After World War II, suburbs proliferated around California cities as returning soldiers traded in their uniforms for business suits. After-hours leisure activities took on an island-themed sensuality that bloomed from a new fascination with Polynesia and Hawaii. Movies and television shows filmed in Malibu and Burbank urged viewers to escape everyday life with the likes of Elvis, Gidget, and Hawaiian Eye. Restaurants like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s sprang up to answer the demand for wild cocktails and even wilder décor.
A strange hodgepodge of idols, lush greenery and colorful drinks, Tiki beckoned men and women to lose themselves in exotic music and surf tunes. Take a trip back in time to the scene of Polynesian pop and three decades of palm trees, Mai Tais, and torches with this informal guide to the rise, fall, and resurgence of Tiki culture.
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About the Author
Adam Foshko has worked on some of the most successful media franchises in history. His experience as a writer and world builder has cultivated a deep understanding of why stories are important and their place in reinforcing culture, socialization, history and identity. He believes that Tiki has a similar power--one that calls to us from a much older world of mystery, binding us together in its rediscovery, playfully tempting us with the opportunity of escape and promising a tale of great adventure."
Read an Excerpt
Going Native, California Style
I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was ... Bali Ha'i was an island of the sea, a jewel of the vast ocean. ... From two miles distance, no seafarer could have guessed that Bali Ha'i existed. Like most lovely things, one had to seek it out and even to know what one was seeking before it could be found. — from the novel South Pacific by James A. Michener
From its humble beginnings in the minds of servicemen returning to civilian life, Tiki began to take root on the mainland in post–World War II America. It was a fertile time, as the United States began to rebuild — its society, its infrastructure, its standing as a global leader. But even as fleets of planes, trains and buses deposited America's young men back on rolling farms and into generations-old factory towns, those who returned could not help but feel changed by what they had seen and experienced. They shared an unbreakable bond, one that had come from seeing the worst that mankind and technology had to offer, the ugly side of modern society, armed conflict on a global scale, mechanized warfare that resulted in catastrophic loss of life and socialized systematic genocide. But they were also bound by what they had witnessed firsthand and collectively romanticized about island living in the Pacific. This was the good life. Easier. Captivating. Alluring. The natives there simply didn't have the same cares and burdens that Americans had. Surely, their lifestyle was the antidote to the problems caused by the corruption of war and modern life in the twentieth century.
The eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that original man was actually freer of sin than our modern brethren and indigenous people were not brutal savages, but peaceful, and should actually be considered noble — uncorrupted by civilization and representative of humanity's innate goodness. This noble savage idea was echoed numerous times throughout the modern age, but for those who had seen what modernity had to offer in wartime, there was an unalienable truth to it — one that provided solace, comfort and refuge to the world-weary and disillusioned. More to the point, life in the islands was far better than what Americans had seen on the beaches and jungles of Iwo Jima and Bataan — even in the cities of Berlin and Paris, promising a slower pace to living — one of peace, tranquility and endless natural beauty. So, with its sailors returning home and newfound prosperity in the wake of peace, the United States found itself primed for a revolution of a different kind. A Tiki revolution. And there was no better place to kick one off than on the beaches and cities of California.
Until Hawaii's admission to the Union in 1959, California was America's closest thing to island living. California had always been built on dreams, starting with the gold rush in 1848, but now it provided the exact right environment of surf, sand and sun for the simulacrum of island life — and Tiki — to flourish. California could be the place where Americans could replicate the ideal life they had witnessed in the Pacific and fabricate an environment where they could be free of their obligations and let off a little steam. A place where they could let loose and go a little native.
Sex also played a role to be sure. But again, building on the writings of both Rousseau and Michener and the social norms of the day, the promise of the native girl as confessor confidant was a heady cocktail and the key to release for the sexually repressed males of the 1950s. More than that, though, she was the focal point for this movement — the "Wahini in Waiting." It was through her that the promise of island life and that of Tiki quite literally had legs. She was the antidote to Puritanism — the embodiment of freedom but still somehow innocent and unspoiled. If anything, she was an opportunity to misbehave that American men (and America) longed for. She was a lovely fantasy, necessary at the time — an escape by definition — but so was the Tiki that she represented. If they were escapes, however, they were certainly glorious ones that captivated a generation, launched a lifestyle and propagated a modern American myth. And nobody knew more about escapism than California.
To practically everywhere else in the United States, California was already a made-up place. A dreamy spot of sun-drenched coastline and gorgeous days. This went double for Los Angeles and especially Hollywood, where actual dreams were made and exported all over the world. It just so happened that this paradise was also perfect for a tremendous number of returning servicemen to settle — many of whom shared a love of the islands and longed for an escape.
Enter Donn Beach and Trader Vic.
