Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, October 31, 2001


Don the Beachcomber's widow Phoebe Beach serves a
Beachcomber-style breakfast complete with parrots,
bananas and a bottle of rum.

Life’s a Beach

Don the Beachcomber returns
to life in a book packed
with his tropical cuisine

These Beachcomber drink mixes show
the potency of the rum life

By Betty Shimabukuro

Today being Halloween, we bring you the story of a dearly departed gentleman, gone for 12 long years, whose spirit has returned, conjured by his widow and her new husband.

He walks the Earth again, or perhaps more appropriately, combs the beaches, dressed always in safari garb and sipping a mai tai. "Rum," he can be heard to whisper, as though imparting wisdom learned in the afterlife, "is the nectar of the gods."

Donn Beach, better known as Don the Beachcomber, is memorialized in a new cookbook-slash-biography-slash-cultural commentary written by his wife, Phoebe Beach, and her second husband, Arnold Bitner. Tomorrow is the official launch of "Hawai'i: Tropical Rum Drinks & Cuisine by Don the Beachcomber" (Mutual Publishing, 128 pages, $12.95), with the authors beginning a round of book-signing sessions.

Donn Beach -- we'll call him the Beachcomber from here on, to distinguish him from Phoebe -- returns to the public consciousness at a fortuitous time. Ticky-taky tiki chic, that Hollywoodized image of Polynesia, is all the rage again. What better time to pay homage to the man who helped start it all?

The Beachcomber was a world traveler, a collector, the inventor of various highly potent tropical drinks, a businessman who ran a restaurant empire and developed the International Market Place. But mostly he was a non-stop personality able to imprint a culture with his vision of paradise.

Phoebe and Donn Beach married in 1982. They traveled and worked together until he died seven years later. "He was a good man, a good soul, a good person to know," Beach says. "He was just way cool."


Meet the authors

Tomorrow: Bestsellers, Bishop Street, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.
Saturday: Borders Ward Centre, 2-3 p.m.; Island Keepsakes, Nuuanu Avenue, 6 to 9 p.m.
Nov. 10: Borders Waikele, 2 to 3 p.m.
Nov. 17: Sam's Club Salt Lake, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Nov. 24: Costco Salt Lake, noon to 1 p.m.
Dec. 1: Waldenbooks Pearlridge, 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.
Dec. 8: Costco Hawaii Kai, noon to 1 p.m.

Bitner entered the picture when Beach started attending Arthur Murray Dance Studio, where he was an instructor. She had taken up ballroom dancing largely to restart her life after her husband's death. She says Bitner was critical to her healing process; they married in 1994. "I personally believe Donn sent him because he was just he sort of man I needed to help me."

Now, few men would think it a romantic gesture to write a history of the wife's first husband, but that's what Bitner did a few years ago as a birthday present for Beach. She had been trying to organize the Beachcomber's files and Bitner opted to jump in, drawing a life story out of the bits of paper, photographs and newspaper clippings saved over decades.

"It was a fascinating life," Bitner says in explaining his interest in this man he'd never met. "I feel I came to know him very well."

As a youth, the Beachcomber traveled extensively, circling the globe twice by age 24. He had a particular interest in the South Pacific. But he ended up in Hollywood in 1931, scraping out a living like so many young men in the Depression era. He worked in Chinatown soup kitchens, parked cars and bootlegged whiskey to make ends meet. Eventually, his Pacific knowledge had him serving as a technical advisor on motion pictures.

In 1933, he opened a tiny bar on Hollywood Boulevard, in a space he rented for $30 a month. He called it Don the Beachcomber, decorated it in items he'd collected in his South Pacific travels and began making history.

He offered his post-Prohibition customer base a wild variety of exotic drinks, beginning with the 25-cent Sumatra Kula and continuing through such specialties as the Zombie. History is a bit confused on whether it was the Beachcomber or Vic Bergeron (Trader Vic) who first served up a mai tai, but this book credits the drink unquestionably to the Don.

Anyway, the spirit (and the rum) caught on and by 1946, when Don the Beachcomber opened in Waikiki, he was the owner of a chain of restaurant/nightclubs built on Polynesian ticky-tack.

