With the day’s events behind us, the evening was now coming to a close. The fading light signaled it should be time to head back to Whittier. So when Sven Kirsten invited me to sit with him on his front porch to end the evening with a few sips of rum and a smoke, I was honored. It provided a few more moments with Tiki’s sensei.
It had already been a wonderful and full day. Due to Sven’s kind introduction, I was fortunate to have an afternoon visit with Alan and Michael at the marvelous HaleKahiki. After the visit, I enjoyed drinks and dinner with Sven, his wife Naomi, and his good friend Pete at the Red Lion Tavern just down the hill from his house. It was Tiki Tuesday night at the local German restaurant, and cocktail aficionados crowded in to enjoy Syd Thomas’ creations. I had become enamored with “Sleepless in Sea Battle,” a tasty cocktail garnished with a Kraken tentacle and a beautifully-crafted lemon wedge sailing ship with lemon peel sails and a toothpick mast. Within a short time, the schnitzel and sailing libations had swept me more towards sleepy than sleepless.
Earlier that afternoon, Sven and I spent an hour talking Tiki at his kitchen table. When we took a break to prepare for dinner, Sven put me to work hauling some furniture down the steep driveway to the curb. The furniture had been hanging out too long around the house, and my visit was fortuitous timing. The truth is, I was glad he asked. Doing something helpful made me feel more at home. I wanted to offer something in return for the encouragement and advice.
As we finished the haul, Sven stated, “I hope you don’t mind me giving you all this advice.”
It was quite the opposite. Not only did I not mind; I wanted to learn more. Sven Kirsten has spent much of his life researching, documenting, learning, writing, and sharing his knowledge of classic Tiki culture. He is Tiki’s urban archeologist, the expert who has essentially developed what we consider to be the canon of Tiki. His first publication on the subject is called “The Book of Tiki” for a reason. If I were to tell the stories of the people who love Tiki, I would be wise to listen.
I lit the cigarillo, took the earthy, sweet smoke into my nostrils, followed quickly with a sip of aged rum, and reveled in how delicious it is when smoke and rum interact. Sven and I sat in silent reverence of this fact as the sounds of Los Angeles faded with the dusk. Here it was, my moment of zen with Sven.
You never know who might drop by your home bar, so be prepared.
It was getting close to happy hour at The Below Decks, Steven and Michael’s home tiki bar. The door to the driveway was wide open to allow for the close-by ocean breeze. Steven was mixing a batch of cocktails, while Michael was doing final prep for their guests. Without warning, the shadow of a UPS delivery man stood in the doorway.
“Can I buy a drink?”
The shadow wasn’t joking. As his driving companion looked a bit bewildered from the truck, the UPS guy stepped in and dropped off a package. Michael, not missing a beat, handed him a garnished cocktail and bid him aloha. Apparently, this delivery guy had hauled one too many boxes that day. He swiped the hand-crafted cocktail and swallowed it in one gulp like a cheap shot of tequila at some parrot bar. Michael, nonplussed, retorted “Ok, now. Looks like you’re all good.” while the UPS guy spun around and went on his more-than-the-usual merry way. Steven was still behind the bar, looking a bit shocked. Was this some new type of special delivery?
Not many people can claim that DEVO has sung in their home tiki bar, but Steven and Michael can. When Gerald Casale, co-lead founder and singer of DEVO, dropped by one day, Michael wanted to express gratitude for a favorite song, “Peek-A-Boo.” Michael’s friend, also in attendance at the time, wasn’t familiar, so Gerald started to sing: “Put your hands to your face, and cover up your eyes … don’t look until I signal.” Apparently, playing peek-a-boo with Devo did nothing for friendly facial recognition. Thankfully, it didn’t matter. Gerald didn’t care.
