Drink in Paradise
Sweet, sour, strong and an L.A. creation, tiki’s best days are no longer a thing of the past by Jod Kaftan
It’s the lesser inventions that are taken for granted—Liquid Paper, intermittent windshield wipers, the lobotomy, the tiki drink. That’s right, the ersatz-tropical, thirst-quenching, hangover-inducing, served-with-a-paper-umbrella tiki drink: invented right here in Hollywood by Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt. Invented with a little paradise in mind.
Maybe that’s because for most of his pre-Hollywood life, Gantt, who was born in Mexia, Texas, in 1907, spent time in real paradises—from the early yacht trips of his adolescence with his mint-julep-sipping grandfather to Cuba and Jamaica to his intrepid travels to Tahiti, Borneo, Brunei and Hawaii. When young Ernest was given the choice between going to college or a trip around the world, Gantt chose the latter with a resounding proto-beatnik “yes.” Los Angeles, which has always held the burden of Eden, was soon a natural fit for the native Texan to settle in. Gantt made the move in 1931 at the age of 24.
Worshiping exotic locales certainly didn’t start with a vagabond from Texas. Gantt’s spiritual lineage may begin with the French painter Paul Gauguin, who left his wife and children while he sought paradise in Tahiti (which he thought was “too civilized” and so landed in the even more remote Marquesas), or even Herman Melville’s idealization of Polynesians in his first novel, Typee (in spite of them being cannibals). But for Gantt, his creative output came to fruition with an artistry in libations and the paradise he fabricated in which to drink them.
To do this, he had to be a relatively slick businessman—slick enough at least to bootleg liquor in the waning days of L.A.’s prohibition. In 1934, booze was legal again. Gantt scrounged up his last $500, leased a space on McCadden Place that had been an old Hollywood tailor shop—and Don’s Beachcomber (later Don the Beachcomber)—a small, five-table watering hole adorned with the nautical flotsam he had gathered from his travels—was born.
Gantt’s seriousness about re-creating the tropics led him to set up a running garden hose to replicate the transporting rat-a-tat of rain echoing from his corrugated tin roof. Before long, he had hired four Filipino barmen. Gantt was a savvy boss: To keep his drink recipes from leaving if any of the hired hands quit, bottles only had numbers instead of labels. As for food, Gannt closed another loop when he found a Cantonese cook through a friend at a Chinese grocery store downtown. Eventually, he would utter his most famous line: “If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you.” And bring it he would.
Gantt could’ve stopped there. But like a lot of self-starting Angelenos, he took it up a notch and invented a personal mythology. He legally changed his name to Donn E.R. Beachcomber, Donn Beach for short; dressed in a kaleidoscope of tropical gear (even when at home); eventually built a lavish “Polynesian plantation” as his home in Encino; and, when asked, would tell people he was from Jamaica (later, a reporter called him on it). For Donn Beach, it was a serious fantasy; when it came to living the life of paradise, he walked the walk.
To cultivate regulars Donn began mixing enormously original, complex, tropically inspired drinks. “Inspired” in the sense that no one in Jamaica or Borneo drank Zombies and coffee grogs. Donn invented them. And he did so with rum, a spirit no one was drinking at the time. Post-prohibition American was whiskey country; the cocktails of the day were the Manhattan, the Sidecar and the Old-Fashioned.
The end of prohibition had not only made rum cheap for Donn Beach to experiment with, it also had a protean flavor profile. Cocktail scholar Ted Haigh remarks, “Rum is made in a whole lot of different countries with a whole host of different rules.” Dry, smoky Guyanese rum has a totally different character than dark, heavy-bodied Jamaican rum. John Coltharp, head bartender at Seven Grand, adds, “Rum has such a clean canvas—you can take it in so many directions. It embodies its containers more so than other spirits.”
Donn Beach knew this from his Caribbean jaunts with his grandfather, and so he began experimenting by blending rums in his cocktails, which surfaced a much richer palette of flavor notes than in simpler drinks. Jeff Berry, drink archaeologist and author of Sippin’ Safari, says “Donn would play around with these various rums that have a different body and character and would come up with a base no one rum could approach on its own—no one had really done this prior to Donn.”
Another reason for rum is that it’s likely on the early trips with his libertine grandfather, young Donn was exposed to the rum-based Planter’s Punch at the Myrtle Bank Hotel in Kingston, Jamaica. It’s a drink that’s based on a more than 100-year-old axiom: One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak. “Donn took this bit of rhyme as his foundation for the 70 drinks on his menu—the sour would be lime, the sweet would be sugar, the strong would be rum, and the weak would be water,” adds Berry.
