Thursday, November 29, 2012

Quiet Night, Aloha Night

 
Does a holiday known for snow and ice mix well with white sands and palm trees? I believe it does. Christmastime is sneaking up on us again, and I've been filling up my MP3 player with tiki-appropriate holiday music. I've waded through a lot of junk to come up with a few gems, and I thought I'd share the best of what I found (so far) here on the blog.

Arthur Lyman's "Merry Christmas (Mele Kalikimaka)," from 1959, is a solid choice. Some tracks aren't quite as Exotica-infused as you'd expect, but others seem a perfect hybrid of Hawaii and the holidays. But you can never go too far wrong with Lyman at the helm. His take on "Winter Wonderland," may, in fact, be the best example of Christmas Exotica ever created. This album has also been re-released on CD as "With A Christmas Vibe," (with a fetching wahine on the cover,) but some find the re-editing on that version a little off-putting. I'd suggest sticking with versions of the album featuring the green (shown above) or silver "Christmas present" covers, which are essentially the original album without significant tinkering.
For straightforward hapa haole Christmas music, try Christmas In Hawaii by country music legend turned Hawaiian steel guitar revivalist Jerry Bird. (Some of you may already know Byrd from his take on the theme to "Adventures in Paradise.") This is fine instrumental background music, featuring holiday standards tasetefully rendered in ukulele, steel guitar, etc., along with a smattering of songs specifically written to evoke Christmas in the islands. I'm told this is a 2003 release, but it's pretty timeless.

Two specific tracks essential for your Tiki Christmas mix can be found on Christmas Cocktails, Part 2, which is part of the now-classic Ultra-Lounge series of compilations from Capitol Records. (Yes, the series was revived recently in the form of new digital downloads, but the new incarnation doesn't measure up.) Notably, Christmas Cocktails, Part 2 features "Christmas Island" by Bob Atcher and the Dinning Sisters (kitschy, but fun), and "Exotic Night," which was Martin Denny's take on the traditional "Greensleeves"/"What Child Is This?" -- complete with his usual orchestration style and semi-exotic instrumentation, but happily without his usual bird calls. It's not one of Denny's best, but it's probably mandatory for any self-respecting list of tiki-fied Christmas songs.
I'd also like to point out a few individual songs that fit in well with this mix. "We Four Kings," by the Blue Hawaiians (from their album Christmas on the Big Island) is a successful mashup of the carol "We Three Kings" with the Pyramids' instrumental surf-rock classic, "Penetration." In a similar retro surf rock vein is King of Hawaii's take on "Greensleeves" (from the album Mele Kalikimaka). Normally I'm not a big fan of mixing surf rock with tracks from the likes of Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny -- But I think these are two exceptions that work pretty well. But maybe that's just the eggnog talking.

And finally, what would a pseudo-Hawaiian-style Christmas be without Bing Crosby's classic version of "Mele Kalikimaka," from his Merry Christmas (now renamed White Christmas) album? Der Bingle has been making people dream about spending the holidays in paradise since 1945!
I hope this helps give you a jump start on your aloha holiday listening this year.
By the way, I'll probably be at the International Tiki Marketplace event at Don the Beachcombers' in Huntington Beach, California this Sunday, Dec. 2nd. It will run from 11am to 4pm, and there will be live entertainment and over 30 vendors of all things tiki. If you see me, stop me and say hello.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Arthur K. Snyder (1932-2012)

Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach/Sunset Beach, California just posted the following:
"We are saddened to bring such news, but this morning Arthur Snyder passed away in his sleep at 79 years old. He was a United States Marine, a USC Law Graduate, a politician, a restauranteur, but most importantly, a dedicated husband, father, and grandfather. He will leave a legacy for ages to come but what he left in everyone's hearts will last a lifetime. Burial information will be posted soon. We will be holding a celebration of his life this Saturday at Don the Beachcomber in the Longboard Room from 3pm - 8pm. For more information please email info@donthebeachcomber.com. We ask that during this time of grieving you do not try to contact the family or staff at Don the Beachcomber. More information will be posted shortly."
Sad and shocking news, indeed. Art was a significant and charming personality in the recent chapters of the tiki revival. He and his wife, Delia, have done amazing things in a very short time with the former Sam's Seafood, somehow restoring and preserving one of the last palaces of tiki (Sam's) while simultaneously creating a whole new one (Don's) at the same location.
Art with Holden Westland of Tiki Farm last June at Don's.
Art was born in Los Angeles in 1932 and went to school there all the way up through his law degree from USC. He was clearly never afraid to try a new line of work, and over his lifetime he was everything from a ditch digger, to a private investigator, to a PR man, to a lawyer, to a legal officer in the U.S. Marines, to a politician -- serving from 1967 to 1985 on the Los Angeles City Council. I knew him only in his last incarnation: Genial restauranteur and stand-in for the legendary Donn Beach.

