The Feb. 22 birthday of Tiki bar pioneer Don the Beachcomber (1907-1989) is typically a red-letter day for many bartenders and home enthusiasts, who celebrate by mixing up classic tropical cocktails to toast the originator of such iconic drinks as the Zombie, Nui Nui, and Three Dots and a Dash. This custom has intensified recently with the announcement of new book and film projects that celebrate the life of times of the creator of what’s now known as Polynesian Pop, aka Tiki culture.
But the occasion gained special importance this year with the announcement that a Tampa-based hospitality company will begin rolling out a chain of new Tiki-themed restaurants featuring the Don the Beachcomber branding in 2023. According to a press release from 23 Restaurant Services, “there are currently two Don the Beachcomber restaurants and bars under development in Central Florida, with the first slated to open by the end of the year.”
The company’s president, Marc Brown, said in the release that he expects as many as 10 to 15 restaurants to be spread across the Southeast over the next several years, with plans to expand nationally. Brown’s company bought the rights to the Don the Beachcomber brand in 2021, aiming to incorporate it into its successful Tiki Docks concept in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.
The birthday of Donn Beach, who legally changed his name from Ernest Raymond Gantt after the success of his Don the Beachcomber restaurants in the 1930s, seemed like a great time to announce the ambitious plan that 23 Restaurant Services calls “an expansive growth strategy.”
“Each of the restaurants will feature the eccentric, Polynesian-inspired design and flamboyant, rum-based drinks that have become synonymous with Don the Beachcomber locations for more than 90 years,” the press release says.
“Don the Beachcomber is the most iconic brand in Tiki history, so it’s impossible to overstate how excited we are about what lies ahead,” Brown said. “We look forward to leveraging our expertise in management and operational excellence to reintroduce the world to the legend that is Don the Beachcomber.”
To accomplish this, 23 Restaurant Services will be guided by an advisory board featuring some of the top artists, writers, and bartenders from the current Tiki scene:
* John Mulder, a Florida-based artist and designer whose Eekum Bookum Tiki Mugs makes some of the most in-demand products on the market.
* Danny “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo, a California-based designer of carvings, mugs, and full bar interiors who has outfitted some of the world’s top Tiki establishments.
“Assembling this dynamic and legendary group of experts to serve as our advisory board was the first step in developing a plan to share and represent the history and life of Don the Beachcomber with the utmost authenticity,” Brown said. “We could not be more excited to share the work we are doing together to bring Don the Beachcomber back to life.”
In addition to the advisers, Brown has taken a huge first step in bringing back Don the Beachcomber’s classic cocktails by hiring Marie King, former beverage director and general manager of Tonga Hut in Los Angeles, as director of beverage for 23 Restaurant Services. King also served as beverage director of the last Don the Beachcomber restaurant in the continental U.S., located in Huntington Beach, Calif., from 2009 to 2018. Like 23 Restaurant Services, the owners of this location purchased the name and did not have any connection to the original company.
On April 20, The Hukilau announced that its 19th annual Tiki weekender scheduled for June 3-7 in Fort Laduerdale was being postponed by the coronavirus pandemic. In its place will be a series of events across the country aimed at raising money for Tiki bars devastated by shutdowns. Click the link below for more info.
Passes and tickets for The Hukilau 2020 are selling briskly after last week’s announcement of the full entertainment lineup for the 19th annual Tiki weekender June 3-7 at the B Ocean Resort and The Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale.
Our previous report hinted at many of the headliners and new participants while offering up key details on the East Coast’s largest and longest-running gathering of Polynesian Pop culture enthusiasts. Now, with the launching of The Hukilau’s updated website, we can run down the full list of bands, symposium presenters, guest pop-up bars and more.
