Tiki Ohana – Builders

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The Tiki craze was created by Don The Beachcomber in the 1930s, exploded with the return of American GIs from the Pacific Theatre of World War II in the 1940s, swept the nation in the 1950s and early 1960s, and vanished almost completely by the 1970s. Fortunately, Tiki was resurrected in the 1990s and is regaining its popularity today. Here are the current keepers of the Tiki torch who helped build and rebuild this wonderful lifestyle.

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LeRoy Schmaltz and Bob Van Oosting. 1956 was an important year for Tiki. This was the year The Mai-Kai opened its doors in Fort Lauderdale FL, and the same year that 2 guys in Southern California opened Oceanic Arts. I’ve written at length about LeRoy and Bob’s story (Keeping The Tiki Torch Lit, Nov 2013). It’s not an exaggeration to say that Oceanic Arts was the most important contributor to the Tiki lifestyle, both yesterday and today. They weathered the downturn of the 1970s and 1980s and are still going strong. Mahalo LeRoy Schmaltz and Bob Van Oosting. Please check out their website: www.oceanicarts.net.

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Sven Kirsten. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the most important figure in the current Tiki revival. Sven Kirsten is a self-proclaimed urban archeologist, a foreigner to our shores, who took it upon himself to research, document, and chronicle the Tiki culture of Mid-Century Modern America in his comprehensive tome, The Book of Tiki (2000). By doing so, Sven Kirsten inspired an entire generation of Tiki-philes to come up above ground, publicize their findings, and connect with each other. Sven Kirsten’s popularity is at an all-time high, as evidenced by last year’s successful exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris: Tiki Pop, L’Amérique rêve son paradis polynésien. Please check out the companion book here: www.taschen.com.

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Otto Von Stroheim. The Tiki craze was born on the West Coast, and the revival started there as well. From his home base in Los Angeles, Otto Von Stroheim was an early pioneer bringing Tiki back. He began publishing his Tiki News magazine in 1995 and continues to publish it as an e-newsletter today. Otto and his wife Baby Doe also created Tiki Oasis, the original Tiki weekender event held every August in Southern California, typically in Palm Springs or San Diego. He is one of the experts on all things Tiki, from cocktails and mugs to entertainment. Okole maluna, Otto Von Stroheim. Please check out this wonderful interview at The Atomic Grog: www.slammie.com/atomicgrog.

image Christie Tiki Kiliki White. Meanwhile, on the East Coast, a young lady in Atlanta GA was dreaming of putting on a Tiki Weekender event of her own for the folks who couldn’t make it to California. Along with her friend Swanky, Christie Tiki Kiliki White created The Hukilau in 2002, hosted by Trader Vic’s in Atlanta. That first 3-day Tiki weekend was a resounding success, and The Hukilau was moved to The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale the following year, where it’s been held ever since. I attended last year’s event and blogged live all 4 days I was there (Aloha from The Hukilau, Jun 2014). Now considered the world’s most authentic Tiki event, The Hukilau celebrates it’s 14th anniversary in 2015, thanks to the tireless efforts of cofounder and organizer Christie White. Mahalo, Tiki Kiliki! Please check out The Hukilau’s website for information on this year’s event: www.thehukilau.com.

image Tim Swanky Glazner. As a cofounder of The Hukilau, Tim Swanky Glazner is the East Coast’s answer to Otto Von Stroheim. An expert on all things Tiki, Swanky has many interests including wood carving, Tiki mugs, and mixology. He is the head bartender at Hapa Haole Hideaway in Knoxville TN, and created The Swank Pad website years ago to keep track of his diverse collections. Swanky is currently researching a book on the history of The Mai-Kai, which given his expertise and collection of memorabilia, should be an amazing read. Please check out Swanky’s Facebook page devoted to his forthcoming book here: Mai-Kai: Mystery, History and Adventure.

Aloha Spirit: Los Angeles

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As I mentioned before, I believe karma introduced me to Tiki, and it continues to swim in my bloodstream. I’ve seen many signs in my travels that have confirmed this for me. Here is an example of what I’m talking about.

Los Angeles CA, June 2013. For my 48th birthday, I decided I wanted to travel out to Disneyland to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Enchanted Tiki Room. Once again, my wife Jess balked at going with me, at first. I had resigned myself to making this trip as cheap as possible, staying at Comfort Inns to use up my Choice Hotels points, eating a lot of tacos and burgers, since the flight would not be inexpensive. This all changed when I suggested to Jess that we could spend a day in Disneyland and another touring Hollywood. She was in!

