With contractors and construction crews moving full-speed ahead on a massive renovation of the infrastructure and exterior of The Mai-Kai, a small team of craftsmen continues to meticulously restore the historic South Florida restaurant’s elaborately themed interior guest areas in exacting detail.
The city of Oakland Park’s recent approval of permits that will allow the major pieces of the $8.5 million project to move forward has grabbed all the attention so far in 2023. But inside the beloved Polynesian palace, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller has been busy in the new year with a wide array of restoration projects.
We’ll take an in-depth look at Allsmiller’s work below. But first, here’s a status report from manager Kern Mattei on the progress of the entire renovation project. This covers everything that has happened since his detailed walk-through of the property with us on March 9.
Completion of porte-cochère roof kicks off many projects to come
By the end of March, the work on thatching the outdoor roofs was progressing nicely after a long pause due to permitting issues. We visited on March 16 to pick up takeout cocktails, then again on March 24 and March 31 for a peek at the progress, both inside and out.
The most noticeable change for guests passing by or picking up quarts and gallons to go this week (April 6-7) will definitely be the completion of the thatched roofs. On March 24, workers were putting the finishing touches on the porte-cochère, which has shielded arriving guests from the elements for the past six decades.
Installed shortly after the 1956 opening, the porte-cochère has been re-thatched and the structure periodically refurbished over the years. But the current project is the most extensive in recent history. [See past coverage]
Later, after the driveway is replaced and landscaping has begun, Allsmiller will work on restoring all the design elements beneath the roof on the center beam and trim. Automobile traffic will no longer pass beneath, allowing guests to sit outside with a cocktail and enjoy the shade and ambience.
Mattei said they plan to reinstall of the canoe that used to hang under the roof, and also restore all the fishnets and lighting. In the meantime, Allsmiller now has a much cooler outdoor area to work alongside his new assistant, fellow Central Florida artist Scott Scheidly (aka Flounder). The large canopy reduces the temperature in the blazing Florida sun significantly.
Next to the porte-cochère, the Bora Bora Room is being readied for demolition. The removal of the 1970s-era building, approved Jan. 11 by the city’s Historic Preservation Board, will pave the way for a reimagined entryway and new parking lot flow. A subcontractor for the job has yet to be named.
Pieces of the Bora Bora will live on, however, after the removal of all vintage decor that can be repurposed. Mattei showed us a pile of lava rock that had been removed, stashed away for use later in the entryway landscaping.
Meanwhile, electricians are busy rewiring the entire property, creating a new grid that will allow for the installation of a half-dozen new air-conditioning units on the roofs. The modern HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system will replace the old chiller system and its water cooling tower hidden behind the Bora Bora building.
With the porte-cochère job complete, the company installing the synthetic thatching moved on to finish the uncompleted work on the A-frames over the rear dining rooms. On March 31, work was progressing on the Tahiti and Moorea roofs, which were added during the early 1970s expansion. [See past coverage]
When this is done, the crew from Tiki King will take a break before returning for perhaps the biggest thatching project: Restoring the materials to The Mai-Kai’s towering main A-frame.
This iconic structure, which reaches more than 40 feet at its peak, has undergone changes over the years. Originally, the rear contained thatching while the front portion featured giant screens to let in the air (and rain) to keep the indoor gardens flourishing. [See photo]
While there are no plans to bring back the open-air concept, Mattei said potential designs being debated by the ownership team should give it a more traditional look. We spotted painters on the roof March 24. By March 31, all the undercoating and sealant had been added to the exterior to defend against future leaks.
“It’s finished for now, until we figure out what’s going on,” said Mattei, explaining the process of troubleshooting for pesky leaks before the thatching and final paint job are done. The artwork on the front will be restored by the painter who did the original five decades ago.
Around the back of the building, crews were up on the refurbished flat roof, installing support beams to hold all the new air-conditioning units. The first of these half-dozen new AC boxes was sitting in the back-of-house space that used to house the kitchen, before the October 2020 roof collapse that forced its removal and shut down the restaurant.
