the American Tiki fantasy
September 12, 2015 8:51 AM   Subscribe

"The bohemian aspect, in terms of style and decor, was clearly part of the beachcomber look—the guy in tattered clothes who built his shack from found objects and natural materials like bamboo and driftwood. It became this escapist thing for urbanites to go to these places and feel bohemian for a while. If you look at 1930s photos of restaurants like Trader Vic’s in Oakland or Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles, these places were full of jetsam and flotsam that didn’t exist in the normal, mid-century home at the time." Tiki Hangover: Unearthing the False Idols of America's South Seas Fantasy (Hunter Oatman-Stanford, Collector's Weekly)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (39 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Tiki bar is best bar!

Authenticity is interesting to consider. At this point in history I feel like you can have an authentic tiki bar in the sense that it's a faithful interpretation of the inauthentic 1950's original.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:10 AM on September 12, 2015 [31 favorites]

Great article. It made me realize something. Right here I have a little hapa-wood carving of the god Lono with "ALOHA HAWAII" carved at its base, very much high tiki design. There's even a paper pasted on the back explaining who Lono is, with the logo of the shop it's from. My great-aunt, who never married and who spent her old age traveling the world in senior-citizen groups, brought it back, and it ended up with me after she died and everyone had to look through her tourist handicrafts. I'm not in love with it, but I keep it around to remember her by. Now I wonder if it's an insensitive thing to have on a shelf.

I include the Wiki link not because it is the world's most complete source of info on Lono, but because it offers additional evidence that Hunter S. Thompson was insufferable.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:11 AM on September 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

great article. Now I want to go drink at a tiki bar tonight. Hmm.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 9:19 AM on September 12, 2015

The other day I got a boxed set of Kubirck films, and the Barry Lyndon thread came up in FanFare. Then I sit down to rewatch 2001, and the day after there is an FPP about behind the scenes photographs. I feel like I am close to some nodal point here: I don't know why this is important, but Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Clarke first met to discuss the 2001 project at a Trader Vic's in New York, on April 22, 1964.
posted by Dr Dracator at 9:24 AM on September 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

... and now there are more Trader Vic's in the UAE than in the US.

sorry, should that be "Traders Vic's"?
posted by phooky at 9:42 AM on September 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

no mention of Walt Disney, The Enchanted Tiki Room, the Polynesian Village Resort & Trader Sam's? 'Cuz that's all a second level of cultural appropriation.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:44 AM on September 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

The point of the late '40s/early '50s tiki bar was US servicemen had spent four year at war in the Pacific, seeing all these tropical islands, finding fruits they'd never seen, and seeing horrors they wanted to forgot. It was quite the juxtaposition. The islands looked like paradise, but...

Mixing the fruits with a truly staggering amount of alcohol was one way to try to forget. But, as a whole, the nation had spent a long period where many households had in effect multiple income streams -- with everybody either working on the homefront or in the military, and with home spending incredibly constrained explicitly by rationing and implicitly by social pressure, you saw the US home build up a lot of money during WWII. After WWII, it was time to spend it, and one way they spent it was partying.

True tiki drinks are quite...lethal. There's a tiki bar 800 feet, give or take, from where I live. I will have *one*, because after two, my legs are wondering what the hell is going on with gravity. After one, i'll have beer. Safer that way.

no mention of Walt Disney, The Enchanted Tiki Room, the Polynesian Village Resort & Trader Sam's

Well, Tropical Serenade, to give the Enchanted Tiki Room its proper name, was created during the original Tiki phase. It's as much as part of it as the drinks. The drinks at Trader Sam's are definitely dialed down from true Tiki levels, and I think that's a good thing, because if you don't know what to expect, you can get utterly hammered in staggeringly short amounts of time. Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar and Trader Sam's Grog Grotto are also very much later creations than the Polynesian Village Resort (that being both the original and now current name) which opened with the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in 1971.

Personally, I prefer the Trader Sam's in Anaheim, mainly because everybody want to go to the one in Florida right now.

