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Celebrating classic and modern Polynesian Pop

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Name:Lea Lea Room, Mission Inn
Street:3649 Mission Inn Ave

The venerable Mission Inn in Riverside was one of the old hotels from 1800s that briefly joined the Polynesian craze in the 1960s, by opening the "Lea Lea Room" bar and dance club. The Luau Room in the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego was another, although it opened earlier in the 1940s, lasting through the 1960s.

Strange to think of the Mission Inn in Riverside as having a Tiki Bar. But here's the matchbook:

Unfortunately, the Room itself leaves something to be desired:

It's got a nice, rattan bar, and a bartender in Hawaiian shirt and lei, serving tropical cocktails...

But the rest of the room chose to go Exotic in the Oriental fashion, with a Buddha behind the bar, Chinese lanterns, and a pagoda sitting on the bar:

Still, I would have gone dancing there, given the chance. Do the folks in Riverside still dress like that?

[ Edited by: Sabu The Coconut Boy 2009-08-20 00:35 ]

Wow.. when I first read that, it was hard to believe. Then I tried to imagine what it would have looked like if there was a tiki bar at the Mission Inn...

Amazingly as I scrolled down, it looks exactly how I would have imagined it!

Forced and temporary looking... I wonder how many years it lasted?

Well, it is time to lift my self-imposed hiatus with this post, Nr. 6999. I made myself take care of some chores before I allowed myself back on the board --though my trigger finger itched several times. :)

This post is to express my astonishment and satisfaction that, thanks to some dedicated urban archaeologists here, no Tiki or Poly pop hideaway seems too obscure to not eventually find its way into this site:

When, after having been there last almost 15 years ago, I got to show my wife the Riverside Mission Inn recently, I vaguely remembered having heard about a Polynesian restaurant having been in there, which had struck me as fairly incongruous, if not to say incredulous back then, considering the Inn's heavy Spanish Californian Mission theme. So I paid no mind to this faint memory when this time I discovered a Chinese salon among the countless rooms and galleries of this labyrinthine hotel, and photographed some of its features.

It is funny, but it seems like I have reached a point where I sometimes record Polynesian restaurant relics subconsciously now, as in the case of this Buddha:

(my photo Jan 2010)

(Lea Lea Room, 1950s)

...and these lamps:

(my photo Jan 2010)

I doubt though that the room I found them in is the same than in the postcard:

...but these pieces are not cheap Orchids of Hawaii decor, but genuine Chinese antiques. The fact that they were once recruited in an attempt at a "Polynesian" restaurant shows how A.) in the 50s it was THE thing to have a "Polynesian Room", every hotel had to have one, and B.) the Mission Inn was struggling to keep busy back then, probably seeming rather outdated at the time. I read that many art objects from the collections of the original owner were sold during those years:

During the 30 year construction period Miller traveled the world, collecting treasures to bring back to the hotel for display. The various museum-quality artifacts on the property has an estimated value of well over $5 million.>The property began as a two-story, 12-room adobe boarding house called the "Glenwood Cottage" built by civil engineer Christopher Columbus Miller in 1876. In 1902, Miller's son Frank changed the name to the "Mission Inn" and started building obsessively, in a wild variety of shapes, until he died in 1935.>Miller's vision for the structure was drawn from random historical styles. With one section over another, addition upon addition, the result is an enormously complicated and intricately built structure, comparable to the Winchester House. It contains narrow passageways, exterior arcades, a medieval-style clock, a five-story rotunda, innumerable patios and windows, castle towers, minarets, a Cloister Wing (with Catacombs), flying buttresses, Mediterranean domes and a pedestrian skybridge among many other features.>Part of the complexity is an unexpected change of scale as Miller tailored certain portions of the property for his height challenged sister. Another reason for the complexity is the clash of styles, such as Moroccan, Mediterranean, Chinese, Turkish, Babylonian, Spanish, Oriental, Italian Renaissance, and Gothic-Hawaiian (!?)

The place is stunning. I've been in a wedding in the building. The chapel is amazing. My girlfriend and I also stayed there back in 2006. We took the tour which was very interesting. Quite a few presidents stayed there and I think both Reagan and Nixon married there. Here are a few pics I took back in 2006.

JOHN-O posted on Mon, Feb 1, 2010 9:35 AM

On 2010-02-01 00:50, bigbrotiki wrote:

It is funny, but it seems like I have reached a point where I sometimes record Polynesian restaurant relics subconsciously now, as in the case of this Buddha.....