Mattei said there’s no rush to rebuild that area until after the underground plumbing is reinstalled to modern standards. The previous kitchen dated back to the 1970 expansion.
However, there is much work ongoing inside the back of house area that survived the roof collapse. Since the permit approvals, a large portion of the existing space used by staff was gutted in preparation for its reimagination.
Smaller locker rooms for staff and show performers will be built alongside a new restroom for guests with special needs. An entrance to these new ADA-compliant facilities will be built next to the back-of-house entrance, in a secluded corner near the gift shop where a payphone and cigarette machine once stood.
The old staff facilities were gutted as workers shore up support beams. The walls were removed and the floor stripped to the bare concrete.
This will free up the space where the old locker rooms stood to host The Mai-Kai’s new back service bar. The previous bar was in the old kitchen, which had to be torn out after the initial damage and roof collapse that triggered The Mai-Kai’s sale and new partnership in September 2021. The new ownership team is led by Miami-based Barlington Group, while the affiliated Mad Room Hospitality will assist the founding Thornton family in running the daily operations.
While tearing up the linoleum, Mattei said, workers made a “super cool” discovery: A walkway stretching up to 40 feet covered in slate tile, just like the front of house. It had apparently been covered and long forgotten. Mattei said Kulani Thornton Gelardi, head of the family ownership team, doesn’t remember it ever being uncovered.
When the back of house is complete and the tile floor is restored, it will lead staff and special guests down a refurbished hallway and into the management headquarters. This area includes Mattei’s office as well as the main office for the staff running the daily operations.
But that’s not all. It will also feature a special treat for fans of Mai-Kai history. The office of Gelardi’s father, co-founder Bob Thornton, will be turned into a mini-museum, as announced last year at The Hukilau.
Last used by Gelardi’s brother, retired managing owner Dave Levy, the office includes decor and furniture that mirrors the theme of The Molokai bar. It was installed by the same designers who handled the bar’s 1970 reimagination, when set pieces from the 1962 film Mutiny on the Bounty were used to give the entire front area of The Mai-Kai its nautical theme. The expansion project was handled by noted mid-century designer George Nakashima.
Levy did not change the furniture or decor in the space, which has remained virtually unchanged since Bob Thornton’s death in 1989.
During a recent tour of the future museum, we could feel the history oozing from the walls and imagine the high-level meetings that happened here over the past five decades. Not to mention the many rums sampled, and the many celebrities who paid a visit. It’s just another special feature of this special restaurant.
Recent coverage of The Mai-Kai
* The Mai-Kai officially begins work on first phase of $8.5 million renovation projects
* New details on restaurant’s reimagination, new merchandise revealed
* Historic preservation board approves renovation plans, clearing way for project to move forward
* The Mai-Kai turns 66 as work progresses on multiple renovation projects
REBUILDING PARADISE: Typhoon Tommy leads the charge on interior restoration efforts
For the past nine months, a former theme park designer with a passion for Tiki and Polynesian Pop style has taken the reins in restoring the many intricate details of The Mai-Kai’s sprawling interior. We covered “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller’s efforts throughout 2022. [Click here for past coverage]
Allsmiller’s work rebuilding and repairing the woodwork and much of the decor is crucial to bringing the restaurant back to its original glory. The irony is that most people will never full appreciate his work. “If I’m doing my job right, you won’t know I was ever here,” he said during a tour of the restaurant in February.
While the October 2020 roof collapse did not directly impact the dining rooms and bar, the residual effects were significant. When Allsmiller began work early last summer, the interior needed lots of TLC after a year of no air conditioning, leaky roofs, and termite damage.
He started in The Molokai bar, re-creating damaged woodwork and rebuilding deteriorating lamps. He repaired damaged beams in the main entrance and lobby while overseeing the installation of new bridges and walking paths in the outdoor Tiki garden. Allsmiller also designed the new event center that will be part of the second phase of the reimagination.
In January, Allsmiller gave us a tour and peek behind the scenes in a video shown at The Atomic Grog’s presentation at Inuhele in Atlanta. [See the full story] His work in the New Guinea dining room particularly showed off his restoration skills.
