Tiki culture in America grew from a couple of South Pacific-inspired “Bamboo Bars” into a worldwide tidal wave that crashed upon shores as distant as Madrid, Spain and Mesa, Arizona. It all started with a World War, rode the rip-curl of Hawaiian statehood, and ultimately involved a fair amount of Tiki trickery from the Valley’s original tropical vacation destination, San Diego.
According to Denver-based Tiki researcher Mike “Zulu” Skinner, Tiki culture as we know it is all thanks to a holy trinity of California-based restaurateurs that he calls The Three Kings of Tiki: Donn Beach, Vic Bergeron and Stephen Crane.
Despite being born in Texas, Donn Beach (aka Ernest Gantt) is considered the grandfather of Tiki culture, thanks to his innovative series of South Pacific-style “Bamboo Bars” called Don The Beachcomber. The bars, the first of which opened in 1933, featured nautical-inspired décor and potent tropical tipples served in silly glassware. Next came the equally self-invented Vic Bergeron, who opened the competing Trader Vic’s in 1937, and is credited with inventing the Mai Tai cocktail, as well as popularizing the use of carved wooden Tiki masks and totem poles.
Finally, it was the failed movie actor Stephen Crane who launched a series of soaring Tiki temples named the Kon Tiki, which popularized over-the-top decor such as flowing waterfalls, wall-sized stone Moai statues (think Easter Island heads) and colorful salt-water aquariums built right into the walls. In fact, the Kon Tiki in Tucson (built in 1963) was directly inspired by Crane’s restaurants, and is still considered one of the finest remaining examples of midcentury Tiki mania.
That said, Tiki didn’t really take off until the 1950s and ’60s, when WWII veterans returned home from far-flung postings across the Pacific with a newfound love for all things Polynesian. Then in 1959, Hawaii became America’s 49th state, exposing a whole new generation of tourists to Tiki staples such as tropical drinks, exotic foods, flaming Tiki torches and Hula girls in grass skirts.
However, America’s original warm-weather getaway, San Diego, wasn’t about to take this new competition lying down. According to the popular Tiki Architecture blog, “In the mid 1960s, the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau (CONVIS) viewed Hawaii as a major tourism competitor. In response, starting in 1964 CONVIS began a deliberate and well funded strategy into the early 1970s to market San Diego as a closer-to-home, budget version of this American ‘paradise.’”
Soon, a number of hotels, motels and even boat-tels for vacationing yachtsmen sprang up in and around Mission Bay and Shelter Island. More important, “Phoenix was viewed by CONVIS as a prime market for this tourism campaign (along with Denver, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco) and they spent significant advertising dollars in Phoenix.”
And wouldn’t you know it, local restaurateurs and homebuilders jumped on the phenomenon. By the mid 1960s, Tiki bars, Tiki hotels and even swooping Polynesian-style homes were washing up from Glendale to Chandler, Tucson to Tempe.