On this day in 1989, Don the Beachcomber, credited with inventing the tiki bar and cocktail umbrella, died.
Born Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt in Limestone County, Texas, on 22 February 1907, he is best known as the inventor of the tiki bar (and club and restaurant) phenomenon, now well established all around the world. In London, for instance, elitist Mayfair tiki bar Mahiki is a favourite haunt of the young aristocracy including Princes William and Harry, who can enjoy a debauched fantasy vision of colonial-era paradise close to their palace doorsteps.
A tiki bar is basically a drinking den with an exotic theme derived from a whimsical, romantic twist on the primitive Polynesian tropical island; a sort of mixture of Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti and a cocktail-fuelled frat party. Think tiki gods and hula girls in grass skirts, blue lagoons and bamboo forests, and, of course, luridly coloured drinks.
Ernest called the first tiki bar Don’s Beachcomber Cafe, and soon started calling himself Don the Beachcomber too (although he later amended it to Donn Beach-Comber, Donn Beachcomber and finally Donn Beach). He had left Texas in 1926 and journeyed across the world’s sunny oceans, including enjoyable stays on the Caribbean and South Pacific islands that eventually inspired his business venture.
During the days of Prohibition in the 1920s, Don worked as an illegal bootlegger making moonshine. In the 1930s he moved to Hollywood, where in 1934 he opened his café at 1722 N. McCadden Place. With its tropicana vibes, exotic Cantonese cuisine and super-strong rum cocktails—like the Zombie, Tahitian Rum Punch, Navy Grog and the Mai Tai, which were all his inventions—the bar soon found favour with Hollywood stars and LA party animals.
In the early 1940s, Don’s life changed dramatically as he served in the US Army during World War II, setting up rest and recreation centres across Europe. He supported the US Air Forces on the French Riviera and the Venetian Lido, while back in America his wife Sunny Sund was successfully expanding the business across the country. In the post-war period, tiki bars experienced an explosion in popularity, and Don even opened a Polynesian Village on his Californian ranch, where Hollywood celebrities would come to party and escape reality.
Following the war, Don the Beachcomber ended up moving to Hawaii, where he opened up another Polynesian Village, set up his offices up in a towering Banyan Tree in Honolulu, and built a houseboat to live on (although this was destroyed in a terrible hurricane). He died in Hawaii on 7 June 1989, and was buried in a military ceremony including a 21-gun salute and a flyover. He’ll be remembered for his tiki bars, and for his Mai Tais, and for his most popular innovation of all: the cocktail umbrella.
Credit: Getty Images
Caption: Polynesian-themed restaurants enjoyed a burst of popularity after World War II, and can still be found around the world.