Donn Beach — whose real name was Ernie Gantt — was once a bootlegger during the Prohibition times of the 1930s but then moved to Hollywood and opened a bar. His Polynesian-themed place was already something of a draw to people in a town that loved a good story. But Ernie Gantt saw a deeper opportunity. Taking the cheapest alcohol available to him at the time — rum — Gantt created what he called "Rum Rhapsodies" and served them in his bar. He also cultivated largely Cantonese dishes and turned them into adventurous, exotic cuisine. So unusual and out of the ordinary were his drinks and dishes — and in fact, the entire drinking and dining environment — that Gantt's Don the Beachcomber was frequented by many celebrities in Hollywood, adding to the popularization and explosion of the California Tiki movement.
Victor Burgeron Jr., also known as Trader Vic, saw what was happening from San Francisco and, employing a staff of Filipino bartenders, continued to expand on the variety and flavors of Tiki drinks available to enthusiasts. He is largely credited with the creation of the Mai Tai — a staple in the Tiki catalogue of drinks. However, like with Gantt, Burgeron's drinks, décor and food weren't truly Polynesian (Rum isn't even an alcohol that was used in drinks there. It's far more Caribbean.), but he was selling the idea of the Polynesian influence. Moreover, it was this mix of cultures and Seven Seas adventure that really sold the escapist part of the experience. It fueled the fantasy. Once again, Hollywood was attracted. Burgeron expanded to multiple locations, and Trader Vic's became the hot spot for the Hollywood elite.
These two men had tapped into the rising desire for escape, the need for Americans of the time to be transported somewhere exotic, somewhere exciting — somewhere else. They had also cracked the code of cultivating and packaging that experience in a dark, tropically themed environment, serving sweet and strong exotic cocktails and cuisine about as far away from tuna casserole as the North Pole is from the South. They did all of this — and managed to put that experience in the hands of people for only a few dollars.
Together, Donn Beach and Trader Vic singlehandedly created "Dining as Entertainment." The rest of the United States couldn't help but follow. Soon, a vast tidal wave of Tiki-themed restaurants and bars flooded America and beyond. It was as if these two giants poured rum on the fires of the Tiki revolution — literally using the wood from the Kon Tiki itself — and with Hollywood's help, set the whole country ablaze.
As with Bali Ha'i, Tiki satisfied a yearning that many people collectively had inside. It was something they shared, but it was also deeply personal. However, their desire to seek out their own escapes didn't stop at going out for dinner and drinks. People wanted to have a direct connection to the experience itself — to access it anytime, to own it. They wanted it in their homes. The backyard luau was born.
In the islands, the luau is a communal event of great celebration, involving music, dance, stories and feasting. The resources of the entire village were pooled; every family was represented, and the gods were honored. In America — and in California specifically — the backyard luau was still very much a feast event, with any number of Tiki-themed food and drinks, but it was much more of a statement. On the one hand, the food, music and décor still very much flew in the face of the still-prevailing conservative values of the time. On the other, nothing said success like a backyard or office luau — it was the perfect subversion.
To support these events, an entire industry rose. Martin Denny's music, though "fictionalized" by his account — with its animal calls, volcano rumbles and jungle sounds — incorporated certain ethnic sounds and instruments. This psychedelic fusion — called Exotica or sometimes "Pagan Pop" — became a soundtrack mainstay of backyard luaus, exotic dens and island living rooms. So legitimate and connected was Denny to this movement that James Michener actually wrote the liner notes for Denny's album Hypnotique. The luau rental business also boomed — carved Tikis, drums, torches, costumes and island art were available at a moment's notice.
In 1956, Bob Van Oosting and Leroy Schmaltz spent time learning island crafts in Tahiti and New Caledonia and then formed Oceanic Arts in Whittier, California. Together they provided rental and retail tropical designs for Trader Vics, Don the Beachcomber, Disneyland and a thousand other Tiki bars, restaurants, locations and film sets worldwide. They also served as the go-to spot for people in California who wanted Tiki, tropical and Polynesian decor in their homes.
As luaus grew more frequent, these parties became something of a fixture of American life. It was a style — an aspect of design. And whether it was appropriated culture or not, Tiki had been woven into the fabric of the American success story — and people wanted it year-round.
As the '50s and '60s progressed, Tiki became even more sophisticated and sexy. Art took the form of velvet paintings, and midcentury space-age modern architecture took on Polynesian influences — particularly in what would later be the swinging bachelor pads that dotted the landscape in LA.
Finally, when Hawaii became a state in 1959, Tiki design, Tiki Culture and Tiki tourism exploded. In fact, Walt Disney was so taken by Tiki — its adventure themes and its impact on American culture — that he opened the Enchanted Tiki Room in California's Disneyland in 1963. Hugh Hefner even hosted a Tiki event on his Playboy After Dark syndicated television show, which was broadcasted coast-to-coast into peoples' living rooms. And if anything held true to the alluring escapist qualities and playful sexiness of Tiki's promises while delivering on the style and sophistication of the time, it was Playboy and Hef.