Huh? What does Buddha have to do with Polynesian-Pop? I must say I find the use of Buddha as a kitsch decorative item in very bad taste. Until we start seeing "Jesus Bars", I'm gonna cry religious double standard.

Sorry for the rant, I had to get that off my chest. :)

And yes, the Mission Inn is a sometimes overlooked treasure of Riverside. There's a super-cool mid-century steak place nearby but I forgot the name.

[ Edited by: JOHN-O 2010-02-01 13:17 ]

TikiG posted on Mon, Feb 1, 2010 11:01 AM

I lived in Riverside from 1978 thru 1982 or so.

As teenagers the pre-renovation Mission Inn was a magnet for us thrill seekers.

No supervision from adults meant we could (and did!) sneak into the underground tunnels there to film little monster movies with 8mm movie cameras, have make-out sessions with girls, get stoned etc. The place was pretty much wide open and in bad shape in areas with broken glass windows everywhere, rotten carpet, closed-off areas hidden in the dark, secret passages behind secret doors etc. We expected to see ghosts on numerous occasions - but never did - the Mission Inn back then was honestly one of the most spookiest complexes I had ever visited in my life. The rotunda stairway was wide open back then too when that part of the building basically was deserted and abandoned. Always something new to find every time we went.

Sometime during the mid-1980s the whole historic downtown Riverside area received much needed renovation efforts. The Mission Inn held a series of silent auctions and sales. I went with friends and we each bought some mementos to bring home, things at the sale went for pennies, literally. I remember you could just load up. People walked out of those sales with boxes of stuff, carloads, for cheap (dinnerware, bar ware, decorations, furniture etc.) I was a little miffed that the Inn didn't keep most of this stuff intact for future use. I'm sure that at these sales you could have found and bought whatever tiki stuff was left-over from earlier decades. Everything was for sale, everything had a price.

I've been back to the Mission Inn post-renovation and its beautiful. I always tell people about it, and I always suggest a visit if you're in Riverside. And oh yeah, all of the underground passages have been sealed I've been told...


Glad to see your back.

I just got this postcard showing a different version of the Lea Lea Room with the bar and the Buddha.

What a cool place, will have to take a look next time I am down that way.


On 2010-02-01 09:35, JOHN-O wrote:
Huh? What does Buddha have to do with Polynesian-Pop? I must say I find the use of Buddha as a kitsch decorative item in very bad taste. Until we start seeing "Jesus Bars", I'm gonna cry religious double standard.


There is a Buddha Bar in Chinatown San Francisco that is a favorite dive. As painted by Sean Kirkpatrick.


And then there was the Yee Mee Loo, offering cocktails in the Kwan Yin temple!

On 2010-02-01 09:35, JOHN-O wrote:
Huh? What does Buddha have to do with Polynesian-Pop? I must say I find the use of Buddha as a kitsch decorative item in very bad taste. Until we start seeing "Jesus Bars", I'm gonna cry religious double standard.

You are kidding, right? And Polynesian gods are not religious icons? Also, last time I looked, Buddhas and Buddha heads were THE current garden decor craze. Irreverence is the earmark of pop culture, and Tiki in particular.

I am not saying that it is APPROPRIATE example for Polynesian pop, but as the Riverside Inn used it (because they couldn't afford anything else and it was handy, as I mentioned above) and called it a Polynesian restaurant (which most likely served Chinese"Polynesian" dishes), it is an interesting facet of Tiki history now.

And I'll be damned, it WAS the same room, I shot it (again, unknowingly) from almost the same angle!:

I was fooled by the alcove not being in the corner anymore, and thought the Lea Lea had been somewhere else. I also shot it from the gallery above, and you can see the lamp in your postcard:

They rehung and switched those two big lamps!

Again, I am not saying this IS Polynesian decor, just that they used it, just like many Chines restaurants switched to Polynesian cocktails and decor to benefit from the trend.

Great story about the OLD, moldy Mission Inn in the 80s,Tiki G, now that's when I would have loved to explore it! Sad sad about all the stuff they sold.


Thought you would like that, almost the same shot that you took! It's also the same view in tight from Sabu's original postcard.


But wait, there's more! I picked up this postcard at the paper show today showing the original Lea Lea room in all of its South Seas glory.

It was a pre-tiki bar for sure, copied right out of Don the Beachcombers.

Close up of the decor

And the table settings.

The date on the back of the card is 1948.


