Friday, April 13, 2018

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Goodbye, Don the Beachcomber

1960s view of Sam's Seafood (now Don the Beachcomber)
Word is out that Don the Beachcombers in Sunset Beach is closing soon. Don’s owners would like to keep the business running as long as they can (perhaps until the landlord shoos them out or they run out of food and drink?). and they are looking for another location in which to reopen. It's not the restaurant owners, but rather the folks who own the land UNDER Don’s who want to replace it with something else. I understand the rent has been raised astronomically. Some years ago, the landowners wanted to replace the restaurant with condos, but couldn't get the zoning changed. Today it's still zoned for "Commercial Visitor," which I suppose could be a hotel or new restaurant buildings.

Proprietor Delia Snyder told the O.C. Register, "We are not closing." However, the bands that were scheduled throughout April have been told to find other accommodations, some of the decor has already been taken down, and no upcoming Tiki Makeke event has been announced. And the bartenders (according the Register) are telling customers that Don's will close soon. (Read more about the conflicting reports in Los Angeles Magazine.)

In a visit on 3/28/2018, I couldn't help but notice that they'd run out of ingredients for about a third of the items they normally serve, which tells me they may not be re-ordering food and certain drink mixers. I also noticed that they were woefully understaffed. (The few that were left were really getting a workout.) Meanwhile, at the Karaoke Night event in the bar, some young lady was belting out Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" to an understanding and cheering crowd:

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

In the main dining room
Don’s is one of the last Tiki palaces in America -- A rare original remnant of a cultural phenomenon that once spanned the nation. As Sam's Seafood (which recast their 1940s restaurant building into a Tiki paradise in the 1960s) it was a popular dining spot and a key landmark on Pacific Coast Highway. In more recent years, it was home base for the Southern California Tiki revival, it brought the historic Don the Beachcomber brand back to the mainland, it preserved the best of the historic Sam’s Seafood, it hosted stellar Tiki swapmeets, and it served as one of Orange County’s most notable music venues.
Old matchbook cover
A visit to Don’s was a delightful trip into the heyday of Tiki. One can build a new Tiki bar, but you can’t “make” a new historic site. I don’t know specifically who the owners are who decided to jack up the restaurant’s rent so outrageously that no tenant could stay and survive. I only hope they have a really, really good excuse. It would have to be a doozy to justify this loss.
Modern view of Don's entrance
At some point I'll write up a full history of Sam's Seafood and the Huntington Beach incarnation of Don the Beachcomber. I have a large collection of notes and research for just that task already stockpiled for that purpose. But for now -- with this terrible moment upon us, I thought I would at least share a scattered few images of the place and its history.
Duke Kahanamoku with the Katsaris boys at Sam's Seafood, 1960s. (Photo courtesy Gary Katsaris)
UPDATE: As of the evening of 4-2-2018, Don's is still serving customers. The rumor now is that they're going to stay open as long as they can, which may be as much as a couple weeks. Come on down.
Interior view at Sam's Seafood. (Photo by author)

Dinner with Don the Beachcomber owner/reviver Art Snyder and friends

The Ding Dong Devils play the Dagger Bar in 2016.

Me, speaking at the Orange County Historical Society's annual dinner at Don's.
 For more photos, see my Flickr account.
Tiki Makeke swapmeet, Jan. 2018 (Photo by author)

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Islands of Knott's (Part II)

Jungle Island at Knott's Berry Farm. Photo courtesy Orange County Archives.
Shortly after grading land at Knott's Berry Farm for use as an amazing South Seas Island Boat Ride, theme park legend Bud Hurlbut abandoned the tiki theme for the boat ride. Either on his own, or under advisement from Russell or Walter Knott, Bud decided that another "Old West" type ride would suit Knott's Berry Farm better.  Other than some Hawaiian-style patio decor for sale in the Basket Shop, Knott's didn't have much of anything that evoked the South Pacific.

So it was that plans for the South Seas Island Boat Ride were transformed into plans for the Northwest Fur Trapper Boat Ride. It was essentially the same ride, but with different set dressing and no flow of "red hot lava" to simulate.
Concept painting by Mentor Huebner for the Northwest Fur Trapper Boat Ride. Note the incongruous Polynesian island motif still depicted on the far shore of the lagoon. Image courtesy Christopher Merritt.
But beyond some attractive concept art by Mentor Huebner and some additional design work by Dick Bagley, the Northwest Fur Trapper project also went nowhere. The "dry islands" continued to sit unused.

