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Celebrating classic and modern Polynesian Pop

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SHOW: Weekend All Things Considered (8:00 PM ET) - NPR
May 10, 2003 Saturday
HEADLINE: Celebration of tiki culture
ANCHORS: STEVE INSKEEP
REPORTERS: ALEX COHEN

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You know, you may not even know it, but you have probably been touched by tiki culture. That's the name people give to pseudo Polynesian or Hawaiian-style artifacts, you know, bamboo torches by the swimming pool, hula girls, Hawaiian shirts, little tropical umbrellas in the drink that you may wish you had about now. This weekend, hundreds of people are celebrating tiki culture at an annual convention. From member station KQED, Alex Cohen is covering the Tiki Oasis.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Ola, ola. Show time.

ALEX COHEN reporting:

Hear the word 'tiki' and Disneyland often springs to mind. In 1963, the theme park opened up the enchanted tiki room featuring hundreds of singing birds, flowers and tiki carvings.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Welcome to our tropical hideaway, you lucky people you. If we weren't in the show starting right away, we'd be in the audience, too.

Unidentified Singers: All together: In the tiki, tiki, tiki, tiki, tiki room, in the tiki, tiki, tiki...

COHEN: Many enthusiasts trace the roots of tiki pop culture to Southern California. At the Tiki Ti bar in LA, Mike Buhen serves potent tropical drinks and tells customers how America invented its own pseudo Polynesia. He says it all started in the 1930s with an island-theme bar called Don The Beachcomber. Prohibition had just ended and rum was the cheapest booze around.

Mr. MIKE BUHEN (Bartender): So what they did is they got the idea since it was so cheap, they started fooling around and mixing it with, you know, some pineapple juice and orange, lime, sugar and tasted it and they go, 'Wow, this tastes really good.'

COHEN: Drinks with names like the Zombie and the Vicious Virgin quickly became a big hit with Hollywood stars like Clark Gable and Bing Crosby. Soon a slew of tropical-theme bars and restaurants like Tiki Ti and Trader Vic's opened across the country. Tiki really took off after World War II when nostalgic vets returned from the South Pacific.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: Just down the road from Tiki Ti lives Sven Kirsten, a Germany filmmaker and author of "The Book of Tiki," regarded by many as the tiki bible. Kirsten's home is a tiki shrine. There are vintage matchboxes, ceramic mugs fashioned to look like tiki gods and CDs with the dreamy island music of Martin Denny.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: Kirsten's "Book of Tiki" is filled with old photos of conservative "Leave it to Beaver" types devouring pupu platters, downing mai tais and putting the worries of the world behind them. Kirsten says tiki was a perfect exotic escape for Americans in the Eisenhower era.

Mr. SVEN KIRSTEN (Filmmaker; Author): They were very much restrained by the Puritan morals that they had grown up with. And they used the Polynesian culture, lifestyle as sort of an alternative reality.

COHEN: Tiki grew so popular in the '50s and '60s that it expanded beyond bars and restaurants to motels, theme parks, bowling alleys and even apartment buildings. But Tiki began fizzling out in the '70s and '80s. Nowadays, there are only a few historic tiki bars and restaurants left. That may soon change. Tiki apparently is making a comeback, just ask Otto Von Stroheim. He's the editor of San Francisco-based Tiki News, a newsletter and online forum.

Mr. OTTO VON STROHEIM (Editor, Tiki News): In January of 1995, I launched a magazine with a mailing list of about 150 people that were my friends and people I had contacted off the Internet.

COHEN: The allure of tiki culture was so strong that Tiki News quickly grew to a subscription base of several thousand worldwide. This popularity of Tiki News led Von Stroheim to organize the annual Tiki Oasis gathering.

(Soundbite of song)

THE MAIKAI GENTS: (Singing) In a Hawaiian village at Waikiki, tropical hula heaven across the sea, building a little cottage for you and me, in a...

COHEN: This weekend, hundreds of tiki aficionados are gathering at the Caliente Tropics, a historic tiki hotel in Palm Springs. They've been enjoying pool-side lessons on tiki history, deejays spinning tiki tunes and several modern-day musicians like The Maikai Gents of Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of song)

THE MAIKAI GENTS: (Singing) ...living like Koma Inez(ph), our dreams come true.

COHEN: Lead singer and ukelele player Iuka Grogg, otherwise known as Judd Finkelstein(ph), says he's interested in all things retro, especially tiki.

Mr. IUKA GROGG (The Maikai Gents): It's a world of jungles and exoticness and provocative women dancing with fire and rum cocktails. I mean, how could it be bad?

COHEN: For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen in Los Angeles.

[ Edited by: kahukini on 2003-05-13 10:42 ]

N

Gods love you, that's one more thing I can show to the people planning to re-open the Luau Room as a sports bar.

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