Three Dots & A Dash
Tiki culture is undergoing a renaissance in the Valley, and a wide variety of people are taking a dive into the midcentury decor.
Take Mesa resident Pierre Mosley, who after another stressful overnight shift as a tower controller at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport likes nothing more than retreating to his backyard tropical oasis and unwinding by firing up his chainsaw and carving castaway palm tree trunks into towering Tiki statues.
“My job’s very stressful,” Mosley says, “and I needed to find ways to leave the stress at work and not bring it home.” He found the answer, he says, in Tiki.
Tiki came to the East Valley in the 1960s, when Hawaiian décor was all the rage. Not everyone could make it to the middle of the Pacific in those days, so what became known as “Desert Polynesian” style rose out of the Sonoran, giving rise to Tiki-flavored hotels, restaurants, beverages and home décor.
These days, most Tiki-inspired style in the East Valley has moved out to the pool. But there are those who, like Mosley, continue to embrace the heritage—reviving it and even finding others enthusiasts to join for celebrations of their island-style adoration.
Beyond carvings, Mosley explains that he started wearing board shorts and flip flops. “I was trying to embrace that chill island lifestyle during my time off. That was fun, but it wasn’t enough. Now I’m in deep,” he says waving his arms across his half-acre property awash in lush landscaping, island décor and oversized Tiki sculptures.
“Now you can see the tropics or the pool out of every window, even as soon as I open the front door. Not to mention there’s a big six-foot Tiki with about 40 hours worth of work on it.”
A few miles south, and a dozen steps below the streets of downtown Chandler, more Tiki fans can be found sipping tropical tipples inside a bar in a once-abandoned storage cellar at the historic Crowne Plaza San Marcos Golf Resort. Look for an unmarked door behind the Crust pizzeria and then head downstairs to The Ostrich. The name is a nod to the East Valley city’s famed feathered friends.
Brandon Casey is beverage director of The Ostrich, and says it’s an homage to two famed midcentury classic Tiki bars: Don The Beachcomber’s and Trader Vic’s. Casey says The Ostrich serves a classic Don The Beachcomber Zombie and an authentic Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, “right down to the housemade orgeat,” or almond syrup.
In Mesa, longtime local realtor Katrina Deist-Zemar and her husband Arthur are also leading a two-person Tiki revitalization effort, even if they don’t exactly consider themselves fans.
“We fell in love with the wide streets, tall trees, living right off the golf course and a lake, and only wanted to buy in this subdivision,” she says.
As the proud homeowners of one of the few remaining examples of the East Valley’s 1960s Tiki obsession, they’ve grown accustomed to the small but steady stream of Tiki lovers taking pictures from their cars or hopping out to pose in front of their thatch hut-style carport.
“It really feels like an island paradise with the lake and green grass and the large glass sliding doors,” Deist-Zemar says of the Tiki home they’ve been restoring by hand for the past three years. “Retro homes like this are really neat. It reminds me a bit of Palm Springs.”
The allure of Tiki
So what exactly is Tiki, and why was it so popular here in Arizona, and much of the world, before drying up almost completely in the 1970s and ’80s?
“What we call ‘Tiki’ is actually an American invention that we then exported to the world, rather than the other way around,” says Brandon Casey of The Ostrich. In other words, don’t look to your local Tiki bar for a lesson on the indigenous Polynesian people, or Maori, and their belief that Tiki was the first man. That’s why most Pacific Island cultures created ceremonial “Tiki” masks and statue markers.
Instead, according to the Arizona architecture tome, “Modern Marvels,” today’s Tiki culture was cooked up in the 1930s by a couple of competing California restaurateurs and raconteurs, Don The Beachcomber (started by Ernest Gantt) and his late-arriving but better known rival, Vic “The Trader” Bergeron. Tiki didn’t flood into the Valley until the early 1960s, when “Tiki culture took hold in Scottsdale with Trader Vic’s and in Phoenix with the Islands Lounge, Samoan Village Motor Hotel and Kon Tiki Hotel and Restaurant,” the book recounts.