This year, Allsmiller has moved on to the men’s and women’s restrooms, which were added along with The Molokai bar during the last major expansion. The goal, he says, is bringing The Mai-Kai “back to the original 1970s refurbishment so it looks like it’s brand new and it lasts another 50 years,” he said during the February tour. He explained how he replaced much of the wood in the entrance foyer using the same aging techniques used on the original beams. It’s “all done and brought back to life,” he added.
More recently, Allsmiller has been joined by fellow Orlando-area craftsman Scott “Flounder” Scheidly, who provides much needed third and fourth hands on many ongoing projects. As of this week, they continue to work on the restrooms while taking on the imposing Tonga dining room. Next will be the adjacent gift shop, which also sits under the soaring A-frame and dates back to the 1970 expansion.
Scheidly marveled at the majesty of The Mai-Kai that most people haven’t seen while dining in the dimly lit rooms. He said he continues to find details he never saw when he was there as a guest. “It’s cool to be here now and just see all these things that I’ve never really looked at,” he said.
The Mai-Kai’s vintage lamps rebuilt, restored with an eye toward authenticity
One of Allsmiller’s longest-running projects, likely to last even past the official reopening, is the restoration of many of The Mai-Kai’s hundreds of hanging lamps. Some of these date back to the early days of the restaurant in the 1950s and ’60s and can be found in the catalog of venerable Polynesian restaurant decorator Oceanic Arts, featured in the 2022 book Oceanic Arts: The Godfathers of Tiki.
When I asked him how many lamps are still to be done, Allsmiller was only half joking when he said there were too many to think about. After doing an inventory, he and manager Kern Mattei found more than 100 in The Molokai bar alone. When removed, lamps are numbered for reference so they can be returned to the exact same spot.
Most of the lamps require Allsmiller to replace broken pieces and add new cloth. But others are so damaged, they need a complete replication, meaning he rebuilds them piece by piece to look exactly the way they did.
When I visited in January, he had found an original drawing of one of the lamp styles that was a big help the restoration process. Most have “tons of details,” he said. “The devil’s in the details.”
Some lamps had been replaced or repaired haphazardly over the years, so Allsmiller tries to figure out their origins using his knowledge of the materials and lamp styles. But not all are in bad shape. The lamps in the secluded Tahiti room, for example, are untarnished since that area has historically been non-smoking and is away from the residual smoke of the fiery stage show.
In one of the most extreme examples of his meticulous work, Allsmiller explained how he rebuilt one of the lamps that hangs in the lobby area using tapa cloth salvaged from the New Guinea during room. It’s an exact replica of the original lamp, but it uses vintage materials.
Very few pieces are from the original lamp, he said, adding that it was just easier to rebuild it. Meanwhile, he was in the process of removing the tapa, which was “shredded and got really messed up.”
“I wanted to at least preserve it and give it a new home,” he said of the old tapa. “So now it’s on this lamp so it will forever be at The Mai-Kai.”
Another lamp that fell and broke required a total rebuild, but he was able to salvage the “hat” on top.
The Molokai: Work wraps up on lounge with vintage theatrical theme
The many months of work in The Molokai bar finally wound down in March as Allsmiller and Scheidly put the finishing touches on some major design projects. The bar is mostly complete, except for the back corner and a few lamps, Allsmiller said.
Once the air conditioning is back on, they will add all the artifacts back to the walls, return the signature “maiden bust” to its spot near the large east-facing window, and leave the 150-capacity lounge looking much like it did in the early 1970s when it was added.
The bar, servicing guests waiting for dinner and featuring a popular happy hour, had existed since the late 1950s. But the 1970 expansion added the detailed nautical theme. Much of the decor was used during the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlin Brando (1962), and purchased from the MGM movie studio after its prop department closed. The bar is designed to look like an 1800s South Seas seaport saloon, the same historical time period as the HMS Bounty.