Steven and Michael are well-prepared for any unexpected guest at The Below Decks. What Steven calls their “little ’50s garage” tiki bar is a treasure trove of Disneyland collectibles and is aptly named after the below decks on the Sailing Ship Columbia in Frontierland. You’ll find an original water bucket and leaves from the long-gone Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, a lamp from New Orleans Square, an Enchanted Tiki Room Drummer, a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine complete with sea monster, and an exit sign from the Enchanted Tiki Room. Balancing out the tiki equation, you’ll also notice Oceanic Art, Lake Tiki, Tiki Diablo, and Tiki Tony artifacts throughout the space. Michael lovingly calls their space the “perfect place for hoarding.”
Steven used to be a gin and tonic man, but times have changed. His extensive collection of bitters and spirits takes up more shelf space now that he’s years into mastering mixology. He’s at the point of replacing tiki mugs with bottles of booze. He and Michael love to entertain, so a perfect night begins and ends at The Below Decks. A group of friends will gather. Steven will mix up a tasting of six different cocktails. Michael will prepare dinner, and the evening will quickly turn to magic. It’s the perfect denouement from Steven’s straight-laced day job as a lawyer in the Attorney General’s Office.
“What’s great about this place is that it’s helped me meet people like you.” I blushed at Steven’s kind words but wasn’t prepared for what happened next. I suddenly felt an inappropriate urge to gulp down a drink and play peek-a-boo.
I suspect that Kimo the Pineapple Mermaid, Sandy the Face of Exotica, and Rosie the Riveter would have best friends forever if they’d lived in the same time period.
Rosie the Riveter is the well-known image of a tough working woman from the American mid-century. With her red and white polka-dot scarf and navy blue shirt bicep curl, she symbolized the ingenuity and strength of women. Rosie got the tough work done. Sandy Warner is the recognizable face of Exotica. Sandy’s image graced the covers of Martin Denny’s Exotica, Primitiva, Quiet Village, Afro-Desia, and The Enchanted Sea along with eleven other recordings. Sandy had an alluring look ready for any hukilau that came her way.
Kimo, also known as the Pineapple Shagette, is quite comfortable in the garments of both these icons. You’ll find her decked out in high aloha fashion at a Tiki party one day and rolling up her sleeves to stain and varnish a cedar-planked bar top the next. Kimo was part of the LA Tiki scene pre-revival, back in the days of Baby Doe and Otto Von Stroheim at Tease-O-Rama. She grew up summering in a beach shack in Maui singing along with Don Ho songs. But, she’s also a do-it-yourself woman. As we talked, Kimo listed all of the Tiki-associated projects she’s completed over the past couple of years. I couldn’t help but feel a little exhausted just imagining all the work involved.
“If you know me, you know I’m crafty. I have more power tools than my guy friends.”
Kimo is a business manager for neo-swing bands by day, but channels her off-hours passion into projects at her home and Tiki bar. What she has accomplished is both fun and remarkable. The Casa de Piña, her home, and the Pineapple Mermaid Grotto, her open air home bar in the backyard, sit in the hills overlooking greater Los Angeles. Kimo acted as the general contractor for her house renovation. She tore out damaged wood on her front deck down to the studs and rebuilt it, herself. She split bamboo. She varnished cedar, stained and painted walls, made lamps, and more. The men at the lumber yard scoffed when the Pineapple Shagette rolled up in her Mercedes-Benz truck for another load of supplies. Kimo was also picky when it mattered. She and her best friend spent one day going to ten different home improvement stores to hand-select the panels of bamboo fencing.
As friends began to gather, music played, and drinks began to pour, Kimo stole a few quick minutes to show me the Pineapple Mermaid Grotto. Long-time friends have provided the finishing touches, including “Tiki Gene” (a Gene Simmons tiki) and “Pineapple Bob” – two large tikis carved by Big Ed, fabric panels from Kymm Bang, paintings from Sheryl Schroeder, as well as custom art pieces from Clee Sobieski, Ron Monster, Mischief Motu, and Anders Anderson. Breezeblock tiles give a mid-mod airy feel, and her eight coats of varnish on the bar top allow libations to slide down the length with ease.