The trend in the Valley was fueled by splashy stunts, like John Wayne flying in from Hollywood with a live cheetah in tow so he could host a charity fundraiser dinner at Trader Vic’s for his African safari movie, “Hatari.” Tiki mania soon spread to homebuilders in the EastValley.
Today this legacy lives on in developments such as the still existing Kon Tiki Mobile Home Village in Chandler and Mesa’s now demolished Hawaiian Family Mobile Home Park. But the real true treasure trove for Tiki fans is undoubtedly the Apache Country Club Estates, a remarkably well-preserved stretch of midcentury homes skirting the verdant Arizona Golf Resort at the southwest corner of Broadway and Power Roads in east Mesa.
“Back in the 1960s, this neighborhood was filled with high rollers like doctors and lawyers, so the homes were often custom built and very well constructed,” Deist-Zemar says.
“Apache Country Club was never intended to be Tiki themed,” Swann says. “It offered both ranch homes and what they called character ranches, which were in styles and shapes ranging from cowboy or Western character to Polynesian or Tiki, to English Tudor and Swiss chalet. It was a very popular home style in the late 1950s and early 60s.”
So popular that many of the original owners stayed on for decades, preserving the classic character of the neighborhood, Swann says.
“Many of the homes are just now getting second owners, and they have very original 1960s interiors like shag carpeting and built-in cabinets. It’s like a time capsule.” A time capsule that young people seem ready to rediscover.
“I’ll tell you the neighborhood is getting younger, and they are mostly fixing things up and keeping the original look,” says neighborhood resident, Brian Cox. He recently relocated to a midcentury modern home. A new empty nester along with his wife, he says, “It’s good to see people taking more pride in ownership.”
“Honestly, it was the cheapest house we could find in a nice area and a very convenient location,” says Asaka Dopp, another neighbor who recently moved into a Tiki-style home with her husband Brittan and their young child. Dopp says she quickly realized her home’s cult following when, “a couple came by and was taking pictures, and they said they loved Tiki and our house.”
Will they keep the Tiki look when they remodel? “It’s very 1960s. We want to turn the carport into a garage, but overall I think we’ll keep it. It’s cool.”
Tiki’s Third Wave
Of course cool and Tiki haven’t really been on speaking terms for a few decades, as it quickly fell out of favor among younger generations, local design professor Alison King says. King runs the respected architecture website ModernPhoenix.net.
“I suspect the reason Tiki died out was it was such a strong style—you either loved it or hated it. It was perhaps too exuberant as the 1970s progressed to a more reserved and darker time in Phoenix history, and the architecture reflected that,” King says.
Other than a brief revival in the irony-loving 1990s, Tiki has been mostly shoved to the background for the past few decades. But this rum-soaked subculture has continued to thrive underground. Today annual festivals like Tiki Oasis in San Diego and The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale draw thousands of Tiki fans from across the nation, including Pierre Mosley, who also recently attended the 8th annual Tiki Caliente in Palm Springs, California, with fellow members of Tiki AZ.
A Tiki-centric Facebook group, Tiki AZ members share pictures of their latest vintage Tiki finds, and also organize monthly gatherings to celebrate our state’s surprisingly deep Tiki heritage. That includes two of the nation’s oldest Tiki bars: the Bikini Lounge in Phoenix, which dates back to 1946, and the 53-year-old Kon Tiki Restaurant & Lounge in Tucson.
“We shoot for once a month,” Tiki AZ co-founder Richard Ridley says at the most recent Tiki meeting on a Friday evening at Hula’s Modern Tiki in Scottsdale. No matter where they gather, the group is hard to miss. The men are bedecked in colorful Hawaiian shirts while the women wear tropical sun dresses with flowers in their hair. But really there are no rules when it comes to living the Tiki lifestyle, except B.Y.O.M (bring your own mug).
It’s a carefree feeling embraced by Mosely, who now has a side business selling his Tiki carvings online. “I used to think that I was on an island by myself. People at work would tease me about wearing board shorts and reading ‘Tiki Magazine.’
“For years I thought I was out here by myself, but now I belong.”