A few months ago, Art took me on a personal tour of Don's, including the legendary basement, which features a mysterious tunnel leading toward the lagoons behind the property. Art said the basement was haunted, and asked that I be respectful and not too noisy. He also asked that I NOT take photographs, which was a far more difficult assignment. In any case, it was an interesting look at what was undoubtedly a smuggling tunnel back when brothers Sam and George Arvenitis owned the place. (No connection to Prohibition, however, since nothing was built on the property until the 1940s.) Anyway, Art was interested that I was a historian and that I'd already done a bunch of research on Sam's. I, in turn, was very grateful for the tour and information he shared with me.
Art with members of the O.C. Historical Society's board, planning a luau over mai tais.
A couple years ago, Art also helped me (and the rest of the Orange County Historical Society) plan a big luau event for the "Hidden Village" room at Don's. The event was a huge success and the place was packed right up to the fire marshall's limit. At our planning meeting, Art unexpectedly picked up the tab for our dinners. Sure, it was an investment in a larger business opportunity -- But it was something he clearly didn't have to do to clinch the deal. It was just the sort of generous gesture I later came to know as Art's "standard operating procedure": Going the extra mile for customers.

Art's funeral will be held Wed., Nov. 14, 9am, at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, 6300 Forest Lawn Dr., Los Angeles. (Drive to Old North Church once inside the cemetery.) Reception following interment at the Hall of Liberty. In lieu of flowers, his family asks that you consider making a donation in Art's name to: Solheim Lutheran Home in Los Angeles.

Mahalo for being a great host, Art, and for all you've done to keep tiki alive and well. A lot of people are very grateful.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Enchanted Tiki Library

Back in August 2011, on my other blog, I wrote about the world's only "Enchanted Tiki Library," located in Huntington Beach, California. Now, depending on who you believe, it may either be torn down and replaced or simply made to disappear entirely. And best of all,... it involves election year politics.

The photo above shows the 2,400-square-foot Banning Branch Library, which began life in 1962 at 22171 Bushard Ave. as the tract office for the housing developments being built all around it. Several of those tracts, including Newport West, featured some Polynesian-themed roof lines and street names, and the tract office was built to echo that theme.

"It's beach party time at Newport West" one of developer's lackeys told the L.A. Times in 1966. "Residents here are one block from the ocean and the popular entertainment of the season is an early evening beach party." The article went on to describe the tract homes exteriors, which "range from island modern to beach contemporary." Another article described some of the styles as "Tahitian, contemporary modern, and California conventional."
Illustration of a "Tahitian"-style home in Dutch Haven's Newport West tract from a 1963 newspaper ad.
On March 26, 1968 the whole tract office building was moved down the road and around the corner to 9281 Banning Ave., and was turned into a neighborhood branch of the Huntington Beach Public Library.

In 2007, the City hired an architectural firm to draw up plans for a new 12,500 square-foot building to replace the current one. Then the economy stalled off that plan indefinitely.

Now the library is being used as part of a larger game of political blackmail. This coming election day, "Measure Z" will appear on the ballots of Huntington Beach residents. If passed, this measure will remove a property tax that currently helps pay for city worker's pensions. Those campaigning against Measure Z, including some city leaders, say they will be forced to cut a number of basic community services if Measure Z passes -- And the Banning Branch Library is on the short list.

