By Mike Scott
Most people live on a lonely island,
Lost in the middle of a foggy sea.
Most people long for another island,
One where they know they will like to be.
–lyrics from “Bali Ha’i,” from the musical “South Pacific
It was 1971, and Tim Norton knew instantly he would marry her. He didn’t know her name, which was a slight problem. (“That would be a good start,” buddy Bruce Scott advised.) He also didn’t know that she, like he, was a student at LSU — he a freshman, she a senior. But he knew he would marry her. He knew that much.
The long version of this particular rum-laced love story involves a chance meeting on a Florida beach, followed shortly by her adorning his then-fashionably long hair with barrettes fished out of a purple K&B bag from the old Pensacola location that every New Orleanian of a certain age remembers. That was followed by a re-connection back home in New Orleans and his summoning up the courage to ask her out on a real, official date.
He knew exactly the place to take her to seal the deal, too. “She was wearing a yellow dress. I was wearing this god-awful blue-and-white plaid cross pattern,” he said, the memory still clear in his mind. “So we go to the Bali Ha’i.”
The Bali Ha’i. Established in 1958, the meticulously themed tiki restaurant at the old Pontchartrain Beach amusement park in New Orleans was for decades a place of pure escape for locals, with its Cantonese-inspired menu, a bar stocked with colorful but potent umbrella drinks, wall-to-wall bamboo and no shortage of South Seas romance.
It was also a hit. Offering a year-round taste of island life, or something approximating it, the Bali Ha’i at the Beach (it’s full name) quickly became the go-to restaurant for countless locals who wanted to celebrate something, be it a wedding, an anniversary, a graduation, a prom — or the first date with the girl you knew you were going to marry.
The experience started even before patrons got to the restaurant, thanks to the “Sampan Taxis” — bamboo-bedecked, islandified, van-like conveyances that were dispatched by the restaurant’s owners to ferry diners from the Pontchartrain Beach parking lot to the restaurant’s “entrance portal.”
“Just drive up to the spacious west parking lot at Pontchartrain Beach and cast your cares to the cooling breeze,” read a 1959 ad for the restaurant published in The Times-Picayune. “As an attendant parks your car, step aboard the quaint Sampan Taxi and ride down the midway to the portals of New Orleans’ most exciting new restaurant — the Bali Ha’i. There’s no parking charge involved … it’s just another service that makes dining at the Bali Ha’i an unforgettable experience!”
Vans were also dispatched to carry out-of-towners to and from the hotels of the Central Business District.
“It was very much Polynesian,” Norton remembers. “The wall covering was like stacked bamboo clusters, so it looked like a bunch of bamboo with palm leaves coming off the top of it. The ceiling was like a combination of burlap and palm tree leaves. The effect was strictly Polynesian, no question about it. A lot of tiki faces, tiki-faced totem poles, maybe 5 feet tall.”
Fishing traps and Japanese fish floats also adorned the main dining room’s walls and ceiling, along with Taiwanese spears, fishing nets and other Pacific-region artifacts. Groups could book private rooms, or “huts”: the Bora Bora Hut, the Lanai Hut, the Samoan Hut.
On that first-date night, Norton remembers collecting an armful of ceramic “Tiki Bob” decanters, the smiling signature mugs in which the restaurant’s popular Fogg Cutter cocktails were served. “If you paid, like, $7, you got the glass,” he said.
“Sometimes they left a bunch on the table,” he added conspiratorially, “Those were free.”
After Norton and his dream girl ate — it might have been the Aku Aku Wings, a favorite of his, and it might also have involved the Po Po appetizer platter — he remembers leaving by the restaurant’s rear entrance, which opened out onto the Pontchartrain Beach Midway, for a post-dinner stroll. He decided to try to impress her at the baseball toss game, promising to knock down all the stacked milk bottles with the first throw.
He leaned back, he let the ball fly — and it ricocheted right back at him. It didn’t knock down the milk bottles, but it did knock down every one of the half-dozen Tiki Bob mugs he had set down on the counter. It was a total loss.
After that memorable mishap, he returned to the Bali Ha’i and explained his misfortune to the staff. They immediately replaced all of his mugs. “They favored me,” he said. “They favored everybody. They did. They treated everybody so well.”
That, it turns out, was part of the charm of the place. In addition to the exotic food and the meticulous decor, the staff — most of them of Asian descent, to help sell the illusion — were always friendly.
“We always went with groups of people, and we always met people out there,” Norton said. “The nice thing was, we had enough to go out there and eat. All you’d have to spend was 25 or 30 bucks. You’d spend it all, but you’d have a good time. Today, that’s the first hour.”
As for his dream girl? Her name, it turns out, was Deb. Still is. Deb Norton, now. She and Tim have been married for 45 years and counting. They are the proud and happy parents of about a dozen well-cared-for Tiki Bob mugs.