Bud and his crew at Hurlbut Amusement focused on making improvements to the mine ride, and on a variety of new projects -- some of which came to fruition and some not.  There were unrealized plans for a monorail with 2,000 feet of track, and plans for a variety of attractions that were built near the farm's seal pool.

However, in 1963, there were new signs of life across the highway. With no progress evident on the boat ride, John Holland -- an employee of Knott's stagecoach concessionaire Bill Higdon -- suggested using the boat troughs as the pathway for an outdoor "Tallyho Ride," where guests would be taken past scenes of animated woodland animals and deserted pioneer wagons in a horse-drawn Omnibus.
Concept model for Overland Trail, 1963. Photo courtesy Orange County Archives.
The Overland Trail Ride, as it was known, opened on June 5, 1964. It was about seven minutes long and took guests "through the enchanted area and past a sizable desert scene." It seems Bud was skeptical about its future.

Indeed, the Overland Trail Ride only lasted a few years. But it seemed to ensure that the boat ride plan would never rise again. 
Overland Trail Ride at Knott's, 1964. Photo courtesy Orange County Archives.
At about that same time, the small paddle-wheel steamboat Hurlbut originally intended to have circling the entire South Seas Island Lagoon, was completed. It would have served something of the same purpose as the old Mike Fink Keelboats at Disneyland. But with no water in the South Seas Lagoon, the steamboat Cordelia K (named for Walter Knott's wife) was put to use in a small manmade lake also on the property.
The Cordelia K paddle-wheeler. Photo courtesy Orange County Archives.
But at the same time, the adjacent Jungle Island -- which Hurlbut had abandoned -- was about to live up to its promise. Walter Knott had hired landscaper and folk artist Forrest L. Morrow, Sr., of Elgin, Illinois, to restore the old "Catawampus" wooden animal  which was displayed in his Ghost Town. Knott was pleased with the restoration work and he invited Morrow to bring his "Wood-imals" to the Farm.
Forrest Morrow carving one of his Wood-imals: "a completely unique race of 'Natural-Art' creatures in a fantastic Jungle setting." Photo courtesy Orange County Archives.
Morrow's Wood-imals were fanciful depictions of various animals (and occasionally people) made from twisted and gnarled tree branches and stumps.

It was decided that Morrow would populate Jungle Island with his Wood-imals and operate it as a children's playground with a 25-cent admission fee. Finally, the portion of the Lagoon immediately around Jungle Island was lined with gunnite and filled with water, the existing tropical landscaping was supplemented, and Morrow moved himself and his family to California to run the operation. At the time, he was 77 years old.
Map of Jungle Island, courtesy Orange County Archives.
Jungle Island opened May 2, 1964. A brochure distributed at that time stated, "The island is managed by Mr. and Mrs. Morrow, their daughter, Evalee, and her husband, James F. Webb. The two Webb children, Johnny, 11, and Hillary, 16, often help out after school hours and in vacation periods, while one of the Morrow grandsons, Bobby Eggler, the photographer of the family, takes publicity pictures of the Wood-imals as their tribe increases." It went on to state that Morrow's work had previously been displayed in "New York's Long Island, Wisconsin's Dells, forest preserves, restaurants, Santa's Village [in Dundee, Illinois] and private estates all over the mid-west. Recently, the Chicago Park District ordered Wood-imals for flower shows and the chidren's zoo..."
Evalee Webb, Walter Knott and Forest Morrow at Jungle Island, circa 1964. Photo courtesy Stack’s Liberty Ranch.
Theme park historian Christopher Merritt wrote, "Jungle Island was more than just the Wood-imals scattered about. It was a dense, Jungle-like area where a kid could get lost, and dirty, and be adventurous with minimal parental supervision. My fondest memories of Jungle Island are in the 1970s, when my brother and I would get dropped off there... It was kinda like 'Knott's lite.'"
Entrance bridge to Jungle Island. Postcard courtesy Orange County Archives.
But like most of the concessions located across Beach Boulevard  from the main portion of the farm, Jungle Island struggled financially. Still, it survived for almost two decades.