On one hand, I recognize this is the same kind of reprehensible blackmail that Jerry "No-you're-no-hallucinating-I-really-am-governor-again" Brown is foisting on us this year: "Give me what I want or I will make sure that all budget cuts come from the programs you most love." On the other hand, Measure Z would indeed force the city to find the money for pensions elsewhere. And considering that at least a couple of our councilmembers probably pronounce the word, "li-barry," it wouldn't be surprising to see our libraries clobbered. Already, the city has forced the reduction of library hours.
The middle-ground between a new library and no library, of course, would be to keep "The Enchanted Tiki Library" just the way it is. Maybe even gussy it up a little with subtropical landscaping and new interiors by Oceanic Arts and neighborhood resident Bamboo Ben. It's a fair compromise, and a great way to save not only a tiki building but an extremely rare example of something that personified the most important boom in Southern California's history: The Mid-Century tract office.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Roger's Tikis

This is some sort of sign of the current state of the tiki revival: A nice little selection of tikis are now available at Roger's Gardens -- the high-end, jaw-droppingly amazing king of all nurseries, located in Newport Beach, California. How will people get these home in their tiny but expensive European sports cars?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Kahlua Apartments, San Gabriel

Less than a mile north of the Bahooka restaurant are the Kahlua Apartments, at 5339 Rosemead Blvd., in San Gabriel, California. These apartments appear to have been built in the late 1960s, although I have no solid date of construction. The photos in today's post all come from this complex. I'm a little disappointed that I couldn't get into the central courtyard to get some pictures in there. Somehow I suspect that more tiki goodness awaited beyond the locked gates.

Based on the careful efforts to preserve the tikis and the working condition of the waterfalls, it seems clear that the management understands what a gem they have here. Let's hope the residents do also.
Architect James Black, on a site called The Lower Modernisms, observed that the Kahlua "is equipped with plenty of gables. Technically, this is a gablet roof (also called a Dutch gable roof), a combination of hipped and gabled roof construction. There is some bona fide justification for using this form in a Polynesianized theme building, because such roofs are frequently seen in older Hawaiian buildings. At the Kahlua, whereas the ridge of the roof is flat, the top of the gabled portion slopes up, another method of pursuing that sense of jaunty-casual sought in the aforementioned buildings by the raking of their projected gables."
I'm sure Mr. Black didn't intend the term "lower modernisms" as a slight -- but rather as a contrast to the sort of "high modernism" that made all the big architecture and design publications in the mid-20th Century. Still, I always feel a bit reflexively defensive when people use terms like "lower" to describe "tiki architecture", "Googie architecture," and their various cousins. The form of these sorts of architecture fit their function perfectly -- Even if that fuction was advertising apartment rentals or selling cheeseburgers. After all, ever since the dawn of the car culture, snappy roadside commercial appeal has been a perfectly legitimate function for a building's design.
Carved tikis, waterfalls, tropical plantings, lava rock, bridges over water features, (Dutch) gabled roofs, "outrigger beams," and a pseudo-Asian sign font all add up to a Polynesian oasis worth stopping to admire.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Bahooka!

Reader Connie Moreno was the umptee-hundredth person to tell me I simply had to visit Bahooka restaurant in Rosemead, California. So on our way back from the Postcard & Paper Show in Glendale, my friend Phil and I stopped for dinner.

Located at 4501 N. Rosemead Blvd., Bahooka Ribs & Grog is more nautical than tiki, but there are certainly plenty of nods to Polynesian Pop in this landmark. One gets the feeling that some really creative thought and effort went into creating this place initially, but that many layers of additional decor have been added over the decades -- some of which evoke Party City, the local scrapyard, or Uncle Moe's Family Feedbag (with a "whole bunch of crazy crap on the walls") more than tropical islands or Trader Vic's.
Tiki Magazine is available at the Cashier's counter.
Bahooka has a lot of features you won't find at other restaurants, including an anti-aircraft gun in the parking lot and a penchant for lighting your beverages on fire -- even the non-alcoholic ones!