On March 24, I caught the dynamic duo working on the display case in the secluded area in the very rear of the bar, overlooking the indoor garden under the main A-frame. “The windows were stubborn,” Allsmiller said as they restored the case to pristine condition after removing its contents for cleaning.
After removing all the grease and grime from the glass, they were finishing the restoration of the nautical maps on the bottom of the case. They will return the model ships and other items that were in the case after they’re cleaned.
This little nook, which has room for just three or four tables, was actually part of the old Oahu dining room prior to 1970. It features bamboo trim and wall matting like the dining rooms, differentiating it from the rest of the bar. It was built up on a dock with the water running beneath.
A distinctive area of The Molokai added in 1970 is the so-called “poop deck,” which takes guests from the main floor up onto a raised wooden dock via a bridge with a water feature. Situated in the middle of the L-shaped bar, this thematic element fell ito disrepair over the years.
But thanks to Allsmiller, the bridge is completely restored, and the trench beneath is enhanced with new LED lighting. All that’s left is for the plumbing to be redone and the water turned on.
The boards on the deck were replaced, along with one of the posts on the bridge. Of course, Allsmiller made it impossible to tell which one. They even salvaged some old wood from the trench. “We’re saving anything that looks cool,” Allsmiller said.
The trench was upgraded with new wood and a black background, creating an illusion that makes it look like there’s water all the way under the bridge. “When you walk by, you won’t see the bottom,” Mattei said. “You won’t know there’s a wall there. It’s definitely an upgrade.”
When The Molokai was built out in the early ’70s, all of the rope work was done by experts familiar with nautical rigging from the Mutiny on the Bounty era. There are plans to fix and shore up the ropes that have broken or become loose over the years, but this won’t happen until much closer to the reopening. Various workers coming through the building have knocked some of the ropes off kilter, so it was decided that it’s better to have that work done later to ensure it stays in place.
Meanwhile, Allsmiller finished restoring a related nautical decor element seen throughout The Molokai: The many “belaying pins” that stand within or near the ropes. Traditionally, these wooden pins are used on sailing vessels to secure lines of running rigging. They have been largely replaced on most modern vessels by cleats.
Allsmiller said he “had to replace a bunch” of these pins that had deteriorated over the years. In some instances, the entire wooden rail holding the pins became rotted. He created exact replicas of the pins by hand, painting them to match the same color used in 1970.
Of course, it’s now impossible to tell which ones were replaced and which are the originals. Mattei says the only way he can tell is by the layer of dust on the old ones. “He matched them so well,” Mattei said.
Another distinguishing element in The Molokai is what Allsmiller calls the “mini bar tops” that wrap around the support beams that run down the length of the main bar. If you’ve spent any amount of time enjoying the bar, you’ve probably used these helpful stanchions.
Regardless, Allsmiller was tasked with refurbishing several that had become unstable due to decayed wood. Like all the other projects, he left no stone (or coin) unturned.
He removed and saved the medallions and coins that were embedded beneath the acrylic on the old mini bar tops. The job was essentially finished when we visited on March 16. All that remained to be done was reinstall the medallions when they’re sealed with acrylic.
One of Allsmiller’s more challenging jobs in The Molokai was to re-create one of the vintage maps of Pacific Islands that line the northern wall of the bar, interspersed between the signature windows that feature a simulated non-stop rainfall. All of the other maps were in decent condition, but the one in the rear corner was severely faded. To the point that it was unclear what the map showed.
He could find no photos of this long-lost map, so Allsmiller simply put on his imagineering hat and created a new map featuring Easter Island as well as Pitcairn Island, the final resting place of the HMS Bounty and her crew of mutineers. Also look closely for a few Easter eggs added by Allsmiller.
It’s worth noting one last detail that pays tribute to the Bounty: The realistic replica of a ship’s bell clock that has been hanging in the center of the bar since 1970. Almost certainly a movie prop that came with the other decor, this clock is unlike a traditional timepiece that chimes each hour.
Unique to sea-going vessels, this wind-up clock has eight bells, one for each half hour of a sailor’s four-hour watch. Mattei, who has worked at The Mai-Kai since the mid-1980s, remembers a time when the clock kept accurate time and was wound every day with a key.
