Pins in The Tiki Lounge

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There are many facets to the story of my Tiki journey. One angle I haven’t explored yet is my collection of Tiki pins. As I look back on the many pins I’ve gotten, and continue to get new ones, it suddenly occurs to me: these pins tell a story. With pretty pictures. Let’s start at the beginning.

2008-13, Walt Disney World

Our first family vacation to WDW in Orlando FL was in December of 2008. We were on the every 18 month plan, which saw us journeying to the Polynesian Village Resort four times between 2008-13. These were the days before Disney Magic Bands, so you carried your ID cards in a plastic pouch on the end of a lanyard. The lanyard was a perfect place to hold pins, and we were quickly introduced to the art of pin trading at Disney.

Pin trading was a family affair, as my wife and kids were really into it. I also enjoyed it, and was fortunate enough to score my first Tiki pin (the one with the black Mickey ears hat) via trade. I loved that pin, and through a little research, I discovered there were two more Tiki pins in the set. I managed to find the second one in due time, again by trade (because they no longer sold these), but the third one eluded me. Then, one day, by dumb luck, the third pin (the blue one) found me. Seriously! We were walking through Animal Kingdom, on our way to the Safari ride, when a Disney cast member came running up to me and offered me a trade. He had noticed (from afar) the two Tiki pins on my lanyard and told me he had the third one if I was interested in it. I sure was! It was karma that this missing pin found me, early on in my Tiki journey.

Besides trading for pins, we also bought our fair share of them. At first I was drawn to the pins from some of our favorite WDW rides, like The Haunted Mansion and Tower of Terror. Then I discovered pins specific to the Polynesian Village, available in their main gift shop, Bou-Tiki. They had some fairly generic (but still cool) pins, and they incorporated Lilo and Stitch into some of them, an added bonus. During our first visit, which was during the Christmas season, I also found a special Holiday 2008 Polynesian Village pin. What a great find! It turns out they put out a new holiday pin every year. I have made it my goal to get one of these special pins every year that we visit WDW. So far, so good.

2013, Disneyland

For my 48th birthday, Jess and I decided to take a trip to Los Angeles CA. My main motivation for the trip was to attend the 50th anniversary celebration of Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room, the original. We also snuck in a trip to Whittier to visit Oceanic Arts, on our way to Anaheim. Jess wanted to try Disneyland, to see how it compared to Walt Disney World, which we had been to four times already. She also had never been to California and wanted to see Hollywood and Santa Monica. We ended up staying at the Disneyland Hotel, which is where the ETR celebration was being held, and put us close to Disneyland before we toured LA.

Magic bands were just becoming a thing at Disneyland in 2013, but we still had cards to navigate our hotel, which meant another pouch/lanyard and more space for new pins! Here I focused on the pins specific to Disneyland, including the hotel were we stayed, the iconic park sign, and the rides we really enjoyed. Some rides were unique to Disneyland (The Matterhorn), some were better here than at WDW (Space Mountain, It’s A Small World), and some not as good (Splash Mountain). It was fun to try them all, and I got as many pins as I could to remember our one trip to Disneyland.

But let’s move on to the main reason for our visit: the 50th anniversary of The Enchanted Tiki Room!

I was very excited for this event, mostly because it would be another opportunity to see one of my Tiki art heroes, SHAG. Disney had commissioned him to do some special paintings for this event, and I was lucky enough to get him to personalize a print for me. I had also pre-ordered a bunch of ETR swag that I picked up at the event, including some pins marking the 50th anniversary (displayed on yet another lanyard, this one for the event!). While we were at Disneyland, we of course did the Enchanted Tiki Room, which was another attraction much better there than at WDW. The main difference is the outdoor courtyard area, which features 8 animated Tiki god statues and a stand selling Dole Whip (as captured in SHAG’s art). I hadn’t planned on getting the special pins dedicated to each Tiki god, but after seeing them in person, I had to have those pins too. All are now displayed proudly in the ETR corner of the Tiki Lounge.

2014-18, Walt Disney World Part Deux

Back to Walt Disney World we go. A lot had changed when we returned for a family vacation in 2014. Magic bands had now replaced the old card system, so there was no need to wear lanyards anymore. They were building a new Tiki bar at The Polynesian Village called Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto, modeled after the Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel which had opened the year before (and we got to visit a mere weeks after it opened!). They also opened a new stand at the Great Ceremonial House, the Pineapple Lanai, where you could get Dole Whips and floats. And yes, they were building new over-water bungalows out back, and for a mere $2500 a night, you too could stay there. Too rich for our blood.

Anyway, though WDW and The Polynesian were changing, as were our family vacation plans (now on a 36-month schedule), my hunger for pins has not changed. I still seek out the special holiday pin every year we visit. Although we’ve only been back twice for full family vacations, we have been back for special trips at least once a year over the past 5 years. Even though we might not be there over the holiday season, I have friends in Florida who visit Orlando regularly and can pick stuff up for me. So, for example, we took a road trip in June that had us at The Polynesian for 4 days; the 2018 holiday pins weren’t available then, but you can bet I will have one of those pins hanging in the Tiki Lounge before the end of the year!

