The Tiki Tribe
With mugs, statues, songs and fashion, these kamaaina are carrying the kitschy, tacky, tiki torch.
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Like a zombie, which happens to be the name of one of its signature cocktails, tiki culture simply will not die. The golden age of tiki spanned five decades. It started in the post-prohibition 1930s, peaked in the 1950s and early 1960s, and didn’t sputter out until the disco ’70s. But it wasn’t down long. Before the last of the classic Waikiki tiki bars, the Tahitian Lanai, was demolished in 1996, a retro tiki movement was already underway. It’s still going strong today, and shows no signs of dying out.
The original tiki craze was driven by American fantasies of Polynesia as a primitive, enchanting, unfathomably mysterious place thoroughly divorced from any real Polynesian cultures. The tiki revival, bathed in the warmth of nostalgia (and often rum), sees something authentically American in that phony world of Polynesian pop—and something worth preserving, reinterpreting and discussing endlessly in the forums of tikicentral.com.
Like it or not, we are living in the neomodern tiki era, and in the interest of better knowing your fake culture, here’s what it looks like.
Sooner or later any study of tiki culture winds up at the bar, which is only right, since the bar is where the whole thing began. Specifically, it started at a little Polynesia-themed bar in Hollywood called Don the Beachcomber’s, which opened in 1934 and quickly inspired widespread imitation. The proprietor, Donn Beach (born Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, but what fun is that?), parlayed his trendy watering hole into a small restaurant empire. Beach later moved to Waikiki and built the International Marketplace, his super-tikified Polynesian-pop dreamland. Naturally, he put a Don the Beachcomber’s there. It is long gone, along with the rest of Waikiki’s original tiki joints. But many of Beach’s actual tikis, weathered and possibly termite eaten, still watch over things at the International Marketplace.
Waikiki has historically provided the best habitat in Hawaii for tiki bars, and the new generation of tiki bars has found a natural home there. Most prominent among them is Tiki’s Grill & Bar, perched above Kalakaua Avenue on the second floor of the Waikiki Beach Hotel. It’s the safe, manicured, family-friendly version of a tiki bar, with fine sunset views, an executive chef snagged from Roy’s and a dimly lit lounge in the crater of a volcano.