|Don the Beachcomber at one of his famous luaus.|
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.|
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.|
"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.|
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)|
But that's a story for another time.
|The only Don the Beachcomber restaurant left on the mainland is in Sunset Beach.|