By Emily J. Minor
City & Shore Magazine
This summer at the Mai-Kai, the Polynesian-themed restaurant that has occupied the same spot on the map since 1956, the kids will take the stage.
“Oh my, yes,” says Mireille Thornton, the 79-year-old owner who still choreographs all the dance shows at the restaurant on U.S. 1 in Fort Lauderdale.
In the shows running Sundays now through mid-November, she says, “I have my great-granddaughter and I have the granddaughter of my retired knife thrower, and I have my nephew. My grandnephew.”
The other kids in the Sunday-evening troupe? They might belong to a waiter or a waitress, maybe even the fire eater or a valet guy.
“We like to keep it in the family,” she says.
The “island” family.
History isn’t exactly South Florida’s forte. Heck, McCrory’s landmark downtown five and dime only lasted 50 years. So when you find an iconic place like the Mai-Kai restaurant, the urbanscape around it always changing, it’s nice to know there’s some heft to the stories there.
And that heft – those stories – very much involve Mireille Thornton and her two kids, Dave Levy and Kulani Thornton Gelardi .
“It’s mostly fun,” says Thornton, about working with her son and daughter. “I do let them run the restaurant as long as they don’t put their two cents in about my show.”
Yeah, her show.
Thornton moved to California from Tahiti in the 1960s and first took to the Mai-Kai stage in 1969, moving to Florida on the advice of the family she was staying with in California.
She hardly knew a soul, but once she found a community of fellow islanders in Fort Lauderdale, many of them drawn to the still-emerging Mai-Kai and begging her to perform, she had to warn them about something: She couldn’t dance.
“The manager was out of town when I first danced and he came back and said, ‘That girl is very nice and very pretty but she is a lousy dancer,’” she says.
Of course, in true island fashion, management brought in the ex-wife of a drummer, who taught Thornton everything she knows today, including how to design and sew the costumes. And dance she did.
In 1971, she married club owner Bob Thornton and the two of them ran the club until his death in 1989, when she took over completely.
Thornton says she still dances today, just not on stage. “I have to show them how to move, even though I have one bad leg and one bad knee,” she says.
She also still designs and choreographs the main show, which is about 45 minutes long and features nine dance numbers. The children’s show has become much more than folly. “I love teaching children to dance,” she says. She also loves that customers, many of whom have been coming for generations, rely on her restaurant to provide today what was there yesterday.
Today’s Mai-Kai menu is virtually identical to what it was in 1956.
“My son, Dave. He’s tried to change it up and add salads,” she says. “People don’t want that here.”
Actually, her son agrees.
“People come in and they want the same Pupu platter and Mai Tai,” he says.
Some things are better the same.
Photo: Mireille Thornton.