On Saturday, June 14, 2014, The Hukilau™ Villagers will spend an enchanted evening at the historic Mai-Kai! The night kicks off with exotic cocktails & music in the nautical Molokai Bar, then moves to the Mai-Kai’s expansive dining rooms where two dinner seatings will be held (don’t forget to make your dinner reservations by calling the Mai-Kai at 954-563-3272!) and the Mai-Kai’s famous Polynesian floor show. After dinner, enjoy more music and entertainment in the Mai-Kai’s back dining areas, stroll the exotic and lush outdoor gardens and visit the gift shop, The Mai Kai Trading Post. It’s sure to be a night to remember as part of the final Hukilau™.
For decades, the Mai-Kai has been considered a “Tiki temple” by mid-century and poly-pop enthusiasts and can now take claim of being named an official South Florida landmark. In November 2013, it became the first commercial property to receive historic designation from the city of Oakland Park, FL. This designation, granted by the city Historic Preservation Board, is credit to the landmark’s history and period architecture. The Mai-Kai is now seeking National Historic Registry status.
The Mai-Kai… it’s hard to describe, as so many thoughts and emotions come to mind when thinking of this mid-century icon. Upon arriving and driving over the wood-planked bridge, you realize you are entering another world of enchantment and beauty.
In the 1950s two brothers from the Chicago area, Bob and Jack Thornton, set their sights on building one of the most amazing Polynesian restaurants in the world. As Bob Thornton told The Miami Herald in 1974, “The region generally was on the move, and Fort Lauderdale had no specialty restaurants outside of steak houses.” After Bob left the Armed Forces and Jack left college, the brothers trained at bars pouring drinks and toured all the leading Polynesian restaurants in the country, including Hawaii. With $100,000 of theirs and their parents’ money, a reluctantly granted bank loan and two of the top men from Don the Beachcomber’s bar in Chicago (Master Mixologist, Mariano Licudine and Master Chef, Kenny Lee) the brothers managed to open the Mai-Kai in December 1956 on a barely populated slice of U.S. 1 in Fort Lauderdale, FL. The locale was a sleepy but growing tourist town and the restaurant started with four rooms and a small bar – all together, seating 225 people for dinner.
The Thornton brothers never could imagine what would happen next. Two nightly shows often turned into four and five from popular demand, with the last patrons leaving at 5am. The success was overwhelming with celebrities from the Rat Pack to Johnny Carson flying in to experience what everyone was raving about. The impeccable cuisine, the cocktail creations, the beat of the tribal drums and the beauty of the Mai-Kai women were to be trademarks still present today.
In December 1960, the Mai-Kai and Bob Thornton’s life were destined to be forever- changed again. Mireille, a beautiful Tahitian-born dancer, was recruited by a friend of Thornton’s while in California to become a Mai-Kai performer. She made it through rehearsals and became a part of the staff only to be fired shortly after because she couldn’t dance and needed to lose weight! Two weeks later, after a grueling fitness regime and professional Polynesian dance lessons, she was back on staff as a dancer in the Mai-Kai Polynesian Floor Show. Five years later, romance sparked between Bob and Mireille, and 11 years later they were married. Mireille took on an active role within the Mai-Kai, designing costumes and recruiting dancers from the South Seas, and was appointed Choreographer of the Mai-Kai Islanders Review, a position she held until mid-2007 upon her retirement from the business.
Today, the Mai-Kai operates under Dave Levy and Kulani Thornton-Geraldi, Mireille’s children of a former marriage. Levy and Geraldi both became partners in the enterprise after Bob Thornton’s death in 1989 (he had bought out his brother Jack in 1970.) David Levy became the sole owner in 2007 after Mirelle’s retirement. The Mai-Kai is still a thriving family business now boasting eight dining rooms – each named for a South Seas island – seating a total of 489 for dinner, The Molokai Bar which seats 150 guests, along with a full gift shop and the amazing Mai-Kai gardens with an extensive collection of new and vintage Tiki carvings and wide array of tropical plants.
Any night of the week guests are still entertained, as for the last 55 years, by the dancers and musicians that comprise the Mai-Kai Islanders Review—still going strong. If you’ve never had a chance to experience the Mai-Kai, The Hukilau™ is a great chance to be with hundreds of others who appreciate Polynesian Pop and Mid-Century culture just as much as you do. If you cannot join us, make it a point to visit this enchanting and beautiful historic landmark. Visit The Mai-Kai at: maikai.com