Ha’i may call you,
Any night, any day,
In your heart, you’ll hear it call you:
“Come away … Come away.”
Although a decidedly unique experience for many New Orleanians, the Bali Ha’i at the Beach wasn’t exactly a one-of-a-kind restaurant. Opened amid the tiki craze that swept America after World War II — or re-swept it, to be historically accurate — it was a fairly shameless imitation of the trendy West Coast hangs Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber.
“The tiki craze lasted 40 years,” said tiki-culture expert Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, who has spent years researching and unearthing the secret drink recipes of tiki-craze pioneers in a recommendable series of cocktail books. “It was four decades long — the longest drink trend in U.S. history. I can’t think of another cocktail trend that lasted as long. It went from the day after Prohibition right up to disco.”
Given that popularity, the Bali Ha’i wasn’t the only tiki bar in New Orleans back in the day. There was also the Huki Lau in Fat City and the Hawaiian Luau in the Fontainebleu Hotel on Tulane Avenue, to name just two.
In fact, thanks to the “South Pacific” tune of the same name, it wasn’t even the only Bali Ha’i. “There were tons of places named Bali Hai,” Berry said. “When I was a kid in San Diego there was a place called Bali Ha’i. Bali Ha’is were everywhere.”
Regardless, New Orleanians carried a (tiki) torch for the Bali Ha’i at the Beach. To this day, customers at Berry’s tiki-themed Latitude 29 gastropub, in the lobby of the Bienville House Hotel on North Peters Street, consistently slip into a sort of Bali Ha’i fugue while sipping elaborately crafted tiki drinks at his bar.
“One guy, there was one appetizer he was talking about — ‘Po Po’,” Berry said. “He was talking about that, and he got all misty-eyed.”
The Bali Ha’i at the Beach was the brainchild of Harry Batt Sr., who opened the original Pontchartrain Beach in 1928 at Spanish Fort before moving it to the location most New Orleanians remember, on a swath of land reclaimed from the lake by the Works Progress Administration and a dredge team.
“I was 14 when he died,” said Bryan Batt, the award-winning stage and screen actor, who is also a grandson of Harry Batt Sr. “He was a visionary. In this city, with jazz and Mardi Gras and all that stuff, to come up with this concept of family entertainment — a park and beach on the lake — he was very forward-thinking.”
He was also, it turns out, a great appreciator of Asian culture. Every off-season, when the family-run amusement park closed down for part of the year, he would travel. That often took him to industry conventions, where he would be on the lookout for the next great ride for his New Orleans oasis. Just as often, it would take him to Asian locales.
“He loved Hong Kong. He loved Asia,” Bryan Batt said. “He traveled throughout Asia. He died in Hong Kong, on the dance floor with my grandmother.”
So it wasn’t a big surprise when, upon deciding in the 1950s to add a year-round restaurant and bar to the park, it was tiki-themed. In the beginning, though, it wasn’t called the Bali Ha’i.
When it first opened in 1958, it was called the Pontchartrain Beach Comber — which prompted a quickly filed lawsuit from tiki pioneer Don the Beachcomber (who also happened to boast New Orleans roots). While the case worked its way through the courts, Batt agreed to temporarily truncate the name of his restaurant to the far blander “Pontchartrain Beach Restaurant” for advertising purposes near the end of 1958.
By the time the amusement park opened for the 1959 season, the restaurant was renamed the Bali Ha’i at the Beach, borrowing its name from “South Pacific.” It didn’t matter that it wasn’t original. To the ears of New Orleanians, the new name was more exotic by a mile than the previous one. It stuck.
“It was in its heyday when I was little,” Bryan Batt said. “It was a family place to go. It was such an exotic and mystical place for people, because then there was really no Asian place to go for dinner, especially a Polynesian place on the lake.”
While others could only dream of eating at the Bali Ha’i almost every night, he actually did, given that his family owned the place.
“I just remember, I tired very quickly of Asian and Polynesian food, because my mother was not really a consummate cook,” Batt said. “I loved her very much. She had other talents — but dialing for Bali Ha’i was her specialty. As a child, I wasn’t given Popsicles. It was an eggroll.”
The food aside, he still harbors fond memories of the staff, many of whom were almost like family to the Batts. He also remembers longing as a child to sample the colorful umbrella drinks that were so popular there, like the Navy Grog or the Bali-Bali or the multi-strawed Tiki Bowl (served, as the name suggests, in a bowl supported by a trio of miniature tikis).
“I remember they had all those great Polynesian drinks,” he said. “Some of them were real recipes from World War II. When we were little, we all wanted some fancy drinks, but we weren’t old enough to drink, so they worked up something for us. They called it ‘The Flaming Zorro.’ It was fruit juice but in it was a hollowed-out lemon or something filled with 151, and they lit it on fire.”
