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Fantasy Island

What makes River Grove's Hala Kahiki so original? In 35 years the owners never bothered to see Hawaii.



Rose Sacharski sits behind a counter watching a wave of customers float into her Hala Kahiki South Seas Shop in River Grove. The gift shop--the only one of its kind in the midwest--is part of the Hala Kahiki tavern, which Rose, who's now 77, and her late husband, Stanley, opened in 1966. The merchandise includes a coconut bra and a wreath made of Hawaiian wood roses and brown koa sea pods. A southern breeze rolls up from Melrose Park, and enchanting tropical music plays softly in the background.

Rose says, "I've never been to Hawaii. I don't like vacations. I've never been to a Trader Vic's. Or Kon-Tiki. Well, one time I went for a drink at Gene Kamp's," a late-50s tropical bar on Belmont near Harlem. "I think it's a lesbian place now. It's not what it used to be. The place used to glow in the dark. One of my waitresses went there and said, 'Rose, don't go--it's bad. A woman is tending bar with a snake around her neck.'"

Rose works in the gift shop on Wednesdays and Thursdays and behind the bar on Fridays and Saturdays. Her 50-year-old son, Stanley III, manages the bar, and her 51-year-old daughter, Cookie, manages the waitresses.

And Rose? She manages the drinks. She's created many of the 95 concoctions on the Hala Kahiki drink menu (which was designed by Rose's daughter-in-law, Maggie, on her home computer with the help of Rose's granddaughter Jackie). Rose came up with the Dr. Funk of Tahiti (licorice-flavored Pernod and rum) and the brutal Tahitian Milkmaid, made with gin, grenadine, and cream--it's supposed to get the wahine ("female") in a hauoli ("happy") mood. Fortunately the drink menu offers a glossary of tikispeak.

"Don't ask me how I do it," Rose says with a shrug of her ola ola ("very alive") shoulders. "I just sit down at a table and design the drinks. I really don't drink. I only take a sip. I just have a knack of knowing what goes with what. This spring I'm putting a drink out with ice cream and beer. I called it a Surprise. Because it is a surprise if you order ice cream and get beer. But it tastes very nice."

The Surprise sounds like a cool cousin of the Strip and Go Naked, a mix of vodka and beer. "That's really a college drink," Rose says. "It's OK, but not my type of drink."

Polynesian culture washed onto America's shores after World War II, when soldiers returned from the South Pacific armed with aloha shirts, Hawaiian music, and a thirst for tropical beverages. The vets found a friend in Vic Bergeron, who'd started the Trader Vic's chain in 1936 with a restaurant in Oakland, which evolved into a Polynesian joint in 1948. Though Bergeron has been credited with inventing the Mai Tai, he admitted before his death in 1984 that he not only copied Don the Beachcomber's South Pacific decor but borrowed its drink recipe.

No one in the Sacharski family has served in the South Pacific, traveled to Hawaii, or been to Don the Beachcomber's, Trader Vic's, or even the late, great Kahiki in Columbus, Ohio.

Rose got the name from a comic book. "My kids were reading a Dennis the Menace comic," she says. "Dennis was in Hawaii, and he went to a plantation and saw 'Hala Kahiki.' I said, 'What's a Hala Kahiki?' It sounded nice to me." It turned out Hala Kahiki means "house of pineapple," a good-luck charm.

Next to Rose sits a replica of the Hala Kahiki in the form of a quilted green, yellow, and brown Kleenex holder. Aunt Bess made the minitavern, complete with "Cocktail Lounge" and "South Seas Shop" doors. The colorful Hala Kahiki business cards are ingeniously designed to be folded in the middle: one side gives the usual name, address, and phone information while the other reads "Gone to p" and "Leave my drink alone," serving as a tabletop billboard when nature calls.

The Hala Kahiki tavern holds more than 200 people in three dimly lit rooms and the bamboo-dominated front bar. An outdoor tropical garden is open during the summer and early fall. The Sacharskis opened the South Seas Shop in 1970, when Rose's daughter Rosemarie gave birth to granddaughter Lynn. "I'm a firm believer mama should stay home with the kids until they are old enough to go to school," Rose says. "So I opened the shop next door, and she had the [adjacent] bedroom and kitchen so she could stay home while she worked." Rosemarie died of heart failure in 1985 at the age of 40.

