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The delights of the Samoan Fogcutter vs. the Decadence of the shared Scorpion Bowl

April 25, 2010

Before you start reading, I really must insist you have the music link below playing to set the right atmosphere.

I came this close to being born in Hawaii, land of swaying palm trees and the scent of plumeria in the air.

Instead I was born on a Navy shipyard in Maine during a blizzard.

A few months later we moved to Hawaii.  There I was winging over the Pacific on a military plane, the slope of the jump seats apparently allowing me to roll off onto the floor with a quiet little infantile thud.  Back in my mother’s day, they didn’t have all these modern fancy baby carriers and we liked it that way.  Built character, and made for funny stories to tell your kids years later.

In Navy Housing, I’d escape both from my mother’s view and the constraints of my kiddie-wear to go play naked in the red soil or toddle to the swing set and chill with the other neighborhood toddlers.  I learned to swim in Hawaii, frolicked on beaches and learned how the waves roll.  Palm trees sound like rain at night.  Sleep, baby, sleep.

We moved away and moved back many years later.  We lived for a time in Pearl Harbor.  Waiting for a bus early in the morning on December 7 I looked west toward the pass in the mountains and imagined the tiny blots of Japanese planes in the sky.  We moved to a house in Hawaii Kai, with a koi pond dug into the soil on the side of an extinct volcano.  I’d meet friends at Waikiki Beach on the weekends and we’d pose with tourists, then laugh at them.  We were young and impossibly full of life.  We baked in the sun, surrounded by international icons of exotica —  Diamond Head (another extinct volcano), the pink stucco Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the International Marketplace and the thatch of Trader Vic’s (or was it Don the Beachcomber’s).

My parents took me there for dinner once.  I still remember studying the Pupu platter menu and marveling at the assortment of drinks, served up in themed glassware shaped like tiki gods or coconuts or painted with murals of island fantasies.  Enchanting.  Even without actually imbibing.

While we lived on the Mainland, my parents gave Hawaiian-themed parties.  In Maine, the same steps where my dad hypnotized lobsters before they met a boiling death were now flanked by tiki torches and trod upon by adults holding tiki cups with fruit garnish and paper umbrellas.  Guests wore leis and those who’d had a tour in Hawaii arrived in their muu muus and aloha shirts.  Martin Denny played on the reel-to-reel and my father bested the jungle bird calls on the party sound track.  Mixing metaphors, there was also a limbo pole and a steel drum.  The laughter would get louder as the punch bowl got emptier.

Cover of a vintage Trader Vic’s menu

As a young adult, I lived in New York and Trader Vic’s was the obvious go-to for a wild and crazy night on the town. Sometimes it was a small group, sharing a Scorpion Bowl with ridiculously long straws.  Occasionally we’d have to push tables together  to accommodate a bevvy of investment bankers and their dates (I was one of the dates, earning next to nothing in the notoriously underpaid publishing field).

We consumed round after round of beverages with those crazy names:  Molokai Mike, Zombie, Suffering Bastard, Doctor Funk of Tahiti, Maui Fizz, Tiki Puka Puka, Trader’s Stinker, Menehune Juice, The Colonel’s Big Opu, Kamaaina, or the Potted Parrot.  My tonic of choice was generally the Samoan Fogcutter which the menu warned was “a potent vaseful of Rums, fruits and Liqueurs…let the drinker beware.”  You’d feel your face go fuzzy after the second one.  By the third, if you could still walk you were definitely wobbly.  I blame the liquor on my attempt to steal the vessel it was served in, because I was so giddily enchanted by the buxom nearly-naked native featured in relief on the side.

Trader Vic’s was in the basement of the Plaza Hotel.  The downstairs location seemed to give it extra cache, as if you were entering a speakeasy and might be asked for a password.  I once sat next to Rod Stewart at the bar there (the fur coat he was wearing matched his shaggy hair-do) and enjoyed many a happy birthday gathering before a night on the town.  It’s gone now.  The thatch, the comfy seats, the wonderfully cheesy tropicalitastic decor.  All of it.  Gone.

Why the stroll down memory lane?

The Tonga Room today. Click to visit their Facebook page (and find out when Happy Hour starts!).

Because these bastions of rum-fueled amusement have been falling by the wayside faster than you can order a plate of Yang Chow Fried Rice Country Style with a Pogo Stick to wash it down.

The latest threatened landmark of faux-Polynesia is the Tonga Room in San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel (woefully underutilized as a backdrop to the recent finale of CBS-TV’s “Amazing Race”).  I still recall my mother’s fond memory of her visit there and the magical indoor rainfall that was part of the experience.  Perhaps I can convince her to share the story in the comments section.

THREATENED:  TONGA ROOM  Opened in 1945… the Tonga Room survives as a rare example of the Polynesian Pop decor popular after World War II.  The “High Tiki” bar — originally designed by MGM Studios set designer Mel Melvin and surrounded by a lagoon — features thatched overhangs and a floating “Band Boat,” and is the site of staged thundershowers on the half hour.  But the bar might be demolished or dismantled as part of a condo conversion project proposed by hotel owner Maritz, Wolff & Co. Local residents have rallied to save the room, hosting happy hours to raise awareness. — Preservation Magazine, May/June 2010

Click here for the pdf of the  State of California historic resource report.

Tonga Room, vintage postcard, as seen in 1953. Click to visit National Trust for Historic Preservation blog post.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2010 9:09 am

    Sabra– I had no idea your family lived in Hawaii. What a terrific post.

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      April 26, 2010 11:32 am

      Thanks, Sharon! After we left Connecticut, we were back in Maine, then (like history repeating itself) moved to Hawaii. I remember someone asking me if they spoke English there and whether we’d be living in huts. Obviously, Hawaii was still viewed as an exotic location even though it had been a state for many years. (I’ll note that from Hawaii, we moved to Scotland, and I was again asked what language they spoke there.)

  2. April 29, 2010 1:56 pm

    It is so sad that these places have sort of fallen from grace. On a trip a few years ago, some friends and I went to the Mai Kai in Ft Lauderdale. Bad food, but the atmosphere and cocktails were TOP NOTCH!!

  3. Bruce permalink
    April 29, 2010 6:51 pm

    Reportedly, Thoreau said that firewood warms you twice – once when you cut it and again when you burn it. It seems that a Samoan Fogcutter may have similar powers. Sabra – you clearly enjoyed your palm frond experiences the first time around. Your reminiscence flows so freely, it seems you may have enjoyed the writing and sharing nearly as much. The music helped but your talent gave me a lighthearted read. THNX

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