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In this undated photo, Harry Batt, former owner of Pontchartrain Beach, stands in front of the Bali Ha'i at the Beach. Originally called the Beachcomber, it opened in 1958, and was renamed in 1959.??

If the wind was blowing in New Orleans on April 26, 1958, it was most assuredly a south wind.

Like, really south.

That was the day New Orleans’ beloved Pontchartrain Beach amusement park reopened for its 30th season. As was the case every year, there were new rides to be enjoyed, but the indisputable star of the show would be the park’s newest restaurant: the Beachcomber, a bamboo-bedecked, Polynesian-inspired oasis.

Later renamed the Bali Ha’i at the Beach for reasons we’ll explain later, it would give New Orleans its first full-on taste of tiki culture.

Over the quarter-century that followed, it would also carve out a place in New Orleanians’ hearts as a memorable locale to celebrate special occasions, from birthdays to anniversaries to prom nights to wedding proposals.

What many might not realize is that its opening also was a full-circle moment of sorts, or that remnants of the Bali Ha’i still linger today, if you know where to look.

Bali Hai mug

Visitors to the old Bali Ha’i at the Beach restaurant, which opened at New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Beach amusement park in 1958, could order a Fogg Cutter in a keepsake Tiki Bob tiki mug. Today, the mugs are coveted by tiki enthusiasts.

Starting at the beginning

But before telling the story of the birth of the Bali Ha’i, it’s worthwhile — and relevant — to first flashback to the birth of tiki culture.

That came in 1938 with the opening in Hollywood of Don the Beachcomber, a tiki-inspired bar and restaurant that sprung not so much from actual island culture as from the fertile imagination of adventurer, raconteur and entrepreneur Donn Beach.

For the record, that wasn’t his birth name. He adopted it as part of his shtick, which centered on meticulous South Seas theming and powerful, rum-laced concoctions served in glasses as kitschily exotic as his restaurant’s island decor.

His real name was Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt. And his birthplace?

“It all started in 1907 in Mandeville in Louisiana across Lake Pontchartrain,” Beach told an interviewer in 1987 as part of an oral history project conducted by the Honolulu-based Watmull Foundation. “It's between Mandeville and New Orleans in the country. I spent my early days in school in Mandeville and Jamaica and in Texas.”

His family didn’t stay in Mandeville long — but it was long enough for him to get his first taste of sailing, courtesy of his maternal grandfather.

He was hooked.

Later, instead of going to college, he embarked on a round-the-world ramble that would inspire his game-changing Hollywood bar. Movie stars flocked to the place. Normals did, too. Countless imitators followed. Tiki culture was born.

The New Orleans connection

Notably among those imitators: Pontchartrain Beach owner Harry Batt.

Batt was himself a world traveler, setting out on annual voyages after his theme park closed for the season. Unfailingly, he returned with new ideas and new attractions to implement the following season.

In 1958, he decided to give tiki a try, closing the park’s old Beach Terrance restaurant and replacing it with an island-inspired structure featuring wall-to-wall escape.

Located right along the park’s Midway just a stone’s throw from the sandy beach from which the park got its name, the restaurant — built by Joseph Lenz, of New Orleans — was an ersatz Polynesian longhouse, with bamboo-covered walls and a thatched roof with dramatically pitched peaks.

Large wooden tikis adorned its exterior, with palm trees and other tropical foliage completing the look.

Stepping inside was to be transported to another world. The furniture was all bamboo and rattan. Hanging from the ceiling and on the walls were fish traps, spears and other South Seas artifacts collected by Batt “in Honolulu and elsewhere.” A prominent mural depicting the Hawaiian Islands decorated a wall of the main dining room.

Smaller, private dining rooms carried such names as the Bora Bora Hut, the Lanai Hut and the Samoan Hut.

The flavors of?Bali Ha’i

The menu: Chinese food with a Cantonese flair — a relative novelty in New Orleans at the time. What most people remember, though, is the drink menu, which featured such potent pours as the Bali Bali, the Native Diver and the Tahitian Breeze.

Particularly popular were the shareable Tiki Bowl, served with multiple straws in a communal vessel supported by three tiki figures, and the Fogg Cutter, served in a smiling tiki mug, the design for which was appropriated from a now-defunct San Francisco joint called Tiki Bob’s.

Those willing to cough up a few extra dollars could take the mug or the bowl home with them.

It was an immediate hit. By the time the park closed after the 1958 season, it was announced the restaurant would operate year-round.

That’s about the same time that the lawyers came calling.

They were sent by the aforementioned Donn Beach, and they demanded Batt stop using the name the Beachcomber, arguing it infringed on Beach’s still-booming business.

They apparently made a convincing argument. When Pontchartrain Beach opened for the 1959 season, Batt’s Beachcomber had been renamed Bali Ha’i at the Beach.

All that remains

Alas, tastes change, and by the mid-1980s, tiki culture was experiencing a lull. After Pontchartrain Beach closed in 1983, an attempt was made to keep the Bali Ha’i running, but the handwriting was on the bamboo wall.

In October 1988, a classified ad in The Times-Picayune announced an everything-must-go sale at the Bali Ha’i — from souvenirs to chairs. Not long after, in May 1990, the building burned down.

Traces of it still remain, however. The old “entry port,” which apparently survived the fire, serves as a picnic pavilion at Veterans Memorial Park in Kenner.

Fueled by the recent resurgence of tiki culture, online auction sites occasionally offer Tiki Bob mugs emblazoned with the Bali Ha’i name.

You can own one for a couple hundred bucks or so.

Sources: The Times-Picayune archive; Watmull Foundation Oral History Project; DonBeachcomber.com.

Do you know of a New Orleans building worth profiling in this column, or just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at moviegoermike@gmail.com.

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