As we joined the other Polynesiacs, Kim reminded me that pineapples symbolize hospitality, welcome, and aloha. They were placed at the front door of New England homes to welcome sailors back from a long journey at sea. I’m glad that Kim has carried this lovely tradition into yet another century. This sailor felt quite welcomed at the Pineapple Mermaid Grotto.
Trader Dazz’s tale reads like a drugstore romance but offers your soul a taste of respite and a wager for redemption.
Welcome weary traveler. Your journey must have been long and emotionally exhausting. You see, for you to arrive here, there must be some dark stormy story that you’re trying to escape. That’s the only reason you are here. No need to worry. Trader Dazz is an oasis out of time and space. Come sit, dry off, I will warm you with some rum. Let me tell you a tale of a salesman, a bottle, a boy, and his bar.
Trader Dazz got his name through an evolution of bedazzlement. Known for his introverted mix of sparkle, Damian was first known as Daim DSL (Dizzle), which morphed into Dazzle and then finally Dazz. As he developed a groove for tiki, Trader replaced Dame as a tip of hat to Trader Sam’s – his most magical place on earth. Trader Dazz is to the max. It’s the perfect combination of tiki and dazzle with a nod to funk. It’s also the combination of disco and jazz made popular by the 1976 Dazz Band (Brick) song. Yeah, you know the song … “Everybody go on and dance if you want to …”
In 1913, former president Teddy Roosevelt, his son Kermit, Brazilian explorer Colonel Cândido Rondon and a few fellow scientists and naturalists set sail on a scientific expedition. Trader Dazz (then known simply as Dazz) was Kermit’s best friend and a valet for President Roosevelt. Also joining was the man, the myth, the immortal legend and jungle head known by some as T’Sam or Salesman Sam. Before Trader Sam could even approach the poop deck, Dazz could smell the sweet aroma of rum coming from his body. He laid eyes on Dazz, and they instantly connected. That’s when he told Dazz to just call him Sammy.
Trader Dazz built his private tiki bar in the stand-alone garage of his downtown Silver Lake rental home. Inspired by early family trips to the jungles and forts at Walt Disney World and later the London tiki bar scene, the bar is a respite from all things urban. Perhaps it was the lingering spirit of the mummified possum he found when cleaning out the space. Perhaps it was the positive influence of Allan, his life-long best friend from New Jersey. Perhaps it was the timeless tale that Trader Dazz and Allan penned, or the tiki finds Allan supplies from his gallery in Hawaii. It doesn’t matter. Trader Dazz’s oasis is charmed.
They were headed to the Amazon. The ship was cramped and smelled of your great uncle’s basement. That first night, after he put the former president to bed, Dazz couldn’t sleep. Outside his cabin window he heard Sammy’s voice calling out to him. “Boy, grab this bag and follow me.” Dazz rose from the floor and did as he was told. He‘d follow that dark rum smell anywhere. The bag was filled with glass and ceramic trinkets. Sammy warned him, “If you touch ANY of these items, do not utter a single word out loud, got it?” Dazz replied, “Yes sir.”
Sammy reached into the bag and pulled out what looked like a small ship in a bottle. With an otherworldly voice, he uttered an incantation: “Wicked wench, wrench me from this wicked place.” And with those words where there once was no door, one appeared. They walked through and found themselves in a room full of mystical treasures. Sammy beamed as he shared the secrets he had discovered. He even demonstrated by touching a few various artifacts, stating words intentionally which then revealed a new sense of time or space or even a forgotten memory. Dazz finally understood. The right word with the right object can change reality.
Expect the unexpected when you are out tiki thrifting. Trader Dazz wanted a good set of vintage suitcases similar to those adorning the walls at Trader Sam’s. When he found the perfect ones locally via online shopping, he headed over to make the purchase. The woman was ready to make the sale when Damian arrived, but she acted a bit sheepish as her daughter was heading out the door. The odd exchange all made sense a few minutes later as the daughter walked away. What the woman asked next was a surprise. “Now that my daughter is gone, would you also be interested in some women’s lingerie?” Damian wasn’t sure why she asked, so he smiled, politely declined, and purchased the suitcases.