The biggest news was the reveal of the musical headliners. Returning for their second appearance at The Hukilau are The Surfrajettes from Toronto, Canada. Rising stars on the instrumental surf circuit, these four women have lived up to the hype after exploding onto the scene in 2015. Viral videos propelled their popularity, but their subsequent live performances and signing with Hi-Tide Recordings have proved that this band is more than just an Internet sensation. We were treated to their blend of classic surf, unique covers, and their own originals at The Hukilau 2018, followed by a special appearance at The Mai-Kai last March. Appearances last year at such high-profile events as Nashville Boogie, the Surf Guitar 101 Convention, and Tiki Oasis solidified their place as an event headliner. Look for a new single on Hi-Tide in April.
Perhaps the best known and most popular band to ever play The Hukilau is Los Straitjackets, who graced the festival in 2009 and 2018. While the masked marvels of instrumental rock won’t be returning in 2020, two of its key members will jam out this June in Fort Lauderdale. Guitarist Eddie Angel, who co-founded Los Straitjackets in 1988, also played The Hukilau with two other bands, The Martian Denny Orchestra and The Neanderthals. The Nashville-based guitarist has also had a longtime career as a sideman and solo artist, appearing on dozens of albums by some of the retro rock scene’s greats, dating back to 1978. At The Hukilau 2020, he’ll perform a solo set at Friday’s High Tide Party, backed the The Hi-Risers. On Saturday at The Mai-Kai, he’ll sit in as a fourth member of the roots rock band from Rochester, N.Y., for a few songs.
The Hi-Risers were formed by guitarist Greg Townson, a member of Los Straitjackets since 2010, and bassist/vocalist Todd Bradley back in 1998. The three-piece band will join forces with Los Straitjackets guitarist Eddie Angel for their first appearance at The Hukilau. For 20 years, the band has been constantly touring, recording and releasing rock ‘n’ roll records with a retro spin. Hi-Tide dropped a new single, Christmas with The Hi-Risers, in December and plans another record before June.
Another Hi-Tide band, Argentina’s Los Freneticos, is making its first appearance at The Hukilau. Founded in 2008, this foursome went against the grain of what was popular in their home country to establish a worldwide following with their mash-up of instrumental rock, surf, spaghetti western, and even a bit of punk. A 2012 debut album, El Playa, was followed by another album and global touring. Hi-Tide put out a third record, Teletransportación, in 2019, propelling the band through a full summer of U.S. festival dates. Another recording is due this spring.
Also new for 2020 is a recently formed “surfxotica” combo, The Manakooras from Charlotte, N.C. Featuring members of surf stalwarts The Aqualads, The Intoxicators, The Penetrators and Satan’s Pilgrims, the band combines their love of exotica, surf, and Hawaiian music by employing distinctive instrumentation including lap steel guitar. The band is joining forces with Hi-Tide to release a record by the time The Hukilau rolls around.
The bands and DJs can be found at the B Ocean on Thursday through Saturday during daily Rum Island pool parties and Friday’s High Tide Party in the hotel’s distinctive Point Room. The Mai-Kai hosts performances during Wednesday’s pre-party, Saturday’s main event, and Sunday’s finale. Performance times will be announced Feb. 15. More below:Symposiums, classes and pop-up bars
While the live performances keep the party rocking, there’s more to The Hukilau for attendees thirsty for “edutainment” covering everything from rum cocktails, to Tiki history, to vintage clothing. A new symposium, Alfred Shaheen: Iconic Hawaiian Textiles ($10), will offer a deep dive into the largest and most innovative mid-century aloha wear manufacturer. Pull Your Head Out of Your Glass! Secret Treasures of Tiki Bars Hiding in Plain Sight ($10) will offer a deep dive “to uncover the wild, weird and wonderful artifacts found in Tiki bars.”
Previously revealed were presentations by music and Tiki historian Brother Cleve (Exotica! The Sound of Tiki, $10), rising New York City bartender Garret Richard (New Traditionalist – Can Cutting-Edge Science Revive Tiki’s Forgotten Cocktails?, $59), and The Atomic Grog’s Hurricane Hayward (How The Mai-Kai Perfected the Modern Tiki Cocktail, $59).