The important thing, though -- "Tiki culture" has really nothing at all to do with the Pacific Islands, other than as a source of iconography and mixers. It is a pure US creation -- classic Americana. Basically, it existed as a way to create a pleasant way to get drunk.
posted by eriko at 10:11 AM on September 12, 2015 [19 favorites]

If you ever find yourself travelling through northern British Columbia in the dead of winter then I recommend a night at Esther's Inn for a slightly incongruous 1950s Polynesian lounge that's still going strong.
posted by Rumple at 10:22 AM on September 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

I work in beverage alcohol (nice name for being a bartender). In the last decade or so a lot has been done to reconnect all the historical "dots" that were disconnected as a result of Prohibition. Those "dots" allow us to tell the stories about what we're making/serving whether it's a cocktail with roots in the 19th century or a type of vermouth that stopped being made in the 1940s. But NOTHING ELSE comes close to Tiki. It's an honest to goodness subculture with its own fashion and music and art. Tiki bar regulars take Tiki names and go to Tiki conferences. It's incredibly impressive.
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 10:23 AM on September 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Reddit's /r/hawaii weighs in on whether Tiki should be considered racist.
posted by idiopath at 10:34 AM on September 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

no mention of Walt Disney, The Enchanted Tiki Room, the Polynesian Village Resort & Trader Sam's? 'Cuz that's all a second level of cultural appropriation.

The Poly has always been our choice when staying on-property at WDW. Best bar on the monorail.

Back when the mouse had a working animation studio down there, the artists liked to hang-out at the sadly-now-long-gone Big Bamboo bar in Kissimmee.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:35 AM on September 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

I honor the memory of Jimmy Lum. He taught me my first Cantonese swear words, served a mean steak and had 3 levels of storage beneath his Aloha Lounge.

Rub the Tiki.
posted by clavdivs at 10:41 AM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

This all makes me feel very nostalgic. My childhood in the suburbs of So Cal was filled with Tiki-ness. In fact when my parents bought their house in 1965 the patio had an open wooden frame that came pre-decorated by the previous owner. There was a wooden Tiki god, a dried puffer fish, abalone shells, tatami mats, and a draped fishing net. I wonder what happened to that puffer fish?

Then my brother's first job was at Seafood Sam's in Sunset Beach with the obligatory Hawaiian/Chinese/ Polynesian fishing decor. Drinks served in plastic Monkey skulls, of course. Weird blue water in the fountains. Stuffed marlins on the wall. I don't remember the food at all, just the huuuuuge drinks with their fluorescent colors and little umbrellas.

And if required, I can sing the words to The Enchanted Tiki Room. So disorienting to hear the pounding of thunderstorms in the darkened room and then go back outside to the skull broiling dry heat of Anaheim in August.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 10:56 AM on September 12, 2015 [6 favorites]

My kid listens to the Sirius kid's station, and they have a habit of playing "Pineapple Princess" (warning: Annette Funicello) on occasion that I immediately thought of when I read this.
posted by emjaybee at 11:20 AM on September 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

I tended bar in several full-blown Polynesian places back in the 70's. My go-to reference for glassware, recipes and service was Trader Vic's Bartender's Guide. Highly recommended, although it seems to have gotten a bit pricey...
posted by jim in austin at 11:30 AM on September 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

When I took a course in set design, this was the way I envisioned a production of Othello, in a midcentury time frame and South Seas/Tiki style, completely dialing up the otherness, exoticism, and Orientalism of that play. I still think that would be an interesting exegesis of both the play and the postwar period in American culture. Given that the look was largely a creation of set designers, it'd also be a nice turnabout in that respect.

Also, the related article about aloha shirts is excellent. I collect disco shirts, and there's definitely overlap in style. I only stopped buying aloha shirts when my husband started working at Trader Joe's, since management there wears Hawaiian shirts and I think seeing them started to feel weird to him outside of that setting.
posted by limeonaire at 11:47 AM on September 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

I really enjoyed that aloha shirt article. My favorite dress used to be a shirtwaist I made for myself from light Hawaiian-print cotton.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:26 PM on September 12, 2015

In a weird bit of serendipity, I just recently inherited two huge tiki lamps from a relative near the century mark. She collected kitch thru the eras, and all the weirdest stuff seems to filter to my house. Which makes sense really. Everyone else has too much taste to proudly display the weird things the way I will. Heh.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 12:38 PM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

My partner and I were at a tiki bar that served each of their house drinks a specific glass. In-between rounds she checked out the glassware behind the bar to see if they had anything spectacularly cool, which she would order next.

