Locals reminisce about south area’s famous Zombie Hut restaurant

Sacramento has been home to a wide variety of restaurants throughout the years and among the most unique of these eateries was undoubtedly the Zombie Hut.

(Left to right) Debbie Kassis, Turia Giles, Evelyn Meredith and Cheryl Cook were among the many dancers to perform at the Zombie Hut. (Photo courtesy of Cheryl Cook)Operating at 5635 Freeport Blvd. from 1945 to 1990, this establishment drew a consistent clientele during its heyday.

Despite the passing of two decades since its closure, the Polynesian-style business continues to be fondly remembered by its many guests and workers.

Among the restaurant’s earliest customers were Pocket residents Norman and Dolores Greenslate.

Dolores, the longtime historian and archivist of the Portuguese Historical and Cultural Society, said that the first owner of the business was a Portuguese man, named Johnny Quaresma.

“(Quaresma) was a Portuguese fellow, who was known as Johnny Christmas,” Dolores said. “The story goes that somebody was saying ‘Quaresma’ and they were thinking that they were saying ‘Christmas,’ so he became known as Johnny Christmas. He owned the Zombie Hut originally and he may have had a (business) partner, I don’t know.”

Quaresma sold the business in about 1952 and opened a similar restaurant, the Hawaiian Hut at 2400 West Capitol Ave. in West Sacramento.

Dolores added that the restaurant’s Portuguese connection did not stop with Quaresma, noting that another Portuguese man, Eddie Cunha, who was recognized as one of the city’s best bartenders, worked at the Zombie Hut for at least 20 years.

Another notable bartender at the restaurant in latter years included Eddie Cisneros.

At the time of its opening, this dimly lit restaurant, which was known for its evening entertainment and its many tropical drinks with miniature umbrellas resting on their tops, was located within a relatively barren area, south of Sutterville Road.

As opposed to today, this area near today’s Sacramento City College and William Land Park was much less built up and included few places during this era besides Capital Nursery, Raley’s grocery store, the Municipal Airport, Bob’s Bar-B-Q, The Stables tavern, a pair of liquor stores and the Ceccarelli residence.

But the Zombie Hut, which included much Polynesian décor, was well situated for people in the Pocket area such as Dolores, who is a native of the area.

“The Zombie Hut was the place to go out in that area,” Dolores said. “We used to go there after Norman came back (from World War II). I also used to go there for fashion shows later on when (another owner) Ed Hill had the place. The women used to go over there for the (fashion) shows, but then the men did, too, because there was lingerie.”


Place for Polynesian music

The Zombie Hut’s most renowned entertainment and a staple of the venue was its Polynesian music and dancing acts.

This 1974 advertisement showcases the popular restaurant’s concentration on both food and entertainment. The venue also included a beverage menu with many tropical drinks. (Photo courtesy of the Lance Armstrong Collection)Pocket resident Mary Snyder, who was formerly known as Carol Monahan, recalled attending Polynesian entertainment performances at the Zombie Hut as early as 1963.

“While I was attending (Sacramento) City College and living (at 2415 33rd Ave.), Alvin Inaba, whose parents owned the whole block where the Zombie Hut was located, used to take me to the Zombie Hut,” Snyder said. “I would see the entertainment there and it was the first place I ever had a prime rib dinner. We would go to the Zombie Hut and then to the Music Circus, because his sister was in the Music Circus. I remember seeing the dancers (at the Zombie Hut) and some kind of act with fire. For Sacramento, this was quite the thing. Back then you only had the Sacramento Inn, the Hotel Senator and the Zombie Hut was right up there, because of the entertainment.”

Albert Sakalata, a Tongan-born musician who began entertaining at the venue in 1963, recalled his first memories of the Zombie Hut.

