The Tiki heads and mock teak beds that fill the Tonga Lei motel and its Polynesian partner, Don the Beachcomber restaurant, soon will be scrapped to make way for a modern beachside inn next to the Malibu pier.
A Malibu mainstay for nearly three decades, the Tonga Lei is an aging remnant of the coastal community that existed before urban sprawl spread to Los Angeles County’s beach towns and before Pacific Coast Highway was choked with daily commuter traffic.
The motel and adjoining restaurant will be replaced by the Malibu Beach Inn, a $7-million, three-story, 47-room complex that its owners claim is the first new beachfront motel in Malibu in 37 years.
The restaurant with the thatched-trim roof and the dated Tahitian motif is scheduled to be closed on Sunday and the nine-room motel will be razed sometime in early December, according to Vickie Cooper, who owns the property along with her husband Martin and their partners, Skip and Lee Miser. Construction of the new motel is slated to be completed by early summer.
Aimed at Community Pride
“We wanted to build a motel that the community could be proud of,” said Cooper. “The building is nearly 30 years old, it’s run-down and there’s really no way to remodel it because of the way it was built. The place is tired.”
The Tonga Lei opened in 1961 on a lot that was purchased for approximately $20,000 seven years earlier. Previously, the building contained the Drift Inn, a seafood restaurant, but the owner was inspired by an eatery in San Diego called the Bali Hi and decided to expand the property with a South Pacific flavor.
Cooper said that a contest was held to name a new hotel and that a woman came up with the Tonga Lei tag, not realizing that her winning entry carried with it a $500 prize. She was later tracked down and given her check.
As with so many places in Malibu, the beachside property has been a common celebrity-sighting spot. Jayne Mansfield, the platinum blond ‘50s pinup, attended the opening of the Tonga Lei and the restaurant bar was the favorite hangout of the late television star David Janssen. More recently, the restaurant has been a popular haunt for Pepperdine University students and faculty.
“We’ve always had a very loyal following,” said Skip Miser. “When we took over, one of the most difficult things we had to learn was how to build Polynesian. It wasn’t easy.”
Searching for Artifacts
When they bought the motel and restaurant in 1977, Miser said, they searched greater Los Angeles trying to find decorations appropriate to the Polynesian atmosphere. They found what they were looking for at a business in Glendale.
“It was the only place we saw where you could buy Tiki gods,” Miser said. “They had about 50 different kinds.”
Miser said the property has survived fires and floods from the Pacific storms that occasionally batter the coast, but was unable to stand up to years of use. The partners also said that the original construction severely limits their ability to remodel. They also stand to make more money with the greatly expanded motel.
Their original plans called for a 56-unit, four-level structure, with the bottom level open to allow for scenic ocean views. But the project was scaled down last month by the California Coastal Commission to meet the standards set by the local coastal plan and the bottom level was removed.
The new motel will not extend as far out on the beach as the current property and will keep beach stairs alongside for public access.
“This property is a piece of paradise, but there’s no place for a Polynesian restaurant and hotel anymore,” Cooper said. “The place has outlived its usefulness.
“Even though this wasn’t the place for the rich and famous, a lot of people are very sad to see it torn down. Some people always considered it a hideaway. But Polynesian is no longer in in Southern California.”