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Tiki Central Forums » » General Tiki » » Otto/tiki/Conga lounge articles in SF Chron 10/1 East Bay edition
Otto/tiki/Conga lounge articles in SF Chron 10/1 East Bay edition
Grand Member (first year)  

Joined: Feb 18, 2003
Posts: 893
From: Bay Area
Posted: 2004-10-01 12:57 pm   Permalink

Here are the links (there were 2 separate articles):


Reproduced below (sans pics or headers):

"Let's get one thing straight first," Otto von Stroheim says, lunging across the table. "Tiki is not tacky. Tiki is not campy. Tiki is not kitsch." He pauses for a second, reflexively reaching for his brightly hued drink. Von Stroheim has to raise his voice to be heard over the loud laughter coming from behind the bamboo-lined bar as the bartender chats up two customers. Ukulele music, piped in from unseen speakers, adds to the din.

"The age of irony is over. Every article I've read from, say, 1995 to 2000, started off with some comment about tiki equaling tacky. Let me tell you, no one involved in the world of tiki thinks that. No tiki fan ever thought that. But the general public said, 'Oh, ha ha, you guys are having a luau, that's so funny.' "

Von Stroheim shakes his head, disgusted.

"Tiki has all the elements of an indigenous American art movement, like jazz."

Von Stroheim, 40, an Oakland resident, is one of the most visible people in the world of tiki scholars, second, perhaps, to only Sven Kirsten (author of the seminal "Book of Tiki") in terms of published works on the subject. In addition to publishing the semi-defunct "Tiki News" newsletter, von Stroheim has organized tiki events such as the Exoticon convention in Los Angeles and Tiki Oasis in Palm Springs, now in its fifth year, which draw people from all over the world in a celebration of tiki. He has curated tiki art shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco. A source no less renowned than Cocktails.com has crowned him "the tiki guru of today."

But even with those credentials, can von Stroheim make the case that tiki is in the same league as jazz? And what about this statement from von Stroheim: Tiki hasn't really had a comeback, because it never really went away.

Certainly, the Bay Area has carried a torch for tiki even when most of America's appetite for the oversize tropical drinks and escapist island fantasy hovered near extinction.

These days, tiki business is booming in the Bay Area. In San Francisco, Trader Vic's is opening an outpost later this month in the former location of the famous Stars restaurant near Civic Center. The new restaurant is going to feature a 60-year-old, 75-foot boat from Bali, and some "very beautiful" tiki carvings in the center of the restaurant, promises Hans Richter, the chief executive officer of Trader Vic's, which also has restaurants in Emeryville and Palo Alto.

Oakland, bereft of tiki bars for the past decade, now has Conga Lounge, located directly above Cafe Rustica in Rockridge. The owners, Michael and Mano Thanos, are self-described "retrophiles" who aimed to recreate the atmosphere of the tiki bars of yore. From the vintage record sleeves hanging on the walls to the warmly lit bamboo-covered bar, the space has an undeniably fun feel. Details matter here, with bar stools that resemble island drums, or artfully arranged tropical plant life around the room. Tiki culture is thriving outside bars as well. At the Shooting Gallery in San Francisco's Tenderloin district is "Tiki Art Now!" curated by (of course) von Stroheim, who found pieces by both local and nationally known artists to represent the "unrecognized folk art nature" of tiki-infused works.

On a typical chilly Friday several weeks ago, the opening drew a crush of people dressed in Hawaiian shirts, vintage dresses and a wide assortment of head wear. So many people showed up that the line to get in stretched the length of the block. There was even a celebrity sighting: von Stroheim reports that James Hetfield of Metallica drove his custom car around the Tenderloin for more than an hour before he could find a parking spot, purchasing at least one painting before dashing out. Tiki art shows have sprung up in a number of cities, including a recent one in the unlikely venue of Pontiac, Mich.

Outside the Bay Area, in the murky waters of American pop culture, there is renewed interest in tropical themes. The fall television lineup includes "The Real Gilligan's Island," as well as the fluffy new cop drama "Hawaii." VH- 1 made its summer theme "The Big Kahuna," illustrated with a tiki idol. San Francisco-based Chronicle Books, which is not affiliated with The Chronicle newspaper, has wheeled out a "Hula Honeys'' series of vintage postcards, coasters, address books, photo albums, stationery and a journal. Just to make it official, Target has validated the trend with a line of tiki-themed items for dorm living as well as tiki string lights, tiki mugs and serving trays for at-home entertaining.

