In 1926, 19-year-old Ernest Gantt left his home in Texas to explore the islands of the South Seas.
When Gantt returned to the United States eight years later, he opened a Polynesian-styled bar in Hollywood called Don's Beachcomber Café. The rum-soaked watering hole -- the first of its kind in North America -- was an immediate hit with Californians who had little experience with pu-pu platters and Samoa fog cutters.
Forty years later, a chain of restaurants paying homage to Don's Beachcomber Café sprang up across Western Canada. The Beachcomber Polynesian Restaurants -- located in Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria -- boasted starry ceilings, faux waterfalls and open steak pits where customers could watch chefs prepare exotic meals like pineapple ribs and "chicken coral sea."
A few weeks ago, Steve Ward was sitting in a pub on St. Mary Avenue, staring out the window at the Carlton Inn -- the former home of this city's Beachcomber (no relation to the current Beachcomber & Ba Ja Beach Club at The Forks). After settling his tab, Ward did something he's wanted to do for years: he walked across the street, entered what is now the Paragon Restaurant & Bar and asked a waitress there if anything was preserved -- a swizzle stick, a miniature umbrella -- after the Beachcomber was converted into the short-lived Mr. Greek in the early 1990s.
"She said she'd look in the basement sometime, but I convinced her to take me down on the spot," says Ward, a filmmaker who's putting together a documentary about the Beachcomber and, to a lesser extent, Winnipeg's lounge culture of the 1960s and '70s. "The old kitchen is down there and piles of boxes, but nothing really cool. But she said she'd take a second look and let me know if she finds anything."
While we're waiting, here's a question: why is Ward devoting time to a film about a dining establishment he never set foot in during its 30-year existence?
"I grew up in Selkirk and even though I never went there, it was one of those legendary places that always seemed to come up in conversation," says Ward, 41, whose first documentary, Happy Dysfunctional: The Story of Transistor 66 Records, had its première at the Park Theatre in November. "After the Beachcomber closed, my friends and I would go downtown for a beer and discuss it to the point where we built up this mythos about it."
Around the same time, Ward watched a PBS program about a man who, after reading Thor Heyerdahl's book The Kon-Tiki Expedition, attempted to recreate the Norwegian explorer's famous 1947 raft journey across the Pacific Ocean.
"The idea of leaving everything behind and going on this great adventure fascinated me, so I started reading Heyerdahl's books, too," Ward says. "For a while I had this vision that I was going to pack up and go live in the Marquesas Islands myself."
Ward settled for the next best thing: about five years ago, he began haunting antique shops and Value Village outlets in search of tiki mugs shaped like pineapples, hula girls and Maori gods.
"I was actually surprised to find any tiki stuff (in Winnipeg) at all -- that's why I started buying it," Ward says.
The idea for a movie came after Ward was in a flea market and spotted some coasters from long-gone local bars called the Moon Room Cabaret and the South Seas Lounge.
"Obviously there were imitations of the Beachcomber out there, so I thought it would be interesting to try and document that entire culture.
"But because I'm not positive I'll have enough material about the Beachcomber, I'm also hoping to interview other tiki collectors in Winnipeg."
Steve Ward, meet the Polynesian Princess -- a 36-year-old Winnipeg woman who has transformed a third-floor sunroom in her home into the second coming of Trader Vic's. (Because of the size and scope of her collection, the Princess -- let's call her Polly -- prefers to keep her identity under wraps.)
"I hope to do it up a bit more, but so far this has been a good place for me to escape Winnipeg winters," Polly says, offering a visitor a seat and a Dark 'n Stormy (rum and ginger beer).
"The room has its own thermostat -- I can set it to any temperature -- so once the sun goes down, I feel like I'm in my own little treehouse."
Polly grew up in Alberta and, like Ward, never made it to the Beachcomber herself. Her grandmother -- a globetrotter who always returned home with souvenirs of her adventures -- inspired Polly to start collecting tiki ephemera about 10 years ago. "I just loved the idea of somebody going away on a trip and lovingly bringing these types of things back with them," she says.
Polly stopped counting how many mugs she owns after No. 100. And unlike a lot of hobbyists who wouldn't dream of using their collectibles for their intended purpose, she thinks "it would be a shame" not to serve Mai Tais or silver clouds in 50-year-old vessels from places like the Bali Hai restaurant in San Diego.
"Drinking out of them is the fun part," says Polly, who has an equally impressive array of period-appropriate cocktail manuals. "My husband and I tiki -- we've turned it into a verb -- quite often. I'm the 'tarbender' -- I make all the drinks -- and I also have all the old equipment: presses for limes, hand cranks for making the perfect ice..."
On occasion, Polly will log on to websites like ooga-mooga.com to see what her fellow collectors have latched onto lately. But to date, all her own treasures have been purchased locally; she prefers "the thrill of the hunt" to shopping online, she says.
"I don't like to pay more than 10 dollars and I try not to let anything plastic work its way in here," she says, turning up a tune by her favourite artist, Eden Abez. "After all, there's a fine line between tiki and tacky."
Readers who have anecdotes and/or memorabilia related to the Beachcomber Polynesian Restaurant are encouraged to contact Steve Ward at email@example.com, or through this column.