Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The mystique of Don the Beachcomber

The mystique of Don the Beachcomber

By Mei Wong
The Daily Magi
October 16, 2046


Donn Beach (February 22, 1907 – June 7, 1989), born Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, is the founding father of tiki restaurants, bars and nightclubs. The many so-called "Polynesian" restaurants and pubs that enjoyed great popularity are directly descended from what he created. After years of being called Don the Beachcomber because of his original bar/restaurant, Gantt changed his name several times, using Donn Beach-Comber, to Donn Beachcomber, and finally settling on Donn Beach.

Gantt, a Limestone County, Texas native, had left home in 1926 and traveled around the world on his own, scouring many of the islands of the Caribbean and the South Pacific.

A former bootlegger during Prohibition he moved to Hollywood in the 1930s. Gantt opened a bar called "Don's Beachcomber Cafe" in 1934 at 1722 N. McCadden Place. In 1937, the restaurant moved across the street to 1727 N. McCadden Pl. and its name was changed to Don The Beachcomber. He mixed potent rum cocktails in his tropically decorated bar. This was such an escape from everyday life, it quickly gained popularity, especially with Hollywood celebrities. At "Don the Beachcomber", customers ate what seemed like wonderfully exotic cuisines, but, in actuality, were mostly standard Cantonese dishes served with flair. The first "pu pu platter" was probably served there. A competitor's attempt at a copy of his Zombie cocktail (a rum drink) was served at the 1939 New York World's Fair. He also was known for creating "Tahitian Rum Punch," "Navy Grog" and many other cocktails.

Gantt served in the United States Army in World War II as an operator of officer rest-and-recreation centers. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star while setting up rest camps for combat-weary airman of the 12th and 15th Air Forces in Capri, Nice, Cannes, the French Riviera, Venice, the Lido and Sorrento at the order of his friend, Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle. When Gannt was serving his country, Don the Beachcomber flourished under his wife's management, turning into a chain with 16 restaurants. 

Tiki restaurants enjoyed a tremendous burst of fad popularity in the 1940s and 50s and there were several Don the Beachcomber restaurants across the country. Victor J. Bergeron had opened a competing version called Trader Vic's in the late 1930s in the San Francisco Bay Area and the two men were amicable rivals for many years. Each claimed to have created the Mai Tai, a rum and fruit-juice cocktail still popular today -- "maitai" is the Tahitian word for "good." The Trader claimed to have invented it in 1944, the Beachcomber in 1933. However, at the peak of their success, there were more Trader Vic's around the world than Don the Beachcombers. Don also opened a "Polynesian Village" at his Encino, California ranch, where he entertained many Hollywood celebrities.

When Gantt divorced his wife (and business partner) Sunny Sund, she retained control over the restaurants. Because of the settlement, Donn was not allowed to open a Don the Beachcomber in the United States. He moved to Hawaii (before its statehood) to be able to continue his enterprise. Beach settled in Waikiki, where he opened his second Polynesian Village. He was the originator of the International Marketplace in Honolulu, and had his office up in the limbs of the enormous banyan tree in the center of the market.

He later built an elaborate houseboat, the Marama, a prototype for what he hoped would be floating housing in Hawaii but failed to get the zoning for it. He eventually shipped the houseboat to Moorea, and lived there in retirement for a number of years before a succession of hurricanes destroyed it. He died in Honolulu. He was buried with full military honors including a flag draped coffin, 21 gun salute and missing man fly-over.

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