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the rise of tiki

the history of tucson's kon tiki

Tiki Pop is a cultural movement that evolved in the USA and is based on western interpretations of the Maori and Polynesian cultures. The roots of the movement were first planted in the late 18th century when navigators explored the globe. The explorers returned and told stories about the lifestyles in these strange new lands. Inspired by the tales of these explorers, authors wrote adventure stories set in the South Sea islands and on the waters of the South Pacific. Readers of these stories developed romanticized notions about the tropical locales and the concept of an idealized native lifestyle emerged in westerners’ minds. Proper, buttoned-up society found a life without responsibility and a fair share of hedonism very appealing. The fondness for these stories eventually grew to a Tiki craze by the 20th century and reached a crescendo in the 1950s and 1960s; this was due to post-WWII boom, air travel and especially when Hawaii was annexed to the United States as the the 50th state in 1959.


Following World War I and after the end of Prohibition, in 1934 a tropical bar opened that set the standard for all subsequent Polynesian style bars. Now a Tiki Bar legend, it was Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt (Donn Beach), world traveler, former bootlegger and friend to many Hollywood elite that sought to bring traditional Polynesian mystique to America. Having returned from the South Pacific, he was looking for a new business venture. Based on his love for the tropics and in order to capitalize on the current craze in America for anything tropical and exotic, he opened a Polynesian style bar and lounge in Los Angeles called Donn’s Beachcomber Café. The establishment proved a success. Customers were served new cocktails created by Beach himself. They were rum drinks mixed with fruit juices given exotic names like his famous Zombie, which is made from no less than five different rums. Beach claimed to have created the first Mai Tai and was credited with inventing many other tropical drinks as well. In 1937 Beach brought in a Cantonese cook and started serving Chinese food served with tropical flair. Beach was determined to give his customers a “real” tropical experience, with food, drink, music and decor. He even had a system installed to spray water on the tin roof of the restaurant to simulate tropical rains. Hollywood elite like Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich and David Niven began swarming to the Beachcomber. It was trendy yet classy and Beach was both accommodating and discreet when it came to his celebrity clientele. Beach’s establishment was so successful that in 1937 a competitor named Victor Bergeron opened his own Polynesian bar and lounge called Trader Vic’s. So began the famous competition between the two entrepreneurs, including Vic’s claim that he was actually the creator of the Mai Tai.


What began as a single stylish Hollywood bar and lounge, had evolved into a beloved staycation. Most American

cities in the mid-century had Tiki bars. These were upscale establishments that were decorated from top to bottom in tropical furnishings and required proper dress attire to enter, giving a true exotic getaway experience. Hawaii and Polynesia were already firmly embedded in Americans’ minds as locations for leisure and symbolized a break from a society that was built on conformity and discipline. Rather than just being confined to bars and restaurants, the Tiki culture in America manifested as a style of decor in many ways. The Tiki Pop influence became apparent in its use in the decor of bowling alleys, apartment buildings, offices, and motels. Tropical fabrics and clothing designs were even very fashionable. As a combination of Polynesian themes executed with clean, modern lines, it blended well with the atomic age design aesthetic that was so popular at the time. The Tiki craze came to its climax in the late 1960s and by the time of the Vietnam War, came crashing to an end. What was once considered stylish and trendy was now considered passé. Tiki bars began to close into the late 1970s, however, a small handful lived on.


Tucson‘s Kon Tiki’s grand opening took place in 1963! Now, many may perceive the Tiki style as mid-century

kitsch. However, many are embracing this exciting style as a staycation once again, this time with retro flair and

growing modern values. New Tiki bars are being built, not only across the USA, but in Europe as well.


Tucson's first Tiki bar was Pago-Pago, which opened in the 1940s. Along Miracle Mile it featured an atrium with live parrots, turtles and monkeys. Inside the dining room there were rope-wrapped poles and blowfish lights hanging in fishnets. There was even a 6-foot ship steering wheel attached to the hostess stand and incoming customers were each handed leis. In the 1960s, a man who recently moved to Tucson from Ohio, Dean Short, bought Pago-Pago and changed the name to Ports O' Call. Shortly after, Dean then opened another Tiki bar: Kon Tiki. Named for the

balsa-wood raft that a Norwegian crew sailed from Peru to Raroia in the Tuamotu Islands, Kon Tiki's interior resembled a luxurious hut, with deep red carpets, bamboo furniture, large fish floats, and Japanese parasols that doubled as lampshades which still hang to this day. In fact, today most of Kon Tiki’s interior is original to it’s grand opening. It is even home to the largest collection of Milan Guanko (an elite 1950s-1960s Tiki carver) totems in the world. At one point, Kon Tiki also had a parrot exhibit behind the bar (much like Pago-Pago’s atrium experience) that is now outside patio dining space. Kon Tiki is one of the few original Tiki bars still open for business, now owned by Paul Clark for over 25 years. Less then ten bars, including Kon Tiki, made it through the great fall of the Tiki craze.

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