Los Angeles has long has a fondness for Hawaiian music and style and Hollywood films did much to romanticize the islands as a tropical paradise prior to World War II.
Pan-American’s Martin M-130, “China Clipper” conjured up images of romantic eastern ports and swaying palms under balmy tropical skies, which the airline capitalized on in its advertising. On April 28 1937 the China Clipper made history by completing the first transpacific flight by a commercial passenger airliner, landing at Hong Kong after having departed San Francisco on April 21st carrying 7 ticketed passengers. Honolulu was it first stop.
Owens met Bing Crosby when both were performing at the Lafayette in 1926. Two of the songs crooned by Crosby in the 1937 film Waikiki Wedding, “Blue Hawaii” and “Sweet Leilani,” became standards. The latter won an Academy Award for best song that year and became Bing’s first gold record. Harry Owens, who wrote “Sweet Leilani” for his young daughter in 1934, would perform the song with his band in the 1938 film Coconut Grove.
Hollywood loved a Hawaiian/Pacific Island settings; if nothing else it was a way to get the leading lady into a grass skirt. With the talkie era, they could also capitalize on the popularity of Hawaiian music and dance.
The 1935 production of Mutiny on the Bounty, based on the 1932 novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, itself based on real events, sparked a flurry of South Pacific themed films, peaking in 1937.
Those who craved even more escapist tropical fun could drink a rum cocktail out of a coconut in a room full of bamboo and fake palm trees.
The Cocoanut Grove
Hollywood had long known the charms of swaying palms under the stars- though the palm-filled Cocoanut Grove nightclub, located in the Ambassador Hotel, was thinking more sheik-desert-sand-palms than Hawaiian palms when it opened in 1922. The palms are supposed to have been left over from the film sets for Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik. Well, maybe.
Though sheik-mania was soon passé, the Grove’s swaying palms held their lure for decades to come.
Kings Tropical Inn
Located on Washington Boulevard near West Adams in Culver CIty, Kings Tropical Inn was opened by John G. King in late 1925. The specialty of the house may have been southern-style chicken but the lush landscaping and interior decor were worthy of the name.
The restaurant burned down on February 17, 1930 and was rebuilt at the same site two months later in a Spanish/Moorish style with even more tropical foliage.
Clifton’s Pacific Seas Cafeteria
618 S. Olive St.
Clifford Clinton opened his first Los Angeles cafeteria, “The Cafeteria of the Tropics,” here on September 17, 1931. The 2-story building, designed by architect Charles F. Plummer, had been constructed in 1921 for the Boos Brothers cafeteria chain. The LA Times reported in November 1931 that the space had been “transformed into a lovely tropical dining room with palm trees, birds, fountains, etc.” Music by Ray Canfield’s Hawaiian Beach Boys enhanced the exotic atmosphere.
In 1935, Clinton opened a second LA cafeteria at 648 S. Broadway (also a former Boos Brothers), known as Clifton’s Brookdale.
Clinton became instrumental in the citizen-led effort to expose Los Angeles’ vice conditions, which ultimately led to the recall of mayor Frank Shaw in September 1938, as described in my post The Angels Take a Bath.
In 1939, 618 S. Olive was remodeled into Clifton’s Pacific Seas. The tropical theme was expanded to a new level, with rock grottos, neon lighting, bamboo and lauhala matting everywhere, even more tropical foliage and birds, multiple waterfalls, including one on the facade itself, and a “rain hut” dining room that featured a tropical storm effect.
Clifton’s Pacific Seas closed in 1960, and the building was demolished. A tribute tiki bar called the Pacific Seas is located inside the former Clifton’s Brookdale location, now called Clifton’s Republic, at 648 S. Broadway.
Don the Beachcomber
The original Don’s Beachcomber bar, founded by Ernest Raymond Gantt, opened at 1722 N. McCadden Place shortly after full Repeal in 1933. Managed by Gantt’s wife Cora “Sunny” Sund, the tropical-themed night-spot with potent rum-based concoctions like the Zombie, caught on with the Hollywood drinking crowd in a big way.
The club temporarily lost its liquor license in January 1936, branded by the State Board of Equalization as an “undesirable liquor establishment” for violation of liquor ordinances. In May 1937, Don the Beachcomber opened in a new spot across the street from the old one, at 1727 N. McCadden. Once a second location of the popular Tick Tock Tearoom at 1716 N. Cahuenga, the new location also had a restaurant that served exotic Cantonese fare.
Harry M. “Sugie” Sugarman opened The Tropics on November 28, 1935. The Tropics’ bamboo décor and “rain on the roof” effects were said to have been inspired by the 1932 Joan Crawford film Rain.
