When The Mai-Kai reopens for guests, there will be tons of fresh features on the exterior: A lushly landscaped entryway with flowing water and rock work, a redesigned and immersive parking lot, plus a new outdoor bar and stage. But when you enter the main building, it will be like stepping into a time machine set for 1973.
RELATED: The Mai-Kai renovations, May-June 2023: Historic restaurant’s new infrastructure begins to take shape
SEE BELOW: May-June chronology | Design projects in depth
Making this feat a reality is a team of artists and craftspeople under the direction of manager Kern Mattei and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller. This over-arching job is mammoth, encompassing the restoration of the Molokai bar, eight elaborately themed dining areas, plus other guest spaces.
On top of this, Mattei is managing on-site workflow during the massive infrastructure project [see sidebar] while Allsmiller has his hand in any project that requires thematic design and an artist’s touch. In our last detailed story, we took a long look behind the scenes as Allsmiller and Scott “Flounder” Scheidly were deeply immersed in detail work throughout the sprawling 26,000-square-foot building.
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In this update, we’ll catch up with the Orlando-area artists as they continue their mission to return The Mai-Kai to the same condition it was when the last major redesign was completed in the early 1970s. That’s when the last dining rooms were added and the building’s current footprint was solidified, some 15 years after its 1956 opening.
MAY AND JUNE UPDATES
EARLY MAY: Allsmiller and Scheidly were busy refurbishing lamps in the Hawaii dining area, the 60-capacity room to the right of the showroom stage. “They touched almost all of them,” Mattei said. They also finished the ceiling in Hawaii, adding new panels.
They were assisted by longtime Mai-Kai handyman Gustavo in removing the window between Hawaii and Samoa, then adding new wood and lighting. The window was cleaned and put back in place, restoring this little-known feature to its vintage condition:
They also started on the adjacent Moorea dining area, a 40-capacity room that’s slightly elevated to offer the most distant views of the Polynesian Islander Revue to the north beyond Hawaii. The opposite southern glass wall, featuring rare yellow Chinese jade tiles, offers views of the outdoor garden. The crew immediately targeted the woodwork, matting and lamps for repair.
The lamp-builders also pivoted back to the Tonga Room, the elevated 80-capacity space in the back of the showroom. They had made great progress there in previous months, but the huge space still had many lamps that needed work.
Below at left is a restored tapa in The Mai-Kai’s Hawaii Room. A vintage turtle shell lamp will be returned to the center (note the electrical outlet). At right are some of the many restored lamps in the Tonga Room.
MID-MAY: Work wrapped up in the Hawaii dining room as Allsmiller and Scheidly put finishing touches on the lamps, walls and ceiling. “Once the turtle shells go back on the walls, it’s going to be beautiful in here,” Allsmiller said.
In their workspace in the main showroom, the lamp brigade finished all of the low-hanging lamps in the Tonga dining area, many created 50 years ago by the venerable Oceanic Arts. Those high in the A-frame will be touched later. Traditionally one of the darkest parts of restaurant, this area looks much brighter with all the lamps refurbished and featuring modern LED lighting.
In the left photo below, Allsmiller shows off a lamp project on May 18. At right, he points out work being done to restore an old framed tapa in the hallway near the Tonga Room and entrance to the kitchen. After the colors are touched up and it’s covered in Mod Podge, you won’t even notice, he said. “We’re trying to save them, bring them back.”
Back in Moorea, Allsmiller explained how they’re trying to restore the walls even though some of the materials are no longer available. He said they’re using materials salvaged from elsewhere, then changing the design slightly so chair backs will no longer damage the matting. “We’re saving material and reusing it,” he said.
He said the typical plan of attack for each room is to work on the walls first and save the lamps for last, or whenever they’re waiting for materials. On May 18, I found them in the nerve center – the main showroom workspace – buried in new lamp projects.
Both Scheidly and Allsmiller were working on total rebuilds of old lamps from the Tonga Room, found broken and in bad shape (see photo below). “I like the challenge,” Allsmiller said of not having the blueprints. He said he can make an educated guess of what the lamps should look like. Schematics for some of the Oceanic Arts lamps were found in The Mai-Kai warehouse, but many others are mysteries.