But the pièce de résistance in Donn’s arsenal had to have been developed in response to a businessman who came into the Beachcomber with a bad hangover, needing a little hair of the dog before a meeting. When Donn later asked the man if the cocktail made a difference, the man said he felt like “the walking dead” after drinking it. And the Zombie, which Berry describes as “a turbo-charged Planter’s Punch,” was launched. The first tiki-cocktail star was born.
Donn Beach didn’t really become a darling of Hollywood until freelance New York Tribune writer Neil Vanderbilt sipped his first Sumatra Kula at the bar, and after ordering several, later returned with Charlie Chaplin. Soon, the stars were flocking to Donn’s paradise. Regulars included Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra and Joan Crawford, who in a newspaper poll in 1953 was named by Beachcomber waiters as their favorite female customer (an ironic twist for Mommie Dearest). Mickey Rooney and Ava Gardner began the courtship for their doomed marriage at the Beachcomber. One notorious regular was quirky billionaire Howard Hughes, who would sit at the bar solo and quietly doodle. The unconventional Hughes was known for wearing his expensive silk shirts only once. And the Filipinos loved him for his sartorial eccentricity; Hughes made sure his discarded shirts were given to the Filipinos. The billionaire, who once showed up barefoot in a suit, allegedly struck a pedestrian with his car after leaving the bar one night. “I think he got off by paying the right people,” says Jeff Berry.
Celebrities were taken care of and even had their names burnt into their own chopstick holders. The Beachcomber made an earnest attempt to guard their privacy, though the gossipmongers of the day would often find grist for their columns.
There was nothing kitschy about tiki. Don the Beachcomber was a white-hot center of the universe, on par with Ciro’s, the Brown Derby and Trocadero But remarkably, there was no velvet-rope mentality. The Beachcomber was for everyone, the kind of place where couples splurged and guys wooed their ladies. Donn made sure the working dames could afford his drinks—but only so the men would come.
In those days, Angelenos didn’t travel much, but with the Beachcomber, they could go to Hawaii without actually packing their bags. Donn’s exclusivity in hiring only Filipinos was payback for when some of them put him up when he was down on his luck. It’s a testament to Donn’s benevolence that nearly all of his surviving employees have had only the best to say about him.
But the glory was short lived. When World War II came along, Donn went to fight overseas, and the elegant Polynesian trope that he conceived would begin to evolve into the broader, more primitive strokes of ’50s and ’60s tiki. Great imitators followed, like Victor Bergeron, also known as Trader Vic, inventor of the storied Mai Tai, or Lana Turner’s ex Stephen Crane, whose franchise of popular Kon-Tiki restaurants helped to spread the tiki gospel. But as Jeff Berry notes, “I don’t think there was any tiki restaurant that came up with a full set of drinks that did not heavily depend on Don the Beachcomber’s menu.”
How then did tiki culture evolve from a small Hollywood watering hole into a midcentury phenomenon that shadowed modernism? Sven Kirsten says, “The existence of modernism created the need for tiki culture, in a way.” The shackles of puritan values and the Leave It to Beaver–morality may have led Mad Men, in places like Columbus, Ohio, and Smyrna, Tennessee, to lose their suits for floral shirts and exploit fantasies of half-naked ladies while they dug into suckling pig with bare hands. Perhaps for the first time in history, the “civilized” world celebrated its darker, more primitive self. Tiki was America’s way of giving itself a controlled environment in which to safely regress, unlike the hippie generation that replaced it, where freedom could never be for sale.
What began with artisanal cocktails expanded into amusement parks, apartment buildings, motels and nudie bars. Even in Hawaii, where Donn opened another Beachcomber after World War II, an authentic paradise had to accommodate the throngs of tourists seeking the familiar faux-tropical milieu they were exposed to on the mainland.
Tiki’s most remarkable cultural feat is not its contrived exotica but its longevity. Lasting more than 40 years, the movement has had many peripheral helpers along the way—from the servicemen returning from the Pacific Theater of World War II to James Michener’s bestselling novel Tales of the South Pacific to Hawaii’s official statehood in 1959—leaving the lure of paradise constantly in the American vernacular. With Hitler conquered, perhaps the only thing left to do was to face the inner primitive and revel.
The nail in the coffin to tiki culture came in 1989, when Donald Trump tore down the venerable Trader Vic’s at his new Plaza Hotel because, as he explained, it was too “tacky.” The irony of the source is not lost on tiki historians.
Of course, the tiki phenomenon would have been nothing without a former bootlegger’s obsession with an unpopular spirit in an ex-tailor shop in Hollywood. And perhaps there’s no such thing as a “lesser invention.” When Donn Beach died in 1989, the New York Times obituary portrayed him as the Thomas Edison of the tiki world.