Book Excerpt: Back to the Kahiki

Kristen Schmidt

A new book revisits Columbus' storied tiki temple, gone but not forgotten.

The Kahiki Supper Club on the East Side was famous not just in Columbus, but also among Hollywood stars and in American restaurant history. The massive restaurant (an understatement for what the Kahiki was as an experience) could seat hundreds-the coatroom could hold 600 coats. Couples celebrated anniversaries here. Kids blew out birthday candles while seated in grand caned chairs. Groups giddily ordered the Mystery Drink and received it from a bikini-clad Mystery Girl. The place had a lagoon and its own gift shop.

No wonder that, 14 years after it closed, fascination with the Kahiki still burns like the flaming mouth of the fireplace moai. Columbus is home to many people with memories of this fantastical place. Some of them are sources in a new book, "Kahiki Supper Club: Polynesian Paradise in Columbus," which is laden with delicious details and first-hand memories about the rise and fall of the restaurant.

Father-daughter team David Meyers and Elise Meyers Walker, Jeff Chenault and Doug Motz collaborated on the book, tracking down former employees, interviewing former owners and mining a rich trove of media clips for old stories. Here's just a small sampling of what they discovered.

The Making of the Moai

In a piece of experimental archaeology, a team of local and U.S. researchers showed that the massive statues, known as moai, can be moved from side to side by a small number of people, just as one might move a fridge.

-Rossella Lorenzi

They are called moai (or mo'ai). They are the massive stone figures carved by the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island between AD 1250 and 1500 (or from roughly the time of the Mongol Empire to Columbus's discovery of America). Apart from the magnificent building itself, the feature of the Kahiki that is best remembered are the two sixteen-foot-tall concrete moai out in front of the restaurant and the twenty-eight-foot-tall fireplace moai inside. The latter was so impressive that some people estimated it was actually fifty to eighty feet tall.

The creator of the moai was Philip E. Kientz. Born in 1924 to a family of stonecutters, Kientz was a man who left his mark wherever he went. Both he and his father, also named Philip, were avid collectors of Native American relics and contributed some of their best finds to the Ohio Historical Society.

After graduating from South High School in 1942, Kientz saw combat while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. Upon his discharge in 1945, he enrolled in the Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD).

With degree in hand, he found work as an artist and stonemason, eventually opening Kientz Custom Studio. Among the artists he studied with were such local greats as potter Chester Nicodemus, one-time dean of CCAD, and watercolorist Byron Kohn.

A lifelong resident of German Village, where he built two homes, Kientz and his wife, Shirley, were among the original founders of the German Village Society in the 1960s. Their home was one of the ten opened to the public for the first Haus und Garten Tour. (Shirley purportedly asked tour creator Frank Fetch, "Lord, Frank, who is going to pay a dollar to see these old houses?") Kientz also designed the organization's emblem.

Over the years, Kientz held a variety of jobs. His granddaughter, Stephanie Yochem, noted that "one was for Anchor Hocking Glass, and while there, [he] drew many designs which are on many vases and glassware. He designed the horse head on the Rolling Rock label. I was always asking why we don't get free beer, but he would laugh and say, 'I don't know.'" Other projects were the Nativity scene at the downtown State Auto Insurance building, the Durrell Street of Yesteryear at the original Center of Science and Industry (COSI), the famous Lazarus Christmas windows and even the store's talking Mr. Tree. Kientz also contributed to the look of the Wine Cellar and Desert Inn restaurants. Called upon to design the officers' quarters at Lockbourne Air Force Base, he then was asked to do the same for a military base in New England. According to Stephanie, he even drew the image of "the German beer guy" for Plank's restaurant in German Village (which may have gotten him a free beer or two). Kientz died on November 9, 2006, at the age of eighty-two.

Stephanie said that her grandfather was especially proud of his work on the Kahiki. "I'm not sure why, considering all that he had done, but he would always talk of this and make sure we would go and eat dinner there every now and then." True to the Easter Island heads, Kientz's moai are minimalist sculptures, composed primarily of large, flat planes, which he cast in concrete. The original Easter Island figures were intended by the Rapa Nui people to represent power and authority. At the Kahiki, the exterior moai, which flanked the main doorway, spouted flames from their crowned heads while the fireplace moai, naturally, had a large flaming, hexagonal mouth that emulated the shape of the front door.