As the morning came, Dazz realized that the valet work he was doing for Teddy was inconsequential. He needed to live in the moment. Dazz knocked on the stateroom door and told Teddy Roosevelt, “I’m sorry Mr. President, I quit.”
Without a word, Sammy reached into his deep and practically endless Mary Poppins style pocket, pulled out that same ship in the bottle, and placed it in Dazz’s hands. Sam touched the bottle and recited the incantation once more. The magical portal door appeared before them. Dazz readied his stance and tightened the bottle in his hands. Both looked at each other with an approving nod and smirked. It was all understood what must happen next. Suddenly, the door thrust open, and Sammy shoved Dazz through the door landing him right back at that mystical unnamed oasis. The bar was now his, and it needed a name.
That was the moment I tendered my service to Trader Dazz. This is the place to release those stories of your fun and groggy adventures or your darkest stormy storms. Tell me your tale. When you let it all out, touch your glass and shout Trader Dazz. If you’ve discharged yourself of any part of your burden, the door will open, and you can leave.*
Tiki bars offer an escape. As Damian finished reading the tale of Trader Dazz, I couldn’t help but admire how the story suggests that tiki bars may also offer an opportunity for absolution. Create a magical place to be yourself, let your guard down, drink an elixir, and tell a dark stormy tale. You might find that morning light offers a new dazzle on life. That, and you might find you have a hangover.
*Excerpts from Trader Dazz’ Story by Damian White and Allan Bennington-Castro
Polynesiacs keep tiki history alive. Ron and Mickee’s Rincon Room is a perfect example.
When Ron designed and built the Rincon Room, named after the close-by and quite famous surf break mentioned in The Beach Boys’ Surfing USA, he turned to local tiki history for inspiration. Oxnard’s 1964 Trade Winds restaurant was classic tiki. The local newspaper deemed it a “museum of artifacts from around the world.” The centerpiece was a grand Tahitian-inspired A-frame soaring 50 feet high. Rope-handled bridges provided passage over waterways to paradise. The lagoon was large enough to hold a full-size Chinese junk.
Oh, yes. The Tradewinds will feature rikisha service from the nearby Wagon Wheel Motel. Cinch up your spurs and grab your satchel, Maw. Here comes our rikisha.*
Visitors were transported from the close-by Wagon Wheel Motel via “rikishas” (rickshaws). Guests were entertained by a Polynesian floor show with fire dancers. Choices of exotic dining rooms were available, filled with locally carved tikis and east Indies artifacts for arm-chair travelers. Bands like Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, The Beach Boys, and The Deltones played on stage. You might have even run into Bobbie Gentry there before she sang her famous ode. It was quite the destination. Like many immersive themed getaways of its day, the restaurant was bought and sold several times. It transformed into a Don the Beachcombers, then Cocoanut Joe’s, and finally the Hawaiian Cowboy – with an ’80s mechanical bull and barbeque pit – before its eventual demise twenty years later. Today, all that’s left is a highway.
To demonstrate context for the Rincon Room’s similarities, Ron shared his copies of the Trade Winds blueprints. He rescued the original drawings when local archive offices were about to toss out the documents in lieu of digital copies. Take a look, and you’ll quickly see how his design draws elements from its inspirational ancestor. The dramatic A-frame structure, corrugated metal roof, extensive waterways, and roped bridges are all there. Flames dance from the gas torches throughout the gardens. Ron built the entire structure. Mickee painted the corrugated metal roof panels and planted every plumeria and palm throughout the garden. After more than a decade, their carefully cultivated escape is a lush, tropical paradise filled with rich stories. Historically significant tikis are abundant. Ron even has the large tiki that stood on the island in the middle of the lagoon at the Trade Winds. Artifacts from classic and revival tiki artists have created a living museum for modern tiki fans. New exotica bands have played here. It’s got it all. Like the Trade Winds, the RinCon is clearly a destination.
