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, exotic artifacts and nautical flotsam, pu pu platters, rumaki, 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) of SAAAB, 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. But 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 restaurant business 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.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Independence Day, 1903

Today's photo shows a parade going through Downtown Anaheim, along Center St. (now Lincoln Ave.), on July 4, 1903. It looks like most of the town marched or rode in the parade.

The L.A. Times reported Anaheim's 1903 "programme for the Fourth of July... as follows: Seven a.m., firing of guns; 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. band concerts; 10 a.m., start of grand parade from Del Campo corner, floats, automobiles, horsemen, bands, military companies, Columbia Marching Club, carriages, etc.; 11 a.m., reading Declaration of Independence, music, songs and children's programme; 11:15 a.m., oration of the day by Senator Caldwell; 12 [noon], military companies go into camp; 12:30 p.m., barbecue for military companies and distinguished guests of the day; 2 to 6 p.m., athletic sports; 3 p.m., ball game; 4 p.m., grand parade of horribles; 7 to 8 p.m., band concerts; 8 p.m., fireworks and grand electrical illumination; 9:30 p.m. grand ball at Operahouse. H. A. Dickel will be grand marshal. Anaheim, Fullerton, Santa Ana, Buena Park and Orange will be represented in the parade by floats and organizations."

The community had to raise over $600 to make it all happen, but a good time was had by the thousands who attended. It seems just about everyone in town was filled with patriotic fervor.

One hundred and ten years later, America faces a strange Independence Day full of contradictions. Even as we celebrate freedom, more and more of our freedoms are being taken away. Public apathy and ignorance allow elected officials on both sides of the aisle to undercut individual liberty and give themselves more power. Putting out flags and bunting and throwing a big party is a great thing to do on the Fourth of July -- But only if you back it up on Election Day and on every other day of the year.