Decor-wise, the highlights at the Bahooka are the more than 100 fish tanks, featuring an interesting array of critters, including an enormous, 35-year-old, carrot-eating pacu named Rufus. (The pacu, a close relative of the pirahna, has become known as "the testicle-eating fish" after some unfortunate incidents in Papua New Guinea's Sepik River. Tip for the day: Never fish naked in tropical rivers.) Although it sometimes feels a bit like dining in a pet shop, the aquariums are visually arresting and add a mysterious blue glow to the dark, maze-like restaurant.
A blast to the Mid-Century past.
This is the second of what were once two Bahooka restaurants. According to Humuhumu's wonderful Critiki website, the original Bahooka in West Covina was "started by two brothers and a sister in 1967. One of the brothers, Jack, had worked for 10 years at Kelbo's. The building was expanded over the years, which was ultimately its downfall -- it grew over a property line, and in the ensuing dispute, Bahooka lost its lease. In 1980, the building was demolished. Fortunately, four years earlier a second Bahooka location had been opened in Rosemead, which still operates today." 
The largest and most visible tiki at Bahooka guards the bathrooms.
The Bahooka seems to be a family-owned operation, the prices are fairly affordable, and the service we received was prompt and very friendly. Unfortunately, the food was lacking. We each had a steak (noted as one of the house specialities on the menu) -- Phil's with a baked potato and salad and mine with fries and New England clam chowder.

The steaks were cooked as ordered and reasonably well seasoned. But the meat was also tough, thin, and really pretty scarce by the time fat, gristle, and bone was cut away. The salad was drown in dressing (which didn't seem to phase Phil). The fries, though plentiful, weren't quite cooked enough. And the clam chowder (which is generally one of my favorite foods) had a rather un-chowdery flavor to it that kept me from eating more than a few spoons full. Phil's baked potato was okay, but unremarkable.

To be fair, we visited early in the evening on a Sunday, and made no follow-up visit. So I don't know if our experience was unique or par for the course.
A banquet room in the back features a moai and treasure chests.

The Mai Tai I ordered was quite recognizable as a real Mai Tai (which is more than you'll find in most restaurants these days), and the presentation was nice, but the execution was a little uninspiring. On the other hand, I've probably been spoiled by occasional visits to Don the Beachcomber's and Trader Sam's.

For the record, this is the only Polynesian-ish restaurant I've ever been to that featured pastrami sandwiches on their menu. Just another curious twist.
So, should you visit Bahooka? By all means. Stop in, walk around to absorb the atmosphere, have a drink, and talk with their friendly staff. But don't expect to be wowed by the food. And don't try skinny dipping in the aquariums.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Return to the Quiet Village

Here's something fun I stumbled across -- An ad for a rare series of Martin Denny/Arthur Lyman reunion shows, from the Jan. 9, 1977 issue of the Los Angeles Times. The restaurant, Latitude 20, was once called The Polynesian, then Hop Louie's Latitude 20, and eventually Charlee Fong's Latitude 20. As you'd expect, they served "Cantonese and American cuisine" and "exotic drinks."

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Pete & Portia Seanoa

 
I happened upon Pete and Portia Seanoa in the 1990s, when I drove past their home in Huntington Beach, California and saw their yard full of tikis. Still a little shy about asking people for interviews, I hesitated, but ultimately made a U-turn, parked, and knocked on their door. 

The result was the following article, which ran under the title, "The Enchanted Tiki Home," in the Aug. 2001 issue of Otto von Stroheim's trailblazing "'zine," Tiki News, (Issue #17). Today, the Seanoas live in Land O' Lakes, Florida, where Portia still teaches community classes in the ancient Kahiko style of hula and teaches about Polynesian and Hawaiian cultures. Their son, Nuufolau Joel "Samoa Joe" Seanoa, has followed the family showbusiness tradition as a professional wrestler.Sadly, the tikis in front of their old house are gone. 

I have tweaked this article a bit for re-publication here, and it now has more color illustrations -- But it still remains largely as it appeared in print in 2001,...

Motorists on busy Slater Avenue in Huntington Beach may be puzzled by the large tikis and tropical foliage surrounding the Seanoa home. Few know Pete Seanoa's story -- A story that includes lions, Elvis Presley, Walt Disney and the preservation of Polynesian heritage.

"I came to this country from Samoa 40 years ago," said Seanoa. "I had no education, but I had a strong sense of who I was and what we were about. Polynesian culture and history isn't recorded, but it's passed down from generation to generation."