Allsmiller found the key stashed in a hiding place behind the bar, but he was unable to get the clock running again. It’s unclear if it can be fixed, but working or not this is yet another fascinating detail in a beloved watering hole.
Like many, we’re using our own timepiece to count down the days until we can return to enjoy the many delicious cocktails and classic appetizers.
Restroom restoration gets same attention to detail
Like guests who spend too much time in The Molokai, Allsmiller and Scheidly finally had to make their way back to the men’s and women’s restroom facilities. In keeping with The Mai-Kai’s immersive experience, these areas are also heavily themed with much detail in need of sprucing up.
By the third week of March, they were fully immersed in this project, removing a lot of bad wood from the men’s room. New wood was cut and aged to fit seamlessly into the decor, which follows The Molokai’s nautical theming perfectly.
They removed and replaced the metal ceiling, which Allsmiller documented with a video shared March 22 on Instagram. It shows a deluge of falling debris from the building’s old roof that accumulated when the new roof was installed.
New plumbing in both restrooms will come later, likely after the driveway is removed to allow access to underground pipes, Mattei said. Electricians are also working in this area, adding new overhead LED lighting throughout.
By the end of March, Allsmiller was nearly done with his work in the men’s room and waiting on materials for the women’s room. Painting and finishing will probably be done once the women’s room is finished and they can bring crews in for both, Mattei said.
The women’s room is totally different than the men’s. It was added in 1970 alongside the old Bangkok dining room, now the gift shop, so it has an elegant Asian look and feel. On March 20, Scheidly posted a video on Instagram of the work going on in the distinctive space.
Tonga Room and beyond: Dining rooms provide latest challenge for restoration artists
While awaiting the green light to finish the restrooms, Allsmiller and Scheidly dove into perhaps the most grand of all the dining areas of The Mai-Kai. The elevated Tonga Room features not only a bird’s-eye view of the Polynesian Islander Revue, but also the best angle to take in the enormity and grandeur of the sweeping A-frame ceiling and its dozens and dozens of floating lights.
Like the work in most of the other rooms, the first item on the checklist was repairing walls damaged by roof leaks over the years. The worst leaks seem to be around the edges of the A-frame.
During our last visit on Aug. 31, Allsmiller and Scheidly were busy working near Tonga’s back stairway just outside the kitchen, taking out old drywall and replacing it with plywood. They also were doing woodwork on the beams.
“Tommy has been working hard up here, fixing this wood,” Mattei said, pointing to a perfectly restored beam. Much like Allsmiller’s work in the entrance, Molokai and restroom, it will be impossible to see exactly where the repairs were made when he’s done.
When I arrived, they were putting one of the walls back together, finishing it with new lauhala matting. (Lauhala is a common wall material in Tiki establishments made from sturdy hala palm leaves that have been dried in the sun. The leaves are then woven together in checkered patterns to complete the signature look of the matting.)
While refurbishing one of the rear walls, they found an old speaker hidden beneath layers of tapa. It had apparently once been used for background music. Who knows, it may even been part of the 1956-era Surfboard Bar, which pre-dates The Molokai and was located in the same general area.
Tonga poses several challenges for Allsmiller and Scheidly to tackle in the coming weeks. They face meticulous work restoring the underside of several low ceilings on the perimeter. The room was apparently built over the top of these seating areas, Allsmiller said, making it especially difficult to do detail work within the criss-crossing beams.
Then, there’s the issue of replacing and refurbishing wall panels and lamps high up in the 40-foot ceiling. Several giant ladders were resting against the wall, but Mattei said they’re also considering bringing in special scaffolding to facilitate safe access into the upper reaches under the A-frame.
But whatever the challenge, it’s all in a day’s work for the craftsmen tasked with restoring paradise.
More to come on The Atomic Grog
* Exclusive artwork, renderings of the reimagination plans
* News, review of The Mai-Kai’s new signature rum
See all the stories on the renovations
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