Ray Buhen Story
written by Jeff
MASTER NINJA: RAY BUHEN,
TIKI BARTENDER TO THE STARS
wasn't just the first tiki bar. Seventy years ago, it
was also the most glamorous watering hole in Hollywood.
On any given night, provided you survived the 90-minute
wait, you might be drinking with Charlie Chaplin, Howard
Hughes, Joan Crawford or Buster Keaton. If Buster ordered
a Martini, it would be made in plain sight at the front
bar. But if he fancied a Zombie, Missionary's Downfall,
or any of Don's other talk-of-the-town tropicals, the
concoction would mysteriously appear from behind the
back bar. Customers never saw these specialty drinks
being made, or the men who made them: Don's legendary
"Four Boys," the Filipinos who toiled behind
the scenes in the kitchen. Ray Buhen was one of these
juiced limes till the citric acid ate into their fingernails,
shaved ten-pound blocks of ice till their arms ached,
and cored pineapples with piano wire like factory workers
on an assembly line. Even so, according to Ray's son
Mike, "All the Filipino guys making drinks in the
back bar didn't want to come out. They were too shy.
My dad said, 'That's stupid. How you gonna get tips
if nobody knows who you are? You don't meet anybody
in the back room.'"
Buhen didn't just want to mix drinks, he wanted to mix
with customers. This ambition launched him on a 60-year
journey from the first great tiki bar in Los Angeles
to the last great tiki bar in Los Angeles -- his own
bar, built with his own hands, the Tiki-Ti.
ONE OF THE BOYS
Ray was born in the Philippines on November 9, 1909.
His religious father expected him to enter the priesthood,
but Ray wanted to be a doctor. At 21 he shipped out
to California, where he enrolled in Los Angeles City
College. It was 1930, the height of the Depression,
so instead of graduating from L.A.C.C., Ray found himself
graduating from elevator operator at the Hotel Figueroa
to bellhop at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
There he lugged luggage, until one day the manager asked
to have a word with him. "He told me, 'The bar
is yours,' Ray recalled in a 1995 Santa Monica Outlook
profile. "You see, everybody was getting ready
to open a bar because Prohibition was going to be repealed.
I told him, 'I don't know anything about mixing drinks,'
and he said, 'We'll send you to school, don't worry.'
So I went to the first bartending school in L.A. Everybody
said, 'What are you doing here, you look so young.'
I told them, 'I am young.'"
By 1934 he was old enough to join the other Filipinos
at Don The Beachcomber's. Despite the hard, anonymous
labor, Ray had fond memories of his time there. When
the Bum interviewed him in 1998, Ray said that Don was
"a nice guy to work for" and "a real
showman. Only he was allowed to serve the Coffee Grog,"
an elaborate flaming presentation, "and he would
personally give expensive flower leis to the best-looking
girls at closing time." Until a reporter outed
Don as a New Orleans native, "Don said he was from
Jamaica. The liquor license was in his wife's name;
he couldn't get one because he was a bootlegger. After
their divorce, she paid him one million dollars!"
"He'd say anything," chuckled Ray. "He
said he invented the Zombie, but he didn't. Or hardly
any of his drinks." That work, Ray maintained,
was done by Ray and his fellow Filipinos. As fond as
he was of his brazen boss, Ray left the Beachcomber's
in 1937, moving to the Seven Seas when it opened across
from Grauman's Chinese Theater. Owner Bob Brooks hired
away most of Don's bar crew by offering $10 more per
week, at a total salary of $40 per week. Recalls Mike
Buhen: "Mom used to say that they could pay their
rent, stock the fridge, and still have money to party.
A loaf of bread was five cents back then, so they could
afford to go out nightclubbing."
The Seven Seas built on Don's faux Polynesian restaurant
concept with live Hawaiian music and a Tahitian dance
revue. Ray’s duties included playing a thunder-and-lightning
LP for the bar’s famous "Rain On The Roof"
sound -- sometimes with unintended results. As Ray told
the Bum in '98, "One time I put the record on,
and this chick jumped up from her table and ran outside
to close the top on her convertible." Ray also
remembered an illegal gambling set-up downstairs, run
by an offshore casino boat operator named Tony Corneo.