“I was asking people where I could find a Hawaiian restaurant and they told me to go to the Zombie Hut,” Sakalata said. “When I first went there (to the Zombie Hut), I was really shocked to see there were torches lined up with fire outside the restaurant and the place was like the (Polynesian-themed) Trader Vic’s restaurants down south in L.A. I was with two Tongan boys (Fono Manu and another with the last name of Tofanaha) and we all decided that we were going to work at this place. They approached us and asked us that night to perform a couple songs on stage (with the Lee sisters from Hawaii and their brother, Fred Lee, the drummer) and we were hired on the spot.”

Sakalata, who first came to the United States in 1959 when he studied accounting at the Church College of Hawaii – today’s Brigham Young University-Hawaii – and helped build and open the world-famous Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, Hawaii, said that he worked at the Zombie Hut for two years before going back to Tonga.

Returning to the United States in 1974, Sakalata, 70, began playing music with his brothers on a touring cycle, which included stops in Albuquerque, Tucson, Lake Tahoe, Stockton and Fresno.


A changing time

As Polynesian-themed restaurants were losing much of their nostalgic popularity in the 1970s and the Zombie Hut was in need of various improvements, Hill contacted Sakalata to provide entertainment and become the restaurant’s manager.

Sakalata, who also took the stage with a Samoan musician, named Tasili Ngaleai, entertained at the Zombie Hut on Tuesdays through Sundays, from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.

This c. 1955 matchbook features one of the restaurant’s early advertisements. (Photo courtesy of the Lance Armstrong Collection)Accompanying Sakalata’s group, the Royal Polynesians, at various times were several dancers, including Trudy Lawrence, who was also a singer, Ngaleai’s sister, Losa, Turia (Giles) Davis, Katherine (Giles) Marchand, Evelyn Meredith, Debbie Kassis and Cheryl Cook.

Davis, who was born on the island of Bora Bora in the South Pacific and was a part of the Zombie Hut dance troupe from 1963 to 1969 and from 1985 to 1987, said that her professional dancing career continued until about 2007.

Commenting about one of her favorite dancing memories, Davis said, “My mom and dad (Fred and Tetua Giles) were at the Zombie Hut for years. I loved that and of course my mother was Polynesian (from Tahiti) and my dad always supported our Polynesian heritage. They were always big on supporting any of the Polynesian programs and events. I really enjoyed having them there. But it was not just them (who were regulars). There were a number of people who came there almost every weekend and just became part of the scenery more or less.”

Cook, who began dancing at the Zombie Hut when she was 15 years old, said that many former Zombie Hut musicians and dancers continue to perform together at various events.

“The Zombie Hut’s Hawaiian floor show still lives on,” Cook said. “Albert and his Hula Lovelies, as he called us, still entertain at backyard parties, corporate events and country clubs with the group, Aloha Polynesia.”

Although the Zombie Hut was definitely not Sacramento’s first or last Polynesian-themed eatery and nightclub, it was widely considered the most popular of these places.

Predating the Zombie Hut was the Tropics nightclub, which opened at 1019 ½ J St. in 1943.

This business, which advertised itself as the “Pacific Coast’s most beautiful nightclub” with “dancing, entertainment and tropical drinks,” appears to be where Quaresma may have obtained his idea to establish the Zombie Hut.

The Tropics owners were Yubi Separovich, who lived at 2712 13th St., where Quaresma eventually lived, and Frank Radich, who resided at 2716 13th St.

Another similar business in latter years was Albert’s Tiki Village at 3514 Marconi Ave. at Watt Avenue. Owned by Albert Mar, the restaurant boasted its “superb Polynesian cuisine.”


Quality cuisine

The Zombie Hut also had its fair share of quality cuisine, as it served such offerings as steak, prime rib, scampi, lobster, scallops, mahi mahi, salads and roast pig on the weekends for luas and banquets.

And people came from many directions outside of Sacramento to enjoy the food, drinks and entertainment.

Among the Zombie Hut’s most famous guests were John Wayne, Eddie Fisher, Joey Bishop, Joan Crawford, George Montgomery, Cliff Robertson and Eddie Murphy.