However, in 1982, Knott's new C.E.O., Terry Van Gorder, who had wrested artistic control from the Knott family, decided that Jungle Island had to go. In 1983 it was turned into a park like "nature area."
Lush, tropical, silly Jungle Island.

[Ed - A certain blogger once visited the nature area as a lad and was yelled at by "one of the Knott girls" for swordfighting with his friends using fallen bamboo poles from the landscaping.]

Eventually the nature area was turned into an area for corporate parties and events. The small lagoon bordering part of Jungle Island still remains, as does some of its tropical landscaping. Coincidentally, the large picnic shelters constructed in the 1980s were designed with a Polynesian look.

Current corporate picnic area at Jungle Island/Knott's Lagoon. Photo by author.
Just to the north of Jungle Island, the planned site of the South Seas Island Boat Ride is now another corporate picnic area, called "Gold Rush Camp." The slightly rolling terrain still hints at how Hurlbut once carved the land to fit his vision.

Why Bud never built his elaborate South Seas paradise remains a mystery. But by looking at the remaining evidence, and by knowing his innovative and impressive work on the Mine Ride and Log Ride, we can be sure we missed out on something very special.
Another view of Jungle Island. Postcard courtesy Orange County Archives.
(Click here to see Part I of this article.)

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Islands of Knott's (Part I)

Detail from ride concept art, with Tiki and volcano added by author based on comments by Bud Hurlbut.
The greatest tiki theme-park ride of all time was nearly built in the last place you'd expect: The Old West-themed Knott's Berry Farm, in Buena Park, California. And at least a few reminders of that unrealized dream can still be found today. The lush tropical vegetation and Tiki-style picnic huts of "Jungle Island" (now called Knott’s Lagoon) are just a tiny hint of what was and what almost was.

The story of Knott's Berry Farm is a fascinating and complicated one, beginning with an actual berry farm in the 1920s, a wildly-popular chicken dinner restaurant (and diversions for waiting guests) developing in the 1930s, and a replica "Ghost Town" appearing in the early 1940s. But aside from rides on the Butterfield Stage, there weren't any real rides at Knott's until the 1950s, when ride builder and operator Bud Hurlbut approached a skeptical Walter Knott with the idea of putting in a Carousel. Ultimately he sold him on the idea. This hand-shake deal led to a second ride, and a third, and eventually to a decades-long business arrangement with Bud having the concession for most of the rides at Knott's. His most legendary achievements there were the Calico Mine Ride (1960) and the Timber Mountain Log Ride (1969) -- both of which are signature Knott's attractions to this day. Bud dreamed up, financed, built, owned and operated both of these landmark rides. 
Bud Hurlbut inspects a scene in his new Calico Mine Ride, 1960.
It was in the midst of those prime "thinking big" years -- when the mine ride was still incomplete -- that Bud began planning a South Seas "land," with an elaborate and ambitious South Seas Island Boat Ride.  In their book, Knott's Preserved, authors Chris Merritt and Eric Lynxwiler describe the area: "Clearly inspired by Disneyland's Jungle Cruise, the developing Lagoon area across Beach Boulevard would become home to an exciting tour around tropical islands with thrills along the way."

It was all to be built on land Knott owned on the opposite side of Highway 39 (Beach Boulevard) from the rest of "the farm."  Plans (shown below) were drawn in April of 1959.
Drawing of islands for Hurlbut Amusement by Dick Bagley, courtesy Christopher Merritt
In early January, 1960, Russell Knott, Walter's son and a key manager of the Farm, stopped by Bud's shop and found him mulling over ideas for the South Seas ride. He asked Bud to focus on getting the mine ride finished first.  But just days later, Bud and his associate, Dick Bagley, (who had worked on designing Disneyland's steam trains) were out eyeballing the proposed South Seas area again. Bud would also go for walks on the land with his wife, Lou, and his dog, Beagle, turning over the possibilities in his mind. Still perpetually steeped in the mine ride project, his mind naturally turned to mountains and caverns. Whatever else the boat ride had, it should certainly have both of those. But he really didn't have time to do more work on the project until the mine ride was completed. 

When the Calico Mine Ride opened on November 22, 1960, it was an immediate booming success. And it also allowed Bud to get back to his other plans. By Thanksgiving, he was already starting to think about the South Seas ride again. By New Years Eve he was discussing plans once again with his employees.
Exterior of the newly opened Calico Mine Ride, circa 1960.
In early 1961, Bud went to work creating the new ride's waterways, building up its islands, and planting the banks with tropical-looking foliage.