The Bay Area, as usual, seems to be at the forefront of a national trend. "I'm proud to be carrying the tiki torch forward into the 21st century," Conga Lounge owner Michael Thanos says, gesturing to the large wooden carving that greets patrons entering the lounge. His slight smile indicates that he knows he sounds silly, but he means every word.

The Thanos brothers went to great lengths to explain how their establishment sought to be more authentically tiki than other spots. They show old Elvis flicks on the TV mounted above the bar, display album sleeves with tropical girls, and play Martin Denny records on the sound system.

"We have a lot of people come in here and say, 'Oh, this reminds me of Zombie Village or the old Trader Vic's.' We had a woman celebrate her 40th birthday here, and she came in with a picture of her pregnant mother with her father at Zombie Village. We want to evoke the feel of tiki, like on a stage or movie set," Michael Thanos said. When asked how they got all the props to decorate, Thanos replied, "Oh, you'd be surprised how easy it was. I had a lot of retro things already, and then we just went to yard sales and antique stores. It was really quite easy."

Perhaps it is easy to find tiki because, as von Stroheim explained, the artifacts don't belong in one moment in time or any actual spot on the globe. It is a mainland movement; a tiki bar in Hawaii, say, would be, by definition, inauthentic. Allan Isaacs, an American Studies professor at Wesleyan University, dubs tiki, "a double meta movement. It re-contextualizes a de- contextualized construct. I mean, what does authenticity in design mean? We are doing what America has always done -- tried to import raw material, and that is what island life is to us -- raw material. That's why we wanted unconstructed authenticity, although we don't really understand how we ourselves are constructing it."

In laymen's terms, the ultimate goal of this escapist fantasy is an authentic oasis from our troubles. It's not a real trip to the islands; we want to go on an imaginary trip to an imaginary island, to a bar decorated with bamboo and wooden mask carvings.

Von Stroheim and others brought up the war in Iraq as an obvious source of cultural anxiety that was contributing to the interest in tiki escapism. Paul Vietzke, a former record store clerk turned tiki bartender at the Conga Lounge, sees it as "like during the Cold War, when everyone wanted an excuse to forget what was going on."

Richter noted a definite uptick in worldwide business for Trader Vic's following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "People wanted to go out and just have fun. And what's more fun than tiki?"

Von Stroheim concurred, although he made distinctions in the motivations behind the escapist tendencies. "After WWII, it was a good time financially, a good time for leisure. It was an extreme escapist vision, when you could go to a bar in your gray flannel and be in the islands. I don't think the appeal now is the same sort of appeal. I see this more as an apolitical thing, a sort of base human desire to be marooned on an island and toss politics and class out the window. When everything feels out of control and frustrating, people just want to have a good time.

"You know the Bay Area has always taken tiki more seriously than other places. It's deep-rooted and well respected. With places like Trader Vic's, and the support of people like Herb Caen, tiki has always been part of the community."

Leave it to the Bay Area to take tiki seriously.

Tiki time
Searching for a Scorpion Bowl? Missing a Mai Tai? Here are some tiki destinations.

In the East Bay:

-- Conga Lounge, 5422 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 463-2681

-- Trader Vic's, 9 Anchor Drive, Emeryville, (510) 653-3400

In San Francisco:

-- Tonga Room (in the Fairmont Hotel), 950 Mason St., (415) 772-5278

-- Bamboo Hut, 479 Broadway St., (415) 989-8555

-- Hawaii West, 729 Vallejo St., (415) 362-3220

-- Lingba Lounge, 1469 18th St., (415) 355-0001

-- Trad'r Sam, 6150 Geary Blvd., (415) 221-0773

-- "Tiki Art Now!" is at the Shooting Gallery, 839 Larkin St. until Oct. 9. Gallery hours are noon-7 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. For the exhibition's closing night party on Oct. 8, international ukulele star King Kukulele will perform from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Tiki expert and exhibition curator Otto von Stroheim will lead an educational walk through the gallery from 1 to 2 p.m. Saturday. For information, call (415) 931-8035.


Tiki, which began during the Depression under the undeniable lure of cheap rum, became a national phenomenon after World War II. The returning soldiers brought back tales and artifacts from the South Pacific, which informed James Michener's adventure novels, and the play and movie "South Pacific."

Even though the first tiki bar (Beachcomber Don's) opened in Los Angeles in 1934, it was in Oakland in 1944 that the first Mai Tai was poured, according to Cocktails.com and the Trader Vic's restaurant group. Victor Bergeron owned the bar Hinky Dinks on San Pablo Avenue, which he fashioned as a kind of Western saloon. Vic himself mixed the Mai Tai, with a 17-year-old bottle of Jamaican rum as the basis for the refreshing cocktail. The name came from a woman from Tahiti, who took one sip and proclaimed, "Mai Tai, Roa Ae," which roughly translates to "Out of this world, the best." Voilą!, the Mai Tai.

