Tiki Bars: Birds, Beaches, and Booze
By Sasha Coles
When you walk into Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel, you are immediately transported to another world. The hustle and bustle of the park fades away, and all of a sudden, you feel like you are on a tropical island. Rainfall taps on the windows. Countless ocean-themed objects—bamboo, starfish, sea turtles, spears, shrunken heads, masks, and anchors—hover above you. Tiki carvings and hula girls in grass skirts peer at you from the walls. Delicious appetizers and vacation-in-a-glass cocktails, like the Zombie and Mai Tai, are just the ticket after a long day on your feet, or for passing the time until you can see your favorite parade at the park.
Trader Sam’s (and the Enchanted Tiki Room) are part of a long tradition of Tiki culture in the United States. The word “Tiki” comes from Polynesian mythology and has taken on meanings like “first man” and “artist’s muse.” Tiki carvings, typically made out of stone or wood to look like a human face with an exaggerated mouth, originate in Africa and Oceania. These pieces can be everything from expressive art to sacred symbols of ancestors or gods, and also cheap statues for tourists to buy. Tikis appeared in Europe and the United States as a result of nineteenth-century colonialism. Soldiers, adventurers, and state figures brought Tikis back and used them as evidence for why Western nations were “superior” to “backwards” societies. In their novels, authors like Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson offered up romantic depictions of Polynesia, and these images contributed to the fascination with “tropical” peoples.
Tiki culture reached the height of its popularity in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. Some Americans enjoyed vacations in the South Seas in the 1910s and 20s, but GIs returning from the Pacific theater of World War II spread the interest in “Polynesian Pop,” a particular design that fuses styles from Hawai’i, New Guinea, the Cook Islands, New Zealand, the Marquesas, and Rapa Nui, among other places. Media representations, including James Michener’s novel, Tales of the South Pacific (1948); television shows like Hawaiian Eye, which ran from 1959 to 1963; and movies featuring Elvis Presley, made the fad even more visible. Companies dedicated to producing Tiki-inspired products—mugs, bowls, lighters, candles, etc.— popped up. Artists like Milan Guanko, who emigrated to the US from the Philippines in 1928, started selling Tiki carvings, statues, and furniture. Tiki-themed hotels, apartment complexes, bowling alleys, laundromats, and miniature golf popped up in cities all over the country. Tiki culture did not spread because it offered an “authentic” representation of Polynesia. Instead, people took to it because it offered an escape from urban life, a paradise free from the stress of the gray flannel suit and the 8-to-5 grind.
The “founding fathers” (and mothers) of the Tiki bar and restaurant movement helped make the fad a national sensation. Donn Beach, born Ernest Beaumont-Gantt, grew up traveling to the Caribbean with his grandfather. His bar, Don the Beachcomber, opened in Los Angeles in 1933, and Donn decorated the walls with the flotsam and jetsam he collected during his travels. Cora Irene “Suny” Sund—Donn’s wife and the business savvy member of the couple—franchised the bar in 1940. Donn desperately wanted to keep his mixed drink recipes a secret, so his employees (known as the “Four Boys”) frantically mixed the cocktails in the kitchen to keep up with demand. Another key figure, Ely Hedley, made décor out of the materials that appeared at his beach house in San Pedro, California. Ely helped design Adventureland at Walt Disney’s bequest. Disney himself was a fan of Polynesian Pop, and he opened the Tahitian Terrace Restaurant at Disneyland in 1962 and the Tiki Room in 1963. Victor Bergeron, another founder of the Tiki bar movement, decided to convert his Oakland saloon into Trader Vic’s, and by 1960, Trader Vic’s had 25 locations all over the world. Victor lost his left leg to tuberculosis as a small child, but he started telling his patrons that a vicious shark took it from him. Legend has it that Victor invented the Mai Tai, although accounts differ! You can check out his drink mixes in Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide.
Most Tiki bar cocktails offer different types of rum as a base, plus various mixes, flavors, and juices. The fact that they rely on rum is not an accident. Barbadians and Jamaicans began making rum from fermented molasses in the mid-1600s. Pirates and sailors quite enjoyed the stuff, especially grog (a combination of rum, sugar, and lime). Famous measurements for rum punch—one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak—originated in the West Indies. During World War II, the United States experienced a shortage of liquor, because the conflict severely limited imports from Europe. Caribbean rum offered an inexpensive alternative to fill that void, and voila! Tiki bar drinks often come in an elaborate glass, shaped as a Tiki, volcano, eyeball, or shrunken head, for example. CAUTION! Some drinks even come with a fire feature!
Polynesian Pop began to fade beginning in the 1970s. To a generation that endured the Vietnam War and accompanying images of burning bamboo dwellings, toppling palm trees, and terrorized Vietnamese people, Tiki culture seemed outdated and corny. The Tiki tradition lives on, however, thanks to the “Tikiheads” who host parties, own bars, and keep up crowdsourced websites like Tiki Central, Critiki, and Ooga-Mooga. And, of course, it lives on each time José, Fritz, Michael, and Pierre host their show at Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room.
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Sven A. Kirsten, The Book of Tiki: The Cult of Polynesian Pop in Fifties America (2003)
James Teitelbaum, Tiki Road Trip: A Guide to Tiki Culture in North America, 2nd Edition (2007)
Martin Cate with Rebecca Cate, Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki (2016)