Beyond building a paragon for home tiki bars, Ron is a beloved presenter, carver, lampmaker, movie archivist, and mentor. Ron has shared his expertise as a home bar builder numerous times at tiki-con workshops across the country. You will find him listed as a presenter at Tiki Oasis in a few weeks. He’s carved tikis and made lamps to give to others. He wrote South Seas Drive-In movie reviews in Tiki Magazine for years, helping to re-introduce out-of-print films such as Hell’s Half Acre or Forbidden Island as well as refamiliarize tiki fans with forgotten films like Donovan’s Reef, many of which were filmed at lost tiki temples. As I traveled throughout Southern California, many mentioned Ron as a mentor and friend. He has helped countless others cultivate a deep passion for all things tiki.
Ron keeps the lamps burning both figuratively and literally. Yes, he’s the keeper of the flame for the Trade Winds, tiki artifacts, and poly-pop history. Literally, he also has the most remarkable set of vintage gas tiki torches that I’ve encountered in my travels to home tiki spaces. The Rincon Room is transformed when the sun dips below the Pacific, and Ron lights the torches. As I took in the warmth and glow from the flames, I felt the need to grow still and quiet in reverence.
In ancient times, a keeper of the flame was a person who kept a fire burning to honor their ancestors. For us, Ron’s a keeper.
*Newspaper Article Clipping, circa 1963, from Ojatimo in Critiki
“I don’t know what it is, but I feel really connected to tiki. Maybe it’s where I’m from. Maybe it’s from my early experiences. Maybe it’s in my genes.”
For Adrian, I suspect the answer is (d) all of the above. Now a major influencer in the tiki revival movement known as Polynesian Pop, Adrian grew up on the beaches of Southern California surrounded by his parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles of Filipino heritage. His first experience with tiki was a memorable night at Don the Beachcomber’s. It was back in the “decade of destruction,” the time when mid-century tiki palaces were falling into disrepair and being torn down. Destruction didn’t dissuade Adrian. In his college days, he was visiting thrift stores to look for vintage clothing but leaving with tiki artifacts.
At first, no one seemed to understand Adrian’s tiki obsession. In fact, some were downright resistant, even laughed at him. Sadly, his collection ended up boxed away in the garage and neglected for years. That changed when he met the woman who would become his second wife. Stephanie offered no resistance. Quite the opposite, she encouraged Adrian to build the home tiki bar he always wanted. When that moment came, Adrian was touched. After double- and triple-checking to get the green light from Stephanie, he started the process by ripping up carpet in the mother-in-law suite of their new home. Within months, the Desert Oasis Room was complete.
“I want the Desert Oasis Room to be authentic to tiki. I want to feel like I live in paradise.”
Adrian’s foremost objective for the build was to create an exotic lounge that is true to the mid-’50s pop-culture period called tiki. To achieve authenticity, Trader Vic’s became Adrian’s archetype of inspiration. Both the Emeryville and Scottsdale locations had alluringly-decorated walls, intact from that time period. Adrian studied the design composition, noting how the wall was divided into sections of bac bac matting and elaborate trim, then decorated solely with carvings (mostly masks from Papua New Guinea), but no other styles of art. These elements would become his template for an authentic look and feel of the Desert Oasis Room.
Polynesian Pop combined his goal for authenticity with his own distinctive look using the design principle of thirds. Take any rectangle and divide it into three parts both vertically and horizontally, and you’ll visualize this principle. As we looked around the Desert Oasis Room, Adrian pointed out how the walls were divided into three horizontal sections (bottom bamboo, middle matting, and top mug shelf) as well as three vertical sections (the divisions per wall separated by bamboo and/or trim) with a personalized trim of three repeating, carved patterns. Collections of pufferfish, Papua New Guinea masks, and fish floats are organized into threes. The shelves behind the bar are grouped by threes as well. The end result is as distinctive as Adrian’s fingerprint, yet authentic to the tiki period. When you see any picture of his masterpiece, you know it’s the Desert Oasis Room.
