Don the Beachcomber – Virgins and Cobras and Zombies! Oh my!

In a continuing series looking at locations where some of the scenes in my ‘Garden of Allah’ novels take place:

Don the Beachcomber

It seems funny to think of it now, but there was a time when the Polynesian thing—flaming torches, tiki statues, wooden masks—wasn’t considered nostalgically retro, but was the latest, cutting-edge fad in interior design.

During the Prohibition years (1920 to 1933) bars and nightclubs didn’t exist. Well, not officially, anyway. But the end of Prohibition in December of 1933, bars were allowed to come out of their closet, so to speak, and—shocking!—advertise and put up signage. No longer were they bound by the strict and disapproving tenets of the Volstead Act. Now they were free to stand out from the crowd. And, after 13 long dry years, there were a lot of thirsty drinkers around looking for a place with a comfy stool and a full bar of genuine liquor which wouldn’t rot your guts after the third round. Similarly, there were many ambitious bar-owners ready and willing to take their money. With so many joints hitting the market, the more astute ones knew they’d need to do something to stick out from the crowd.

Don the Beachcomber bar, Hollywood

Sophisticated booze-hounds enjoy a Vicious Virgin at Don the Beachcomber's bar, Hollywood

In 1937, a guy with the long-winded name of Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt together with his girlfriend, Cora Sund, got the money together to open a bar at 1727 North McCadden Place, right in the heart of Hollywood. This was a block down from the Hollywood Hotel at the corner of Highland where the Kodak Theater (home to the Oscars) and Grauman’s Chinese Theater now stand. In fact the block where Don the Beachcomber’s once stood is now occupied by Fredrick’s of Hollywood, the infamous mail order supply house of naughty lingerie. But that’s a topic for another blog.

The first question Ernest and Cora needed to decide on was: what décor theme should they go with? The answer was obvious: the latest fad to hit America: Exotic Orient. This was a time when any place west of Catalina Island was considered “foreign” and “exotic.” The Chinese game of mah-jongg became a popular social past-time in the 30s, as did the dishes often served with it, like egg foo yung and fried rice. Then along came a guy named Victor Bergeron.

We know him now as “Trader Vic” but he was originally just a bar owner in Oakland, California who ran a place called Hinky Dinks. In the mid-30s, he embarked on his first South Seas adventure and completely immersed himself in island living and culture. When he returned to the States, he had one thing in mind: to bring the spirit of the islands into the lives of Americans, and in 1936, Hinky Dinks was transformed into Trader Vic’s, and the Polynesian thing really kicked off.

Don the Beachcomber, McCadden Place, Hollywood

Don the Beachcomber, McCadden Place, Hollywood

Soon, a number of places dotted Hollywood and Beverly Hills, bringing the Polynesian experience to L.A. The most popular ones were the Zamboanga South Seas Club, and the Pirate’s Den, and they were doing a roaring trade. The South Seas thing was just the look that Ernest and Cora were searching for, so they set about decorating their new bar, making it Hollywood’s first tropical venue.

When you got inside, you had to give your eyes a few moments to adjust to the low-lit atmosphere. Ernest and Cora decided on a series of small dining rooms, which bore names like “The Black Hole of Calcutta” and “The Cannibal Room.” These shrines to good taste were decorated with palm trees, bananas, coconuts, seashells, shields, shark’s jaws, headdresses and carved wooden gods.

Don-the-Beachcomber bar (interior)

Don the Beachcomber bar (interior)

To match the interior décor, the owners came up with a menu of cocktails, made largely from rum, the go-to liquor at a time when booze like vodka had yet to take its place as one of the more popular cocktail ingredients. (Rum was also the cheapest liquor around, which helped the bottom line.) Their cocktail menu read like titles from a pile of Fu Manchu novels: Missionary’s Downfall, Vicious Virgin, Cobra’s Fang and the notorious Zombie. They must have been as potent as they sound (the house rule was that nobody could be served more than two Zombies) because in July 1936 a wealthy businessman struck and killed a pedestrian with his car, allegedly while driving home after a night at Don the Beachcomber. The driver was Howard Hughes. Later, in 1944 when Trader Vic invented his signature drink—the Mai Tai (which is Tahitian for “the very best”) it soon found its way onto the menu at Don the Beachcomber’s.

Don the Beachcomber ad

Don the Beachcomber ad

But they didn’t just serve rum-based drinks with frightening names, Don’s also served food, which was largely Chinese. It seems a slightly strange fusion—Polynesian and Chinese, but, from what I’ve been able to gather, everything west of California was lumped in together as “exotic Oriental.” At one point the restaurant included a Chinese grocery store, gift shop, and lei stand.

And to complete the tropical experience, a visit to Don the Beachcomber’s came with artificial rainstorms designed to romantically pitter-patter down on the corrugated iron roof over everybody’s heads. Apparently there’s nothing like a steamy downpour to whet the appetite of rum-bound partygoers.

The place did so well that Gantt changed his name several times, using Donn Beach-Comber, then Donn Beachcomber, and finally settling on Donn Beach. The place on McCadden launched a chain of what eventually became 16 restaurants across the country, rivaling—but not besting—Trader Vic’s. His marriage to Cora, however, wasn’t as successful and the couple split. Ernest/Donn subsequently moved to Waikiki, where he opened a Polynesian village, which eventually became the International Marketplace in the heart of Honolulu.

That’s an admirable level of success to come from a round of Missionary’s Downfalls, a set of bamboo cups, and some paper mache masks. I hope to god they had fire extinguishers because I don’t like the thought of sitting in a joint covered in palm fronds where the chief source of light is a flaming torch. Pass me another Zombie, Don.

Cocktails in bamboo at Don the Beachcomber's

Cocktails in bamboo at Don the Beachcomber's

www.MartinTurnbull.com

About martinturnbull

The Hollywood's Garden of Allah novels blog is by Martin Turnbull, a Los Angeles based historical fiction author writing about the golden era of Hollywood in his series of novels set at the Garden of Allah Hotel, which stood on Sunset Blvd from 1927 to 1959. Check him out at www.martinturnbull.com and Facebook: "gardenofallahnovels"
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3 Responses to Don the Beachcomber – Virgins and Cobras and Zombies! Oh my!

  1. Jaye says:

    Another terrific article, Martin. How do you find all this stuff? Have you thought about compiling your Old Hollywood blog posts into a book? It would look great on a color ereader.

    I hate “theme” restaurants. Imagining sitting in a tropical rainstorm made me shudder. People are so funny.

  2. Paul says:

    Brilliant article, but right in the heat of it you went astray with your credits! Vic Bergeron went to HOLLYWOOD, to Don the Beachcomber, and the 7 Seas, for his inspiration, his tropical ideas; he then went back to Oakland and to transform Hinky Dinks, and himself, into Trader Vics. Even Trader Vics credits Don the Beachcomber. I remember visiting the original (well, the second as it had moved across the street in 1937) DBc in the 80’s before it closed. The booths were divided with racks that held bamboo chopsticks holders with the names of the stars on them—no one seems to know what happened to them, they must have gone into the dump. It was also quite nice to sit at the Malibu version, especially in storms, when waves would crash against the building. Not so nice as the end drew on, when demoralized staff hung around doing nothing and the music was awful modern stuff straight from the radio.

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