A lot of the draw of the Zombie Hut was its unique interior, which included a bamboo décor with many round tables that were individually illuminated by hanging blowfish lights, artificial coconut trees, a 15-foot-wide tropical storm, waterfall area, blacklights, recorded bird sounds, island-themed artwork, a thatched roof stage near the center of the restaurant, four canoes hanging from the ceiling, masks, spears, tiki idols and a large taxidermy collection that included the heads of moose, elk, goats and other animals brought back from Quaresma and Hill’s hunting trips.

Remembering the inside of the Zombie Hut, Sakalata said, “It was like walking into a jungle.”

Complimenting the Zombie Hut for a very brief time was Lucille Andrews, Olive Christian and Dixie Lockett’s Hawaiian Imports gift store, which opened at 5677 Freeport Blvd. in about 1959.

Although Sakalata brought a much needed boost to the restaurant, by the late 1980s, the restaurant changed drastically under its last owner, Bruce Brooks.

During this time, the venue featured Love Boat theme and disco music shows and eventually discontinued its entertainment offerings.

Additionally, the restaurant replaced its former menu with a fast food-style menu and was only open on the weekends during the evenings.

Sakalata left his position as the Zombie Hut’s manager in 1989 to begin his own Polynesian-style restaurant, called the Island Marina, in the Sacramento Delta and by the following year the Zombie Hut closed its doors to the public for the final time.

The building was demolished many years ago and the strip mall that now stands in its place includes a self-serve dog wash and bakery at the Zombie Hut’s old address.


Gone but not forgotten

While Sacramento has been without its once beloved Zombie Hut for the past 20 years, a tribute to the Zombie Hut appeared in 2002, when former Zombie Hut busboy Tod Bullen opened a similar restaurant by the same name in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Sakalata, however, feels that the timing is right to reintroduce a Zombie Hut-like eatery and entertainment venue to the Sacramento restaurant scene.

“Right now, I think that there really should be a place like the old Zombie Hut (in Sacramento),” Sakalata said. “People of this generation are going to the Pacific Islands for vacations, like (to) Fiji, Tonga and Samoa and New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii. They are coming back with the nostalgia of the islands. If somebody could come up with a place like the Zombie Hut, I honestly think that it would be very successful.”

But in the meantime, the old Zombie Hut has left plenty of memories behind.


E-mail Lance Armstrong at lance@valcomnews.com.

18 Responses to Locals reminisce about south area’s famous Zombie Hut restaurant

  1. Kenny says:

    I worked at Zombie Hut from 1972-1976, starting in the kitchen washing pots and pans to later assisting the cooks and making salads. Some of the folks I remember include Bob, Pete, Howard and Foster (cook), Cecilia and King (pantry), Carol, Rosemary, June and Paula (waitress), Ed C (bar) and Ed H. I helped setup the outrigger canoe used for lunch buffets and setting up luaus in the back room. It was hard work and helped pay my way through college. We ate well: imagine using filet mignon for stir-frying!

  2. Terry Mercer says:

    I worked at the Zombie hutin 1968 I was a senior in highschool.I loved working for Ed Hill.In nov I joined the Army and they threw me a party

  3. Lisa Brown says:

    I currently am neighbors with Trudy Laurence and would love it if anyone had any photos or videos that you could share! She is a wonderful lady today and I can only imagine what she must have been like back in the day!

  4. I was surprised that you left out a very significant part of the Zombie Hut’s history. In the early 1980’s, a wealthy Sacramento businessman, Bruce Brooks, purchased the place so that he could satisfy his desire to be a lounge singer. On weekend nights, he’d don a fancy tuxedo and sing his way through the dinner crowd, trailing a long microphone cord behind him. His favorites were Sinatra and Tony Bennett tunes. He had struck it rich by discovering natural gas fields in Yolo County, so this place became a complete diversion from his business interests. I used to hang out there when I wrote a daily column for The Sacramento Union, and in fact I wrote a special feature on Brooks and the Zombie Hut for the paper. Your article was well researched and detailed, but it was puzzling to me how you could have overlooked this very colorful chapter in the Zombie Hut’s history.