Of course, now this would no longer be a trip done on the cheap. My ladyfriend likes to travel in style! Actually, the only major change was in hotels: we would now be staying at the Disneyland Hotel, which all though it was a little salty, had its advantages. We would be within walking distance of the Disneyland park, which gave us some flexibility on Saturday. The Enchanted Tiki Room celebration was taking place in the Disneyland Hotel’s grand ballroom on Friday night and Saturday, and since this was the focal point of the trip for me, staying there was another bonus. SHAG was signing his prints at the show on Saturday afternoon, so we could sneak away from the park, check him out, take our signed loot back to our room, and head back to the park for the evening. Good planning.

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We actually flew into LAX on Friday morning. Our flight got in around 10:30, we picked up our rental car at about 11 (travel tip: Enterprise at LAX rocks!), and headed for Whittier CA first, arriving just in time for lunch. Our first order of business was to try In-N-Out Burger for the first time – it didn’t disappoint! Jess stumbled upon their secret menu, so we had our burgers and fries “animal style,” and I really enjoyed the Neopolitan shake: vanilla/chocolate/strawberry all mixed together. Yum.

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The real reason for starting in Whittier was to find a Tiki Mecca: Oceanic Arts. I’ve written at length about our visit with Leroy Schmaltz and Bob Van Oosting (see Keeping The Tiki Torch Lit II, published 20Nov13). Let’s just say we had a great time visiting with these Tiki pioneers for a few hours, and they even gave us directions for the back roads to get from Whittier to Anaheim, so we could avoid the freeway traffic on a Friday afternoon. More importantly, I really believe seeing Oceanic Arts was the turning point in my wife’s apathy towards my Tiki obsession. Jess had a great time chatting up Bob and Leroy, took lots of pictures, and even insisted we buy Leroy’s book, Night of the Tiki. Between visiting this place and The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, Jess is starting to get my love of Tiki. The trip was off to a great start!

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Once we finally escaped the gravitational pull of Oceanic Arts, we hit the back roads and headed for our next destination: Anaheim CA and the Disneyland Hotel. We made it there just in time to check in and have a little happy hour before meeting some old friends for dinner. That’s when we found the biggest advantage of staying here: Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar. This gem happened to be right in front of our hotel building, a very short walk from our room. And what a place! I’ve also written at length about Trader Sam’s (see Keeping The Tiki Torch Lit, published 11Nov13). We liked it so much, we had happy hour and dinner there on Friday night and stopped back again for another round on Saturday afternoon before heading back to Disneyland. Good times.

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The Enchanted Tiki Room 50th anniversary celebration on Saturday afternoon was a nice event. We had pre-ordered lots of collectible merchandise and picked it up there. We saw lots of cool artwork and met some of the artists, including SHAG, who we were seeing for the 2nd time in 2013! He very patiently chatted with us and signed our stuff – what a nice guy! As an added bonus, we decided to sit in on a symposium featuring some of the original and more recent Disney Imagineers who have worked on The Enchanted Tiki Room over the years. They told some wonderful stories! The star of the panel discussion was Rollie Crump, an original Imagineer and one of Walt Disney’s contemporaries. Jess was really excited to see and hear Rollie Crump, as she had read all about him and his close relationship with Walt. What a nice treat.

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The rest of our trip was all about Jess. We spent Saturday morning and evening in Disneyland, which is something she had always wanted to do, comparing and contrasting the rides here with their counterparts at Walt Disney World, and although Disneyland is a lot smaller, there were some wonderful differences, in particular the whole New Orleans Square area, where we had a great lunch. Since we were only there for 1 day, Jess made sure we were first in line for rope drop. We knocked out the whole park by lunch time, and returned later in the afternoon to revisit the better rides and catch the Phantasmic show. That was amazing! The show was capped off by a live Peter Pan vs. Captain Hook battle aboard a pirate ship, followed by the Mark Twain steamboat piloted by Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse. Don’t miss this show when you come to Disneyland!

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Our last day, Sunday, was a whirlwind tour of some other SoCal hotspots. After breakfast, we headed for Hollywood to see the iconic sign and check out the famous Chinese Theatre. Our next stop was Paramount Studios, where the tour was wonderful. Finally, we headed for Santa Monica so we could put our feet in the Pacific Ocean, Jess for the first time ever, and had dinner in town. We ended the night at a hotel near LAX, and flew home early Monday morning.