Ray just smiled when asked if he ever tried his luck
on the boats, but he did engage in at least one offshore
venture. When MGM shot Mutiny On The Bounty in 1935,
they built a Tahitian village set on the far side of
Catalina Island. Cast and crew were marooned there for
four months, so Clark Gable bankrolled a bar to avoid
another, unscripted mutiny. Named after Gable's character
in the film, Christian’s Hut remained open after
the shoot, when Ray was hired to tend bar there. Since
the only practical approach was by sea, clientele consisted
almost exclusively of yachtsmen already "in the
know." Jean Harlow and Charles Laughton were regulars,
along with most of John Ford's stock company. According
to Ray, the biggest and baddest of these was Victor
McLaglen. During his Hut hitch, Ray saw John Wayne and
Ward Bond both back down when McLaglen offered to take
them on. Ray himself ran afoul of McLaglen when he ran
out of White Horse Scotch -- the only thing McLaglen
drank. Ray said nothing, just poured McLaglen a better
brand. "Ray," said McLaglen, "this isn't
White Horse. What're you trying to do, poison me? Don't
you ever do this again. Go get another bottle."
As Ray later told his son Mike, "It was an island
-- where was I gonna get another bottle?" Ray was
petrified. "You couldn't fool this guy, 'cause
that's all he drank."
Ray lived to pour another day. In fact, as he told the
Outlook, it was his favorite time. "I met all the
movie people, all of them, because that was the hideout.
They never went to Avalon. They'd go to the isthmus
... I had my whole menu autographed with their names
-- hundreds of them. And stupid me. A guy from Texas
wanted to buy it." Ray sold it to him for $25.
"You see, in those days that was a lot of money."
Ray moved on to other bars whose names are now lost
to time, some in L.A.'s Chinatown, at least one in Palm
Springs. His next notable Polynesian restaurant gig
was Sugie's Tropics, on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills
-- then so undeveloped that Sunset Boulevard was a horse-riding
trail. Owner Harry Sugarman, a former manager of the
Egyptian Theater, extended his love of ballyhoo to the
Tropics menu: "IT'S TOPICAL! IT'S TROPICAL! Where
an impression is LEFT and the atmosphere is RIGHT."
Sugarman also named the drinks after his show business
cronies. Instead of Zombies, Ray was now mixing "George
Brent's ZULU," along with "Sonja Henie's "THIN
ICE," "The Ritz Brothers' LOBB-OLA,"
and "Bette Davis' SAMOA OF SAMOA."
1940 saw Ray working the newly opened Dresden Room,
owned by reputed bookie Herman Byron. There Ray created
a bourbon drink called Blood And Sand for customer Tyrone
Power, star of the bullfighting melodrama of the same
World War II bounced Ray back to the Seven Seas, which
needed all the help it could get: Sailors on shore leave
packed the place, clamoring for what might be the last
drink of their lives before shipping out to the real
South Pacific. Even with eight bartenders mixing in
tandem, “You worked your ass off. There was always
money on the bar, never a minute’s rest.”
In addition to making sailors drinks, Ray made their
boats: He helped build Liberty Ships during a stint
at the Long Beach shipyards, which were churning out
four to five transport vessels a day by 1945. Ray worked
as a “burner,” torching off rough edges
left by the welders working above him –- who rained
down showers of sparks that left life-long scars across
Those weren’t the only scars the war left. “Filipinos
had to go out in groups or you’d get your ass
kicked,” explains Mike Buhen. “It was always,
‘Hey, there’s a Jap!’” To complicate
matters, Ray fell in love with a white girl from Oklahoma
City. According to Tiki-Ti regular and unofficial historian
Gil Alvarado, “Jerry Foral was a midwesterner
with Czech roots who studied ballet and became a professional
dancer in an L.A. troupe. They married and had a daughter,
Franzel, in 1940, then Mike in 1946." Back then
L.A. wasn’t the most hospitable place for interracial
families: Maître d’s routinely refused to
seat Ray and Jerry with the refrain, “We don’t
serve mixed couples.”
This situation didn’t end with the war years.
In the 1950s Ray tended bar at the Ching Hau in Studio
City, owned by Chinese cinematographer James Wong Howe.
Even after two Academy Awards and 15 nominations, Howe,
like Ray and Jerry, often found himself barred from
sitting at the same restaurant table with his white
wife. Opening his own place only brought Howe new indignities.
When a newspaper photographer arrived to shoot Howe
in front of the Ching Hau, Howe suggested he use a wider
lens. The photographer, unaware he was addressing the
cameraman of The Thin Man and Sweet Smell Of Success,
shot back: "Just stick to your chop suey and let
me take the pictures."
