Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Kansas City was once a totally tiki town

Posted By on Tue, Feb 8, 2011 at 1:01 PM

click to enlarge The old Kona Kai was one of the last tiki-style venues in town.
  • The old Kona Kai was one of the last tiki-style venues in town.

Call it synchronicity, but sometimes our Fat City stories -- even by different writers -- have unexpected connections.

Take, for example, our Fat City intern Emily Johnson's story about the new Graffiti Grill opening in midtown. Emily reported yesterday that the owners of the new restaurant are Shane and Stephanie Kesterson, who formerly operated a dining spot called Castaway's Marina and Grill in Smithville.

The Kestersons probably never knew -- and why would they? -- that in the 1960s, there used to be a Tiki-style lounge called the Castaways at 4334 Main. It's a parking lot now, but in its heyday during the era of The Beach Boys and the Bel-Airs, Hal Harbaum's lounge was a happening scene. One website reports that the lounge hosted a regular Saturday night "hootenanny" where young artists would perform.

It was at the Castaways that the touring New Christy Minstrels, after a gig at Starlight Theatre, heard a teenager from Bonner Springs, Gene Clark, singing. They hired him, and he moved to California and later became very famous as the singer-songwriting member of The Byrds.

By the late 1970s, the former Castaways was a gay bar; one of its female patrons was the yet-undiscovered Melissa Etheridge (who calls it "a cute little place" in her memoir, The Truth Is...).

Across the street from the Castaways was the old Kona Kai restaurant, which served ersatz Chinese-Polynesian cuisine that became so unbearable, I couldn't eat there anymore. But about 10 blocks north of the Castaways Lounge on Main Street was another tiki-themed venue, a restaurant and lounge called the Kon-Tiki. It was hot in the 1960s and boasted bamboo walls and Tiki statues.

By the the 1980s, the Kon-Tiki had become a gay bar, too. It hosted fried-chicken dinners and Sunday drag shows -- not unlike Hamburger Mary's drag brunch -- before it met the wrecking ball to create the urban development project now occupied by Costco and Home Depot.

A semi-famous local singer-musician also used to perform at the old Kon-Tiki back in the late 1980s. I made a solemn promise never to reveal who it is until after he writes his memoirs, but you're encouraged to guess in the comments.

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