Work was also progressing into Samoa, a secluded dining area that seats 44 in one of the oldest rooms at The Mai-Kai. The “demolition crew” had been busy tearing out all the old, damaged wall materials. This is a big help to the designers, allowing them to concentrate on restoration. Work was also advancing on the refurbishing of the ceiling and beams.
On the north side of Samoa, which features a large glass wall overlooking the garden behind the stage, Allsmiller was advising an electrician from Taurus Electric on restoring the detailed lighting on May 18 (see photo below). To make sure everything is returned to the way it was, they were using photos by Jochen Hirschfeld in Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant by Tim “Swanky” Glazner. Also, like elsewhere, the Google maps 3D walkthrough from May 2016 was a useful aid.
The Mai-Kai’s longtime painting crew wrapped up work in the men’s bathroom, adding final details as Allsmiller worked on a new door frame. The ceiling still needs to be finished, but the rest is “all glorious and wonderful again,” he said.
More than anywhere in the front of The Mai-Kai, the men’s bathroom makes you feel like you’re really inside the hull of and old pirate ship. The refurb brought in lots of new wood, some of it removed from the old Bora Bora Room. New flickering lights add a nice authentic touch.
LATE MAY – During the final weeks of the month, the restoration team finished the lamps in the Tonga Room and moved on to the Moorea and Samoa dining rooms, getting a little help from a South Florida tattoo artist.
Allsmiller and Scheidly were refurbishing and rebuilding lamps at a rapid rate. In Moorea, they also began to work on the walls and ceiling.
By May 25, after several months on the job, Scheidly said he was getting into the groove of the lamp work and “starting to jam through them, starting to get into the dynamics of them.” Noting that he finished two the day before, he added: “It’s getting a lot easier.”
Meanwhile, a difficult lamp that Allsmiller was working on for five days was finally up in the Tonga Room (see photo above). He said it needed to be “completely re-reeded.” It’s nearby one of his other tough jobs, which he calls the “star lamp.”
Meanwhile, in Moorea, it was great to have a tattoo artist at their disposal. The tapa on the east side of the room was finished by Jeff Kozan, owner of Vatican Tattoo in nearby Delray Beach. When we arrived, he was working on the tapa display on the west wall. See more of Kozan’s work below.
We also saw Scheidly working on wiring one of the float ball lights that was refurbished by another South Florida artist. Tom Fowner is using his rope skills to help out with the many balls that need repairs. He taught a class on rope work at The Hukilau this year.
Back in Samoa, the electricians finished rewiring along the northern wall, adding new boxes for the lamps. The prep crew finished the walls and ceiling, getting them ready for Allsmiller and Scheidly.
EARLY JUNE – Work progressed in Samoa after the prep crew finished tearing out the bad wood. Wall thatching and tambor paneling salvaged from the Hawaii Room was added. The roof leaks were bad in this room, so they had to replace a lot of rotted wood.
Allsmiller said they tried keep any scraps that were usable. After spraying with shellac, “they look brand new again,” he said.
He also used some of the bamboo that grows outside The Mai-Kai. “I cut down a whole stalk,” he said, using it in the restoration of the trim.
The wall featuring the famous “shrunken skull” shadowboxes was fully refurbished. While Allsmiller was working on one of the boxes, he removed some of the old bamboo in the back and discovered “a little chunk of paper.” Upon further inspection, he noticed a pattern used on the back wall of the shadowboxes.
It turned out to be the original wallpaper from the 1950s. It was covered over, most likely during the 1970 expansion and redesign that added the room’s upper level. “I rescued as much of it as I could,” he said, adding that it could show up as an Easter egg or framed somewhere.
Allsmiller and Scheidly also began working underneath the A-frame on the porte-cochère, cleaning and refurbishing all the panels that contain Polynesian artwork. After removing them, they discovered a secret crawlspace, which apparently had been used years ago for access to change light bulbs under the A-frame.
The old fluorescent lights have long been dormant and likely won’t be restored. But Mattei said an entirely new lighting package will be installed in the entrance area, which will also be used for outdoor Molokai Bar seating as part of the renovation plan.
The porte-cochère will have a whole new ambience since it will become a seating area and not used by vehicles. Mattei said they plan to add lots of hanging balls and fish traps. In vintage photos, the beams on the porte-cochère can be seen with a design very similar to the panels, along with custom lighting. Mattei said the plan is to restore all of it as best they can based on the photos.