When she ordered "the drink that comes in the old Sea Captain's head" the server replied, "That's Tom Selleck, and we don't serve anything in that one."
posted by hwyengr at 12:49 PM on September 12, 2015 [8 favorites]

Sigh. When my parents moved me from Cleveland (home of the Stouffer's restaurant that birthed the frozen food empire) to Los Angeles, they sought out special places for the family to dine when my dad wanted to spend money (hey, the transfer from Ohio to California meant a BIG raise). The Trader Vic's location on the ground floor of the Beverly Hilton hotel was their most enduring choice, since it was the only Polynesian-style eatery that transcended the "Tiki Bar" image and became a Serious Overpriced But Family-Friendly Restaurant. After all, it was located just off Wilshire Blvd. in pre-90210 Beverly Hills. And it was a celebrity magnet, with a few large tables around the periphery for entire entourages to sit slightly raised so they could see the whole room (and the whole room could see them). When, at the age of 8, I could see WALT OMYGOD DISNEY, I decided to bring an autograph book every time we went... never got as good a celebrity sighting after that, sadly (I did get Jerry Van Dyke's autograph soon after "My Mother the Car" was cancelled... probably made his day). But I could enjoy a non-alcoholic Kona Kooler served in a coconut shell alongside my parents' rum-based Scorpions (which they preferred to the Trader's original Mai Tai) and munch down on their collection of appetizers, including shrimp fried in a "coco batter" that claimed to include coconut but wasn't really sweet enough but I liked it anyway, the little slices of barbecued pork to be dredged in a dish full of sesame seeds, and the bacon-wrapped Rumaki which was the only thing containing liver this kid would ever voluntarily eat. I was introduced to the flavor known as Teriyaki via a marinated steak main dish and learned to love Snow Peas with Water Chestnuts as the Most Exotically Cool vegetable dish. The decor seemed perfectly Hawaiian yet also solidly Beverly Hills, and I brought home multiple tiki-shaped mugs over the years, all of which were broken one way or another in the months to follow. "Well, that means it's time to go back to Trader Vic's!" The fact that my most vivid memories of that place (besides WALT DISNEY) were of the food (and Trader Vic's was never really famous for its food) helped explain how I went from being the skinniest kid in my 1st grade class to the fattest in my 6th grade class.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:14 PM on September 12, 2015 [6 favorites]

My wife and I got together just in time to be among the last people to sample the tiki drinks at Bali Ha'i Pontchartrain Beach. When we mentined this to the proprietor of the newly opened Latitude 29 he made a point of showing us his cabinet of Bali Ha'i memorabilia.
posted by Bringer Tom at 1:33 PM on September 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Still missing Ciral's House of Tiki in Chicago. Good times (at least the ones I can remember).
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:44 PM on September 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

We have Psycho Suzi's here in the twin cities. It's a nice place with an awesome patio.
posted by surazal at 1:54 PM on September 12, 2015

I was a huge fan of Dave and Anna's Honolulu Restaurant in Alexandria. It got knocked down to make room for an expressway interchange. I asked Dave one time what was the secret to making a good Mai Tai. He smiled broadly and said, "You have to make it with love." Seeing the pictures of Dave and Anna smiling in the home of my acquaintance who bought the bar when they auctioned off the contents of the restaurant gives me the same kind of warm feeling as one of Dave's Mai Tai's. They sell their drink mixers on the web now. I think I'll have to buy some.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:56 PM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ah yes, Ciral's House of Tiki! A favorite hangout of one of my BFFs who actually grew up in Hawaii.
posted by maggiemaggie at 2:00 PM on September 12, 2015

Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge in Alameda CA is still open.
posted by telstar at 2:34 PM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I miss Bahooka (RIP Rufus - the Wikipedia article misses out on the current belief that Rufus was unceremoniously dumped)

I used to go to Tiki-Ti all the time, but like Eriko I haven't gone in a long time because damn those drinks will kill you in a few minutes. I went one night and managed 3 drinks (I was a big fat dude then) and I barely remember the subway ride home!

