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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Americans carrying torch for tiki culture

USA Today

The tribe has spoken.

After three decades of hibernation, tiki culture is thriving in bars and back yards across the United States as those passionate about all things Polynesian slip into aloha shirts and sip Singapore Slings from tiki mugs under the glow of tiki torches.

What started a few years ago as a troop of diehards carrying the torch for tiki entrepreneur Trader Vic has blossomed into a mass-market lu'au as retailers as varied as Urban Outfitters and Home Depot peddle Polynesian paraphernalia.

Formerly $5 mugs — perhaps the quintessential tiki prop — are being scooped up on eBay for upward of $150.

A "Blue Hawaii" mug swiped from the Elvis movie's set went for $500.

A veritable pupu platter of recent books, including "Tiki Drinks" and "The Book of Tiki," also is riding this second South Pacific wave.

This time around, though, imbibers are stirring a shot of satire with their swizzle sticks. "I'm attracted to the kitsch," says Shag, 37, nee Josh Agle.

The Orange, Calif., illustrator of "Tiki Drinks" boasts a tiki mug collection 300 strong and growing.

After the martini bar's revival, it was only a matter of time before tastes changed from olives to pineapples and another institution of '50s chic, the tiki bar, was resurrected.

For twenty- and thirtysomethings, the appeal of Polynesian pop is that its original thatched-roof incarnation is largely gone.

"No one's waxing nostalgic about Kmart or Wal-Mart," Shag quips.

Carved-idol worship took hold in the 1940s just as American GIs returned from their Pacific tours of duty and Victor "Trader Vic" Bergeron invented the Mai Tai at his first restaurant, in Oakland, Calif.

The cult of tiki reached its pinnacle in the early 1960s, around the time the toucans began squawking in Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room.

The drums died down a decade later, when Bobby Brady dangled a carved idol from his neck and things started to go bad for him, the rest of the Hawai'i-vacationing bunch — and the tiki lifestyle. (Hawai'i's David "Lippy" Espinda played a Kipula Construction Co. employee in that episode; he tells the Brady boys that the idol must be returned to the burial place of Hawai'i's first king to lift the curse from the family.)

Although down from a peak of 11, the country's remaining four Trader Vic's (a fifth is under construction in Palo Alto, Calif.) are magnets for the next generation of Scorpion slurpers.

"I ask the young ones and they say, 'This is our lounging pad,'" Trader Vic's president Hans Richter says.

Meanwhile, Disneyland reports that its spear-studded tiki room in Anaheim, Calif., has grown wildly busier in the last six months, especially among grown-ups.

And even if Richard Nixon and Trader Vic's are gone, the Politiki bar is pulling in Polynesia-philes in Washington, D.C.