  5. TIna says:

    My father used to host business parties at the Zombie Hut! I remember getting dressed up to go. I wish we had gone there more often.

  6. Ben Garcia says:

    Attended a few New Years Eve celebrations at the Zombie Hut. Fine food, great drinks, and entertainment was always fun to watch. Miss that place.

  7. Kim Cullum says:

    My grandfather, Bus Pendleton was indeed a part owner of the Zombie Hut and my grandmother Lynn Pendleton, and mother Shirley both worked there for a time. I remember Biggie, and the erupting volcano at the back wall. We have relatively few pictures and would love to see see any and all! I have two of the original Leeteg painting that hung in the restaurant.

  8. Pete Kanae says:

    Aloha to All, my father was Biggie Kanae who truly was part of the fabric of the Zombie Hut in its heyday and had a loyal following. I have people to this day ask me if I am related to Biggie Kanae and my brother John and I are very proud to say we are!!

  9. Mark Miller says:

    I have been searching my house for years looking for this article. I was given it as a source to read through.

    I am told by the grandson of Beatrice hill (Ed Hill’s wife at the time and hostess/manager of the Zombie Hut for years) that when Ed owned the business, Bea Hill owned the building and land.

    We have a lot of images from inside the Zombie Hut. We have discussed a way to share these images and the possibility of a book of these images may be possible.

  10. Dennis Pike says:

    My mother,two brothers and I all worked at the Zombie at one time or another between 1962-1972.We lived right behind the restaurant and next store to Ed Hill and his wife Bee, who was the hostess for years before she and ED split up

  11. Michele Lyon-Brown says:

    Not mentioned is Bus Pendleton who also owned it at one time. Also unmentioned is Biggie Kanai whose niece, Peggy Kanai, (Oahu) worked at Honey’s where Don Ho used to play. I met her through him back in the early 60s. Biggie was there for years as entertainment before Trudy came.

  12. Judy Bennett says:

    I would like to contact Turia Giles Davis re Bora Bora and her parents. I am at: judy.bennett@otago.ac.nz

  13. Mahealani Lee Nelson says:

    Aloha to all from one of the Lee Sisters. Just thought I’d add to the history of the Zombie Hut. Before, most of you were out of school, one of the most popular entertainers who came out of Hawaii, and worked the Senator Hotel and the Zombie Hut was Mr. Biggie Kanae. He put the polynesian entertainment and the entertainment at the Zombie Hut on the map. He was very connected with the political establishment, and brought them from the Capital. The Zombie Hut became a hangout for our law enforcement community. My family and I worked there from the time I was 13 years old through high school. Later, I married one of the Zombie Hut’s many owners, Jerry Nelson. The fashion shows (we modeled) were from May Gim’s and Charlotte Green’s from Town and Country Village. The fire dancer was my brother, Fred. So I guess, we were part of the entertainment pioneers at the Zombie Hut. I have very fond memories of the Zombie Hut and wish all of you a fond aloha.

  14. Gretchen says:

    The fixtures across the street are separate and part of Crossroads, a highly praised shopping center designed by Ernest J Kump (and also worked on by local architect Dean Unger).

  15. Gretchen says:

    Here’s a picture of the building that I found during my microfilm research a couple of years ago. The building went through several iterations but the design you see here was a remodel done by Starks, Jozens and Nacht (now Nacht and Lewis) http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=432827853441440&set=a.218903538167207.54406.218851341505760&type=1&theater

  16. susan says:

    Editor: Sadly, we do not.

  17. Kelly Wilkie says:

    Do you have any photo’s of the building? There are some very interesting light fixtures on Freeport blvd. in front of Marie Calendars, Citibank and Wells Fargo. Were those part of the restaurant?

  18. michael hill says:

    very good!
    ed hill was my grandfather
    lots of fond memories
    it was truely a one of a kind place
    maybe we will come back to sac
    and re-open the Zombi Hut

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