Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Surf riding" with Arthur B.

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, where Arthur Benaglia worked (and ate and slept), has a rich history.  It's told in a nice book full of photos called "The Pink Palace," by Stan Cohen, published in 1986.

One of the many items that collectors covet from the heyday of the hotel are the dining room menus, whose covers were true works of art.  Nowadays, some of them, by an artist named John Melville Kelly, can run $50 or more.

Too cheap to spring for one of those, I did pick up a while back a matchbook of unknown vintage from the Royal Hawaiian-Moana complex:

When I look at it, I like to imagine myself lighting up a cigar on a beachfront veranda at the hotel and enjoying a mai tai and some laughs with my wife, and Arthur Benaglia with his wife Elise, and maybe a couple of celebrity guests, circa 1935.  Arthur served as the general manager of the Royal Hawaiian for nearly two decades from its opening in 1927.  (An older Royal Hawaiian Hotel, founded by real Hawaiian royalty in the 1800's, had been on a different site nearby.)

Research reveals that Arthur was an experienced hand at the hotel business when he got to Hawaii.  Born in Milan, Italy, he had grown up in a hotel family, and he worked at inns in Switzerland, Germany, England, and Scotland before moving to Canada at age 18.  In London, he was trained at the Hotel Carlton by someone named Escoffier, identified in one account as "founder of the modern French cuisine."

Young Arthur worked for a while in Montreal, but then he became a hotel manager, running the Vancouver (B.C.) Hotel and the wonderful Empress Hotel in Victoria.  He eventually took over management of the Banff Springs Hotel, which was then under construction.  From there he moved to New Orleans, where he managed two hotels, one of them being the New Roosevelt Hotel on Canal Street.  Then he boarded a cruise ship for the long trip from San Francisco to Hawaii, where he stayed for quite some time.

Hawaii historians remember Benaglia as a masterful manager of people, with exquisite taste, top skills as a promoter, and an intimate knowledge of every detail of the Royal Hawaiian, since he had been there since it was just a hole in the ground.  The guy really knew his stuff.

After leaving Hawaii during World War II, Arthur worked briefly in Los Angeles, and then he assumed management of the Plaza Hotel on Central Park in New York.  He died of a heart attack six months after arriving in Manhattan, in June 1944 -- in his apartment at the Plaza, of course.  He was 61 years old when he passed on.

UPDATE, 5/22: We ran into Arthur again in connection with a recent vacation to the 50th State.

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