The in-house entertainment at all his bars included mynah birds trained to say, "Give me beer, stupid!" and other more profane things.

Of course, such a presentation of Pacific culture was not reality, and Beach says it was never meant to be.

"He understood the South Pacific very well and was very sensitive to the culture .... but in that form it wouldn't make money."

The restaurants reflected a beachcomber's life, Beach says, just as the name implied. "He was being the beachcomber collecting frick and frack, and being a host on top of it."

Bitner and Beach took the Beachcomber's story to several publishers. "They all thought it was passé and not enough people remembered him," Beach says.

Finally, though, Mutual Publishing said the story could work if it were woven around recipes for drinks and dishes from the old restaurants. So the couple went back to work.

The drinks, of course, are key, but Beach says the food dishes are also classics, born of the Beachcomber's natural ability to pair flavors and make traditional dishes his own. His restaurants largely featured Americanized versions of Chinese foods, but he also drew on Cajun techniques learned from his mother and, naturally, the flavors of the islands.

His drink recipes remained secret, even from his own bartenders, Bitner said. He'd number the liquor bottles, then remove the labels.

The bartenders would assemble the drinks by number.

The Beachcomber was a great believer in the power of rum to soothe both body and soul, and the book pays the elixir tribute right up front.

The words seem a fitting summary of the Beachcomber spirit: "Throughout the world, and for more than four hundred years, rum has been recognized as the one pure distilled spirit to quench the thirst, to heal the sick and to imbue strong men with the will to bold deeds."

These Beachcomber drink
mixes show the potency
of the rum life

By Betty Shimabukuro

Rum was an absolutely serious matter for Donn Beach. He was a connoisseur of the various kinds, stocked 138 brands in his restaurant and was very specific about which rum to use in which drink. Often several types were combined, which Beach maintained increased their potency.

"Tropical Rum Drinks and Cuisine" offers 32 formulas for rum drinks, from Beach's original mai tai to such intriguing drinks as Missionary's Downfall and Vicious Virgin.

The mai tai, the book states, is guaranteed to "provide comfort, warm your blood and restore your strength." The recipe includes the intended method for enjoying the drink: "Sip slowly through mint sprigs until desired effect results."

The Original Mai Tai

1-1/2 ounces Myers' Plantation rum
1 ounce Cuban rum
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
1/4 ounce Falernum
1/2 ounce Cointreau
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash Pernod
Shell of squeezed lime
1 cup cracked ice (dime-sized pieces)
>> Garnish:
4 sprigs mint
Pineapple spear

Combine ingredients into a mixer and shake 1 minutes at medium speed. Serve in double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with mint and pineapple.

Rum substitution: 1-1/2 ounces Appleton Estate and 1 ounce British Navy-style rum, such as Pusser's or Lamb's.

Accompanying this recipe in the book is the story of an Italian farmer's daughter who helped nurse Beach back to health after his plane was shot down during World War II. Not vicious in anyway, she was instead "a vision of loveliness," Beach recalled.

Vicious Virgin

3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce Cointreau
1/4 ounce Falernum
1/2 ounce Pureo Rican dark rum
1 ounce Virgin island St. Croix rum
Handful cracked ice (dime-sized pieces)

Pour ingredients into a blender. Blend 15 seconds at high speed. Serve in frozen champagne glass.

Rum substitution: 1/2 ounce Bacardi dark and 1 ounce Cruzan Light Dry Rum.

He may have been best known for his tropical drinks, but Don the Beachcomber was also a natural cook, his wife says. This is one of her favorites:

Poisson Cru

2 pounds fresh mahimahi or ahi
Juice from 8 ripe limes (do not substitute lemons)
2 cups coconut cream, or 1 14-ounce can
1 large, ripe tomato
1 medium carrot, grated
1 medium Maui onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon white salt
3 shallots, finely chopped
1/2 cup thin strips cucumber
1/2 cup chopped parsley
2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced

Cut ahi into cubes and place in bowl. Toss with remaining ingredients. Serve with baguette and a beer. Serves 4.

Approximate nutritioanl analysis, per serving: 500 calories, 22 g total fat, 17 g saturated fat, 270 mg cholesterol, greater than 2,000 mg sodium, 34 g carbohydrate, 50 g protein.*

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