Kali Ma! Kali Ma!

When you hear the “Kali Ma!“ at The Headhunter, be prepared. You’ll feel an immediate urge to go shirtless and drink from a skull bowl.

Give in. Shed your shirt. Drink from the cup. Everybody takes part. The goddess of time, death, and change doesn’t care if you’re straight, gay, bi, or questioning. She doesn’t care if you’re non-binary, cisgendered or transgendered. She just demands bare skin from the waist up. At least, that’s what Jonny and Ilze have been told. It’s their home bar, but they didn’t come up with the ritual.

In fact, Jonny still isn’t quite clear how the practice began. Based on his slightly-impaired memory after several strong drinks at a late night party, it started with a heady, intellectual conversation:

“Dude! Let’s take shots out of the ceremonial bowl!”

Intrigued, Jonny reached up to the shelf, pulled down the kapala – a Tibetan copper-lined, silver, and turquoise-encrusted ceremonial skull bowl – and awaited further instruction. The idea sounded cool from the onset.

“We’ve got to take our shirts off!”

It was this statement that gave Jonny a moment of pause. Why did they have to take their fucking shirts off? Before he could voice his inner reservation, everyone around was chanting “Kali Ma! … Kali Ma!” and getting naked from the waist up. He quickly looked around the bar, expecting to see the spirit of Indiana Jones rising incarnate from the torches. Truth be told, the place was starting to look more like a B-movie bathhouse. Shirts were flying, and the partygoers were restless. Quick to appease the gods, Jonny shed his shirt, poured an elixir into the bowl, and passed the drink around.

Evidently, Kali was pleased that night, but not for too long. Word at the bar is that she demands a repeat sacrifice on a regular basis.

Why Kali got a front-and-center ritual at The Headhunter will remain a mystery. If anything, Mr. Bali Hai would be a better candidate for center stage. Over the past few decades, Jonny has established what is likely the world’s foremost collection of vintage mugs from Bali Hai, the iconic 1954 Polynesian restaurant located on Shelter Island in San Diego. Jonny has more than seventy vintage “Mr. Bali Hai” mugs, including three flat-bottomed originals (you can detect first runs by looking at the shape of the bottom), many vintage concave-bottomed mugs from the early days of the restaurant, and a so-extremely-rare-that-he-didn’t-think-they-really-existed lighter. All of the mugs were found “in the wild” or collected from various in-person hunts. The collection forms a brotherhood of headhunters as an apropos backdrop to the bar, serving both as an impressive display of vintage tiki culture as well as a beautiful reminder of his and Ilze’s wedding day at – yes – the Bali Hai.

Jonny and Ilze’s love for classic, period-authentic tiki is evident. Given his work as a vintage collectibles dealer in Southern California, Jonny has come across some amazing finds over the years. He’s collected (in weight) tons of fern tikis at estate sales from GIs who settled in the area after coming back from the Pacific theater. He’s obtained original lamps from “The Islands” the restaurant at the Hanalei Hotel, a local but long-gone tiki palace. One of Ilze’s favorites is the Tangaroa-Ru Baby from Disneyland. It is dated 1964 Walt Disney Productions and signed by Rolly Crump, who created it for the Enchanted Tiki Room set in those early days. Ilze found it for pennies, but it is worth an immeasurable amount more.

As Jonny describes it, The Headhunter is ninety-percent classic tiki, ten percent tiki revival. Almost the entire collection, both inside and outside, is vintage, while the a-frame structure and elaborate interior was crafted by Jonny and regional tiki artists. When Jonny and Ilze decided to build The Headhunter, they worked with some exceptional revivalists to ensure the space would have a soul of authenticity. Jonny designed the exquisite a-frame structure. With the help of his friend Chad, a general contractor, together they built a hut that appears to have been airlifted from the islands. When they needed a true tiki artist/craftsman to tie together the look and feel of the space, they reached out to a pillar of the Tiki Revival movement. Bosko Hrnjak designed and carved elaborate wood framing, trim, poles, and plaques throughout the space. And, when they needed tiki décor experts to act as consultants, they went to the very best. Bob Van Oosting at Oceanic Arts provided clear and critical recommendations to choose the right mix of materials. All this set the stage for Jonny and Ilze to kick their critical eye into hyperdrive. They have expertly arranged their extensive collection in a way that keeps you coming back to see something different with each visit. As I took in the layers of lamps, the schools of pufferfish, and the acquisitions of tikis, Ilze reminded me, “We’re adding things here and there. A tiki bar always has to evolve.”

In case you’re wondering, no shirts were removed during the making of this story. Kali was apparently off visiting Shiva during my visit with Jonny and Ilze, and thus, there were no unexpected chants to allure me into fractional streaking.

That doesn’t mean I’m not prepared, though.

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