Talking Pulp: The Near Extinction of Tiki Culture

tiki-roomTiki culture is something that I’ve always loved, going as far back as I can remember.

Maybe it started with staying at Disney’s Polynesian Resort a few times as a child, maybe it was my love of Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, maybe it has been my love of surf rock and 60s surf culture or maybe it has been my palate’s love of Tiki drinks and “Polynesian” cuisine.

Then again, I’ve always associated it with other things from 50s and 60s culture. It seemed comfortable and at home among the popular films of the time: be it the beach movies or the old school horror flicks. It also fit in with tunes of those days, from the aforementioned surf rock or the long lost musical genre exotica.

It is hard to say where it came from but it is something that I’ve always had. An appreciation for an art, culture and style, that despite its overabundance at one time (before my time), is still exotic and unique.

That’s where the sadness comes in. You see, Tiki culture has been disappearing throughout the years and it is almost something that doesn’t even exist in modern times. Sure, one could go to Hawaii or the South Pacific and romp around in those tropical bastions of beauty and magnificence but a taste of the real deal doesn’t necessarily fill the void of the experiences in the once flourishing Tiki culture of post-war era America. The reason being, the Tiki culture that became a big piece of Americana decades ago, was more or less, an American creation and not authentically Polynesian.

American Tiki culture began in 1934 and was birthed by the opening of a restaurant called Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood, CA. The restaurant was opened by Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, who went on to legally change his name to Donn Beach. The establishment was mighty popular and considering its location in the den of American filmmaking, the celebrity effect certainly didn’t hurt business.

Three years later, Victor Bergeron came along and opened up his own restaurant in Oakland, CA called Trader Vic’s. That name might sound familiar, as there are still locations that are open around the world. Granted, they are few and far between but Trader Vic’s made itself into a major brand at one point and even inspired the popular supermarket chain Trader Joe’s.

As more time passed, more restaurants and bars featuring a Tiki theme opened up across America. Tiki culture exploded and the people embraced it. It was such a pop culture hit that its popularity left our borders and infiltrated several other countries. It was on television, in movies, it inspired music and a style of cuisine and drinks that became iconic. Inspired by the South Pacific, America created its own loose homage that became something all its own.

Tiki culture is a part of American history and American culture but today it’s scarce. Somewhere along the way, it slipped out of popularity, it became somewhat played out and was kind of shoved into the closet to collect dust. It’s as if the majority, the “normal people” out there, would rather forget it.

Granted, Tiki culture still exists to some degree. Places like Frankie’s Tiki Room in Las Vegas, the Mai-Kai restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale and the still existing Trader Vic’s locations prove that it isn’t completely dead. There was even a bit of a revival in the mid-90’s but nowadays, it is primarily a thing of the past.

These kids today probably don’t even know what the word “Tiki” is and if they do, they probably associate it with some shit hotel bar under a thatched hut that has televisions playing NASCAR and neon signs with the words “Landshark” hanging from its rafters. Those Tiki bars are bullshit, just sayin’. They’re essentially the leftover bastard children of an iconic yet seemingly archaic piece of American pop.

There are groups of people united in an effort to keep Tiki culture alive and well. One can find online communities for those who refer to themselves as “tikiphiles”. I guess I am probably a tikiphile, considering my love for all things Tiki and the time I’ve spent writing this article.

One can also visit the Tiki Central message boards (here) or join the Fraternal Order of Moai (here). There are also big Tiki events such as Tiki Oasis in San Diego and the Hukilau in Ft. Lauderdale.

On a positive note, I know that Tiki culture will never die out. It may be a weird taboo thing to modern people but there are those who still cherish and embrace it. Luckily for those of us who enjoy this segment of pop culture history, there are still places to go and there will always be music to listen to. We’ll also always have Tiki drinks and cuisine, as long as we know how to mix alcohol and juices and know how to cook a few Tiki dishes. Worst-case scenario, you can always find recipes online.

For those of you who have never really experienced Tiki culture, I have to warn you that you may just become an addict. Especially with how welcoming and friendly the people are. I mean, how can you really be upset, depressed or a cantankerous jerk while relaxing in a dimly lit bar with colorful lights, sipping a painkiller to the tunes of Arthur Lyman or Martin Denny?