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):
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!