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The Ray Buhen Story
written by
Jeff “Beachbum” Berry

THE MASTER NINJA: RAY BUHEN,
TIKI BARTENDER TO THE STARS


Don The Beachcomber's 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 "Boys."

They 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.'"

Ray 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 "You see, everybody was getting ready to open a bar because Prohibition was going to be repealed.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."

STARS AND BARS

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 name.

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 his chest.

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."

WORKING THE ROOM

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.

THE 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.

A FAMILY AFFAIR

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 of choice.

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.”

 

This article originally appeared in the second edition of Tiki Magazine 2005 and was adapted by Jeff Berry for this website.

 

 

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