By Michael E. Miller
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The Mai-Kai calls itself "Polynesian," but my friend Ike has a different take on the 51-year-old club. "It's a piece of Americana, the velvet Elvis of globalization, exotic cultures made safe for White America," he said, sipping his sunset-colored rum drink from its gigantic snifter. "I don't think you could build something like this today without offending someone."
In the 1950s, when the Mai-Kai opened its doors, the NAACP had begun campaigning against blackface entertainment. At the same time, the Mai-Kai's tribute to the South Pacific included non-Polynesian servers and dancers who used make-up and wigs to juice up their "South Seas" look — without public outcry. When it comes to tiki culture, apparently, camp and nostalgia trump racial sensitivity.
We came this Friday night not to enjoy a show in one of the club's many dining rooms, each designed to represent a different island village, nor were we there to stroll through the torch-lit tiki gardens. We'd been drawn by the rockabilly trio Slip and the Spinouts in the Molokai Bar.
"The first time I came here, I felt like I died and went to heaven," my hard-bodied pal said, popping a fried tidbit in his mouth. He read my mind, noting his snacks were "all unhealthy in that 1950s fried kind of way," which was an excusable lapse in his body-obsessed, health-minded life because "every time I come here I feel like I'm on vacation."
Easy to do when the bar's décor replicates a below-deck experience in an old wooden ship and offers three illustrated pages of drinks organized by potency. I sipped Ike's barrel of rum; I tried the zombie, which my friend Kim ordered.
"I can't decide!" I said.
"Try 'em all — that will make the best story," Ike suggested, knowing me too well.
I settled on a "strong" jet pilot, which aimed to make the journey to paradise a little quicker.
It's the fantastic attention to thematic detail, though, that really transports a person at the Mai-Kai. Water cascades over the bar's windows, as if our vessel were caught in a tropical rain shower. The low wood-planked ceilings and dim lighting add to a feeling that's more snug than claustrophobic. It's a place to create both memories and impressions — which is why, when I fixed Ike and Kim up almost three years ago, he brought her here on their first date.
"He greased the maitre d', so I got the full treatment," Kim said, recalling a flaming ice cream treat and getting "lei'd" during a performance.
The Molokai's rocking ambience — with retro bands, like tonight's rockabilly trio, to keep the party going — offered a fine setting for a celebration. Ike pointed out a table of women, who were festively observing Brigitte Barker's 40th birthday. Several of the partiers knew each other from their days of waiting tables at the now-defunct hot spot, Mistral.
The petite blonde birthday girl told me that at Mistral she'd waited on Demi Moore, Nick Nolte, and Johnny Depp. She and the other servers were "hot girls who all wore stuff like this," Barker said, gesturing to the servers in their tropical print bandeau tops and mini sarongs.
With one difference. "Here you can't be blonde," I said.
Eden Scanlon, 36, once a Mai-Kai server herself, said I spoke the truth. A blonde co-worker had been required to wear a black wig, said Scanlon, who's still Miss February on the Mai-Kai calendar but who has, like other members of the party, now been inducted into motherhood.
I wondered, since members of the group had once exploited their youthful perfection, if they'd felt pressure to get post-pregnancy cosmetic surgery, but I was quickly rebuked.
Ugh. Not the kind of question to ask at a party. "This doesn't look like a table full of mothers," challenged 34-year old Jessica Hernandez.
I went back to Ike and Kim. "They're mad at me," I said, explaining my sociological inquiry.
"They're all mothers?" Ike asked, surprised. He sent me back over to find out the secret to their preserved hotness, adding wryly that, when Kim's time came to reproduce, "She's got 10 days to get back in shape."
Most in the group attributed their postnatal sexiness to breastfeeding — but Barker had one more suggestion: "Love life and have sex."
Steve "Slip" Mahoney, our guitar-player tonight, was in full retro mode. This hepcat's pompadour seemed to stand a little taller, not just because of his platform wingtips but also from the electrical jolt emanating from his Hawaiian-print blazer. With mutton chop sideburns, Slip seemed to have graduated from purveyor of a musical genre to a man who had made a lifestyle commitment.
"It would be a lifestyle if I could afford a '50s style house," the front man said.
Steve Satch, the bass player, also looked the part, with his sideburns and his guayabera shirt, but drummer Tony Tomei, the dude with the day job, looked like a normal night-on-the-town guy. He seized upon the band's break to step forward from the backline, complaining that he had gone unmentioned in a recent newspaper story on the band.