But yeah, I love the kitschy value of Tiki.
posted by drewbage1847 at 2:56 PM on September 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Let's not forget the amusement park angle. Most had Tiki sections, including Houston's Astroworld, which was my favorite section to visit.
posted by Beholder at 3:44 PM on September 12, 2015

The Enchanted Tiki Room

The cruelest trick the devil ever played was to create an animated tiki room that doesn't serve drinks.

Which reminds me I need a reason to visit Ft. Liquordale and make a pilgrimage to the Mai-Kai Restaurant before it too is ground under the wheels of progress.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:14 PM on September 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

posted by acb at 5:14 PM on September 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

RIP, Columbus Ohio's Kahiki.

"The Kahiki's building was a classic example of midcentury Polynesian pop architecture, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Despite this, Walgreen's purchased the building and bulldozed it. The Kahiki company now is focused on selling a line of frozen foods."
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:41 PM on September 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

San Francisco's Tonga Room is still open, since 1945. The lounge band plays on a boat in the water in the middle of the restaurant.
posted by eye of newt at 5:42 PM on September 12, 2015 [6 favorites]

The Enchanted Tiki Room

The cruelest trick the devil ever played was to create an animated tiki room that doesn't serve drinks

I guess you could sneak in a spiked Dole Whip.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:04 PM on September 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

A fun read, but I gotta disagree with Kirsten that the pre-WW2 US fascination for things Polynesian was just the "Hawaiian music craze in the 20s and 30s". For one, the music craze itself originated with the ukulele exploding onto the scene in 1915, and spawned a great interest in the region that lasted for a few decades and which was reinvigorated by increased US involvement there during WW2.

Media-wise, Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa was published in 1928. Somerset Maugham's Rain (originally Miss Thompson) was originally published in 1921, made into a silent movie in 1928 and then re-made into a talkie in 1932 (and is one helluva story; hit the link for the text). In 1937, the Dempsey-Vanderbilt Hotel in Miami built a "Pago Pago Room", and the Variety article from that time in fact talks about how the venue might revive 1915-vintage songs. In addition, the region was a major center of archaeological and anthropological research in the 20s, thanks to some massive funding by Bayard Dominick. The research was aimed at testing hypotheses from then-popular schools of thought regarding racial differences, cultural evolution, etc., which weren't too far from Scopes trial styles of thinking.

And sure, all this didn't lead directly to tiki rooms of the exact type he's discussing (though the Pago Pago Room in Miami is a fascinating early one), but I reckon he could really add a lot of cool background info to his work to contextualise it to a much better extent. ... though maybe this is just all a plan to be able to sell a second book and run a second exhibition, in which case: well played, sir! Good stuff.
posted by barnacles at 7:40 PM on September 12, 2015 [8 favorites]

Thanks for the link to "Rain," barnacles. I've always been a fan of the film, and reading the story just confirms how perfectly Walter Huston was cast.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:00 PM on September 12, 2015

Our local in Silver Spring was the Luau Hut. Serve me up a Puu-puu platter, and Bananas Foster for dessert.
Soundtrack: The Enchanted Sea by Martin Denny.
That Pineapple Princess was great!
posted by Rash at 9:32 AM on September 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

The cruelest trick the devil ever played was to create an animated tiki room that doesn't serve drinks.

Someone has not been to Trader Sam's....

When she ordered "the drink that comes in the old Sea Captain's head" the server replied, "That's Tom Selleck, and we don't serve anything in that one."

You were at Lost Lake. The mug about three to the left of that one is from Trader Sam's in Anaheim -- I gave it to them.

I guess you could sneak in a spiked Dole Whip.

Pineapple Dole whip with dark rum is a nummy thing indeed.
posted by eriko at 6:34 AM on September 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

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