2018, Non-Disney Tiki

So, why did it take me 10 years to realize that other folks make Tiki pins besides Disney? I don’t know. Maybe I was distracted by other art forms, like paintings, Tiki mugs, and books. Or Tiki playing cards, like the cool Tikilandia deck designed by Robert Jimenez from LA. It was when I ordered two sets of these beautiful cards that I received one of Robert’s pins as a thank you gift. Well, that pin was so cool that I had to order another right away! I decided to display these pins on a new canvas, literally – the back of my Tiki bar director-chair stool, which is made of canvas.

Not long after I got the Tikilandia pins, I next discovered the Salty Dame and PinChe Loca pins made by Megan Besmirched from Chicago. Megan is part of the great Tiki scene in the Windy City that includes Kymm Bang’s gravel art and amazing Tiki bars Three Dots And A Dash, Lost Lake, and the Witco shrine of Hala Kaliki.

Finally, my newest pins come from Gil Taimana from San Diego. He is the owner of Tahiti Gil’s South Seas Trading Co. and Tahiti Felix’s Master Tattoo & Museum. I met Gil through the Disneyland Addiction group, and his artistic homage to Disney and the Enchanted Tiki Room is quite strong. Just look at these amazing pins! They really tell a story, and if you’ve been to the ETR at Disneyland, you appreciate the story even more. Pretty powerful that a tiny work of art can do that.

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Tiki Ohana – Craftsmen

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One of the most important aspects of Tiki culture’s popularity is the physical image of Tiki and his tropical paradise. This image has been popularized through carved statues, mugs, bamboo decor, and many other manifestations of the Tiki lifestyle. Just about every Tiki temple, from the elaborate Polynesian supper club to the basement Tiki bar (like mine), owes its inspiration and/or physical construction to these members of the Tiki ohana. (I’ve already spoken about Oceanic Arts at length in other posts and in the Tiki Ohana – Builders post, though they certainly belong here as well.)

Bamboo Ben Bassham. The name says it all: Bamboo Ben is the king of all things bamboo. He has made just about everything out of this tropical grass: masks, lamps, purses, shelves, furniture, ceilings, bars, sheds, you name it, he’s done it, or will do it. Bamboo Ben just helped Suzanne Long outfit her new bar, Longitude, in Oakland. Although he’s based in Huntingdon CA, I hope to bring him out east to finish the ceiling here in the Tiki Lounge. Aloha, Bamboo Ben!

Crazy Al Tikimania Evans. A picture’s worth a thousand words: Al Evans is crazy – for Tiki. He seems to be everywhere there’s a Tiki event going on. Crazy Al is an expert Tiki carver, and he’s an accomplished designer of Tiki mugs as well. I met him at The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale last year, where he was testing out his latest creation: a Tiki mug modeled after the Molokai Maiden masthead found at The Mai-Kai. That is, when he wasn’t joining MeduSirena Marina’s pod of mermaids, as a merman, swimming at the Wreck Bar as part of the show. Crazy, Al!

Jeff Chouinard. Another guy I met at the Hukilau last year was Jeff Chouinard. We were both at happy hour at the Mai-Kai’s Molokai Lounge and were talking to the same Tiki enthusiasts, throwing back a few drinks. I had no idea who Jeff was, but we exchanged stickers and went on our merry way. I then got to know him through Facebook and discovered what an amazing Tiki carver he is! In addition to giving one of his Tikis to the Mai-Kai, Jeff has also made a mark in his native Tampa FL, terrorizing the place by turning dead palm trees into beautiful Tikis all over town. Read all about it in CL Tampa. I hope to own on of his Tikis someday. Surf Soul Tiki, Jeff Chouinard.

Daniel Gallardo. Perhaps nobody is as ubiquitous in the Tiki ohana as Daniel Gallardo, a/k/a Tiki Diablo. An expert carver, he’s really made a name for himself creating Tiki mugs for special events and places. The Hukilau, The Tonga Hut, The Mai-Kai, Tiki Ti, and Latitude 29 are just a few of the Tiki mugs supplied by Tiki Diablo. Mahalo, Daniel!

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Baï Tiki. Craftsmen is a misnomer in the case of this lovely lady from Paris France. Baï Tiki is an accomplished crafter of Tiki mugs, including an amazing seahorse Tiki bowl for Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago. Who says the French don’t know Tiki? Who do you think discovered most of Polynesia, anyway? Merci, Baï!

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.

A. Panda’s Bucket List

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Next year, 2015, I will turn 50 years old. God willing. I’m not a big milestone guy, and I certainly don’t want any birthday party so everybody can celebrate how old I’ve become, as if just making it to half a century is some remarkable achievement. No, I’d rather look at some of the things I haven’t achieved yet and start knocking them out. Hence my bucket list.

