City Lights: A life's legacy outside of politics

Saturday afternoon, I sat in a cramped, paper-laden office inside Don the Beachcomber — the kind of setting that evokes thoughts of long hours and minute detail — and listened to a man on a computer screen talk about leaving reality behind:

"That's what the idea was — that you can enter into a place where you can leave everything else in the whole world outside. This all is fantasy. The drinks that were — that he created in Hollywood never existed in the South Seas. If they're in the South Seas now, which they are, all over, being served to tourists, it's because they were sent — they were carried into the South Seas from America, where Tiki took over the whole country."

The speaker on the YouTube video was Art Snyder, late owner of Don the Beachcomber, talking with reporter Greer Wylder about the restaurant's founder, Donn Beach. As the video played, the dimly lit rooms outside filled with Snyder's family and friends; the former Los Angeles councilman had died a few days earlier, and Saturday's event, originally planned as an 80th birthday party, had been recast as a celebration of life.

As a politician, a lobbyist and a polarizing figure in general, Snyder has already made the obituary rounds the last few days. This column won't be about his successes or failures in office. Even though he lived in Huntington Beach at the end of his life, I encountered him just once as a reporter. But Don the Beachcomber ... well, that fantasy world, as he put it, is hard to miss for anyone who follows local culture.

So what kind of world did Snyder oversee inside that old building on Pacific Coast Highway, right on the edge of Sunset Beach? I asked Emerson Duque, the company's director of operations, to give me a tour Saturday before the celebration of life began.

A bit of history first. Snyder, who years earlier had bought the rights to Don the Beachcomber's name and recipes, took the former site of Sam's Seafood and Kona in 2009 and turned it into a location for the chain that started more than 70 years ago in Hollywood. While Don the Beachcomber used to have more than a dozen outlets nationwide, it now operates just one in Hawaii and one in Huntington Beach.

Snyder, who had little involvement in the Hawaii location, came in to work every day in his hometown spot. He implemented strict rules in terms of its decor: no fluorescent lighting, nothing "tacky," as Duque put it. More than anything, he sought a vintage look for the restaurant, even to the point of keeping 1960s air conditioners posted on the ceiling after they had stopped working.

"He liked anything that was vintage, anything that had history behind it," Duque said. "He was very particular about what went up in his restaurant."

As Duque and I walked through the thematic rooms — which include the Dagger Bar, the Hidden Village Room and others — he stopped every few paces to show some new touch that Snyder had personally bought or overseen. A private banquet room in back, intended as a surfers' hangout, displays signed surfboards, posters and other memorabilia. Wood Tiki sculptures, which Snyder scouted out at auctions or bought from other restaurants that went under, lined the walls throughout.

In some cases, Snyder had his own art created on the spot. Interspersed throughout the restaurant are bamboo trunks that sculptors carved into Tiki figures while customers ate and watched.

"He was always into quality in whatever he did," Snyder's son, Neal, told me by phone Tuesday morning. "Nothing second-rate."

As for the one time I interviewed Snyder: It was in December 2010, when Don the Beachcomber had a Tiki music festival planned for New Year's Eve at the end of a rainy month. Even while the weather stayed miserable, Snyder expressed hope about the show, which brought together a lineup of exotica artists and even allowed band members to submit their own cocktail recipes for the menu.

"I would think every music professor around would want to be a part of this," he told me.

Carrying on with celebration even while it pours outside — that's the heart of Tiki, I suppose. And whatever Snyder may have done in politics up north, that's the legacy he left Huntington Beach.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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