The gift shop sells hundreds of tropical items, including shaking hula dolls, tiki masks, tablecloths, Hawaiian shirts, Don Ho cassette tapes, perfume, and imported hand-carved tiki gods. But the store's ever-changing inventory represents the only flicker of progress in the Hala Kahiki compound. The tavern doesn't have any TV sets or cigarette machines. Its one jukebox is tucked into a corner near the bathrooms. There's almost nothing to remind a visitor of the outside world.

The tavern's retro look is augmented by leopard-skin lamp shades, but frankly they have nothing to do with tiki culture. So Chicago tiki designer Dave Kriss created a new lamp with a tiki head, a brass shade, and a hurricane-glass fitting to replace some of the leopard-skin items.

Kriss often drives out to River Grove from his Ukrainian Village home just to ride the Sacharski surf. "I love the lounge-exotica feel here," he says while sitting at the bar. "And it's clean. Everything is very much in its place. There are tiki bars that are a mish-mosh of stuff. That can be OK, but with this one they caught a lot of that Witco stuff."

Witco Decor was the brainchild of prolific whittler William Westenhaver, who created "primitive" raw carvings in dark wood. Well-known Witco clients included Elvis Presley, who furnished the Jungle Room at the Graceland mansion with Witco products, and Hugh Hefner, who accented his Playboy mansion swimming pool with Witco tiki masks.

"It's a very abstract style," Kriss says. "You always know a Witco when you spot it. It sets itself apart from every type of carving, tiki or whatever. I hated it when I first saw it because it wasn't traditional tiki. But it grows on you. Now it's my favorite."

The entire Sacharksi family lives within walking distance of the Hala Kahiki. And Rose has in her home a basement rec room anchored by a long Witco bar that seats between eight and ten people on Witco bar stools. When her guests aren't sitting at the bar, they can shoot pool or play cards on an old-fashioned felt card table.

Rose's basement keeps her memories warm. She and Stanley, who died of cancer in 1998, were married for 56 years. They met at the Paradise Ballroom, near the corner of Pulaski and Madison. "I danced with Stanley that night," Rose says in soft tones. "That night he asked for another date. That was it. We got married three months later. Everybody said it would never last. And it worked. We were always together. We got up together. We went to bed together."

And they dreamed together. Between 1936 and 1961 Stanley ran the Sacharski Funeral Home at 1735 W. Wabansia in Chicago. To liven things up, Rose and Stanley decided to buy a bar. Stanley took a second job driving a cab at night while Rose helped at the funeral home during the day. By 1961 they'd saved $2,000 and opened a tavern at the corner of Fullerton and Central. "We didn't know what to call it," Rose says. "So we called it the Lucky Start."

Rose immediately began decorating. "I had a Girl Scout troop," she says. "And I had all kinds of flowers and things I used for it. We couldn't afford to decorate [the bar], so I started putting up flowers and ferns from the troop. People said it looked very tropical. And the bar had a colorful tropical floor. Then we found out the tavern used to be a funeral home."

The Lucky Start became popular with Polish and Ukrainian women from the neighborhood church clubs, who fell in love with the floral decor. "But the neighborhood changed," Rose says with a sigh. "The churches left." So did Rose and Stanley. In 1966 they sold the bar and the funeral home and set sail for the near western suburbs.

Cookie remembers driving around on Sunday afternoons in a black Chevy with fins, looking for taverns for sale. One day they drove by Aldo's, a shot-and-a-beer joint on River Road in River Grove. One thing was for sure--there was water in the air, with the Des Plaines River across the street. The place also had a funeral flavor, a running theme in their lives. For some reason the wall behind the bar featured a mural of a cemetery. Stanley III recalls, "For $10, customers could get their name on a gravestone."

