Starting in 1934, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt – aka Donn Beach – opened the first Polynesian motif bar in Los Angeles, just off Hollywood Boulevard.
Named “Don the Beachcomber,” his bar seated about two dozen customers and he scattered a few tables in the remaining space. The place was decorated with faux South Pacific décor, along with old nets and parts of wrecked boats he scavenged from the oceanfront.
Not to be out-done, Victor Jules Bergeron – aka Trader Vic – in 1936 converted his Oakland “Hinky Dink’s” pub into a South Seas tropical retreat with tiki carvings, bamboo and outrigger canoes and rechristened it “Trader Vic’s.”
The Polynesian Pop revival was underway.
The Polynesian restaurant is one of the first, and perhaps most successful, of the theme restaurants in the middle 20th-century.
Much of the success of Polynesian restaurants rests in the recreation of outdoor landscapes that are responsible for bringing the magic of the Polynesia to life in the restaurants. Inscape is prevalent and incredibly intricate, with a high level of detail and realism.
The most successful Polynesian restaurants make use of water features, live plants, rocks, and even special effects to recreate lush, paradisiac environments. The use of Inscape strongly suggests the fostering of a sense of place by anchoring the theme restaurant in a particular time and place. (Cornell)
Historically the thematic construct for Polynesian restaurants is intended as a total immersion in another cultural context, so much so that its effect is to disassociate people from their familiar surroundings.
Polynesian restaurants provide an escape from routine. “Women in particular like to ‘get away from it all’ by dining in a romantic, exotic room with a ‘faraway look in its eyes.'”
One trade source states that “the ways in which mats and thatch are used beneath the ceiling stimulated the shutting out of (the city’s) heat and glare.” (Cornell)
In the 1950s and 60s, an epidemic of island fever swept the US. Tiki-themed structures spread like jungle vines. (Flaherty) The Polynesian restaurant boom produced from 100 to 200 restaurants.
One consequence of the disjunction from reality means that Polynesian restaurants are adaptable for any American city. Consequently, they were built across the country in seemingly unlikely places.
Once such made its way to uptown in the Windy City.
From its opening in 1949, Honolulu Harry’s Waikiki on Wilson Avenue in Chicago, provides “entertainment direct from Hawaii” and “dancing under Hawaiian skies.”
By 1959, its owner escalated the restaurant to an “authentic Hawaiian theatre restaurant.”
It stood on the corner of Clarendon and Wilson in uptown Chicago. “There were fresh pineapples on the tables, paper leis and ti leaves hanging all around”. (Campbell, 1954)
“So many clubs have come and gone,” said veteran entertainer Gwen Kennedy, owner of The Barefoot Hawaiian, who performed in many of the vanished places, doing the hula on stage at Honolulu Harry’s beginning at age 3. (Daily Herald)
Although Polynesian restaurants remained fashionable in the 1960s, other theme dining establishments start to appear with different themes. (Cornell)
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Gail Carne says
Great article. Throughout the 1960s my mom worked at Tahitian Village in Downey, CA.