One of the traditions passed down in the Seanoa family was the carving of tikis. Sometimes five or six family members work together to carve a tiki from the corewood of palm trees. It's not something they do often, but they feel it is an important tradition to keep alive.
 "The younger generation of Polynesians in America are only interested in material things and lose sight of the spiritual," said Seanoa. "On the other hand, we can't live in the past. We must accept what's good about today and tomorrow while retaining our sense of who we are."

For Seanoa, tikis and tiki carving are deeply rooted in the spiritual world.

"The tiki signifies the spiritual force within.," he said. "Tikis tend to get chop-sueyed in with other cultures, like Alaskan totems, but they're totally different. They aren't gods, but they represent the spiritual world in general. Mostly, they represent the happy spiritual elements. The spiritual aspects of the carver go into the tiki. What he feels about his culture goes into it."

Each tiki he carves, said Seanoa, "symbolizes me, symbolizes protection and symbolizes our people."
Seanoa carved the tikis displayed in his yard many years ago, for the Lion Country Safari animal park in Irvine, California. When the park closed in 1984, he took them back and surrounded his home with them.

"For us, it's a sense of security," he said.

Ironically, he points out that some of the tikis that provide this sense of security have been stolen from his yard. "What are [the thieves] going to do with them?," he asked. "What does it mean to them?"

Today, there are five large tikis in Seanoa's front yard, representing carving styles from numerous Polynesian islands. Four more stand guard over the back yard, amid fishing nets, starfish and other tropical decor. The tallest of the tikis, the Tahitian giant in the side yard, stands nine feet tall and has painted yellow highlights.
Over the years, Seanoa provided tikis for party planning and prop companies and for a "big tiki restaurant in San Gabriel." He says his work was also featured in numerous films, including Elvis Presley's "Blue Hawaii."

However, Seanoa feels the tikis he has sold are of limited significance. He has little interest in carving tikis for sale these days.

"If it sells, it's not spiritual anymore. A lot of people duplicate [tikis] and it's just a prop."
Seanoa also keeps in touch with his heritage through traditional Polynesian dancing. In fact, he was a member of the "Royal Tahitians" dance troupe which performed at Disneyland from 1962 until 1993. He performed at the Tahitian Terrace restaurant, next door to the Enchanted Tiki Room, for 28 years, winning him a spot in Disneyland's 25th Anniversary Hall of Fame book.

Originally, said Seanoa, the Tahitian Terrace and the Enchanted Tiki Room attraction "were supposed to work together," with diners being entertained by singing tikis and robotic birds while they ate. However, as the project evolved, the restaurant became a separate entity with its own live entertainment.

Seanoa attributes the closure of the Tahitian Terrace to changes in management.

"The Disney family used to have control, but everything changed in the 1980s," he said.
Pete's wife, Portia, began traditional Hawaiian and Polynesian dancing as a hobby in 1963 -- the height of Southern California's "Polynesian Pop" craze -- and soon turned it into a career. In 1965, Pete and Portia, launched Tiare Productions, an entertainment company which still teaches and promotes Polynesian dancing. The dancers have performed around the world at cultural, charitable and corporate events. They have also performed at restaurants, sporting events, colleges, concerts and the Special Olympics.

Currently, Tiare Productions' dancers perform frequently at Cafe Tu Tu Tango at The Block shopping center in Orange. Shows are usually on Friday or Saturday evenings.The dancers practice in the Seanoas' backyard on weekends.

"They play enjoyable Polynesian music on Saturdays," said one neighbor with a smile.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Wayne Coombs, R.I.P.

 Wayne Coombs, the well-known and much-copied tiki carver, died Tuesday. Details are posted on the Florida Today website. His Mai Tiki Studio was in Coco Beach but his influence was felt pretty much everywhere.

Otto von Stroheim of Tiki News and Tiki Oasis fame, writes, "Wayne Coombs was a self made businessman, renegade carver, pioneer and flag bearer of Tiki, and a friend of mine. It saddens me to announce that he has moved on to the big carvers union in the sky and can no longer enrich our lives."