Whoa, now that is confusing! Which angle is that? Was that its earlier, 40s incarnation, and then it went "Chinese Modern" in the 50s? (Like the Tonga Room, which went Chinese Modern briefly between being Ocean liner and then classic Tiki finally). I can't see the two styles co-exisiting in one room at the same time! Though I seem to see some Chinese antiques in the far back corner, in the dark. Can you zoom in on that and lighten it up a little, DC? This photo drives home again how much the fake palm/ bamboo style really was like set dressing...

Here you go, Bigbro.

Looks like some Chinese artifacts in the back.

Also found this little historical sound-bite on the Lea Lea Room.

Frank Miller died in 1935. Lost with Mr. Miller’s passing were his creativity, drive, promotional abilities, and vision. Allis and DeWitt Hutchings took over the running of the hotel, but they faced formidable changes in the travel industry. The dramatic rise in use of the automobile, along with new resort destinations and activities, made the Mission Inn seem outdated and out of fashion. Business at the Mission Inn began to slip. People no longer stayed at the hotel for extended periods; Palm Springs and other locations had replaced Riverside as a popular destination. The couple struggled to keep the hotel open and tried to attract new guests by adding modern amenities. The South Seas-inspired Lea Lea room, decorated with large tikis, bamboo, and palm fronds, opened in 1939 (Klotz, 1982). It became a favorite place for dancing, especially for the airmen and soldiers stationed at March Field and Camp Hahn.

The story says there were large Tikis! Maybe the book cited has more pics?


One more bit of info. The South Seas Lea Lea room was remodeled back to the Ho-o-Kan room:

In the late 1930s, Miller family members turned Frank Miller’s Oriental Court and adjacent Ho-o-Kan Room into a South Seas bar, roughly patterned after the famous Trader Vic’s restaurants. The project was
successful, and the Lea Lea Room became famous in its own right, hosting such dignitaries as Bob Hope as well as some awesome local parties over the decades. Judd and the restoration officials had to decide whether to save this now historic room or eliminate it completely in order to restore the original Oriental Court and Ho-o-Kan. We know, of course, they finely chose the latter option.

To bad!


Great work guys, cool info.

I keep meaning to go see the place, I have driven past it a few times.
Always on the way somewhere else of course.
I don't get out to the I.E. much.
maybe I need to change that, and go spend a weekend.


I live about 5 miles from it and it is still as beautiful as ever. I do wish they hadn't converted the Lea Lea room back to it's oriental theme though. Oh well...

Filling in a few more pieces of the timeline from old newspaper archives.

The earliest references all call this room the "Lealea Room" with no spaces between the Lea's. Example is this ad from 1941:

The ad is fascinating to me because it shows that there was a live orchestra on Friday and Saturday nights, but informal dancing with recorded music on Monday thru Thursday. Wonder if they used one of those big multi-record Capehart players like Don The Beachcomber did.

So DustyCajun's research shows that the Lea Lea Room was built in the late 1930s. Here's the additional data I found:

1940 - Riverside Elks Lodge attends its Hawaiian Luau in the Lealea room.
1941 - More mentions of guests dancing in the Lea Lea room of the Mission Inn
1946 - Radio broadcasts of music from the Lea Lea room on station KPRO at 10pm on Thursdays
1951 - The Oriental room and the Lea Lea room, are two separate adjoining banquet halls. That's probably what you see in DustyCajun's postcard.
1957 - New owner Ben Swig renovates the Mission Inn and reintroduces dancing to the Lea Lea Room
1964 - Lea Lea room is mentioned as having a "pretty waterfall"
1966 - Now referred to as the Oriental Lea-Lea Room. Must have changed decor sometime between 1951 and 1966.
1967 - Weddings are being held in the Mission Inn Chapel with receptions afterwards in the Lea Lea Room throughout the Sixties & Seventies. Wonder if anyone was ever shocked ed by having a Christian wedding ceremony in one room, then a reception in another room presided over by Buddha. My parents and grandparents probably would have been.
1977 - last mention of the Lea Lea Room I could find in the newspaper archives was for a luncheon hosted by the Orange Empire Retired Officers Wives club.

[ Edited by: Sabu The Coconut Boy 2012-08-02 13:56 ]

I went to the Mission Inn last month. They had a photo of this image in the museum/gift shop.

[ Edited by: Tiki Shaker 2018-02-23 12:00 ]

Raquel Welch dancing with the Buddha in the film The Wild Party


Mahalo Don. Great thread-my wife and get out to the Inn at least a couple of times a year including Christmas time. Great place for lunch on the way to Palm Springs from L A.

Otto posted on Mon, Dec 10, 2018 3:42 PM

Here is another photo postcard from the Lea Lea Room.

And a newspaper ad.


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