The Chi Chi opened in 1936 as the Desert Grill. Eventually, Jack Freeman sold his financial interest in the profitable eatery to his business partner, Irwin Schuman, who revamped it as a fancy Polynesian-style restaurant and bar.
Schuman christened his new venture Chi Chi Grill Cocktail Lounge in 1938 — inspired by an exotic portrait of a topless Hawaiian girl painted by Edgar Leeteg he’d seen in an art gallery on a trip to Honolulu.
Credit for the club’s name also has been attributed to Palm Springs artist Jack Church, who reportedly dubbed the painting “the Chi Chi girl” because of her sexy expression. For good luck, Schuman displayed a copy of Leeteg’s portrait, Hina Rapa, on the wall of his cocktail lounge. Onlookers found the image of the smiling native girl so captivating that Schuman blithely had it reprinted on cocktail napkins, dishware, glasses, matchbooks, swizzle sticks, menus, and playing cards. These dinner-table items quickly became prized souvenirs.
“I did not give Chi Chi permission to use my Hina Rapa to reproduce in any way,” complained Leeteg in an angry letter from his home in Tahiti. “The least they could do is to give me a credit line, but that is too much to expect from a Hollywood gin mill.”
The unexpected controversy helped publicize the tropical-themed restaurant; and Schuman opened a second Chi Chi bar in 1946 on Santa Catalina Island. More locations followed in Riverside, Hollywood, Long Beach, and San Diego.
The media described this giant supper club as “The second biggest nightclub west of the Mississippi,” where some of the brightest names in showbiz gathered for more than 25 years.
Practically any New York and Las Vegas headliner that ever took a bow performed at the Chi Chi in its heyday: song and dance pioneers such as Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Rudy Vallee, the Ritz Brothers, Lena Horne, and Mickey Rooney, along with virtuoso performers such as Tony Martin, Jane Russell, Hoagy Carmichael, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, and Peggy Lee.
The Chi Chi lasted until 1977 when it was torn down and replaced by The Desert Fashion Plaza.