 “...I got a couple of bulldozers, you can see all the passageways in there," Bud told Chris Merritt in a 1998 interview. "One was the South Seas with the big volcano and lava running down. I was kinda concerned on how I was gonna make lava red hot running down. I don’t know if I ever really got that all worked out or not…”

Later concept art, referencing South Seas plans, showed an Island village scene, with thatched huts on stilts and outrigger canoes on the beach. And the ride almost certainly would have included waterfalls, large tikis, and a variety of fake wildlife.
"Leftover" South Seas Island Boat Ride scene in background of later "Fur Trapper Ride" concept art.
Bud said the ride "would have been pretty much like the Jungle Cruise." But the addition of tunnels and a huge erupting volcano hint at the way Bud's ideas tended to grow and become more elaborate over time. The boats would actually pass through caves UNDER the volcano, and one can only guess what the inventor of the beautiful stalactite/blacklight cavern in the Calico Mine Ride would have cooked up for the volcano's interior.  Just as the mine ride project grew from a straightforward dark ride into a multi-story mountain with special effects and many elaborate scenes, certainly the South Seas ride would have grown into something very special and unique.
Aerial photo of graded "islands" in South Seas area at Knott's, 1961.
Bud not only carved out the islands for the boat ride, but also an adjacent peninsula which he'd already identified as "Jungle Island." It's long been unclear what his plans were for Jungle Island, but according to an August 1961 article in Amusement Business magazine, Bud's plans for the overall area included not just the boat ride, but also "others in a South Sea theme." Dick Bagley served as the project's design engineer. 
Detail of Hurlbut map of proposed Jungle Island features. Courtesy Stack's Liberty Ranch
In 2018, the Facebook feed for Stack's Liberty Ranch -- an in-progress theme park museum and movie ranch -- posted two small portions of a March 19, 1959 "preliminary drawing" by Bagley for "Knott Jungle Island" featuring "some suggestions for points of interest, trails and signs." Elements depicted among the presumed tropical foliage included a climbing tree, a "boysen-berry bog" with a large plastic berry, a 10-foot by 15-foot "Knott's Cabin," a "Giggling lions den", "gay stepping stones," an underpass tunnel, another tunnel through dense brush, and such landmarks as "Laughing Springs," the "Chocolate River," "Ice Cream Cove," "Angry Cross-Roads," "Whispering Creek," and more.
This drawing for the South Seas Island Boat Ride appeared a few years ago on Ebay.
But something happened, and suddenly the whole South Seas project was on hold. The" islands" just sat, with no water around them. In another interview, for "E" Ticket Magazine #35, Hurlbut told Merritt, "We got as far as digging the troughs... and then we abandoned the idea because we had some other more important things to do."

Today, Merritt says that during his many conversations and formal interviews with Bud, he was never given a definitive answer about why the South Seas project stopped. John Waite, an longtime employee and good friend of Bud's,  said the subject was never raised. He says he was only aware of the project because he once saw a "neat sketch of the boat" that was to be used for the ride. (Evidence suggests the final boat design would have looked similar to Disneyland's Jungle Cruise boats, but possibly with thatched awnings.)

Today, there's little known evidence of the great South Seas project at Knott's. The sources cited in this article and a single crude tiki mask -- which I acquired at Bud Hurlbut's (home) estate sale -- provide some evidence of his interest in the Polynesian theme.
Bud Hurlbut's Tiki mask. From the collection of Chris Jepsen.
Next time: Part II -- What Became of Jungle Island!?!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Tustin's Tahitian Terrace

Pool house at the Tahitian Terrace, Tusin, 2017
Sometimes the best way to do urban archaeology is just to find a spot that interests you and start digging. This is one of those times. I'll get the ball rolling, and perhaps someone else will jump in with additional information or new leads to follow.

