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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, April 25, 2003

Tiki turnaround

By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

The King Pins will perform at La Mariana. It may be hard to believe, but these guys constitute one of the most endangered species in the Islands: a full-on, working surf band.

Tiki Lounge Five-0

With guest stars Martin Denny

(10-11 p.m.) and the King Pins

10 p.m. Saturday La Mariana Sailing Club

$5 for 21 and older; $8 younger than 21

848-2800, online at tikilounge.has.it

"Would you like me to turn on the waterfall?" asked Annette Nahinu, as I scribbled some final notes on the decor of her beloved La Mariana Sailing Club and downed the remnants of a pitcher of iced tea. I'd love that, I replied.

As a switch was flipped to start the cascade, a jet, just aloft from a Honolulu International Airport runway on the 'ewa side of Ke'ehi Lagoon, swung over La Mariana's dining room skylight like a giant, perturbed pterodactyl. The skylight rattled, the trees creaked, and La Mariana's tranquility disappeared temporarily for another 10-second burst of jet-fueled noise.

Nahinu stopped her story of the club's 49-year history, smiled and awaited the end of the cacophony.

Slowly, the Sunday Manoa returned to the sound system, a resident parrot resumed his squawking, barfly conversation kicked back into high gear, and moored boats knocked against the docks. There was now the soothing sound of falling water; and Nahinu, of course, finishing her story.

"Other restaurants went out of business over the years, and I bought what they didn't want," said Nahinu, as I once again took in La Mariana's kitschy eyeful of tikis, rattan and teak furnishings, multi-colored glass float lighting, bamboo- and wood-paneled walls, large aquariums of fantail goldfish, and countless other tchotchkes of Polynesian pop culture's long-gone heyday.

"I've been building this for a long time," said Nahinu. "And now we have what we have. But it's not finished."

Tiki counter-culture

La Mariana was exactly the kind of place Kristien Amer had in mind when she first conjured up plans for Tiki Lounge Five-0.

Weary from a decade of promoting punk shows, Amer decided to pull together a couple of things close to her retro-loving heart — tiki-lounge culture and older, historic venues — into a single cocktails-and-conversation-driven party.

"I've always liked that whole Don Ho-style from the '60s — the whole scene and the lounges," Amer said earlier in the afternoon at La Mariana. "I used to hang out here and at the Tahitian Lanai all the time and drink cocktails. We used to get fully dressed up in vintage cocktail gowns, my friends would wear suits, and we would go in — and just sit and drink at the piano and sing with people.

"I was very, very sad when the Tahitian Lanai was torn down."

Situated on a sliver of land between the Hilton Hawaiian Village and the Ilikai Hotel, the Tahitian Lanai, like La Mariana, was a throwback to a post-World War II era when tiki-lounge culture was all the rage. With soldiers returning home from battle with stories and memories of the South Pacific, and author James Michener's romanticized fiction of Polynesian life topping the best-seller lists, tiki culture was in full swing nationwide by the time Hawai'i became a state in 1959.

Lu'au parties were held in back yards all over the Midwest, and ornately designed tiki lounges complete with waterfalls, waterways and bridges were built in cities coast to coast. Chockablock with everything from bird calls and pulsating bongos to conch shells and piano, exotica music became the movement's soundtrack, making stars of Hawai'i musicians Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman.

America's military involvement in Vietnam effectively ended the country's fascination with all things tiki, rendering the many lounges erected in its honor instant relics. Most, like the Tahitian Lanai, endured slow and painful descents toward ultimate oblivion. Survivors, like La Mariana, continue to cling to life via the creative smarts of owners who want to preserve the culture's last vestiges.

Envisioning a weekly party that would capture the best elements of tiki culture, Amer made a wish list of venues she felt would be ideal for Tiki Lounge and approached owners. La Mariana, with its ready-made faux-Polynesian interiors and artifacts, was Amer's first choice for the event. But unable to secure a deal with the venue's owners in time, she went with Anna Bannanas for Tiki Lounge's first, and so far only, outing last month.

To get the look right, Amer turned Honolulu businesses upside down in search of new and vintage decor worthy of being called tiki. She engaged friends like belly/hula dancer Willow Chang and co-promoter Erin Furuichi to play, respectively, "The Huli-Huli Hula Girl" and "DJ Mary Ann"; Amer herself is "DJ Jackass Ginger." When KPOI-FM DJ Fil Slash offered Amer the pick of his giant collection of tiki-lounge memorabilia for the event, she invited him into the cast as DJ Professor.#034;The hardest thing, actually, was finding a band that could do surf music, if you can believe that," Amer said of her search for a local band that could mimic Dick Dale with the best of 'em.

For that, she settled on the local cover band The King Pins who, among other things, had something of an affinity for the stuff and no problem with dressing up for the occasion. Furuichi already had a sizable collection of CD and vinyl exotica from the likes of Denny, Lyman, Les Baxter and Combustible Edison to chill the crowd between sets.