“If you are trying to recreate the escapism they perfected, consider the commonalities when designing your space.”
The creators of tiki had key design elements in common. Stephen Crane, Don the Beachcomber, and Trader Vic all perfected the look by paying close attention to what to include. Structural elements of South Sea islands set the stage in the early tropical period. Tikis added exoticism and a sense of taboo by mid-century. Conversely, these creators also paid close attention to what to exclude. Note the absence of clocks, outside daylight, or televisions. These intrusions tended to break the illusion of timeless escape. Their absence, along with the low-light glow of numerous and elaborately-constructed lamps, facilitated a never-ending dusk, one where happy polynesiacs would linger for longer periods of libation.
Adrian applies these commonalities equally well. When you enter the Desert Oasis Room, regardless of time of day, you’ll feel it’s dusk. Adrian even stays true to the electrical systems of the time period with lighting type. His tiki lamps use C7 Christmas bulbs and are all switched to one control to illuminate the space.
Adrian has come a long way from those early days of resistance and the decade of destruction. He’s no longer laughed at; he’s now highly regarded. He now consults with other polynesiacs on the design and build for their escapes. His biggest compliment? When his aunt visited the Desert Oasis Room, she summed it up nicely:
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!”
The Tapu Tiki was designed for the creation of cocktails.
Josh had a clear vision for his home tiki bar. A long, eight seat high-top bar would establish his space as more bar than lounge. An array of shakers, jiggers, glassware, mugs, and other essential beverage tools would await a moment’s call to action. An impressive lineup of rums, liquors, and exotic spirits would pour at an arm’s reach. The name wouldalludeto his trips to Tahiti and inspire all which is sacrosanct. Given his expertise as an ace bartender at Ventiki, Josh wanted Tapu Tiki to be the place where mixologists mingled and muddled.
When Josh bought a copy of Beachbum Berry’s Remixed several years back, he was excited by the detailed stories behind each cocktail. Josh is a bit of a history buff, so learning the backstory roused his curiosity. Soon, he was testing every drink in the book. Since Josh lives close to the birthplace of tiki culture, he also visited bartenders from the handful of still-existing locations where classic drinks were first served.
“What I like about tiki cocktails is that they are not simple.”
Take the classic Zombie for example. Over time, Josh has mixed all eight historical versions of the popular drink spanning from Don the Beachcomber’s 1934 original Zombie to BeachBum Berry’s 2007 simplified version. Josh’s favorite? He loves the balance found in the 1964 version, which introduced Don’s “Zombie Mix” (a combination of Pernod, Curacao, Falernum, and Grenadine). Don the Beachcomber had streamlined this version to shorten the prep time during Aku-Aku’s heyday at the Stardust in Vegas. The well-balanced version was a gesture of kindness for an overwhelmed bar staff.
“You know it’s a Mai Tai, but each variation is different.”
Josh also loves testing how types of rums change the character of a drink. He’s made Mai Tais like a scientist, holding all ingredient variables constant in his experimentation with the exception of one – the rum. Rum from the Virgin Islands has sweeter, mellow tones. Jamaican rums with pot-still aromas are the closest to what Trader Vic intended. Martinique rhums kick up the funk. Each rum changes the character, but all make a damn good drink.
Show up to Ventiki’s Beachbum Wednesdays when Josh is tending bar, and you’ll likely find him mixing up a different classic from Berry’s canon. Josh does the inventory ordering at Ventiki, so knows how to source the best rums, liquors, and other essential ingredients equally well for his home bar. Does that mean he ends up spending all his time behind his home bar like he does for work? Certainly not. Since the Tapu Tiki is meant to inspire cocktail creation, Josh invites other mixologists to take shifts and share their talents as well. The bar is ready to help others create. It’s not uncommon at the Tapu Tiki to find a friend behind the bar while Josh is out mingling.
