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.
"I wasn't even in the picture!" Tomei griped. "I'm chopped liver ... with onions!"
Mike Swan, a "pre-owned" Rolls and Bentley dealer who met Slip at a car show, said car lovers gravitated naturally to the Spinouts. The 42-year-old Swan had just rebuilt his first hot rod, a '31 Ford coupe. He and his main squeeze, Lori Bartlett, 40, a medical account executive, are both into "the simpler things, the clothes, the music, the nostalgia."
Mai-Kai has star power, sort of. Dana Snyder, the voice of Master Shake in both television and movie versions of the animated Aqua Teen Hunger Force, was in town for the anime convention, along with Jay Wade Edwards, writer and director of the beach party, monster movie Stomp! Shout! Scream! "We make a point of coming here every time we're in town," Snyder said.
A woman sitting alone at a table somehow seemed to represent the timelessness of the undead, with an all-black get-up and a tattooed colony of bats flying across her bicep. Smiling at me with lips drawn larger than life like a curvy ruby M, she introduced herself as Lana Von Funk, an automotive parts dealer. She said she preferred this to the punk/Goth scene where she and Slip "evidently knew some mutual people from a really long time ago."
A different generation from the kegstand-and-shots college scene, this solitary club-hopper. "People here are more mature," she said. "They can handle their liquor." Of course, the kids had been priced out: a bottle of beer here sets a person back seven clams and mixed drinks as much as 14.
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Von Funk liked the place because it's neither dive bar nor meat market, but, thanks to the rockabilly and surf bands, "it's got that energy!" The band was definitely doing its part. Satch was slapping away a rhythm on his upright bass that both drove and bounced (there's your automotive connection), and Tomei rolled out the jazz-inspired beats that ushered in the early years of rock 'n' roll. Slip, sawing at the strings of his hollow-bodied guitar, assumed a wide stance in his platform wingtips and let his legs do the Elvis thing.
By evening's end, I felt like I'd been shuttled back and forth through time more often than the dude on Quantum Leap.
Kim was still all aglow over Ike's flippant remark to the birthday party about his postpartum expectations. "It was so nice to hear Ike say to someone else that we were headed in that direction," she said.
Only time would tell if married-with-kids was where my friends were headed. If so, they'd come back to the Mai-Kai someday to celebrate the way, one night, a tribute to the past had given birth to their future.