Finally, Amer asked Mr. "Tiny Bubbles" himself, Don Ho, to attend with a sincere letter "about what I wanted and why I wanted him there, (which was) almost as a blessing to what I was trying to create." Ho agreed to an appearance and autograph session, gratis.

Becoming a movable feast

Though Tiki Lounge's inaugural March 27 outing failed to break even — Amer blames a large guest-and media-invitee list for the shortfall — the event drew diverse patronage ranging from retro-minded twentysomethings to nostalgia-driven folks closer to Ho's age.

"It was 2 a.m., and we couldn't get people out because they were still talking about how much fun they had and asking when the next one was going to be," said Amer.

Still, a decision was made to tweak Tiki Lounge a bit for its second outing. Suddenly in were plans to hold the event monthly instead of weekly. Suddenly out was Anna Bannanas as Tiki Lounge's home base.

"Things just didn't work out with that venue, unfortunately," said Amer. "We are now focusing on ... moving the show around to various venues with historical value. We like the idea of supporting venues that are authentic from the time period of Hawai'i that we are promoting."

(Anna Bannanas' management was unavailable for comment.)

Besides keeping Tiki Lounge fresh each time out, Amer said, her aim is also to remind people that these unique venues still exist and can still be vital.

"I want to support places like Fisherman's Wharf, which I know is hurting," said Amer. "The Pagoda Hotel is another favorite place of mine. And we're thinking of the Elks Lodge in Waikiki. There are a lot of places that could use this. And that's the gratification we get: We're helping them, and they're helping us. We want the crowd to feel like they're back in time, so why not use these original venues?"

The man behind the music

"I'm going to sound like such a nut case, but there really is a sense of magic here," said Willow Chang, casting a wistful gaze around La Mariana. "When you go into a place like this, you know it has soul. It has a certain kind of feeling. There's nostalgia there that's already built in with it. And these are the kinds of places that when they're gone, you really miss them."

I asked Amer, Chang and Furuichi about what they had in the works to make Tiki Lounge's La Mariana outing exceptional.

"Martin Denny!" gushed all three, collectively, like love-struck teenagers.

Amer originally had contacted Denny's daughter Christina to gauge whether the 92-year-old musician would be willing to simply make an appearance at Tiki Lounge Five-0. Instead, Denny signaled an interest in performing a couple of songs live — something he does rarely these days — if he felt up to it.

"He's the high priest of exotica," said Amer. "And ... what other guest star could we ask to be at La Mariana? The two just go hand in hand."

In addition to Denny, Amer promised the same cast of characters from Tiki Lounge's last outing — yup, The King Pins and the willowy Chang will be back — and a few new surprises.

In the eye of the beholder

"I want to create something beautiful," said Nahinu of her plans for finishing La Mariana, after Amer and her Tiki Lounge crew had departed. "It wasn't money I wanted in the beginning. It was beauty. And I figured if I created something that was very, very beautiful, money would come. My philosophy is to create something beautiful, to make it inexpensive and available for all people to enjoy it."

Nahinu cocked an eye at me, and asked what I thought of her work so far.

Beautiful, Ms. Nahinu, I replied. Just beautiful.

Exotica on CD

Essential Martin Denny
• "The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny" (Capitol, 1996).
• "The Enchanted Sea" (Scamp, 1997 rerelease).
• "Exotica 1 & 2" (Scamp, 1996 re-release).
• "Forbidden Island/Primitiva" (Scamp, 1996 re-release).
• "Hypnotique/Exotica Vol. 3" (Scamp, 1997 rerelease).

Essential non-Denny exotica
• "The Exotic Moods of Les Baxter" — Les Baxter (Capitol, 1996).
• "Taboo: The Exotic Sounds of Arthur Lyman" — Arthur Lyman (Rykodisc, 1958).
• "Yellow Bird" — Arthur Lyman (Rykodisc, 1961).
• "Music for a Bachelor's Den, Vol. 4: Easy Rhythms for Your Cocktail Hour" — various artists (DCC Compact Classics, 1995 re-release).
• "Ultra-Lounge, Vol. 1: Mondo Exotica" — various artists (Capitol, 1996).

Essential nouveau-tiki
• "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" — Esquivel (Bar None, 1994).
• "Four Rooms — Original Motion Picture Soundtrack" — various artists (Elektra/Asylum, 1995).
• "I Swinger" — Combustible Edison (Sub Pop, 1994).
• "The Forbidden Sounds of Don Tiki" — Don Tiki (Taboo, 1997).

Essential surf-guitar
• "King of the Surf Guitar" — Dick Dale & The Del-Tones (Rhino, 1989).
• "Walk — Don't Run: The Best Of The Ventures" (Capitol, 1990).
• "Cowabunga! The Surf Box" — various artists (Rhino, 1996).