Hinky Dinks became Trader Vic's in 1936, and Oakland was known as "a hotbed of tiki action," according to Michael Thanos, owner of Oakland's Conga Lounge.

Zombie Village, the main competitor of Trader Vic's, was just across the street. In the golden years, the late '40s through the '50s, Trader Vic's, Zombie Village and the Reef anchored the East Bay tiki scene, and the Tonga Room in the Fairmont Hotel became the star of San Francisco.

Christened the S.S. Tonga in 1945, the bar and restaurant didn't give itself over to the tropics until the late '50s, when the renamed Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar featured indoor rainstorms and a band playing on a raft. In 1967, Oceanic Arts, the world's premier supplier of tiki decor, was commissioned to make the place more explicitly tiki, with wooden carvings and tiki mugs. Other San Francisco tiki establishments, such as Skipper Kent's and Tiki Bob's, once flourished next to the San Francisco outpost of Trader Vic's and have since closed. The Tonga Room has stayed open continuously, a rarity in the tiki world.

Tiki restaurants and bars became so successful, it became a franchise. At its peak, Trader Vic's had 25 outposts, from Emeryville to Hamburg, Germany. Disney opened the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland in 1963, a bar and restaurant filled with singing birds, robotic animals and talking tiki totems. It was hugely popular, allowing Disney to install an even more spectacular tiki restaurant in Orlando's Disney World, adjacent to the world's largest tiki hotel, the Polynesian Resort.

America's adoration of the mainland take on island life manifested itself across many mediums. Tiki culture has musicians (Martin Denny, Elvis' Blue Hawaii recordings, Don Ho), artists (Shag), cuisine (well, mostly drinks such as "Suffering Bastard" and "Tonga Itch") and many collectibles (mugs, totem poles, record covers, menus).

During its peak in the '60s, home tiki bars and luau parties were popular across the country. One didn't need to live in California to see a tiki palace; one of the largest and most famous was Kahiki Supper Club in Columbus, Ohio.

Then Vietnam came, and the vision of South Pacific paradise was shot to hell. Tiki lost its charm as the freewheeling spirit of the '60s darkened into the scandal-packed '70s, and became just an embarrassing relic of kitsch as identity-based politics rose in the '80s. "It targeted a culture too specifically. In other words, you wouldn't have an American Indian bar or an American Indian restaurant and have people dressed up like Indians who weren't Indian," said tiki scholar Otto von Stroheim in an NPR interview.

As Professor Allan Isaacs of Wesleyan University said, mulling over the concept of tiki, "Really, I'm recalling the TV show 'Hawaii 5-0,' which most clearly showed how, in that (cultural) moment, the Pacific had two faces -- paradise and trauma of Vietnam escape."

Certainly, one of the most objectionable and enticing aspects of tiki culture has to do with eroticization of island women. The word "tiki" itself is sexual: it means the phallus of the god Tane, who created women in Polynesian mythology. Like Hawaiian hula girls, the shirtless women of the velvet paintings that became a staple of tiki bar decor were silent, available and always smiling. Tiki, as Isaacs said, "embodies the libidinal investment of economic and sexual come-on of Hawaii."Von Stroheim acknowledges those aspects of tiki, but contends that to focus on the politics of tiki "misses the point." Moreover, von Stroheim says, "This isn't a retro trend, like lunch boxes or comic books. Tiki has so many forms. It ran as a cuisine, an artistic style. It was popular from the '40s to the '70s. You can't tie tiki down to a particular decade. It's not tied to one generation, either - it's tied to three to five generations."

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Official Man-About-Town  

Joined: Mar 26, 2002
Posts: 323
From: Sunnycupertoga, CA
Posted: 2004-10-01 5:23 pm   Permalink

Yep, I saw that... it didn't mention a particular online community, but I think we're strong enough without it.

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Molokai Mike
Tiki Socialite

Joined: Jun 26, 2003
Posts: 511
From: the birthplace of the Mai Tai
Posted: 2004-10-01 5:41 pm   Permalink


On 2004-10-01 17:23, mig wrote:
. it didn't mention a particular online community

Just for the record, I spoke a great deal about TikiCentral during the interview...you know how reporters pick and choose what they print.

A big Mahalo to Otto, for choosing to conduct his interview at the Conga and for all the support he's given us. Cheers Pallie!

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