When Robert brought home a vintage black-velvet nude painting and rare United Airlines Tiki in the trunk, Shanna said aloha to only one item. The UA Tiki was welcomed aboard. The black velvet painting with the woman wearing a hibiscus flower and nothing else? She would need to catch a connecting flight.
Robert was carefully measuring out the necessary cocktail ingredients for Painkillers as he recounted the story. His usual scan for online local tiki items one evening revealed a five-foot tiki for sale for a mere $100. He immediately called the seller, inquired if it’d be okay to come by first thing in the morning, exchanged pleasantries, and hung up. Excited to share his potential find, he checked in with a few tiki friends, showed them the picture, and immediately got congratulatory messages that he’d struck vintage gold. There was a verified backstory to this tiki. In the ’60s, United Airlines used to put large and elaborate tikis at ticket desks and in travel agency windows to woo travelers into booking vacations to Hawaii. Among current polynesiacs, this vintage tiki prop is considered highly collectible, and Robert had just found it for a crazy low price. Now that he knew the value, he began to worry. Would it be there in the morning? Robert called back. “I’ve been thinking. That’s a really awesome piece. Would it be ok if I came over right now?” It was already late and would take an hour to get there, but the seller said yes, so Robert and his dad fluttered over as quick as they could in the truck. The tiki was his.
Today, the United Airline tiki welcomes travelers to the River Kai, Robert’s home tiki bar, garden, and pool. Robert’s collection is heavily influenced by his many trips over the years to the (now closed) Oceanic Arts. As he pointed out the origin of the many tikis and carvings around the room, almost every one had come from Oceanic Arts. Robert’s not a huge mug collector. Instead he focuses on collectibles and lamps. When I noticed how well he had planned ahead for the electrical to support his lamp collection, he joked “There are more outlets in this hut than in my house.”
Robert lifted the awning windows of the bar to open our view to the garden and offered me a generous Mai Tai as our second drink. As I took a sip, I noticed the number of plumeria surrounding the pool. Robert and Shanna have quite an impressive collection. It was early spring, and the leaves were just starting to emerge from their dormant winter sleep. Soon there would be a lush garden of highly fragrant blooms. Plumeria is the flower traditionally used in leis, the flower greeting given to vacationers to the islands. It seemed quite appropriate for Robert and Shann’s slice of paradise – especially one with a United Airlines tiki attendant.
“Some of the best souvenirs are plumeria cuttings. These three came from Hawaii. This one came from the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. We have one from Maui when we got married. Oh, and this one was a birthday present from the staff at the Mission Inn.”
The River Kai landscape is essentially a tropical hand-me-down garden filled with plumeria that connect Robert to favorite places and times. One example is directly connected to his family’s roots. Robert’s grandfather was a bartender at the Presidential Lounge in the historic landmark Mission Inn in downtown Riverside, where the tropical (pre-tiki) Lea Lea Room was also located. When he casually mentioned to the current staff that he’d love to have a rooting of plumeria from their garden to remind him of his grandfather’s tenure, the employees surprised him on his next birthday with a plumeria cutting. In addition to these gifts, Robert and Shanna regularly bring back cuttings from visits to Hawaii and other favorite tropical destinations to add to the garden. When I asked him to give me a sense of what The River Kai is like in full bloom, Robert said there were “tons of colors” and the fragrance reminded him of expensive “lady’s perfume” or “peach candy.”
Apparently, it’s somewhat easy to root plumeria. Break off a good length from an existing stalk. Store it for a week in a cool, dry place. Keep it standing vertically to allow it to dry out. Once it develops a callus, it’s ready for planting. Depending on your climate (it’s tropical and doesn’t survive in cold temperatures), you can plant it directly in the ground in southern, warmer zones or in plunge pots to bring indoors during the winter in northern, colder zones. When the temperature is warm enough, you’ll begin to see leaves sprout. If you’re lucky, an inflo (inflorescence) will develop. The inflo produces blooms that will later become additional branches that grow into a large and beautiful shrub.
As I returned my seat to the upright position and handed my empty tiki mug to deplane, I bid my farewell to Robert and Shanna. Perhaps it was just the rum talking, but I could swear Robert said something that sounded like “Thank you for choosing The River Kai. Fly the friendly skies!”