Located at 421 N. Rodeo Drive not far from other celebrity handouts like the Beverly Hills Brown Derby, “tailor-to-the-stars” Eddie Schmidt and the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel, it was billed as “the informal cocktail lounge and dining room of the motion picture industry” and did attract a rare mix of both movie star and Society clientele.
Sugie’s original Tropics in Bev Hills remained as popular as ever throughout the 1940s. In 1953 new owner Bob Crane (the ex- Mr. Lana Turner) renamed it The Luau and kept the tropical atmosphere until the building was demolished in 1979.
The 7 Seas
Located at 6904 Hollywood Boulevard across the street from the Chinese Theater, the 7 Seas featured rain on the roof effects and a hula dancer floor show. It was originally run by Ray Haller. Haller applied for a permit to make alterations to the building, formerly used as a store/office space, on November 7, 1935 and it was serving up the tropical atmosphere starting c. December 1935/January 1936.
In May 1937, the 7 Seas was raided by the LAPD Hollywood vice squad, led by Detective Lt. Charles Hoy, and cited for violating the liquor closing laws. The Shaw administration and LAPD’s connection to protected vice was under fire at the time, the result of citizen committees for reform, led by Clifford Clinton and others.That Hoy raided the 7 Seas means they were either making a big show of enforcing the liquor laws or Haller hadn’t greased Hoy’s palm sufficiently.
Bob Brooks had taken over the Seven Seas by January 1942 but Brooks enhanced the café’s tropical décor with outstanding works of art on black velvet by artist Edgar Leeteg, visiting Leeteg in Tahiti to personally select the paintings.
In 1942, Brooks also operated the new Nevada Biltmore in Las Vegas at 614 N. Main Street, with the tropical-themed 7 Seas Room, which like its Hollywood counterpart featured Leeteg paintings.
The Bamboo Room of the Hollywood Brown Derby
1628 N. Vine Street
The Bamboo Room cocktail lounge debuted to the public on February 7, 1936, located inside the Vine Street Brown Derby, the second of the chain’s restaurants, which had opened in 1929. Carole Lombard hosted a private party at the venue on February 5, a few nights before it opened to the public. A press preview was held on February 6. Gossip columnist Jimmy Fidler called the new space “the most ultra of the Hollywood cocktail bars.” Replete with bamboo (duh) and zebra-print upholstery, it had its own entrance just south of the main one, with access to the dining room. In April 1940, the bar added a television set! The bamboo theme lasted into the early 1950s.
7566 Melrose Avenue
Hawaiian Paradise opened in April 1937. One of its owners was Lorena “Rena” Rogers, an ex-actress and, from 1916 to 1941, wife of actor-turned-director Frank Borzage. After giving up acting, Rena took many trips to Hawaii, and back in Hollywood would throw huge Polynesian-themed parties with signers and hula dancers to entertain.
She recognized the competing popularity of Latin music in the latter part of the 1930s, and alternated Cuban and Hawaiian rhythms on different nights. Under various ownership, the club continued into 1947 at least.
The Hula Hut
8204 Beverly Blvd.
The Hula Hut opened on October 30, 1936, with “Nuda the Beach Girl” and Dick McIntire; the latter led a popular Hawaiian orchestra for many years. In late 1937 Sam Koki and Andy Iona (Andrew Aiona Long) and their Colombia Recording Islanders were there, along with Augie Auld.
Hula Hut opening night ad 10/30/1936.
Hawaiian-born steel guitarist Dick McIntire, a Navy veteran, moved to Southern California after World War I. He performed in many Hawaiian-themed films made in the 1930s. He died in 1951.
The Hawaiian Hut
7210 Beverly Blvd.
The Hawaiian Hut opened down the street from the Hula Hut in late 1936-early 1937, run by Tony Guerrero and Bill Ornellas, whose nickname was “Whistling/Whislyn/Whislin’.” Built in 1928, the building had previously housed a series of short-lived cafes and clubs before the Hawaiian Hut came along.
It was not the first cafe in Los Angeles to be called the Hawaiian Hut. Ex-boxer/dentist Leach Cross had opened a Hawaiian Hut at 12745 Ventura Boulevard, across from the Hollywood Country Club, on December 10, 1925, but quickly tired of the venture and sold it in 1927 and his Hawaiian Hut became The Romany Shack.
Ornellas’ Hawaiian Hut featured not just mere rain on the roof but an entire tropical storm effect. On July 13, 1942, the hut was damaged by an arson-set fire; it reopened September 2, 1942 and continued here through 1945.
Whisling Ornellas would go on to run another Hawaiian-themed club, Whisling’s Hawaii, at 6507 Sunset Boulevard, a building constructed in 1922 for the Holly-Sunset Market. It operated through 1956, often hosting jazz acts.
