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Who Were the Elders of Tiki: Don the Beachcomber

Who Were the Elders of Tiki: Don the Beachcomber

{NOTE: This is part of a three part series of posts. The other Elder of Tiki, Trader Vic, is profiled here. And my examination of which of these two really invented the Mai Tai can be read here.}
don the beachcomberIf Trader Vic was the Henry Ford of Tikidom, Don the Beachcomber was its Francis Drake. As Tiki month winds up here at the Pegu Blog, I am examining the two great Elders of Tiki. Last post profiled the Trader, and now it is Don’s turn. Of the two, Don was the first into the game, both into the restaurant business and into the tropical theme. He led a life of high adventure, before and after becoming a restauranteur, and dabbled throughout his life in fiefdom building, the society pages, diplomacy, war, and the occasional act of good-natured piratical behavior.
Don was born saddled with the impressive name of Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt. At age seven, he went to live with his colorful grandfather in Louisiana. From the old man, he learned the art and power of charm. He also learned the art and power of the con. It is likely quite fortuitous for a lot of people that throughout his life, Don generally used those powers for good. As he grew up, he bummed around the world on tramp steamers and by other means, learning as he went the technical skills of cooking and making drinks. In 1933, he found himself in Los Angeles with a few bucks in his pocket and he decided to meld his powers of mixology, hospitality, and the art of illusion to open a restaurant in an abandoned Hollywood tailor shop.
He called the place Don’s Beachcomber, and soon thereafter he came to be called Don the Beachcomber by his clientele. He changed the name of the restaurant to fit the usage, and a legend was born made. He continued to change his name throughout his life, wandering through Donn Beach-Comber, to Donn Beachcomber, and finally coming to rest as Don Beach (I think).
He created a true illusion for his customers, taking caribbean rum mixology, presenting it in a polynesian environment, and ensuring everyone had a great time. And if the register receipts were insufficient for his tastes for the evening, Don would turn a sprinkler on over the front door and roof. He’d point out it was raining and convince everyone to wait it out inside and have another round or three.
When the cuban embargo began, Don’s chief reaction was disgust that it interrupted his supply of cigars. Treating the law as he often did when it inconvenienced him, Don took the long way round. Using his extensive import/export connections, he had cigars shipped from Cuba to the Far East. There he had them relabeled and repackaged as Philippine product and he breezed back into the states with them. He may have been the man who invented this dodge, but many have followed. Or so I hear.
During the Second World War, Captain Beach-Comber was detailed to manage the R&R for General Jimmy Doolittle’s air force. He followed (or occasionally preceded) the allied advance up Italy and into southern France, requisitioning anything that wasn’t nailed down in the name of making things comfortable for Our Boys, and occasionally himself. This part of his life was really pretty fascinating, and you can read about it, as I did, in Scrounging the Islands with the Legendary Don the Beachcomber: Host to Diplomat, Beachcomber, Prince and Pirate It was written by and for a family member, and is a choppy, though pleasurable read.
After the war, Don moved the base of his operations to Hawaii. There he built a new palatial restaurant, and expanded to a wide variety of hospitality initiatives. He had a treehouse private dining room, and he created the commercial luau. Thank or curse him for that.
He fought his fellow magnates who were developing too fast to suit his tastes, and he fought the local government for not allowing him personally to develop faster. He fought to preserve the pristine beauty of Hawaii, but imported non-native species of flora whenever it suited him to “improve” an area. He tried building a floating casino in the Far East, but when various mob figures and British governors foiled him, he made the ship work anyway, as a restaurant.
don-mixHe was a genius in promoting ideas, and fearless in executing them by hook or by crook. But underpinning it all was his skill with drinks.
He invented madly, producing a huge body of work, including a bunch of the bedrock classics. Many of them are lost in their original form today, because he guarded his recipes so jealously. He even went so far as to pour his liquors into unlabeled bottles, and kept his various syrups and mixes, as well as their ingredients, secret. His bartenders were just trained to make a Zombie, for instance, with 1 shot of bottle #7, 2 of bottle #2, 1 of bottle #47, and a splash of #17…. The mystery surrounding his drinks was part of the magic of drinking with Don.
The man was a savant, with a true commitment to his vision, and to his customers. But while he built a vast array of bars and restaurants and resorts, and was clearly a brilliant businessman, his commercial works did not survive the demise of either himself or of the Tiki era. I imagine so much of the success of all his ideas rested on the personal touch of Don himself. The greatest elements of his ventures rested upon regular performances by the man himself. Many of his businesses were high-wire acts to begin with, and such ventures cannot long survive without the risk taker-in-chief around from day to day. Today, there is but one spot on the map where Don the Beachcomber’s direct legacy remains; a single ember of the flame burns on the Big Island of Hawaii. Lift a glass with me to his memory, and to the flame rising again!
don-the-beachcomber-map


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  1. artsnyder

    25 February

    Not a bad summary of Don’s life. Leaves out such items as the split with his wife and his exile to the Pacific, his Silver Star, his later life in Tahiti and his return to Waikiki before he died, nor his burial in the National Cemetary in the Punchbowl on Oahu. Of course he needs to be raised above all other Tiki pioneers, for he was THE Tiki pioneer, with the further growth of Tiki being no more than the creation of decoration to his body of work.
    Whether drinks, decor, or development, all is and always has been the fruit of his imagination and he deserves to stand tall over all others, no matter how distinguished and fine were their contributions.
    And, by the way, the restaurant that was converted from an old and unsuccessful copy of Don’s work at Kona, and for which his name was stolen, is not an “ember of the flame” but sadly, one more clever counterfeit.
    Alas, no “embers” were left when the last of the restaurants created by him and his former wife closed its doors. However, watch closely now, for within a very few days ahead “the original” will once more appear, in Surf City USA, where people still recall fondly those places “Where good rum is immortalized and drinking is an art.” I understand that his Peacock chair has been found. . .

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  2. Doug

    25 February

    The impression I get of the man is that there can be no flame, ember or otherwise, of Don that is not counterfeit.
    That was his strength and weakness: Whatever he built had to be inextricably about HIM.
    But thanks for the additional info. I suspected that the Big Island joint was, um, loosely connected to him.

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  3. Doug

    1 March

    Art,
    You might want to go defend your guy, he just got dumped on in the Mai Tai comments…

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  4. pegu

    18 March

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