The space was originally a greenhouse. Then it became a general store, a gas station, and the workingman's bar Aldo's before erupting into the Hala Kahiki. Rose says of their first years there, "I worked in boots because we still had all the [greenhouse] pane-glass windows in the front. Sometimes it snowed in here. It was bad. Our customers were all truck drivers, and everybody laughed at us. They said there was no way we would make this work." But Rose and Stanley were tough northwest-siders. During Hala Kahiki's first three years, they served a tropical lunch and dinner menu with pineapple hamburgers, pineapple slaw, pork, and strip steaks. But in 1969 they closed the kitchen and expanded the bar because they were doing so well with drinks.

Stanley III, standing tall behind the front bar, steps away from pouring a Zombie and says, "This business has worked for two reasons. My mom was the thinker, the brains, the imagination. My dad was the hammer." He looks down the long bar, which resembles a bamboo shanty complete with overhanging roof. "My dad put up every piece of this bamboo," he says. "One piece at a time. He had to drill 'em because nails don't go through bamboo. You have to use copper screws because bamboo has to breathe. I've had engineers come in here and look at this bamboo." He points to the canopy. "It amazes them because they don't know how it's being held up. It's a free-hanging canopy. You'll never see anything like this. It's genius. My dad was an undertaker, but his dream was to build."

The Hala Kahiki has developed a big following, including entertainers and sports stars. A few months ago a half dozen Radio City Rockettes stopped in for a liftoff after a performance at the nearby Rosemont Theatre. And Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey people are regulars when the circus is in town. "Years ago Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita came here," Stanley III says. "My dad was 'Stan.' I guess they could relate. Don Ho? He wouldn't step in our place unless my Dad paid him ten grand.

"Our clientele goes from 21 to 81. One night you come in here, we're loaded with women. Another night it's full of couples. Lots of times it's lots of guys. You know, it's no more foo-foo drinks for the guys like it used to be. We don't do bachelor parties. The easiest way to describe this place is a restaurant atmosphere without the food." Hala Kahiki does serve free pretzels, however.

Stanley III also remarks that it's always quiet, a remarkable feat considering that the Hala Kahiki serves a mean drink. "Take something like this Zombie," he says. "It's got your passion juice, your light rum, your dark rum, heavy-bodied rum. There's sugar in it. OK? When a bartender is busy he doesn't have time to mix all those ingredients."

Cookie is the resident mixologist. Up to three hours daily she mixes and measures in a back room that few visitors ever see. "A Planters Punch is lemon, lime, grenadine, dark rum, orange juice, pineapple juice, bitters," she says. "I put all that into a gallon jug. Some of the drinks, like the Zombie, all the bartenders have to do is measure it out and top it with a 151 rum, but with others they have to add one or two ingredients on top of what's in the gallon.

"It saves a lot of time for everybody. The drinks come out consistent, too. If somebody complains to me about a Zombie or a Mai Tai, well, I know I make those. And there's nothing the bartender could mess up unless he poured the wrong drink in there."

Many times Cookie mixes after hours, daydreaming and listening to music. "It's usually classical," she says. "I like Vivaldi. A little opera's not bad. I'll be honest, I'm not going to listen to Hawaiian. I hear that enough."

Otherwise the Hala Kahiki doesn't miss a Hawaiian beat. Stanley III and his bartenders always wear Hawaiian shirts. Some waitresses wear colorful muumuus, others wear sarongs and leis. The busboys wear Hawaiian shirts. All the clothes are from Hawaii. But not every element is authentic.

"We try to crisscross everything," Stanley III says. "There's no leopards in Hawaii, but we're not just Hawaii. We're all the islands. I'm sure there's a leopard somewhere on some island. We give everybody a fortune cookie on the way out. That's Far East. This place has an everything decor."

It seems the Hala Kahiki can be everything to everyone. Stanley III offers a sly smile and says, "We have lots of foreigners come in here with cameras. They take a lot of pictures. I guarantee you, they're sending the pictures back to Europe and saying, 'We made it in America and here we are in Hawaii.'" With the luck of the pineapple, the Sacharskis have made it in America too.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.

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