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.