During the second week in June, the crew took a much-needed break to enjoy themselves during the 21st annual gathering of The Hukilau at the Beachcomber Resort just northwest of The Mai-Kai. But there was still work to be done. Mattei was assisted by his wife Elke and son Cheyne while serving up the Cobra’s Kiss cocktail on Thursday, June 8, and hosting The Mai-Kai merchandise booth on Saturday, June 10.
Allsmiller kept busy with a special presentation on Saturday, “Rebuilding Paradise: The Mai-Kai Comes Back to Life.” He showed off exclusive video and a sample of some of his handiwork restoring the vintage lamps and decor while offering insights and stories about the entire project. Stay tuned for more coverage of The Mai-Kai at The Hukilau, including The Molokai Girls reunion.
MID-JUNE – Allsmiller and Scheidly cranked out lamps in their central workspace as the demolition crew started to tear down rotted wood high on the walls in the Garden area of the main showroom. They concentrated on lamps from Samoa and lower areas of the Garden as the demolition continued around them.
We caught Allsmiller outside under the porte-cochère, where various table saws were set up for his design needs. He was cutting wood to be used in various restoration applications. He later used some of the wood on a lamp rebuild:
LATE JUNE – Allsmiller began to sketch out a design for a pulley system to allow for easier access to the lamps in the upper reaches of the soaring A-frame.
He said he wants to create a way to bring the lamps down lower to change bulbs or do other maintenance using cables. “The idea is, you could lower this cable and the lamp would come down,” he said. “It would be nice to have some kind of spool for electric up there, so we’re not lowering it with all the wiring.”
As the refurbishment effort accelerated, finished lamps were stacking up while awaiting their return to the dining rooms. On our last visit in June, nearly a dozen could be seen on the bandstand in the main showroom:
DESIGN PROJECTS IN DEPTH
Watching the ongoing work, it quickly becomes clear that the devil is in the details. The overall restoration project is not simply a list of jobs to check off, or a schedule to be completed by a certain date. There is no blueprint for something of this size and scope, and the creative team is constantly put to the test.
Following are just a few deeper dives into various projects that show off the depth and breadth of the work, as well as the obsessive attention to detail.
Vintage lamps: Ongoing project reaches back for inspiration
As detailed in previous stories, the restoration of The Mai-Kai’s hundreds of hanging lamps and floats can be a painstaking process. Manager Kern Mattei made no bones about it: “The lamps take a long time.”
“They take them down and analyze them,” he said. “They don’t make stuff up just to re-do them. They make sure they know what needs to be done.”
While the lamps are down, Allsmiller and Scheidly also confer with Mattei to reevaluate the bulbs and figure out what style of LED works best. “We play around with different colors to see which ones look better, which ones don’t,” Mattei said. “We need to make sure we have the right balance in the room.”
All the rooms are different in style and ambience. The Moorea Room, added in the 1970s, features its own soaring A-frame roof. One of its signature features is the authentic outrigger that founding co-owner Bob Thornton is said to have used in Tahiti to court his future wife, current family matriarch Mireille Thornton.
The lamps high in the A-frame are more or less in good condition, but many of the lower lamps were repaired haphazardly with burlap over the years and needed refurbishment.
Allsmiller and Scheidly make an effort to use materials from elsewhere in The Mai-Kai whenever possible. The tapa used on the bottom of this restored lamp in the Hawaii Room came from the same cloth that was used on the wall outside Tonga:
Meanwhile, tapa saved from the demolished Bora Bora building was used in this lamp, also hanging in Hawaii:
The designers recycle materials from various sources. The bottom of the lamp on the left came from another, less spectacular, lamp. The lamp at right was badly deteriorated, so it was totally reimagined by Scheidly with a new rope design. Both can be found in the Tonga Room.
Even though many were designed and built by the venerable Oceanic Arts, its doubtful these lamps were designed to last 60 years, nevermind the conditions in the smoke-filled showroom at The Mai-Kai. The fact that many were never removed or replaced over the years is a minor miracle.
Many lamps were damaged during hasty repair jobs, or simply when the maintenance staff changed light bulbs. Often, workers would just tear open the fabric to replace a bulb, Allsmiller said.
“We’re trying to stay within the same basic idea of what Oceanic Arts did, just better materials,” he said. The refurbished lamps are designed not only to last, but to allow for easy bulb swaps. The LED lights should last much longer, but this will also allow the designers to easily fine-tune colors and brightness.
