Will and his friend jumped off their bikes and ran toward the Mai Kai. It wasn’t long before the manager yelled at them to stop climbing on the tikis.
The year was 1966. The Mai Kai was a decade old. The Federal Highway was a two lane road, and the gardens extended from the tiki palace out to the street. The outrigger canoe and featherstone tikis welcomed guests in the front yard. Will was nine years old, living just a few blocks away with his parents. His family, like many others, were Jersey transplants. For Will, it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with tikis at the Mai Kai.
One of Will’s first jobs was to replenish the cigarette machines in the reception area. The Mai Kai was a smoking place in more ways than one, so Will was there twice a week to keep the machine full. By the early 80s, Will struck a deal with “Mr. Mattei” (Kern Mattei Sr., the general manager) to install Will’s own exclusive cigarette machine. This one would remain in operation for forty plus years. In fact, those that know the Mai Kai well might remember where it used to be – on the wall next to the phone booth on the way to the gift shop. Week after week, Will would fill the machine, chat up the staff, and enjoy a routine trip to paradise.
A few years later, Will took up carving. He’d become fascinated by the many amazing tikis around Mai Kai, and wanted to try his hand at the craft. He reached out to Benzart to learn carving and quickly became his mentee. When you meet Will, you’ll learn he’s not shy. He tells a good yarn. On his next trip to restock the machines, he talked to Hazel at the Mai Kai gift shop.
“Hey Hazel! I’m carving tikis!”
Hazel was quick to respond. “Why don’t you bring one in?” Will brought in two. And when he came back a week later, they were gone. Turns out, the Mai Kai bought his work rather than selling them to their guests. Over time, the existing tikis were disintegrating and replacements were needed. These two tikis would be the first of many.
Next, Will was told that there were several rubber molds of the original tikis in the gardens stored in the warehouse. The original tikis had been created by carvers, likely Barney West, based on photographs by Friedrich Hewicker found in the 1954 book Oceanic Art. Will asked permission to take a mold home to make a tiki, but it took a year to convince the Mai Kai to make that happen. After getting the right 1-2-3 mix (1 part cement, 2 parts sand, a little less that 3 parts of gravel to get fine details), he cast the tiki, painted it, and brought it in. Over the next 10 – 15 years, Will would methodically check out each of the molds, produce the tiki or war club or paddle of that one mold, and bring them back. Over time, he fully replenished the gardens of the Mai Kai with more than 200 tikis.
Today, Will is a prolific carver. He has taught carving at the Hukilau for the past five years. Will dreams big and carves big. When I jumped out of my truck to greet him, the first carving I saw was a behemoth. Will had recently carved a giant tiki in the likeness of Rarotonga and his three sons standing on top of a Mai Kai Rum Barrel base. Rarotonga and the tiki next to him will join the three “Barney West size” (as Will likes to call them) tikis already at the Mai Kai. He hopes Rarotonga might sit on the pedestal that once held the beloved Barney West carving when the Mai Kai opens again. As we toured his yard and home, I saw hundreds of examples of his work with wood, cement, and Royal Palm fronds. As someone who loves the Mai Kai, I felt immediately at home. Familiar tikis surrounded me.
Will has his own copy of the book Oceanic Art to use as a reference for his craft. Inside his copy, you’ll find an inscription from Sven Kirsten which reads “For Will, who made the tikis in these pages come alive again! Create an army of tikis!”
That, he did.