Gene’s Hawaiian Village
10637 S. Vermont Avenue
Gene’s Hawaiian Village was up and running as of May 1936. The venue notably featured native performers. Both Dick McIntire and Sal Hopi performed here with extended engagements.
The “village,” located to the north of the cafe itself, consisted of Samoan huts, canoes, beachcomber shacks, and “everything authentic enough to transport you in imagination to another world,” according to columnist Win Morrow. Gene’s operated into 1948.
La Brea and Beverly
Opening in October 1937 at La Brea and Beverly Boulevard as Waikiki, “Honolulu transplanted to Hollywood.” It featured the Noe-Noe room cocktail lounge, Hawaiian songbird Lena Machado, and a floorshow featuring Prince Lei Laini and Sol Hooppi’s Hawaiian orchestra.
3828 Slauson Avenue
The Zamboanga South Seas nightclub, “Home of the Tailless Monkeys” was the creation of Minnesota transplant Joe Chastek. Chastek discovered the South Seas as a young man; he was living in Honolulu as of 1930 per US Census records, and in Manilla in 1935.
Originally called “Joe’s Zamboanga” South Sea Cafe and Cocktail Lounge, the venue opened in late 1938 and featured performers such as Bob Nichols as well as an annual luau. By early 1940 it was just “Zamboanga” and the “tailess monkeys” had made their appearance. In June 1941, Chastek expanded the cafe and added a 17 foot neon-lit monkey sign to the roof.
During the war, in December 1944, “Trader Joe” Chastek opened a second club, the Trade Winds, at 334 S. Market Street in Inglewood, again with a monkey theme.
After the war, in late 1947, Chastek would open a third South Seas-themed club, the Vagabond House, at 2505 Wilshire Boulevard, in the Masque Theater building.
9349 Washington Blvd.
Niel [sic] Murphy opened the Coral Isle, across from the RKO/Selznick International studios in Culver City on April 12, 1939. It featured murals by Frank Bowers, decorative matting and bamboo everything. The house specialty was chicken dinners.
Harold La Van took over Coral Isle in July 1941. La Van had operated a previous cafe in Venice, the Bambu Hut (discussed below) as well as the Rhumba Cabana in Santa Monica. La Van expanded the Coral Isle in 1944. It was soon taken over by brothers Phil and Lou Stein and their partner Bob Sassner, then Bob Axelrod in September 1946. In 1956 it became the sophisticated Culver House.
The Bambu Hut
25 Windward Ave.
Harold La Van had operated a club at 25 Windward Avenue in Venice since the mid 1930s. On February 2, 1940 he reopened the club as the Bambu Hut with a new, tropical theme. La Van soon moved on to other ventures, including the Coral Isle, but the Bamboo Hut continued under various managers into the 1950s.
Other crazes would come and go but Hollywood never really lost its fondness for things tropical. On December 7, 1941, all eyes turned to Honolulu, in horror, with the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Following the US entry into World War II, Los Angeles became a port of embarkation for service personnel heading to the Pacific Theater. The China Clippers were painted olive drab, the Matson “Big White Ships” became grey and these romantic modes of transportation were drafted into military service. Waikiki Beach was closed off with barbed wire and The Royal Hawaiian became an R&R facility for the military.
On January 18, 1942, Hawaiian and Tahitian performers from 12 nightclubs, including Bob Brooks’ 7 Seas, Zamboanga, the Hula Hut, and Gene’s Hawaiian Village, lent their talent at a rally for defense savings stamps and bonds at the Defense House in Pershing Square and drew the largest crowd to date.
Tropical-themed bars and restaurants became more popular than ever during and after the war and, of course, Don the Beachcomber’s, the Seven Seas, The Cocoanut Grove and King’s Tropical Inn remained fixtures for decades.
1722 McCadden became another tropical-themed club, The Tahiti.
Tom Breneman died of a sudden heart attack in April 1948, leaving behind a wife, two young children, and thousands of devastated fans. Breneman’s restaurant continued to operate for a time, following his passing, but the contents were finally sold at auction in January 1950. The space became the new home of ABC radio.
Mayor Shaw was ousted in a recall election in September 1938. Hoy would be among the officers purged from the LAPD in March 1939 by Shaw’s replacement, former Superior Judge Fletcher Bowron, who campaigned on a reform platform.
The Masque Theater opened in 1926 as a legitimate state theater. In 1950 it was converted into a movie theater and renamed The Vagabond, probably because of Chastek’s popular restaurant, which became the La Fonda in 1969.
There was also a postwar club called the Bambu Hut, located in Ontario at 522 W. A Street.
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