The lamps on the west wall in Hawaii were covered in burlap at some point when the originals decayed. Allsmiller restored them, including the tail on the bottom. Flickering bulbs were added to give the area a little extra mood lighting:
The Tonga Room and the entire main showroom present a particular challenge for the lamp crew. While most of the low-hanging lamps were done by the end of May, the ones high in the 40-foot A-frame will require scaffolding and a concerted effort to get them down.
Allsmiller’s planned pulley system would simply lower lamps by around 10 feet, not all the way to the ground. “If you lower the highest one 10 feet, it’s manageable with a ladder,” he said.
The other issue with the lamps in the showroom is the decades of smoke from the fire shows (and probably cigarette and cigar smoke as well) that has taken a toll. Scheidly said that even the lower lamps were in bad shape due to the proximity to the stage. “They have so much soot on them, your hands get black when you mess with them,” he said.
“It’s hard to imagine” the condition of the higher lamps, he added. When the new air-conditioning system is up and running, they can also turn on new heavy-duty fans to suck out all the ash and dust. “We need AC in there,” Scheidly said. The artists constantly dodge dust and debris as the demolition crew continues to remove rotted wood and wall panels around the main showroom.
On May 25, we got a rare treat when the design team turned off their work lights in the dining rooms so they could check all the lighting. We marveled at the colorful (but still very dark) ambience. The lighting in all the completed rooms has never looked better.
Mattei said they also come back at night, after dark, to check the lights. They play around with different colors in the lamps to get the correct brightness.
As he explained, the lamps are now much more bright and colorful. Replacing the burlap that covered many of them with more opaque cloth makes them brighter. In some areas, like the dark Tonga Room, this works out well. The burlap was so thick, it blocked a lot of light.
“We’re getting a lot more light up in Tonga,” Mattei said. “That’s definitely something we needed.” The new material is sturdy even though it’s light. The change “makes a big difference,” he said.
In some of the dining rooms, old lamps covered in burlap required a reimagination. In Moorea, Allsmiller matched the wall fixtures to similar ones he rebuilt in Hawaii. They will mirror those in the adjoining room, including the flickering bulbs.
Sometimes the designers must look to the past to complete a lamp restoration. A drum lamp found in Samoa is a great example.
It may have been created by Oceanic Arts more than 50 years ago, but over the decades it had unfortunately become badly decayed. Like others Allsmiller and Scheidly have restored, it was covered in burlap to keep it in service.
No old plans existed, so all they had to guide them was the remnants, plus any old photos they could find. Scheidly said they could tell what was going on structurally once they took it apart, but they had trouble finding photos.
Glazner, the author and historian, came to the rescue with a photo he found in an old calendar. In the ’60s and ’70s, these calendars were sold as promotional items, featuring photos taken in The Mai-Kai and typically including show performers, Mystery Girls, and Molokai Bar waitresses. A photo shot in the Samoa Room for the 1974 calendar features Karen posing in front of the exact lamp they were looking for.
Scheidly used the old photo as a guide, along with some old tapa he found underneath the burlap. Totally rebuilt with similar but more sturdy parts, the lamp now features modern hardware and enhanced lighting to better illuminate the drum. It’s back in its 1970s perch, restored to its vintage glory.
Not far away, Scheidly faced another challenge with a lamp that needed a great deal of work. “This thing was fragile,” he said after completing it in mid-June. “As I rebuilt it, pieces fell off.” Here are before and after photos:
Here’s another example of the great care that goes into each lamp project. Found near their workstation in the Garden, this lamp needed a new bottom like many of the others. However, Allsmiller and Scheidly changed up the design just a bit to allow for a trap door that gives them easy access to the light bulbs inside. Scheidly then added a final flourish of tapa to the trap door:
MORE IMAGES: Lamp restoration work at The Mai-Kai
Photos by Hurricane Hayward (unless noted)
Tapa displays: Guest artist flexes his artistic muscles
When it came time to restore some of The Mai-Kai’s most intricate pieces of artwork, the design team called on a local artist with a particular talent. Who better to retrace the detailed lines of old tapa cloth than a veteran tattoo artist with a steady hand. It doesn’t hurt that Jeff Kozan is a big fan of Polynesian art and The Mai-Kai.