In 1953, ex-actor Steve Crane, recently divorced from
Lana Turner, purchased The Tropics from Harry Sugarman
and re-named it The Luau. He added a lagoon to the lobby,
antique Oceanic artifacts to the dining room, and high-priced
hookers to the bar -- all of which attracted the Hollywood
players needed to keep Crane's joint in the gossip columns.
Ray returned to his old workplace, but not his old routine.
While the Filipino staff still labored out of sight,
the back bar was no longer good enough for Ray. "He
was one of the first bartenders in the front at the
Luau," says Mike. After 20 years behind bars, Ray
knew how to work a room: "He always had a box of
Bering cigars. He gave them out to anyone who wanted
a smoke. Consequently, they always asked for him: 'Where's
Ray, I want his station.'"
Into Ray’s station came an old Don The Beachcomber’s
regular, Howard Hughes, whose chauffeur drove him to
his own private entrance in the back of the Luau. Hughes
sat at the bar with a bodyguard, a pencil, and a notepad.
“He didn’t talk,” Ray told Mike, “just
did calculations all night.” Impressed with the
quiet man’s industriousness, one clueless customer
bought Hughes a drink –- never realizing he’d
just picked up the tab for a multi-billionaire.
Hughes may not have been the life of the party, but
he kept the Luau kitchen staff in stitches –-
namely, the expensive shirts and slacks that he only
wore once and then threw out. His chauffeur hid them
in the limo’s trunk, distributing them while his
boss scribbled silently at the bar.
Ray migrated from the Luau to the Anaheim restaurant
The Palms In The Jungle -- where diners ate amid live
birds, snakes and monkeys –- and thence to the
China Trader, a stone's throw from the Warner Brothers
lot in Burbank. While Julie London and Bobby Troupe
performed in the lounge, Ray served regulars Bob Hope,
Jack Webb and Lee Marvin -- who, like McLaglen before
him, spurned Ray's exotics in favor of straight whiskey
(a strategy that might have behooved the China Trader's
most memorable customer, a Cal Tech professor who, in
one night, worked his way through 16 of the menu's 36
tropical drinks before passing out).
With the China Trader, The Luau, and Don The Beachcomber's
under his belt, Ray had now worked in all of L.A.'s
famous Polynesian-themed celebrity hangouts -- with
the notable exception of Trader Vic's. "Vic's bar
manager was Chinese, and he only hired other Chinese,"
explains Tony Ramos, another Filipino veteran of The
Beachcomber's and The Luau. At any rate, Ray's next
stop on the South Seas circuit took him from kingpins
to bowling pins.
At the Montebello Bowl, while prepping for the grand
opening of the alley's Luau Room, Ray befriended a landscaper
named Danny Balsz. Hired to put a waterfall behind the
bar, "he didn't seal the thing correctly, so on
opening night, five sump pumps sent water all over and
they had to close up again." Balsz had more success
constructing his own twelve-acre Polynesian amusement
park in San Gabriel. "The Tikis" featured
a banana train ride, erupting volcano, three dance floors,
and two bars -- which Balsz asked Ray to manage for
him. But after 26 years behind the stick, Ray'd had
enough of working for others.
GOD OF DRINK
Jerry’s dad owned a tiny violin-repair shop on
Sunset Boulevard, a few blocks east of Vermont. When
his father-in-law offered him the property, Ray thought
he might open a bartending school there. Jerry talked
him into opening a bar instead.
When the Board Of Equalization told them they had to
open in three months or lose their liquor license, the
Buhens hustled to put the Tiki in the Ti. Working right
up to the deadline, Ray cut the bamboo molding, papered
the walls with tapa and the ceiling with matting. Ray
and Mike installed the waterfall -- sans leaks this
time –- while Jerry hung the requisite puffer
fish, glass floats, and Oriental lamps above the bar.
On April 28, 1961, the Tiki-Ti opened its doors. All
those years Ray struggled for face-time with customers
were about to pay off. "He'd built up a following,"
explains Mike Buhen. "Wherever he went, they went
with him. After that many years, man, you meet a lot
of people." Word spread from bar to bar: "'Where'd
Ray go?' 'He opened up his own place.' Old-timers would
come in, sit here and drink."