For the fourth straight year, The Hukilau will offer hands-on cocktail classes as part of its Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy. Students will be treated to an all-new slate of courses, such as Where’s the Proof? with bartender and Tiki ambassador Oriol Elias of Spain. Death or Glory owner Ayme Harrison will join forces with Tiki TNT owner Todd Thrasher for Punch Up Your Party – Less Work, More Fun. The most ambitious new class is My Zombie Is Killer!, a “cage match” featuring four bars competing to see who has the best Zombie cocktail. Expanding beyond rum is a new class titled Waiter! What is This Tequila/Whiskey/Gin Doing in My Tiki Cocktail? Tickets for all classes are $59. The symposiums by Richard and Hayward will also count as credit toward a diploma from the academy.
NOTE: The Hukilau 2020 was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. A series of online events was held in its place. The 2019 recap below was posted before the pandemic. The Hukilau is returning to a live format in September 2021.
The Hukilau’s 2020 entertainment lineup will be announced on Feb. 3, when event tickets and passes go on sale for the 19th annual Tiki weekender June 3-7 in Fort Lauderdale. While The Mai-Kai remains the nerve center of the Polynesian Pop celebration for the 18th straight year, most of the festivities will be centered at the B Ocean Resort on Fort Lauderdale Beach.
After five years as host hotel, the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina closed for a years-long refurbishment and re-imagining on the day after The Hukilau 2019. To give you a preview of what you can expect during the whirlwind weekend, following is a look back at last year’s festivities. While this Top 10 list is nowhere near complete in capturing the diversity of activities that encompassed the five-day bash, it offers a snapshot of some of the more memorable moments.
Mahalo to the venues, the organizers, all the participants and (especially) all the villagers who attended. Special thanks to those who provided photos for use below. Here’s a sampling of what we enjoyed, in no particular order …
Sept 11-17 – Texas Tiki Week, a celebration of Tiki cocktails and culture in Austin hosted by the local chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. Launched in 2012, the gathering brings together bars, restaurants and brands for an exotic mix of educational, social and philanthropic events. While Texas Tiki Week is centered in Austin, there are satellite events in other cities across the state.
* Press coverage: Austin’s turning into a tropical paradise for Texas Tiki Week
Our expedition through the mysterious tropical drink selection at The Mai-Kai takes a dangerous turn with another mid-century classic from the menu’s “STRONG!” offerings.
Tongue-in-cheek drinks lionizing primitivism were common during Tiki’s golden age. The ominous Shrunken Skull and its variations were among the most infamous. The idea was to conjure up a sense of danger lurking in your local tropical getaway. Classic Tiki bars offer the ultimate escape from the mundane day-to-day existence, and every island adventure needs a little bit of macabre yet kitschy risk-taking.
In this case, the danger lies in the strong rums that permeate this deadly concoction. The Shrunken Skull is one of only two current Mai-Kai drinks that feature a rum floater (a shot of rum added to your drink as it’s served). Not coincidentally, the other also comes with an element of danger attached to its name: the Shark Bite.
The Shrunken Skull is also one of only a handful of Mai-Kai cocktails to come in its own custom mug, originally a vintage shrunken head design that can fetch more than $100 on the open market. It was replaced by a modern version that is not quite as rare but can still reach $50 or more for older versions.
The above links and info come courtesy of Ooga Mooga, the premiere website for Tiki mug collectors. This highly recommended resource lets users track their mug collection while showing it off to others. Loaded with photos of great vintage mugs, it’s worth checking out even if you don’t register as a collector.
The Shrunken Skull also often comes in an Abelam mug (average price: $30), which features a mask-like design of the Abelam people who live in the East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea. A vintage Abelam mug is typically priced in the $100 range.
All of the above mugs have a handle, which is atypical of most Tiki mugs. It’s usually an indication that the mug does double-duty on the dessert menu as a vessel for hot coffee drinks. At The Mai-Kai, the current Abelam mug also can be enjoyed with an after-dinner classic, the flaming Kona Coffee Grog. The shrunken head mug is also used for the Tahitian Coffee.
I picked up both mugs in the gift shop, aka The Mai-Kai Trading Post. I’ll be monitoring their prices on Ooga Mooga like any good mug investor.