Years ago, an apartment complex (now called Waterstone Garden Apartments), at the north corner of Red Hill Ave. and Walnut St. in Tustin, California, caught my eye for it's mid-century Tiki design. Recently I stumbled across a couple photos of the place when it was only four years old, and I was inspired to not only drive over and photograph the place anew, but also to spend a bit of time looking for more of its story.  Here's what I've found so far,...
The Tahitian Terrace apartments in 1967
Waterstone Garden was once two separate developments with complementary Polynesian themes. The first, situated right on the corner at 14441 Red Hill, was the Tahitian Terrace complex.
The Tahitian Terrace was built in 1963 -- just a year after Stouffer's Tahitian Terrace restaurant opened at nearby Disneyland -- and began renting units that same summer.
It's one of a relatively small handful of Orange County complexes that have made it to 2017 with much of their original Tiki style still in place. One must assume that a good deal of Tiki decor has disappeared, including the pitched A-frame entryway which has now been replaced with a conventional awning. But much of the original vibe remains.
Aerial photo from 1963 courtesy the Orange County Archives.
The aerial photo below shows the Tahitian Terrace under construction (on the left and center), with another complex next door, the Whispering Woods, still only in the process of being graded (on the right). Notice that both complexes were -- like so much local development at that time -- simply carved out of the orange groves.
Some newspaper ads for Tahitian Terrace promoted "island luxury."
The second complex now folded into "Waterstone Garden" was the thirty-unit Whispering Woods, at 14421 Red Hill Ave. This second complex was built for real estate investment wiz James T. Bakos of Rossmoor by the Valencia Construction Co. The landscaping was designed by Hugh Paulsen. Although grading began while Tahitian Terrace was still under construction, Whispering Woods was still unfinished as late as spring of 1964. Once finished, no children or pets were allowed, and like its neighbor, it bragged about being "all-electric."
The Whispering Woods, 2017
Unfortunately, much less is known about the origins of the Tahitian Terrace, except that the land was surveyed in 1957 by then-owners Mr. & Mrs. Albert Nieblas, who seemed to be movers-and-shakers in the Tustin business and social scene at the time.

In its first years, newspaper ads promoted Tahitian Terrace as featuring "Island Luxury," which sort of sounds like an oxymoron. (I'm picturing Thurston and Lovey Howell driving around in a pedal-powered Mercedes made of bamboo.)
The Whispering Woods, 2017
Although taking a less-than South Seas-inspirted name, the Whispering Woods' lava rock chimneys and planters, A-frame pool house, nautical wormwood facades, tropical landscaping and other details reflect a faux-Polynesian influence, even today. Was it intentional?
Aerial photo of the Tahitian Terrace apartments, late 2010s
Eventually, the Tahitian Terrace and the Whispering Woods were brought together under the flavorless yet Flintstones-like moniker, "Waterstone Garden Apartments." Of the two, the Tahitian Terrace half offers the most reward for today's Tiki-appreciating urban archaeologist.
Even the carports behind the Tahitian Terrace have South Seas rooflines.
One suspects that there was more of decorative element to some of the buildings once, especially the two-story buildings that now seem so bland once you get below their Tiki rooflines. So many of these kinds of places lost a great deal in being de-Tiki-fied, and it seems like that happened here as well. Still, the rooflines, the outrigger beams, the lush tropical landscaping, and the wonderful pool house make the Tahitian Terrace worth a stop.
Inside the Tahitian Terrace courtyard, 2017.
The Whispering Woods seems to continue with its identity crisis: Is it or was it Polynesian themed, or did its rustic version of 1960s architecture combined with tropical landscaping and lava walls just give that impression? Perhaps more information will come to light on both complexes in the future. In fact, part of why I'm posting this is in the hope that those who know the story of this corner of Tustin will come forward and share what they know.
The Tahitian Terrace apartments in 1967

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Photos from "Tiki In Orange County"

Many photos from my Tiki In Orange County exhibit at Chapman University are now posted in an album on my Flickr account. If you took more photos, let me know and I'll post them, too! The exhibit remains up through late August.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Tiki on KUCI

Ellen Bell, host of "Vintage Orange"
I’ll be talking about my new “Tiki In Orange County” exhibit and all things Polynesian Pop on Ellen Bell’s Vintage Orange radio show on KUCI, 88.9 FM on Wed., Feb. 21, 2017, from 4:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Podcast version should be posted to her blog sometime later in the week.

Visiting with Ellen is always great fun, and I’m looking forward to the interview!

I’ll also be giving a little tour of the exhibit to Chapman University staff and faculty on Thursday at 4:00 p.m. This will be the little sneak preview sampler platter version, and not the big opening event, which will be on March 4th, which anyone can attend (if they RSVP).