Tiki Life

By Rick Horner

Imagine for a moment that you’re on a beach, lazily lounging back in your best cabana-wear. The beach could be in Hawaii, Samoa, Indonesia, it doesn’t matter where necessarily. You have a fruity alcoholic drink in one hand while the other does nothing in particular. A cool, salty breeze comes off the ocean while a slow and steady tune plays in the background to help lull you into comfort. 

After a long trudging day, does a scene like this sounds like paradise to you? For many, it does and has for nearly 70 years. If Hawaiian shirts, steel guitar music, umbrella drinks, and tiki idols sound heavenly to you then you may have entered the kitschy world of Tiki. You may not be here for a long time, but rest assured, you’ll be here for a good time. 

So, what is Tiki, where does it come from, and what are the attributes that many find so appealing about this culture?

The beginnings of Tiki can be traced back to a man by the name of Ernest Gantt. Ernest had traveled across the Caribbean and the South Pacific Seas during his youth. He had collected ideas and bits of indigenous art from the islands where he trod. He mixed these items together and used them to open up a bar in Hollywood in 1933 when Prohibition finally ended in 1933. 

If the name doesn’t sound familiar that’s because you may know him by the name of his bar which he would soon take as his own nickname: Don the Beachcomber. Don’s bar became very popular and soon copycat bars started popping up, including one in San Francisco owned by Victor Bergeron who would become known as Trader Vic. Vic would also become known through reputation and a lawsuit with Don as the father of the Mai Tai, the drink that would become synonymous with Tiki.

As popular as these bars were, they were about to become even more popular.  

American soldiers and sailors who had been stationed on islands like Hawai’i, Samoa, Fiji, and others during the Pacific theater of World War 2 found them to be a relaxed and serene bit of paradise in between the blood and much of war. They took in the palm trees and light salty winds as well as the dancing, the carved idol, and other aspects of the various cultures. Admittedly they didn’t understand it all but it looked cool and provided escape.

Once the boys came home life changed in the blink of an eye. They went from the fields of war to the hustle and bustle of a fast-paced office job or the long hours at a manufacturing plant. They settled down in tract houses with little white picket fences many felt the need to get away from the monotony of post-war life. If they couldn’t travel then they could have a slice of island paradise at home.

They brought all they had seen and learned from the islands they’d hopped around on during the war. An aloha shirt from Hawai’i there, a native dance from Fiji there, add some nice rum-based drinks thrown into the American melting pot and you’ve got Tiki, a celebration of exotic and carefree island life. Even the name itself evokes the exotic since Tiki is the name of a god in the culture of the Maori, the indigenous peoples of New Zealand. 

As the popularity of Tiki spread its culture grew to encompass aspects of American entertainment. Exotica became the soundtrack of Tiki, sounds that were not authentic island music but approximations designed to enhance the calm of the island fantasy. Luau parties in the backyard became a weekend staple. Movies and television shows like Blue Hawaii and Gilligan’s Island filled screens big and small with island fantasy. 

But like all fantasies, reality intrudes and ends the dream. By the mid-1960s the one-two punch of the hippie movement and their disdain for parental kitsch and bloody reality of the Vietnam War sounded the death knell for the first wave of Tiki. But Tiki began to slowly gain steam, Disneyworld created the Enchanted Tiki Room, and soon by the 1990s, Tiki would rise again by embracing the kitsch that doomed it to begin with. 

Tiki is not a celebration of indigenous cultures but if it leads you to study them that’s cool too. Tiki is about being carefree, relaxed, and the offer of a fantasy vacation if you can’t actually make it to the islands. Tiki is about fun, as it should be.

Rick Horner is a freelance reporter who writes for Potomac Local and the Fairfax County Times as well as a co-host on the podcast Tritone Tales

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