another tiki bar owner from long ago? More than that, he was the man who was, as declared in a letter from the state of Hawai'i "originator, creator of the South Seas Island trend in décor, dining, and entertainment".
I don't need to retell his tale, there's the Don the Beachcomber Wikipedia page for a nice overview. What I do want to talk about is what influence Donn Beach has had on my life.
In 2003, I was introduced to the wonderful world of Tiki bars with a visit to the legendary Trader Vic's in Emeryville. The sight of all the décor around the bar, including historic artifacts from Queen Elizabeth's visit in 1983, to the pot belly stove from Vic's first spot, Hinky Dink's. There was a real turtle shell with signatures from a WWII navy crew, shark jaws, old bottles of long-lost rums, and so much incredible stuff around every corner. I was immediately enthralled.
So Trader Vic's was my first taste of tiki, literally, with that first FogCutter. But once I read more, and learned of a mysterious man named Donn Beach, the true Originator of what we now call Tiki Bar culture. At first, only rumored as the creator of the Zombie, and characterized as a figure on menu covers, he could have very well been made up, another mascot for a dead dining chain. But the more I learned about him, the more I wanted to learn.
He took what he learned from Caribbean travels and built an empire from scratch, in a totally new genre which he defined himself. After serving in the war, he had to start all over again and did with wild success. He was the very definition of an entrepreneur, creating something out of nothing. There are many a great tiki bar owner today, or syrup maker, shirt maker and so on, but we all owe our livelihood to the originator, Donn Beach.
He not only created wonderful food and drinks that we know today, but his very image eluded charm, class, and grace that the world has long since lost. Trader Vic's had class, elegant dining with excellent service, but Don the Beachcomber brought a personal elegance even to the tiniest of bars, like his original Don's Beachcomber Café. It's a long call from what Tiki bars were seen as post-downfall. In the early 2000s, while there still was Trader Vic's, for the most part, your tiki bar was smaller, dingy establishment with just enough decor to be considered tiki, with some gawdawful fishbowl drinks following the classic "Make it red, make it rum" that befell so many of the wonderful drinks of times past.
When a new tiki bar opens, the cocktails may be decent and the decor well made, but there's always the question, mostly answered in the service of "Do they get from Donn what I did"? Are they just making the drinks and going through the motions, or are they really trying to bring you out of this realm and into a new, gentle, transcendent vision of paradise?
I always have in the back of my head the hope that, somewhere, in the corner of some old established tiki bar out of the corner of my eye while rushing to refill an ice bucket, I'm going to see a flash of Donn's ghost. Barechested but bestrewn with boars tooth necklace and leis, his wise and far-seeing eyes giving a calming sense that I've done his legacy well, and have brought some taste of paradise to the paved world.
Here's to you Donn. Happy birthday, and Mahalo Nui Loa.