Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Keeping Costa Mesa Safe for Democracy, One Mai Tai at a Time

Don the Beachcomber at one of his famous luaus.
Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (1907-1989) legally changed his name several times, first to Don Beach-Comber, then to Donn Beachcomber, and finally to Donn Beach. To most of the world, he was known as Don the Beachcomber.

Gantt left his native Texas in 1926 to explore the Caribbean and South Pacific. He returned to America, where he worked numerous jobs, including bootlegger. He struggled until he came to Hollywood and opened the successful Don's Beachcomber Cafe in 1934 (renamed Don The Beachcomber in 1937). Donn invented what we now know as the tiki bar and the Polynesian restaurant: Movie-set-like decor,  full of exotic artifacts and nautical flotsam;  pu pu platters, rumaki and thinly disguised Cantonese food; and the sense that every meal was an escape to an exotic locale. Also, he invented dozens of rum-based drinks like the Mai Tai, the Zombie, Tahitian Rum Punch, and Navy Grog.
The original Don the Beachcomber, on McCadden Place in Hollywood.
When World War II broke out, he went into the Army, which sent him overseas. He left his business in the capable hands of his wife, Cora Irene "Sunny" Sund.

Off the coast of North Africa, the ship Donn was on was torpedoed by a U-boat. He was awarded the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. After recovering from his harrowing experience, Donn was,  according to most available biographies, "put to work setting up rest camps for combat-weary airman of the 12th and 15th Air Forces in Capri, Nice, Cannes, the French Riviera, Venice, the Lido and Sorrento..."

What those biographies don't tell you is that he also ended up in not-quite-so-romantic-nor-exotic Orange County, California.
Detail of a matchbook cover from the SAAAB Officers' Mess.
An article in the May 30, 1942, Los Angeles Times read,...
"If officers at the Santa Ana Army Air Base, Air Corps replacement center here appear well fed these days, the reason can be explained easily. That reason is Capt. Don Beach-Comber, who until recently was a widely known cafe operator. Col. W.A. Robertson, commanding officer, this week assigned Capt. Beach-Comber to the supervision of the officers' club and mess at the air base. Former owner of a popular Hollywood cafe, Capt. Beach-Comber now is turning his hand to producing his dishes for officers at this post, another instance of a successful businessman leaving an established business actively to do his part."
Col. William Abbott Robertson (left), welcomes Capt. Don Beach-Comber, May 1942.
The Santa Ana Army Air Base (SAAAB) was located in what's now part of Costa Mesa, on land now occupied by the Orange County Fairgrounds, Orange Coast College, Vanguard University, housing tracts and more. Donn was probably a good fit there. He knew most of the big stars in Hollywood, and many of those stars were regulars at SAAAB, entertaining the troops and broadcasting live national radio shows from the base.

Naturally, the Officers' Mess suddenly took on a tropical flair. Bamboo furniture, tropical-print fabrics and fake palm trees supplemented the government issued decor. Times columnist Bill Henry was impressed with the food and the look: "Gosh, maybe Santa Ana is really Shangri-La!"
The tropical Officer's Mess at SAAAB. (National Archives photo)
Don the Beachcomber attained the rank of colonel in the Army. After the war, he returned to Hollywood to find that his wife had turned his popular restaurant into a popular chain of restaurants. Donn had other plans. He and Sunny divorced, and she was awarded the restaurant chain. Donn worked around this by starting a new Don the Beachcomber outside the United States -- In the territory of Hawaii. He would go on to change the image and tourism industry of the islands forever.

But that's a story for another time.

The only Don the Beachcomber restaurant left on the mainland is in Sunset Beach.


finky the kid said...

Thanks for posting this. I never knew Don Beach was the Mess officer at the old SAAAB.

Ruby said...

In the 60"s my Marine Dad "moonlighted" as a Bartender in the Officers Clubs at wherever base we were stationed at(he was a Lifer)and the best times with him was Sunday mornings "helping" with bar prep. The clubs were always TIKI decor and now I know were my love for Tiki manifested. Thanks to Don and Thanks to Art Snyder for our Tiki in O.C.

Edwin said...

I went there when I was a kid and though the place was another world. Enjoyed your post immensely.

Theda said...

This is awesome!