Saturday, August 02, 2008

Skin Deep

The Restoration of Mr. Bali Hai

Bali Hai Beauty, circa 1953

No bones about it, today's post is precisely seven years late.

Way back in August 2001 (mere weeks before "9/11" meant anything to us other than the eleventh of September) Jody and I volunteered to rescue an old, rotting lump of wood that had been sitting outdoors in the sun, rain, and salty sea breezes for half a century. Even worse, the lump had been touched, leaned upon, and sometimes even sat upon by hundreds of thousands of people.

Me and Mr. Bali Hai

Mr. Bali Hai is the world famous Sort-Of-Tiki that has stared down each and every visitor to the Bali Hai Restaurant on Shelter Island in San Diego, California since 1953. And, in our highly-respected opinion this deadpan deity is a bona fide star in the American Pop firmament.  The Buster Keaton of Tikis!

Hewn from one massive solid chunk of native Californian Julian Pine by an undocumented carver, Mr. BH is widely recognized thanks to a souvenir ceramic mug in his likeness, carried off to all corners of the world by the bazillions of folks who ordered the "Mr. Bali Hai" cocktail with dinner.

For years Jody and I griped about the color scheme and sorry state of Mr. BH every time we ate at the Bali Hai,  and finally we decided to see if we could do something about it. We took some unpaid vacation from work, bought several gallons of latex paint and, with the blessings of the restaurant's owner and the preservationist organization Historic San Diego, we set to work.

It didn't take long to discover that a fresh coat of paint was not going to cut it, as Mr. Bali Hai's troubles turned out to be more than skin deep. Decades of moisture had seeped into his back and a fungus had rotted away some of his insides.

Mr. Clown Face

About five pounds of moist, punky wood (think potting soil) had to be removed and the caverns scrubbed with a wire brush to get all contaminated wood out of there. The remaining fibers were flooded with termite pesticide and wood preservative. The "caves" were then coated in sealant, filled in with rock-hard wood putty, fortified with a layer of concrete, primered, painted and sealed again with three coats of marine polyurethane.


Referring to several vintage photographs of Mr.BH, we were able to recreate something close to his original appearance. It was thrilling to hold a 50-year-old photo up to his head and see all the same woodgrain traveling through his face. Somewhere back (we guess in the 1970s) he had been frosted like a cake with about a 1/4 inch of spackle.

Beginning to apply the Brown Base Coat

We counted six layers of different colors that he has been over the years. You might recall him being Martian green, but did you know that over the years he has been THREE different shades of green? And for awhile his pupils had been bright orange!

Jody Daily

Today only one detail is still lacking:  the bone through his nose. We had gotten approval to recreate the bone - which we did- out of newly acquired pieces of Julian pine. However a few factors need to be worked out before the bone can be restored....and more on that later....

Not long ago I came across the photos we had taken to document the process. With many of our friends recently in San Diego for Comic-Con, we've been reflecting quite a bit on the stalwart Mr. Hai.

If you'd like to relive the whole gruesome drama, step-by-step, visit 
"Mr. Bali Hai's  Restoration" Photo Album. 

Jimmy Durante & Mr.Bali Hai Compare Noses, 1955

And of course, next time you're in San Diego, please stop in and say Hai.


outsidetheberm said...

Just remember they don't serve lunch on Saturday! Go figure!

Great job, Kevin.

thepicklebarrel said...

OMG! GREAT story!!!

Major Pepperidge said...

This was neat, I am always fascinated with restoration stories. It's nice to know that Mr. Bali Hai will be around for years to come!

-idogcow said...

O Hai, Mr. Bali!

Daveland said...

LOVE the restoration stuff...and here I am in San Diego and have never even seen this thing...will definitely have to check out your excellent work.

alix said...

This is amazing. I was born in San Diego (eventually moved to glamorous Michigan) and I was obsessed with the Mr. Bali Hai mug they had in their barware collection. My parents had great Bali Hai stories.....I'm up in San Francisco now, but made it down to the Bali Hai last year with the hubs and our little boy and dutifully took my photo next to him. Little did I know I had you to thank for his awesomeness.....

Unknown said...

Hi there! Would you be willing to have any of your Bali Hai historical photos available for purchase for reproduction (for a book on Shelter Island)? If so, how much and with what distribution level?