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Don the Beachcomber helped launch wave of Polynesian restaurants

When the owner opened his Hollywood eatery in 1937, he was gambling that in those Depression years diners would enjoy spending a few hours in a South Seas fantasy world.

May 01, 2011|By Steve HarveySpecial to the Los Angeles Times
  • Donn Beach prepares to board a Pan Am aircraft en route to Hawaii and Tahiti in 1953. Beach, born Ernest Gantt, conjured up the South Seas at his Don the Beachcomber restaurants.
Donn Beach prepares to board a Pan Am aircraft en route to Hawaii and Tahiti… (William Eccles )

Nobody knows why Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt decided to call his restaurant Don the Beachcomber.

Maybe he just thought Ernest the Beachcomber wouldn't roll off the tongue quite as easily.

In fact, as his Hollywood eatery and watering hole became famous in the years after its 1937 founding, he would change his own name, first to Donn Beach-Comber, then to Donn Beach.

He would also play a key role in introducing Polynesian restaurants and tiki bars to America.

"If you can't get to paradise, I'll bring it to you," Beach liked to say.

As a young man, Beach had sailed around the globe, working odd jobs on steamships while developing a love for the South Pacific.

When he landed in Hollywood, he found work as a bootlegger and speakeasy proprietor until the repeal of Prohibition.

Then he opened a new style of restaurant, gambling that in those Depression years diners would enjoy spending a few hours in a South Seas fantasy world, amid tiki carvings, thatched roofs, bamboo furniture and rain falling on the roof.

He graciously supplied the rain, produced from a garden hose, theorizing that drinkers tended to hang around for another round if it was pouring outside.

While "demon rum" had long been derided as a cheap intoxicant, Beach popularized it with such colorful concoctions as the Zombie, the Missionary's Downfall and the Vicious Virgin.

The Zombie —- so named for the trance-like state it induced in imbibers — contained the equivalent of more than three shots of the demon stuff; Beach, ever the marketer, decreed that customers would be limited to two per person.

He also claimed to have introduced the mai tai — Tahitian for "good" or "best" — an accomplishment that was disputed by a later rival, Vic Bergeron, founder of Trader Vic's.

A New York newspaperman became a regular at Beach's restaurant and touted it to such stars as Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich and David Niven, who hung out at the Beachcomber on McCadden Place, just a few blocks from Beach's old speakeasy.

Beach's career was interrupted by overseas service in World War II, and upon his return he found that his wife had expanded the operation from two to six restaurants.

Beach wasn't as ambitious and they divorced. She acquired the restaurants in the United States, so he moved to Hawaii (not yet a state) and opened his own Don the Beachcomber. Its most famous regular was a myna bird that chirped, "Give me a beer, stupid."

Beach died in 1989 at the age of 81.

Over the years, the restaurants passed through a series of owners, and most have disappeared. Today, a hotel on the island of Hawaii owns one Beachcomber. Another, in Huntington Beach, is owned by former Los Angeles City Councilman Art Snyder.

Snyder became involved because his wife, Delia, knew the Beach family. He bought the rights to the name and in 2009 turned Sam's Seafood on Pacific Coast Highway into a Beachcomber.

The interior is a replica of Beach's creations. "I had a customer from Florida the other day, an older lady, who was amazed at how similar it was to the original," said bartender Robert DeMoss.

The same drinks are served, including the Zombie (still limited to two to a customer), in the Dagger Bar.

The somewhat intimidating bar name refers to a piece of World War II booty, a reproduction of an imperial Roman-style Puglia knife that Beach brought back from Italy. It has had an interesting after-life.

Sometime in the 1950s, a bartender who had been fired stole the dagger from Beach. Its whereabouts were unknown for half a century until the bartender's son sent a note to Snyder.

The son wrote that his father had kept the dagger "in a wooden box in the closet and never talked about it. Before he died, he finally opened it up and showed it to me."

The son said he didn't want his children to think that Grandpa was a thief, so he returned the dagger to Snyder on the condition that Snyder "never give my name or my father's away.... I hope I never see it again.''

The dagger, locked in a glass case, now hangs on the wall behind Snyder's Beachcomber bar, out of the reach of Zombie drinkers.

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From our mailbox: Regarding a "Then and Now" column about the dwindling number of sidewalk greeters in Southern California, Mike Bodine of the Inyo Register notes that Leland Campbell, an 86-year-old combat veteran, sits daily at the corner of Main and Sierra streets in Bishop with his dog King and waves to passing motorists. Campbell was recently honored by the City Council but admitted that he couldn't hear much of what was said because King had eaten his hearing aid.

steveharvey9@gmail.com

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