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Royal Hawaiian, Laguna Beach

Old placemat courtesy Bob and Leroy at Oceanic Arts.
I've been running a blog called the O.C. History Roundup for six years now, and of course I've written about tiki there in the past. Once in a while, I'll throw a link into the Tiki Lagoon to draw attention to one of my old tiki posts. Today, it's my April 28, 2012 post about the closing of the Royal Hawaiian restaurant in Laguna Beach, California. Link on over.

To that link, I will also add the following tale, of my first visit to the Royal Hawaiian -- long before it changed hands and long, long before it closed:
The Royal Hawaiian's back bar, shortly before it closed.
Aside from the aging tikis outside, the Royal Hawaiian's exterior didn't have much to recommend it. However, once you stepped inside the atmosphere changed completely. We were suddenly transported into a primitive island village of thatched huts, hidden in an overgrown artificial jungle. Each side of the building was perforated by large sliding glass doors that looked out on narrow strips of real tropical foliage and vintage tikis, lit dramatically with colored lights. There was no sign of the outside world.

The menu was a time machine set for 1950s America. The food was about as Hawaiian as I am. The exotic "Wiki Wiki Platter," for instance, was simply a steak with a baked potato wrapped in tinfoil. The only island theming to be found in the food was the ring of pineapple on the edge of my plate. My dinner also came (as did pretty much everything) with a thinnish French onion soup and a small salad drown in blue cheese dressing and served in a laminated wood bowl. It was all perfectly good food at a rather reasonable price. Your grandparents would have felt right at home, and so did I.

The jaw-dropper was the house drink, the Lapu Lapu -- a faux-Polynesian drink named after a Filipino warrior chief from the sixteenth century. The drink was outstanding, and came in a glass the size of,.... well,... You know that enormous brandy snifter your great uncle used to keep on top of the piano? The one that held his entire matchbook collection? It was like that. Clearly, it was a drink for sharing with friends.

But I held out the greatest hope for dessert. I had spied an item on the menu called "Pele: Goddess of Fire." There was no description, and I asked for none.

It was impossible NOT to order any dessert so audaciously named. The anticipation grew. We waited. And then,... suddenly,... out of the plastic jungle came our waiter, carrying (drum roll, please),... PELE: GODDESS OF FIRE!

It was a small dish with one scoop of vanilla ice cream, surmounted by a sugar cube that had been soaked in umpteen-thousand proof alcohol and set on fire! My Mid-Century faux-Hawaiian dining experience was complete.

Oh, Royal Hawaiian, you will be missed!

Monday, September 3, 2012

International Tiki Marketplace

Today I'm just posting a few photos from this weekend's International Tiki Marketplace event at Don the Beachcombers in Sunset Beach, California. They tell me this event is usually held on the first Sunday of each month, 11am to 4pm. But both the Sept. and Oct. events seem to be breaking that rule. The next one will be held on Sat., Oct. 13th.

Anyway, it's not a huge event, but it's growing. And it's a lot of fun to see what local tiki artists are creating and what tiki collectors are cleaning out of their garages. Also, there's live entertainment from some great "hapa haole," Hawaiian, and exotica bands. And I almost always run into people I know here. It's as much a social event as anything else.
The Smokin' Menehunes perform in the Hidden Village Room in the photo below. This is such an amazing place to see a show. And your $10 admission to the Marketplace can be applied to any food or drink at Don's, so your lunch plans are already taken care of. Owner Art Snyder pointed out the pulled pork sandwich to me a couple months ago, and I'm a fan. I also like the salads, with little slivers of ginger mixed in. And of course, Don's is one of the few places you can try a real Mai Tai -- not one of these silly pineapple juice things they serve in so many restaurants.
To double-check the schedule for the next event, or to see which vendors and bands will be there, check the International Tiki Marketplace thread on Tiki Central. My thanks to "Soccer-Tiki," for being such a hospitable host/organizer for this event.
One last view: The lanai overhang in front of Don's (formerly Sam's Seafood). It's amazing that after many, many years of visiting Sam's, Kona's, and finally Don's, I still see "new" details from the 1960s to admire.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Exotic Sounds of... Wally George?

