Tiki revival: Mai Tais and marimbas

Four locals talk the rise, fall and revival of tiki culture.

click to enlarge Tiki revival: Mai Tais and marimbas - TODD BATES
Todd Bates
Tiki revival: Mai Tais and marimbas

On a breezy Sunday afternoon, the view from the courtyard at the Sands Motel on Treasure Island opens onto a beachscape of dunes and sea grass. A bellhop cart carrying a 6-foot-tall hand-carved Sabal Palm Tiki god is parked near the motel’s built-in ping-pong table. Rum cocktails pour from a blender into neon-colored stemware with tiki faces. The bird-squawks-and-vibraphone sounds of a Les Baxter exotica album trickle through. Four local devotees have gathered to talk about one thing: tiki culture.

There’s Laura Taylor, a punk rocker turned exotica goddess who doubles as WMNF Community Radio’s development director and “Lounge Laura,” host of 88.5’s Surface Noise (Wednesdays 7-9 p.m.).

Her husband, Drew Farmer, a descendant of the Farmer Cement family (you’ve seen the name on St. Pete sidewalks), is the pianist, composer and arranger for the Latin and exotica band Stolen Idols.

Jeff Chouinard, a fulltime Tampa-based tiki carver and owner of Surf Soul Tiki, was responsible for the two towering Hawaiian gods gracing this newspaper’s cover. Chouinard's tikis were on display at ARTpool Gallery & Vintage Boutique (2030 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-324-3878) for Marina Williams and her crew's very swanky annual luau party the night before, where tiki was alive and jumping (into nearby inflatable swimming pools).

And the man charged with making delicious frozen rum cocktails in a sparse hotel room kitchen is Dean Hurst, director of spirits at Sidebern’s and president of the Left Coast Bartenders Guild.

All four are playing a part in the third annual Sunset Tiki Party slated for Sun., June 2, in St. Pete Beach at the Post Card Inn. The party benefits both WMNF and Julie Weintraub’s Hands Across the Bay. It serves as a local prelude to one of the country’s biggest tiki parties, Hukilau, taking place the following weekend at the venerable Mai-Kai Tiki bar in Fort Lauderdale.

“Tiki culture is about three things,” Jeff Chouinard says. “Tikis, booze and music.”

“Yes, but it’s about the right tikis, the right booze, and the right music,” Drew Farmer adds.

The right booze for tiki has always been rum. Tiki drink recipes can be traced back as far as Prohibition, when rumrunners from the islands brought a surplus of the cheap liquor to the States.

Then, when soldiers returned home from combat and America was ready for a post-war vacation, tiki took off.

“They kept the rum fresh for the WWII boys coming back from the Islands,” Dean Hurst says. “It was the aloha lifestyle with backyard barbecues, tikis, and cocktails.”

“All these G.I.’s coming back from World War II wanted to block out the reality of combat and remember the beauty of the South Pacific,” says Chouinard, whose grandfather was a Pearl Harbor survivor and WWII vet.

Post-war air travel was more prevalent and suddenly paradise was closer. And Hawaii became a state in 1959, right as tiki was exploding.

“Where it used to take three weeks to get to Hawaii, now you could get there in a day,” Hurst said.

The carved wooden figures that are so much a part of tiki originated, of course, as religious icons. Prevalent in New Zealand and the Polynesian Islands, tikis are large wood or stone carvings of people-like forms placed to signify sacred ground. In the Maori mythology, “Tiki” is believed to be the first man.

Chouinard, who spent 25 years surfing Florida’s East Coast, began carving tikis four years ago.

“I have an overdeveloped fetish for Hawaiian, tropical, and Polynesian culture,” Chouinard says. “I wanted a tiki but they were expensive, so I made one myself.”

The two tikis he has with him today represent Ku (god of war) and Kanaloa (god of the ocean). But it’s safe to say that the restaurateurs who first used tikis as decor wanted them to signify one thing: rum is near.

Inspired by trips to the South Pacific, veteran and former bootlegger Donn Beach (real name Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt) opened the tiki bar Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood in 1934. He made complicated drinks featuring fresh fruit juices and the cheapest spirit available, rum. Soon a competitor called Trader Vic’s opened in Oakland, eventually opening 25 locations across the country.

People sipped on Mai Tais, the Painkiller, the Zombie, and Blood and Sand (a Scotch tiki drink). Hurst says Mai Tais sometimes cost upward of $1.25 each, a pretty penny in those days.

Drinks were made behind closed doors and recipes kept secret (until now).

“With Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber, you wouldn’t see your drinks being made,” Hurst explains. “You’d have a cute girl taking your order and the drinks would just appear from the kitchen.”

That tradition remains in effect whenever someone orders a mystery bowl at the Mai-Kai, one of the last remaining tiki bars in the country. Filled with rum and fresh juice, the mystery bowls at the Mai-Kai are concocted in the kitchen and delivered “by the hottest girl in the house,” according to Chouinard.

Tiki had its own music, too. Lo-fi 78s with three-minute sides were out; high-fi LPs with 20-minute sides were in. Exotica became tiki’s soundtrack under Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny.

“It was absolute chill-out music for busy harried professionals,” Drew Farmer says.

He says harmonies were lush, featuring Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms and novel instruments.

“These were sounds people weren’t accustomed to hearing,” Farmer says, “like vibraphones, bass flute, and marimbas.”

Many of the musicians producing island easy listening hadn’t been to these faraway places themselves.

“The people making exotica were creating an armchair travelogue of the world,” says Laura Taylor.

The Mai-Kai opened in 1956 at the height of tiki fever. When these tiki aficionados talk about taking a trip to the Lauderdale institution, it sounds like they’re planning a pilgrimage to Mecca, not a South Florida tiki bar.

“They have fire dancing … under a real thatched roof,” says Hurst.

“You have to go there at least once,” pleads Taylor.

“Mystery bowls,” Chouinard reminds us.

“And take a cab,” adds Farmer.

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