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So, where does Tiki karma fit in to these 3 days in LA? Plenty of places. Starting with the thought that I convinced Jess to come with me on this trip by incorporating the touristy LA things I knew she would like to see, and in the end, I believe she enjoyed the Tiki stops almost as much. Then add the change of hotel venue to the Disneyland Hotel, which was her suggestion, and the advantages that came from that decision were many. Finally, something as small as getting better directions from Leroy Schmaltz at Oceanic Arts after listening to his cool stories for a few hours. All in all, it was a wonderful Tiki trip through La-La land. Mahalo, Los Angeles. We will be back.

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Keeping The Tiki Torch Lit II

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Part 2: Oceanic Arts

Although the postwar Tiki craze faded in 1960s America, a few brave souls kept it alive and are still going strong today. The granddaddy of them all is Oceanic Arts.

Located in a nondescript warehouse in Whittier, CA, Oceanic Arts has been supplying most of the world’s Tiki decor since 1956. Jess and I made this Mecca the first stop on our whirlwind LA Tiki trip last summer. Well, actually the second stop; first was In-N-Out Burger, ’cause we had to eat! We spent a nice afternoon chatting up Leroy Scmaltz and Bob Van Oosting, the founders of Oceanic Arts. Boy did they have some stories to tell!

It all started in the 1950s in LA, where Leroy and Bob were college students. They shared an interest in the new Modernism art movement, which was transforming architecture and design in America. Leroy had a particular interest in primitive art and began carving wood in that style. He convinced Bob they should take off for the South Pacific to learn more about primitive cultures, so they mortgaged Bob’s Corvette to pay for the trip.

While they traveled in Polynesia for almost 4 months, Leroy and Bob made many contacts and bought lots of stuff to import back home to California. It was an austere trip, spent mostly with the locals in their simple, tropical surroundings.They came home nearly broke but rich with ideas and resources for a new business. Oceanic Arts was born!

During our conversation, Leroy shared with me that not everything sold well at first. Although most of the imported art was snapped up by high-end Beverly Hills boutiques, some of their own creations were deemed not primitive enough by art collectors. When one such customer complained about paying $400 for a carving, Leroy sent him away. He then “weathered” the piece using mud and lime, and the same collector came back 2 months later and paid $4,000 for it!

Oceanic Arts has been at the forefront of the Tiki movement in America from the beginning. Many of the pieces Leroy and Bob brought back from their Polynesian adventure ended up at the Mai-Kai Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, FL, America’s oldest and best Tiki supper club since 1956 (that year sounds familiar!). Other Tiki bars and attractions sprouted up across the country, and Oceanic Arts was there to provide the Polynesian decor. As the demand for their work grew, Leroy took over all of the wood carving while Bob handled the books.

Jess and I have been unwitting witnesses to Leroy Schmaltz’s work for years. Here are some of the Tiki attractions we’ve visited that were outfitted by Oceanic Arts (with the year they were born):

Mai-Kai Restaurant, Fort Lauderdale FL (1956)

Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show, Fort Lauderdale FL (1956)

Enchanted Tiki Room, Anaheim CA (1963)

Enchanted Tiki Room, Anaheim CA (1963)

Polynesian Resort, Orlando FL (1971)

Polynesian Resort, Orlando FL (1971)

Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar, Anaheim CA (2011)

Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar, Anaheim CA (2011)

In addition to these Tiki treasures, Leroy and Bob kept busy during the down years by providing nautical decor and wood carvings to many seafood and Mexican restaurants. Disney also kept Oceanic Arts busy with the opening of the new EPCOT theme park at Walt Disney World in 1982. Leroy did the carving for the Canadian, German and Norwegian pavilions. They have also provided decor and props for the entertainment industry, including all of the popular Pirates of the Caribbean movies (yet another Disney connection!).

Not a bad living for a couple of college kids from LA! Leroy Schmaltz and Bob Van Oosting have built a business out of primitive Polynesian art, and they helped fuel the Tiki craze in the process, then and now. Oceanic Arts is ubiquitous in the Tiki universe. Make sure you visit their Whittier warehouse if you’re ever in the neighborhood. But plan to spend a few hours there – the allure of the Tiki decor and Leroy’s storytelling is hard to escape!

For a more in-depth look into Leroy Schmaltz’s art, I highly recommend reading Night of The Tiki: The Art of Shag, Schmaltz, and Selected Primitive Oceanic Carving. Mahalo!

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