I have been working on this for a few years, so I’ve accomplished some of the easier things:

Drank at a Swim-Up Bar, Montego Bay Jamaica, 2003

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Met SHAG, NYC, 2007

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Visited The Mai-Kai, Ft. Lauderdale FL, 2012

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Met Bob and Leroy at Oceanic Arts, Whittier CA, 2013

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So what’s next? Well, I’ve always wanted to attend The Hukilau, the world’s biggest Tiki geek event, so I put that on the calendar for this year. In fact, I’ll be there in a little over a month, and I plan to blog live from The Hukilau, so stay tuned for that. I hope to meet some of my other Tiki heroes in-person there, like Sven Kirsten, King Kukulele, Bamboo Ben, MeduSirena Marina, and Beachbum Berry.

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Speaking of Beachbum Berry, he just announced that he’s finally opening his own Tiki bar in New Orleans this fall. This brings me to my next big item: Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Sounds like a good way to kick off 2015! Look for Jess and me at the Bienville House Hotel in the French Quarter next February, anchoring Bum’s new bar, Latitude 29.

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For a big finish, I really want to see Hawaii. Not just one island, but all of them! Well, at least the big ones, so I can look for Pele in Hawaii, do the touristy stuff on Oahu, try surfing in Maui, and see the unspoiled beauty of Kauai. Jess and I have talked about doing this trip in June 2015, over my actual birthday. As long as we are physically, emotionally, and financially able to pull this off, you will see me posting from Hawaii next year. Book it, Dan-O!

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I will close with a shout-out to Lesley Carter and her blog, Bucket List Publications. Lesley’s blog was the first one I started following after I started writing my own. I was so inspired by her mantra: “Some people make bucket lists to see places before they die; I make them so that I might truly live.” Wise words! Please take the time to check out this amazing blog. Mahalo, Lesley – perhaps our paths will actually cross some day!

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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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Tiki 101

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What is Tiki?

In Polynesian mythology, Tiki is a male figure sometimes identified as the first man. Tiki can also mean a wooden or stone image of a Polynesian god. But where exactly is Polynesia? Polynesia is a group of scattered islands in the Central and South Pacific Ocean, bordered roughly between New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island.

Conventional wisdom states that the Polynesian islands were settled by Asian explorers headed east. But could there be another story? Again calling on Polynesian mythology, Tiki, the first man, came from the east, following the sun. According to Peruvian pre-Incan mythology, Con-Tici Viracocha, the creator god, disappeared across the Pacific Ocean and never returned. Was there a connection?

Thor Heyerdal thought so. A Norwegian explorer and sociologist, Heyerdal was convinced that Polynesia was settled by South Americans. In 1947, he set out to prove this theory by sailing from South America to Polynesia on a balsa-wood raft, like the pre-Incan explorers did. Heyerdal and his crew constructed their raft using only ancient methods and materials, and named it the Kon-Tiki. They succeeded in sailing from Peru to Tuamota, a distance of 4,300 miles, in 101 days. The Kon-Tiki expedition attracted worldwide attention for Thor Heyerdal and the Polynesian islands. Heyerdal’s documentary of this expedition won the Oscar for best documentary feature in 1951.

The postwar period after 1945 saw an explosion of Polynesian and Tiki culture in America. Soldiers from the Pacific theatre of WWII, who experienced Polynesia firsthand, returned home with stories of a lush tropical paradise and beautiful native girls. These stories led to a growing interest in all things Polynesian, as an exotic escape from the everyday world. During the 1950s, Tiki invaded America in the form of bars and supper clubs, architecture, music and television, art, and home decor. The backyard luaus and basement Tiki bars peaked with the admission of Hawaii as the 50th state in 1959.

As we entered the 1960s in America, the growing drug culture replaced Tiki culture as the preferred means of escape for the next generation. Hippies saw their parents’ backyard Polynesia as pretty square, so Tiki became passé. Many old Polynesian structures and institutions were lost forever.

Fortunately, Tiki started regaining popularity in the 1990s. Urban archeologists like Sven Kirsten led the way back. Kirsten’s 2000 publication, The Book of Tiki, is the seminal work on the subject. He researched and recreated a cultural phenomenon that was, and is, purely American. Tiki today is once again manifest in resorts, bars, artwork, and music. Names like Disney have been responsible for keeping Tiki alive in their parks and resorts (Enchanted Tiki Room, Polynesian Resort, Trader Sam’s). Other names include Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (mixology), Josh “SHAG” Agle (art), Leroy Scmaltz/Oceanic Arts (carving/decor), King Kukulele (music) and many others. Tiki is alive and well!

So what is Tiki? Tiki is:

  • An escapist state of mind;
  • A blending of Polynesia and America;
  • A celebration of culture through art, music, decor and libations;
  • A nod to our mid-century past;
  • A thriving lifestyle today.

For more information, I highly recommend reading The Book of Tiki, seeing the movie Kon-Tiki, and liking my A. Panda’s Tiki Lounge page on Facebook for regular updates on all things Tiki. Mahalo!

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