Speaking of friends, several pitched in to help Josh build the Tapu Tiki. Hundreds of feet of trim were hand-crafted by Rob Roy. The vintage tiki stained glass door came from Auggie. A lamp came from Ron. Carvings came from Tiki Tony. The list goes on. When all was done, more than twenty people had pitched in for the price of free booze and some great Italian food (Josh’s wife works at a local restaurant). Some even earned a permanent seat at the bar. If you look closely, you’ll find a small plaque with a name on the bar seats. Would I want my name on a permanent seat at my favorite bar? Hell, yeah.
As I read the names, I couldn’t help but start humming a familiar theme song:
You want to be where you can see our troubles are all the same. You want to be where everybody knows your name.
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.
Mike is a gardener who loves Bosko’s carvings. Bosko is an artist who loves Mike’s tropical palms. Over the past years, the two men have formed a lasting friendship, one that a biologist might fondly classify as symbiotic mutualism.
In biology, symbiotic mutualism refers to the beneficial relationship between two different organisms in a given ecosystem. Brazil nut trees benefit from large-bodied bees. Capuchin monkeys are likely pollinators for the flowering Luehea speciosa. Black and white ruffed lemurs help out the traveler’s palm. Bromeliads or orchids live happily on the tall trunks of tropical trees. In tiki culture, I’d posit that symbiotic mutualism refers to the beneficial relationship between polynesiacs who freely share their passion, expertise, and skills. Mike and Bosko are exemplars.
Mike is a self-described plant addict who worked at the Zoological Society of San Diego for four decades. His knowledge of tropical plants is unmatched, and his home garden is phenomenal. Mike has introduced rare, exotic species in his back yard that few would ever see or recognize. As we sipped on Skin Divers and stepped through his garden, Mike would point out succulents from Hawaii, trees from Madagascar, and cycads from South Africa. Monstera were climbing through the cracks of a behemoth three-ton tiki, plumeria leaves were budding, and blooming orchids were nestled on a rare Bird of Paradise. Throughout, Bosko’s colossal tikis and fine carvings were cloaked by the leaves of palms. It felt like wandering through paradise.
Mike met Bosko through palm trees. Bosko Hrnjak, a pillar and pioneer of the tiki revival movement, was the first artist in the ’80s to revive the lost art of carving tikis and sculpting tiki ceramics. Bosko also loves exotic palms. When Mike read an interview that Bosko did with the Southern California Palm Society Journal, Mike reached out. Bosko was initially cautious – who’s this guy? – but when he showed up at Mike’s house and saw the garden, the two hit it off. Mike gave him an exotic palm as a gift. Later, Bosko gifted one of his carvings in return. From there, the exchange continued. The two are now good friends, and both have spectacular gardens filled with stunning tikis and rare cultivars.
Mike is also a self-described tiki addict. The Rano Raraku doubles as his private tiki bar and home office. The name pays homage to Mike’s travels and his favorite style of tiki, the Moai. The original Rano Raraku is the volcanic quarry were the Moai were carved centuries ago. Mike’s Rano Raraku houses additional Bosko carvings, mosaics, his own beautiful woodworking projects, color-coordinated swizzles, as well as an extensive Moai-inspired mug collection. One of his favorite mugs was specifically designed by Bosko for Mike’s sixtieth birthday. It’s a mug with a smiling Moai on one half and a frowning Moai on the other. Bosko wasn’t quite sure how Mike was feeling on the milestone birthday, but he had all the emotions covered just in case.
The sun was dipping below the hills as we meandered from the Rano Raraku back into the garden. When the night lights turned on to bid the tikis good evening, I couldn’t help but reflect: “You must be exceedingly proud of this garden.” Mike responded thoughtfully: “I am, most of the time. I love it when the tiki people come over. I love it when the plant people visit.”
“Other times, I’m like – what have I done!?!”
He smirked. I figured the daily gardening must be a never-ending chore. But, I also knew he loved his slice of Eden.