(Artist's concept of Wally as a bongo hep-cat.)
Wally George (1931-2003), the self-proclaimed "father of combat TV," had opinions about almost everything. But I was surprised to find that he’d weighed in, frequently, on musical exotica of the Polynesian Pop variety.

Wally’s “Hot Seat” show, which began on Anaheim’s KDOC-TV in 1983, was clearly the direct ancestor of much of our current daytime television. Wally’s guests all clashed with him, and each episode became a melee of screamed insults and attempts to out-shout each other. His young studio audience chanted “Wah-lee!, Wah-lee!” in a way that would be very familiar to fans of Jerry Springer. Wally took an ultra-right-wing stance on everything, but he was much more focused on being contrarian and shocking (to the point of farce) than political. In his day, he was an iconic Southern California character.
New radio personality Wally George, in 1948.
There are a lot of curious things you can say about Wally. He had long hair but hated hippies. He wrote an episode of Bonanza. He appeared (as himself) in Nightmare on Elm Street 5. He was the father of actress Rebecca De Mornay. He died nearly broke, but Robert H. Schuller performed his funeral at the Crystal Cathedral.

But here’s another strange fact you didn’t know: Wally was a music critic for the Los Angeles Times in the 1950s and 1960s, and he clearly had an interest in South Seas-style exotica: the music of tiki.
The following are some excerpts from his "Court of Records" column,…

Aug. 18, 1957: "EXOTICA -- This is Martin Denny and some strange sounds that are supposed to suggest the exotic, mysterious Orient. Oddly enough, they do just that. Not the Hong Kong bamboo sticks and cymbals type of musical cliché, but music that delights the ear with unusual effects, yet remains commercial enough to be commercial. Emerging from Honolulu's Hawaiian Village, Denny Statesided it to Las Vegas where his clicking sometimes became confused with the clicking of the silver dollars."

Dec. 1, 1957: "Several months ago, we reviewed an unusual Liberty LP by one Martin Denny and orchestra. Entitled EXOTICA, it was an excitingly different record soundwise and its sales have proved that thousands thought as we did. Now comes [EXOTICA II], in the same vein, a definitely exotic blend of music combinations suggesting Polynesian and Oriental influences... Les Baxter's orchestra on Capitol's PORTS OF PLEASURE takes an uneventful voyage to various Far East ports. Orchestration is, as always with Mr. B., clever and sprightly. However, the melodies themselves seem to be going nowhere."

Apr. 20, 1958: "TABOO -- Here is another one of those ‘strange sounds from the jungle’ records highly reminiscent of Martin Denny's recent EXOTICA. This one is by Arthur Lyman and was recorded in Henry Kaiser's aluminum dome outside the Hawaiian Village Hotel in Honolulu. The sound is excellent and Lyman's conception of 'Caravan' and 'Katsumi Love Theme' is admittedly intriguing. This LP has been getting big play from the disc jockeys of late, so you may already have become familiar with it.”

Sept. 14, 1958: "...We reviewed an LP entitled TABOO [from] Arthur Lyman. Now comes not one, but two, companion albums: HAWAIIAN SUNSETS and BWANA A. Both contain the same exiting mélange of sounds captured by Mr. Lyman in his initial waxing. The former has such fare as 'Hawaiian War Chant,' 'Sweet Leilani,' etc.; the latter, 'La Paloma,' 'Colonel Bogey's March,' etc. The Hawaiian album is enough to rekindle an island flame in the jaded. Verdict: A delicate journey into the exotic.”
Jan. 4, 1959: “... Martin Denny has another fabulous LP on the racks, PRIMITIVA…”

Sept. 6, 1959: "While the much heralded return of the big band has as yet failed to materialize, we do have in our midst another musical phenomenon -- exotic music. One of its top practitioners, Martin Denny, has come forth with another of his slick releases, QUIET VILLAGE. Although this is anything but a big band the six musicians on this LP manage to make as much noise as many larger orchestras. As with the six previous Denny efforts, the music has the charm of the islands, or perhaps, the call of the wild. Denny relies almost entirely on percussion instruments to create his illusions, and one of his helpers, August Colon, supplies bird calls. Unless our ears deceive us, Mr. Colon has been padding his part. This is not necessarily a criticism, just an observation; at times you get the feeling you're locked in a bird sanctuary..."