So what had once been planted by Michener and South Pacific, fertilized by World War II and watered by the potent cocktail of rum and the media now produced a thriving pop culture phenomenon called Tiki. On the sunny hills of California, America had gone native and was loving every minute of it.CHAPTER 2
Tiki and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
Although not a heavily Tiki-themed story, no work captures the context of Tiki Culture more than The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a 1955 bestseller by Sloan Wilson and a Gregory Peck–starring movie about the alienation of middle class life in post–World War II America. Specifically, the book (the model for the television series Mad Men years later) concerns itself with the portion of the population that had served in the war. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is the key to understanding Tiki Culture.
In the current era, soldiers make up a small percentage of American citizens — a "loyal one percent" of citizens who enlist. By contrast, World War II demanded a staggering commitment. Some 9 percent of the total U.S. population fought in the war — 16.1 million Americans, with 405,000 deaths and 672,000 wounded. World War II was "total war." At first, the draft — the legal means by which the U.S. government ordered able-bodied men into service in the armed forces — committed men for only one year, but the demands of conscription grew. After Pearl Harbor, every man fit for duty was conscripted for the duration of the conflict. "For the duration" meant that when a man survived one battle he went back to another, as Paul Fussell observed, "for the duration of the Germans' [and] Japan's pleasure."
And then in 1945, it was over, and the sixteen million came home. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is about one such man, Tom Rath, who at the start of the book is nearly ten years out of the war and still thinks about it constantly. When asked to write a brief autobiography as part of a job application for a public relations position, he considers finishing the prompt "the most significant thing about me is" with "I killed seventeen men." But of course he doesn't say that. It's 1955, and most everyone around him also served. Perhaps among the people who ride the commuter train with him every morning are those who also had to (as we learn) slaughter young enemies for their coats or accidentally blow up their friends while being shelled taking a South Pacific beach. Perhaps his story isn't that unusual at all, which for Tom is part of the horror of the thing.
Tom snaps back and forth between then, in the European theater, with its freezing cold tortures interrupted by long periods of romantic dawdling, and the South Pacific, where his service was terrifying and brief, and now, 1955, where he would like to get a better job and maybe a better house.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit hits three themes repeatedly: the need for men like Tom to find a place and purpose in postwar life, the need to repurpose or contextualize the agonizing experiences of the war and the vivid haunting of romance that "escaped time" during the war. Tiki Culture was an expression of each of these themes for the same group of people.
Finding One's Place
Tom Rath is paralyzed by the need to find a place among the "men in the gray flannel suits" who inhabit New York City. But he doesn't particularly like what he sees — men who train to hide their opinions until they can advance by agreeing with the men above them, on and on in vast organizations. Tom said,
I really don't know what I was looking for when I got back from the war but it seemed as though all I could see was a lot of bright young men in gray flannel suits rushing around New York in a frantic parade to nowhere. They seemed to me to be pursuing neither ideals nor happiness — they were pursuing a routine. For a long while I thought I was on the sidelines watching that parade, and it was quite a shock to glance down and see that I too was wearing a gray flannel suit.
His mentor in avoiding such moral death is his wife, Betsy, who tells him she is ashamed to see him grow cynical. Betsy Rath could be the target audience for a speech given in 1955 by Adlai Stevenson at Smith College, who saw the threat to the sanity and moral fiber of American men. The men of America were soldiers who had learned "the means" very well: Do your duty. Find a job. Go there and work late and say yes when asked for a yes:
This typical Western man, or typical Western husband, operates well in the realm of means. ... But outside his specialty, in the realm of ends, he is apt to operate poorly or not at all. And this neglect of the cultivation of more mature values can only mean that his life, and the life of the society he determines, will lack valid purpose, however busy and even profitable it may be.
In a memorable harangue in the book, Betsy diagnoses Tom and by proxy all American men as essentially running scared through modernity:
You think you're something special because a hell of a long while ago you were a good paratrooper. And now all you want is security, and life insurance, and money in the bank to send the kids to college twelve or fifteen years from now, and you're scared because for six months you'll be on trial on a new job, and you always look at the dark side of everything, and you've got no guts!(Continues…)
Excerpted from "California Tiki"
Copyright © 2018 Jason Henderson and Adam Foshko.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword, by Otto von Stroheim,
Introduction: Lighting the Volcano,
1. Going Native, California Style,
2. Tiki and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,
3. Tiki Music: Martin Denny, Les Baxter and Exotica,
4. Tiki Music: The Tiki of Surf,
5. Tiki Film: Elvis Rules the South Pacific and Gidget Goes Everywhere,
6. Tiki TV: The Intimacy of Escape,
7. Tiki Down: Woodstock Kills the Mai Tai,
8. Tiki Resurgence: The New World of Tiki (And What to Serve There),
9. Some Final Thoughts,
About the Authors,