"The fireplace and the two giant moai outside were a combination of Bernie [Altenbach], Coburn [Morgan] and myself," Bill [Sapp] said. "Everybody always seemed to come up with an idea, and if it sounded good, we went with it." Using Coburn's design, Kientz was also responsible for sculpting the iconic stone head that graced the fountain in the foyer of the restaurant. Interestingly, Bill Sapp and Lee Henry refer to it as the "Pig" or "Pete." However, during Michael Tsao's ownership of the restaurant, it came to be called "George" and the "Monkey."

When it was announced that the Kahiki might close, columnist Joe Blundo of the Columbus Dispatch invited readers to share their memories. One of those readers was Phil Kientz. "It was a highlight of my life," Kientz said.

"I got to do artwork and stonemasonry." However, he noted that, along with the Kahiki, the original COSI, the Wine Cellar restaurant and Desert Inn have all been razed. "They keep tearing down everything I did."

Kientz's moai became the ultimate Kahiki collectible. Not only were they bigger than the other souvenirs, but they were also considerably rarer. However, Michael Tsao, the restaurant's last owner, decided to hang onto them when the Kahiki was razed in 2000. He put the moai in storage and installed the "Pig" in the lobby of Kahiki Foods, his frozen food operation. His hope was that the statues would find a new home, possibly along the downtown riverfront if he succeeded with his plans to open a new restaurant there.

In 2006, following the death of their patriarch, the Tsao family decided to dispose of the Kahiki items they had been storing in a downtown warehouse. Coincidentally, Melissa Andrews was interviewing Linda Tsao for a book she was working on. Melissa and her husband, Greg ("Hulacat"), struck a deal with Linda to buy the items, including the twin moai that had stood outside the restaurant and the giant fireplace moai that had been the centerpiece inside. Melissa borrowed all the money she could and put the rest on credit cards to buy everything in the warehouse.

Jeff Chenault spent an afternoon helping load things onto a large semi-trailer truck. He can attest to the fact that it was completely packed with Kahiki artifacts, so much so that there was not enough room for one of the twin moai. John "tikiskip" Holt, a friend of Greg and Melissa's, was told he could have it for free as long as he could supply his own transportation and a crane to off-load it, which he did. It is now resting forlornly in his backyard, waiting for the call that might never come to return to service. The other one and the fireplace moai were transported to New England.

[A]s the driver and I [Hulacat] were strapping the fireplace down, I was excitedly babbling about how great it felt to rescue this symbol of tiki/poly pop culture and waxing about how many thousands had been to the Kahiki, how this, above all things Kahiki, was the most impressive. In my bloated glee I didn't notice that Merle (the driver) was intent on my blather with some concern knitting across his forehead. I mentioned how the mystery drink was presented to the fireplace moai before serving. Merle asked if the fireplace was ever used in actual worship (as in religious)…Whoa!…realizing that I was treading on sensitive ground (for him) I tried to spin to more benign turf…but just as I was beginning damage control…SOMEONE…my friend and true blue rock of tikidom…said, "Oh Yeah, they had pagan rites and DEVIL WORSHIP every night at the Kahiki."

TikiGreg (real name unknown) picks up the story:

The truck driver didn't want any part of the fireplace and moai, since he somehow deduced through conversation that they were used for some pagan ritual. This went against his religious beliefs, so he was refusing to move them. But Hulacat and Tikiskip convinced him they were just artifacts from a restaurant, and no bad things were associated with them.

Andrews stored the fireplace under a tarp in his backyard in Brattleboro, Vermont, while the second of the twin moai wound up in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire.

Then, in November 2013, many of the remaining Kahiki artifacts held by the Tsao family were sold in an online auction. The most significant of the items was the fountainhead-George, or the "Pig." In an emergency meeting of the Fraternal Order of Moai, it was agreed that it needed to purchase it to ensure that this important piece of restaurant history remained in Columbus. But it would not be cheap. The successful bidder also had to pay to remove a window and rent a forklift to remove the statue from the lobby of Kahiki Foods. Nevertheless, the FOM members pooled their cash.

As one of them later related:

In the final bidding minutes, we were here, in a tiki bar, drinking real Zombies with the owners of the Grass Skirt. And when the bidding went just above the FOM's limit, the Grass Skirt owners, Amy and Carmen, said, "We will cover it. Win it." And so we did. So tonight, tiki fans won. This historic artifact will stay in its hometown, and be on display for the public in a tiki bar. And that is what maters … Ahu.