Kozan, owner of Vatican Tattoo in Delray Beach, is active in the Tiki scene. He presented a tattoo symposium at The Hukilau 2021 and sold his carvings and other art at The Mai-Kai’s outdoor marketplace events that summer.
Since Allsmiller began his restoration, Kozan periodically stops by to lend a hand whenever he has a break from his tattoo work. He called it his “Tiki penance” for some of the bad choices he’s made there, adding that he wants to pay it back to The Mai-Kai.
He previously helped out during the refurbishment of The Molokai bar. He also took home a damaged lamp, which he refurbished and returned on May 25.
The lamp “was a shambles,” he said. “It was in rough shape. That was my project to take home for a few weeks.”
We caught Kozan hard at work on a vintage tapa in the Moorea dining room that was worn and faded. The display had a mask in the center, but water from a leaky roof sat behind the mask and eroded the tapa.
It features a unique tapa design not seen elsewhere in The Mai-Kai and likely dating back at least to the addition of Moorea in 1970. The tapas installed during this time were vintage pieces imported from the South Seas.
Sharpie pens are often used for this task, but Kozan was also doing some detailed work with paint and brush. He previously restored the tapa on the opposite side of the room using the same methods.
The finishing work: Business as usual for painting crew
One of the most unheralded crews working on The Mai-Kai refurbishment is a group of painters who are no stranger to the details of the historic restaurant. Workers from Colonial Decorators have been putting their brushes to wood (and lots more) since at least the 1970 expansion, according to manager Kern Mattei.
A team from the Delray Beach company, which specializes in finishing services for businesses, is doing all of the interior specialty painting inside The Mai Kai during the recent renovations.
The company’s second generation owner, Timothy Ellis, painted the original design on the main A-Frame back in 1970. Mattei shared a vintage photo of Ellis working on the A-frame. Ellis recently returned to trace the artwork so he can reproduce it when the roof work is finished. The bottom of the roof was treated with sealant due to constant leaks.
Some of the other painters from Colonial Decorators have been doing faux finishing work at The Mai Kai for many years and know the restaurant well.
They put the final touches on much of the woodwork in the front areas that have been completed, from The Molokai bar to the men’s restroom. “All this is beautiful now,” creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller said recently while showing off the men’s room paint job.
New Tiki birds take flight in Tonga Room
Amid all the exotic decor in The Mai-Kai, there’s one themed display that doesn’t attract much attention even though it looms large over the main dining area. If you ever sat in the Tonga dining room and looked up at the walls on either side of the A-frame, you can’t miss it.
Peering down on diners are exotic birds in back-lit cages, perhaps an homage to Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. In the early 1960s when the Disneyland attraction was under development, Uncle Walt envisioned it as a dinner show featuring his Imagineers’ newly developed animatronic birds.
Disney was a fan of Polynesian supper clubs during their mid-century heyday. It’s even rumored that he visited The Mai-Kai during one of his reconnaissance missions to Florida around the same time the Tiki Room would have been in development to scout locations for Disney World. The Orlando resort also ended up with its own Enchanted Tiki Room when it opened in 1971.
But Disney and his designers thought better of the restaurant concept, fearing guests would never leave. They instead developed a 17-minute show that remains in both parks to this day.
The Mai-Kai’s feathered friends were likely installed during the 1970 expansion that saw the addition of Tonga and the back dining rooms. Previously, this area featured the Surfboard Bar.
Unlike Jose, Fritz and the others in the Disney Parks, these birds are stationary and mute. But that doesn’t make them any less important in the refurbishment project. The cages have been a work in progress as crews installed air-conditioning vents high in the rafters and dust continued to fly.
But once they’re cleaned up, a refurbished flock will call The Mai-Kai home. Some of the birds were in decent shape and can be cleaned, but others weren’t so lucky after more than 50 years in the dusty rafters.
Mattei said he found similar birds to replace the old ones that had seen better days. They won’t all be installed until the AC work is done and the dust clears, but some of the new birds are already in place.
Allsmiller – a former theme park designer for both Disney and Universal – has already taken to naming them. He calls the white one Rosita after the “showgirl” cockatoo in the Enchanted Tiki Room. He named another pair Bob and Jack after The Mai-Kai’s founding owners, Bob and Jack Thornton.
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