But old-timers didn’t pay the rent. That distinction
belonged to the film studio down the street. A "poverty
row" outfit that started life as B-movie factory
Monogram Pictures, Allied Artists was now taking the
high road with Attack Of The Crab Monsters and Sex Kittens
Go To College. The staff swarmed the Tiki-Ti during
lunch hour. "The place was packed at noon,"
says Mike. "Guys smoking and drinking, wall-to-wall
as if it was Friday night."
After a morning's work on Tickle Me or El Cid, the crew
guys all wanted cold beer. So that's what Ray served.
This changed in 1965, when Allied Artists folded. Ray
cut the suds from his menu and poured only the exotics
whose secrets he'd had three decades to master. From
Don The Beachcomber's came the Zombie, the Shark's Tooth,
and the Navy Grog; from the Luau, the Pearl Diver and
Chief Lapu Lapu; from the Dresden, the Blood And Sand.
Now the Tiki-Ti would live up to its name, which Ray
claimed meant "The God Of Drink." Business
boomed, and Ray was back to serving movie stars. "Marlon
Brando became a regular," recalls Mike. "He
was dating some girl who worked at ABC. She brought
him in because he loved the South Seas."
In 1968, the Tiki-Ti's signature drink was born ...
by accident. Ray put the wrong syrups in an Anting Anting
("Witches' Brew" in Tagalog), caught the error,
and was about to dump it when the customer said he'd
take it anyway. The happy mishap was Christened "Ray's
Mistake." Jerry also invented new perennials, such
as the Hawaiian Twist, while Ray turned the Blood And
Sand into a house favorite by changing its bourbon base
to the more matador-friendly tequila. When Mike brought
back a bull's head pour-spout from a party in Los Feliz,
Ray used it to pour the Blood And Sand's agave float,
chanting, "Toro! Toro!" Customers joined in,
creating a tradition that continues today.
In 1970, laid off from his job managing the Hertz rent-a-car
Hollywood station, Mike Buhen joined his dad behind
the bar. "In the '70s we used to get a lot of people,"
Mike recalls, "because the disco craze was on.
Drinks in discos sucked. People would say, 'We'll go
to the Tiki-Ti to get fortified, then we'll go to a
nightclub and do some dancing.'"
At its mid-1970s peak, Tiki-Ti customers included Burt
Reynolds and Jack Palance. But as their stars faded,
so did the Polynesian fad. "It used to be, 'come
over to my house for a luau,'" says Mike. "In
the '80s it became, 'come over to my house for a BBQ.'
All the big places were being torn down." Casualties
included The China Trader, The Luau, and Ray's alma
mater Don The Beachcomber's. Ironically, this was good
for the Tiki-Ti. As other South Seas haunts disappeared,
it became harder to get a good tropical drink anywhere
else in town. The Ti became the tiki tippler's destination
Ray kept mixing into the mid-1990s, encountering a second
and even third generation of new Tiki-Ti patrons. One
of these, remembers Mike, was Nicholas Cage. "He
showed up in a black limo five or six times and sat
at the corner table. Nobody bothered him until two regulars
insisted on buying him a Green Lizard. That drink was
110 proof Chartreuse, floated with 151 rum. That’s
like drinking gasoline. It’s nasty. Terrible.
You're supposed to light it, blow it out, and shoot
it. He didn't know what it was; it took him over an
hour to drink the thing. Finally he just shot it down."
In 1998, when Ray finally started feeling the weight
of 60 years making drinks, his grandson, Mike Jr., began
subbing for him. How long did it take him to learn "the
forgotten art" of mixing over 80 complex tropical
recipes? "I'm still learning!" Mike Sr. interrupts:
"It took him about a year -- he picked it up a
little faster than I did."
Ray Buhen's semi-retirement was brief. He died on September
30, 1999, a few months before his 90th birthday. But
now, should he chance to look down from his place on
high among the Gods Of Drink, the man who was always
so quick to laugh ... would laugh last.
Because his legacy, the Tiki-Ti, abides. And if you
need proof of that fact, drop by the Ti any Wednesday
night, at 8:30PM, when Mike Buhen Sr. rings a bell,
raises a glass, and leads the always packed house in
a toast: "To my dad, the Master Ninja. Thanks to
him for the Tiki-Ti, the last of the Mohicans, the original
in tropical drinks.”
article originally appeared in the second edition of
Tiki Magazine 2005 and was adapted by Jeff Berry for