Oct. 4, 1959: "For a change of pace try BAHIA with the exotic sounds of Arthur Lyman..."

June 5, 1960: “EXOTIC SOUNDS FROM THE SILVER SCREEN --  Here is another outpouring of bird calls and the like from Martin Denny. This is up to his previous high standard, but up to last count this is his 10th LP. So enough, already."

Jan. 29, 1961: "Martin Denny, always a bit wild with weird sounds even on monaural discs, serves up a doubly tempting portion via stereo. His latest: EXOTIC PERCUSSION. This offers among other things--tuned Burmese gongs, piccolo xylophones and boo bams..."
I don't know about you, but while reading this I kept waiting for Wally to preemptively call music fans who disagreed with him "creeps" and "jerks," and tell them to "go back to Russia." I'll stop writing now, before I get thrown off the stage.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Introduction to Tiki

From architecture, home décor and music, to restaurants, literature, theme parks and backyard luaus, the South Pacific was a wildly popular theme throughout Mid-Century America. This was especially true in sunny locales like California and Florida, where primitive carved figures, grass huts, “Aloha shirts,” and lush jungle landscaping seemed right at home. But the tiki or "Polynesian Pop" craze eventually spread not just across the continent but across the world.

It began gradually with pre-War bamboo bars and reached critical mass with Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber -- the two restaurants that invented the initial canon of tiki decor and drinks and associated them with fine dining and good times. The theme's popularity grew rapidly in the years following World War II, and peaked around the time of Hawaii's admission to the Union in 1959. Many of the service men who'd been in the Pacific Theater remembered the beauty of the islands, in spite of the horrible events that occurred there. New popular restaurants like The Luau in Beverly Hills refined the tiki decor and menus even further. Thor Heyerdahl's bestselling Kon-Tiki (1950) and James A. Mitchener's Tales of the South Pacific (1947) -- which later became a popular musical -- also fed the trend.
Entrance to the "Hidden Village" at Sam's Seafood, Sunset Beach, CA.
Tiki style mixed traditional designs, artifacts and motifs from the actual cultures of the South Pacific with pop-culture trends of Mid-Century America, and then added a dose of "exotic" fantasy elements that sprang from the minds of various artists. Blended together, they created something altogether new and unique.

Certainly, we can dissect a favorite tiki haunt into its component parts, and admire and study each element for what it is: Masks from Papua New Guinea, war clubs from Tahiti, cartoon-like carved tikis from a nearby nursery, "Chinese" foods invented in New York, Latin-infused jazz from the hotel lounges of Hawaii, etc., etc. But it was the combination of all these elements and more that was instantly recognizable as tiki style. At its worst, it was ham-fisted and cheesy. But at its best it was beautiful, evocative, and mysterious, and provided an instant escape from modern life into an exotic fantasy world.

The tiki juggernaut continued well into the 1960s, but was already sputtering to an end by the time the 1970s arrived. From then on, the classic examples of the style were under assault by real estate developers and changing tastes. Even iconic sites like the popular Kahiki Supper Club in Ohio (on the National Register of Historic Places) were bulldozed.
New tikis for sale at Bamboo Ben's "garage sale" event, May 2010.
But just as it seemed the last vestiges of the tiki phenomenon would disappear forever, people began to care about it again. At first, it was only a handful of urban archaeologists, retro-chic hipsters, and nostalgic suburbanites who remembered tiki from their childhoods. But the cult of tiki revival has grown over time. Restaurants have re-opened, Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room has been refurbished, tiki carvers suddenly have tons of customers, the music of Martin Denny is being downloaded into iPods, and tiki's biggest fans gather at large events scattered around the country.

Yes, the revival has been marked with more than its fair share of plasticky Chinese knock-offs and junk. And some folks think hanging a cheap Indonesian mask and a fishnet over their barbeque makes them the next Trader Vic. But there is also quality, creativity, and tiki wonderfulness to be found again. And some of the few remaining authentic tiki remnants of the 1950s and '60s have gotten the shot-in-the-arm they need to survive a little longer, so we can study them, enjoy them, and consider what they can tell us about their era, about their origins, and about ourselves.

The tide has definitely turned.