Couchsurfing at Don Ho’s

“I could not take my eyes off that image.”

The drawing of a young boy and his dog staring up at a taboo tiki on a remote island in the South Pacific was one of many beautiful illustrations from Armstrong Sperry’s 1940 book, Call it Courage. Michael was around the same age as that young boy when he was captivated by the image. The early moment would generate a life-long fascination with tikis, travels, and tales of the South Seas – later mixed with a generous shot of experimental punk.

Los Angeles tiki bars were in total decline when Michael began frequenting them in the late ‘70s. He and his friends would visit venues like Kelbo’s only to find them populated by a couple of half-drunk barflies. The rest of the bar would be deserted, perfect for the taking. If you were into punk, you were drawn to what others rejected, so trips to tiki bars fit perfectly with a predilection for all things anti-establishment and suburban psychedelic. Michael and his friends formed the art collective World Imitation Productions and the band Monitor, an “experimental, new wave, tribal” punk group. After creating experimental art that exposed the tension between post-war optimism and decaying suburbia, the group released the self-titled Monitor LP and a 45 RPM single from their alter-ego surfadelic band The Tikis in the early ’80s. Listen to songs like We Get Messages (with tape loops of tribal drumming) or Mokele-Mbembe (tribute to a cryptozoology creature) and you’ll get a sense of how the band morphed experimental post-punk with tiki.

Post post-punk, it was time to travel. Michael’s first extended trek retraced the paths of many of the romantic South Sea authors he loved as a boy. Michael kept a detailed journal chronicling his weeks-long adventures in the Society Islands, Hawai’i, the Cook Islands, and other Polynesia destinations. Along the way, he sketched beautiful and detailed drawings of the styles, patterns, and sights encountered that would much later influence his designs of tile, wallpaper, and fabric. On another trip, Michael and Alan – his husband – were hitchhiking on Mo’orea when they were picked up by a beautiful older woman and began to chat about the influence of Polynesia on tiki culture. Enchanted by Michael and Alan’s knowledge, she invited them back to her home to show off her vast collection of black velvet paintings, many which featured her as a young woman. Turns out that Michael and Alan had met one of Edgar Leeteg’s models! Leeteg, the father of black velvet painting, had lived quite close to where they were staying. Michael’s only regret? He never wrote down the kind woman’s name. She will remain a lovely mystery.

Michael later became well connected to another one of his favorite South Seas authors, Robert Dean Frisbie. For those who may not be familiar with his work, Frisbie was a South Seas trader who wrote detailed, humorous autobiographical travel stories in the ’20s and ’30s of island life in Tahiti and the Cook Islands. Over the years, Michael collected first edition print copies of each of his books. When Michael reached out to Johnny Frisbie, Robert’s daughter, the two became fast friends. In addition to being a dancer at Don the Beachcomber, Honolulu in the ’50s, Johnny Frisbie is an accomplished author. She wrote Miss Ulysses from Puka-puka, an autobiography of her experiences with her father and family when they lived on remote Cook Island atolls. The two would form the Robert Dean Frisbie Society in 1995 and plan a centennial celebration in Rarotonga of Frisbie’s birth.

“Oh, and we slept on Don Ho’s couch.”

Alan cracked a smile as he shared this memory. As part of their travels, Michael and he ended up befriending the mothers of Don Ho’s children. When they got invited to spend a night at Don Ho’s Diamondhead estate, they had to accept. Who wouldn’t say yes?

Alan, like Michael, grew up fascinated by tiki. His earliest memories include the Tahitian Terrace and the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland. He swears that one of the birds once looked down at him and called his name.

Speaking of influences on kids (or grownups who love animation), you might notice a few underwater tikis in Alan’s animation work on the hugely successful SpongeBob SquarePants. Alan was the Director of Animation on the show for 20 years.

With all of Alan and Michael’s rich, lived experiences and decades of collecting local artifacts, the HaleKahiki is a treasure. Nestled in the basement floor of their 1930s Spanish Revival house, the HaleKahiki establishes a classic sailors’ tiki bar vibe. The attention to classic detail is abundantly evident. Vintage photographs, tikis, nautical collectibles, colorful lighting, and other artifacts come together with the essential structural elements of bac-bac, bamboo, and tapa to establish an authentic tiki vibe. Michael and Alan even choose plastic plants over silk ones, since the tropical flora from the ’50s and ’60s would have been plastic.

As my eyes adjusted to the dimly-lit oasis, the HaleKahiki’s details began to emerge. Sven raised his glass and offered a toast: “To the Robert Dean Frisbie Society!” Michael, Alan, and I offered a hearty “cheers!” in response. I raised my glass, took a sip of Alan’s tasty “Sea Hunt” concoction, let out a satisfied “mmmmm,” and counted myself fortunate to share a drink in this tropical hideaway with those fascinated by all things South Seas.

The Armstrong Sperry illustration from Call it Courage that fascinated Michael.

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