Years after the Bali Ha’i closed, and after he came of age, Batt remembers getting ahold of some of the bar’s old recipes and mixing up some of those venerable cocktails. It wasn’t easy.
“You couldn’t find some of the ingredients,” he said. “I think they were illegal. … We started making it in this big punch bowl, and I swear on a stack of Bibles that stuff would start swirling on its own. We could do the opening scene of Macbeth.”
By the 1980s, the local economy hit a downturn. Pontchartrain Beach was among those hard hit. In 1983, the Batts sold the park and the restaurant.
The amusement park never reopened, although the restaurant operated for a few more years. Bryan Batt doesn’t remember exactly when it closed. His family had divested itself of any financial interest in it by then, and he had gone off to New York for school and to pursue his acting career.
A fire reportedly damaged the building in 1986, although ads in The Times-Picayune suggest it was still operating at least as a special-events catering hall into 1987.
In October 1988, a classified ad appeared in the paper, noteworthy despite being unceremoniously relegated to the bottom of the second column on page G2: “To anyone and everyone who has ever enjoyed the Bali Ha’i, we’re having a memorabilia equipment sale, from souvenirs to chairs.”
Then, in May 1990, it suffered its final indignity. An overnight blaze destroyed the thatch-roofed building that housed the restaurant.
The era of the Bali Ha’i at the Beach was over.
Ha’i will whisper
On the wind of the sea:
“Here am I, your special island!
Come to me, come to me!”
Twenty-eight years after that classified ad ran, traces of the Bali Ha’i can still be found around town. The old “entry port” has been repurposed and pressed into service as a picnic pavilion at Veterans Memorial Park in Kenner. Berry has a few bits of memorabilia on display as part of his tiki collection at Latitude 29.
(Be cool and tip well, and you might even be able to talk a bartender into giving you a photocopy of Berry’s old Bali Ha’i menu, which he found at a local antiques store.)
Nowhere, however, does it live on as vividly as it does in the memories of locals. Just ask any group of old-timers about the Bali Ha’i at its Bali height, and somebody will almost certainly have a story to share.
Two common themes seem to emerge in almost every one of those stories: those head-spinning tiki drinks and romance. Often, they are intertwined.
Tony Beaulieu, a New Orleans native now living in Charlotte, N.C., remembers going on a double date to the Bali Ha’i in 1975 with fellow Tulane student-athlete John Foto. “My future wife was only 19 years old then and had left her purse at the dorm,” Beaulieu wrote via email. “When the waitress came around, we ordered one of those tiki drinks, probably a Fogg Cutter, and the waitress asked my date for her ID. She fibbed and said she left it in the car so I pretended to go get it for her. When the drinks arrived, the waitress didn’t ask to see her ID so we were all able to imbibe. It was a fun night.”
For Cecilia A. Giannobile of Hammond, the Bali Ha’i will forever be tied to the night of her junior-senior prom while she was a student at St. Scholastica Academy. The prom itself was held on the Mark Twain riverboat, but afterward, she and her friends made a beeline for the Bali Ha’i. “I was so excited to be there, and (I) still have my Fogg Cutter decanter after 45 years. It was the time of my life,” she wrote. “…That was the only time I ate there. I just remember it was a fun night. I’m lucky I remember that much!”
Francis Cellino, who grew up in Gentilly near Pontchartrain Beach but who now lives in Metairie, still has a couple of Tiki Bob mugs, as well as ceramic Bali Ha’i dish. “I think there was a photo of a scantily clad girl in the bar area,” Cellino wrote. “I tried to steal a peek whenever we went there. Not everyone we took there liked it. One ‘good ole boy’ just wanted some red beans and rice.”
Leo Thomas Cox III and Mary Helen Chance were engaged there in 1966. They still own the tiki bowl from which they drank that night. Judy and Russell Brockman of Metairie had their wedding reception there in 1985, and she can still recite the menu. It was a regular date-night destination for Ray and Pat Ventura during their courtship 50 years ago. They still have a Tiki Bob mug. The similar stories are innumerable.
“My family of seven had Pontchartrain Beach and the Bali Ha’i intertwined with our lives,” wrote Susie Brockhoeft, who also grew up near the beach in Gentilly. “We went to the amusement park at least once a year for my birthday, and the first fancy restaurant we were privileged (as children) to attend was the magical Bali Ha’i at the Beach.”
“After moving (all the way) to the West Bank in 1966, never forgetting about this dreamy place, my fiance and I had our wedding reception in 1981 at Bali Ha’i. … Married now for 35 years, these happy memories, including the fireworks I watched every weekend at the beach, still live on!”
Your own special hopes,
Your own special dreams,
Bloom on the hillside
And shine in the streams.
If you try, you’ll find me
Where the sky meets the sea.
“Here am I your special island
Come to me, Come to me.”
This story was originally published in May 2016 by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.