- Historic Sites
How sex, rum, World War II, and the brand-new state of Hawaii ignited a fad that has never quite ended.
August/September 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 4
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The competition for the most elaborate drinks led to CIA-level secrecy, chiefly out of fear that a bartender might leave and take prized recipes with him. A 1948 Saturday Evening Post story observed that the bottles at Don the Beachcomber lacked the original labels and had been replaced by new ones with cryptic letters and numbers. Bartenders used coded recipes to mix these anonymous ingredients. “Infinite pains are taken to see to it that the service-bar help cannot memorize Don’s various occult ingredients and proportions,” the Post reported.
The tiki restaurant and the tiki cocktail persisted well into the 1970s—“an unprecedented lifespan for a drink fad,” writes the tiki drink expert Jeff Berry. Still, tiki gradually became tacky. The thatched roofs grew ratty, the hula girls passé, and the drinks too potent and elaborate for an emerging era of white-wine spritzers. In the 1980s the branch of Trader Vic’s in Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel—perhaps the most famous of them all—was shuttered by its owner, Donald Trump, who announced that the restaurant had “gotten tacky.” Bergeron eventually turned over control of the chain to his children and retired to pursue a quiet career as a painter and jeweler. According to The New York Times , he liked to paint “ice-skating nuns and perky otters.”
As with many trends pushed to the brink of oblivion, tiki enjoyed a revival in the late 1990s, led by hipsters who took the so-called loungecore movement in a more ironic direction. Tiki mugs that had languished in Salvation Army shops were snapped up and traded on eBay, and tiki aficionados gathered at tiki events and went on road trips to search out the survivors of the era. A surfeit of tiki cocktail guides made their way into print. At the trendy clothing and gew-gaw chain Urban Outfitters, shoppers could buy plastic coconut drink mugs.
Tiki soon became a generic term for anything vaguely tropical. The tiki historian Sven Kirsten has lamented the “Jimmy Buffetization” of tiki. The revival became all about kitsch: the faux-primitive statues, the blowfish lamps, the netting, the thatch over the home tiki bar, the scratchy albums of Martin Denny, whose jungle-rustic instrumentals provided the soundtrack for the tiki heyday in Waikiki Beach.
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Yet, beneath the gloss of kitsch, a touching sincerity informs many of those who today seek out lost tiki culture, folks who view it not just as a campy safari into the heart of faux-Borneo but as a search for a genuinely lost American civilization. The tiki movement was as every bit as real an era in American history as the House of Kamehameha was in Hawaii.
Efforts to halt our cultural memory loss are well under way. Zines such Otto Von Stroheim’s Tiki News and John Trivisonno’s Mai Tai offer information-dense updates on tiki culture. There are published guidebooks, such as James Teitelbaum’s Tiki Road Trip , and Web sites, like Tiki Central (www.tikiroom.com) and Michelle Whiting’s Critiki.com, that offer reviews and information on some hundreds of tiki-related establishments extant today.
Then there are the tiki scholars, like Kirsten and Jeff Berry. Berry, in particular, has been assiduously documenting and re-creating the actual drinks, long since forgotten, in his Beachbum Berry’s series of guides, including Grog Log and Intoxica!
“With sense of wonder intact,” writes Kirsten in his Book of Tiki , “the Urban Archeologist realizes that one does not always have to search far to explore the mysteries of forgotten ancient traditions, but that strange treasures can lie right in your own neighborhood, hidden under the layers of progress and development.”
Donn Beach and Trader Vic, it turns out, were the Stanley and Livingstone of the mid-century American jungle, blazing a trail deep into the world of pop fantasy and artifice from which America has yet to fully emerge.