Tiki culture was largely a product of post-World War II leisure society, when soldiers who served in the Pacific returned home to build and benefit from an unparalleled economic boom. With more money and more time off than their parents could have dreamed of, reminiscing of faraway beaches and palm trees, Americans took to the road during ever lengthening vacation days while building oases for themselves at home during the off-season. Advances in transportation could bring them virtually anywhere, whether by America's developing system of highways (and old favourite byways like Route 66) or the flyways of the new Jet Age. With Cuba off-limits, an exotic, tropical destination was placed right on Americans' doorstep when Hawaii joined the Union in 1959. The fad for anything and everything evoking Polynesia, Oceania, even Africa and the Caribbean, exploded like an atom bomb, from Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room to Martin Denny's smooth Jazz to the ubiquitous at-home Tiki bar.
Americans had already been primed by Polynesian exotica for several decades before WWII. The roots of Tiki culture are found deep in the DNA of America's relationship with the Pacific, in the very first "exotic" bars that would become Tiki pioneers, in lavish Hollywood musicals, and in radio programs broadcast from the ballrooms of Hawaii's most glamorous hotels. Even Mickey Mouse took a Hawaiian Holiday in 1937, in Disney's first film distributed by RKO.
The song Goofy sings in Hawaiian Holiday is titled On the Beach at Waikiki and was written by G.H. Stover and Harry Kailmai in 1915. Hawaii had only been a territory of the United States for 17 years by that point, after the controversial overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii by a group of American business interests calling themselves the "Committee of Safety." The Hawaiian islands were themselves first colonized by courageous mariners from the Marquesas sometime around 300 CE and were either conquered by or retained active communication with Tahiti up to 1300 CE. Cultural exchange between Hawaii and the rest of Polynesia seems to have dropped off thereafter, and Hawaii settled into its own system of island chiefdoms with a distinct culture. Hawaiians developed elaborate systems of aquaculture with their hewn fishponds and irrigation canals for taro and sweet potato, breadfruit and banana. The pigs and chickens they brought with them devastated the species blown to the islands when they first started to emerge from the ocean floor about four million years ago (the Big Island is the youngest, emerging 300,000 years ago and still growing). Nevertheless, Hawaiians eked out a successful living on these edenic isles, growing to a population between 200,000 and one million people by the time of Captain Cook's arrival.
Cook's exploratory journey to Hawaii in 1776 was the island's first contact with Europeans. The British explorer first made a name for himself by participating in the English conquest of Canada against the French. After mapping Canada's rugged Atlantic coastline, the Royal Society commissioned Cook to travel to the Pacific to chart the Transit of Venus. Commanding the HMS Endeavour, Cook arrived in Tahiti in 1769, after which he went on to discover Australia and strand his ship for seven weeks on the Great Barrier Reef. The Royal Society was convinced that an even larger continent must exist even further to the south than Australia, and so they sent Cook out once again in 1772 to look for it. He came within spitting distance of Antarctica, but blamelessly opted to island hop through Polynesia instead. It was on his third voyage, aboard the HMS Resolution, that he discovered the "Sandwich Islands." He first arrived at the northern island of Kauai in 1776, then departed to map the Pacific Coast of Canada and Alaska. He returned to Hawaii in 1779, circumnavigating the islands and landing at Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii Island. A series of strange coincidences led to Cook possibly being mistaken for the Hawaiian deity Lono, a god of agricultural fertility. That goodwill was squandered with an overstayed welcome, culminating when several Hawaiians stole one of Cook's rowboats and Cook retaliated by trying to take King Kalani'ōpu'u hostage. Intercepted by villagers, Cook took a blow to the back of his head and his limp body was descended upon with knives. Because he was still held in some esteem by the Hawaiians, his corpse was defleshed in the manner extended to the honoured dead... leading to the old rhyme that Captain Cook was cooked.
|1784 engraving of Captain Cook's last moments.|
Hawaii was now open to the arrival of predominately American colonists, plantation owners, and whalers, bearing Euro-American goods, culture, and diseases. Taking advantage of social unrest, a precipitous drop-off in population, and the acquisition of Western weapons, King Kamehameha conquered the Hawaiian islands under a single monarch in 1810. With a unified Kingdom of Hawaii and a growing population of Westerners, tourism began in earnest. Published in 1872, Mark Twain's travelogue Roughing It shaped America's image of the islands for 30-odd years:
In place of roughs and rowdies staring and blackguarding on the corners, I saw long-haired, saddle-colored Sandwich Island maidens sitting on the ground in the shade of corner houses, gazing indolently at whatever or whoever happened along; instead of wretched cobble-stone pavements, I walked on a firm foundation of coral, built up from the bottom of the sea by the absurd but persevering insect of that name, with a light layer of lava and cinders overlying the coral, belched up out of fathomless perdition long ago through the seared and blackened crater that stands dead and harmless in the distance now; instead of cramped and crowded street-cars, I met dusky native women sweeping by, free as the wind, on fleet horses and astride, with gaudy riding-sashes, streaming like banners behind them; instead of the combined stenches of Chinadom and Brannan street slaughter-houses, I breathed the balmy fragrance of jessamine, oleander, and the Pride of India; in place of the hurry and bustle and noisy confusion of San Francisco, I moved in the midst of a Summer calm as tranquil as dawn in the Garden of Eden; in place of the Golden City's skirting sand hills and the placid bay, I saw on the one side a frame-work of tall, precipitous mountains close at hand, clad in refreshing green, and cleft by deep, cool, chasm-like valleys—and in front the grand sweep of the ocean; a brilliant, transparent green near the shore, bound and bordered by a long white line of foamy spray dashing against the reef, and further out the dead blue water of the deep sea, flecked with "white caps," and in the far horizon a single, lonely sail—a mere accent-mark to emphasize a slumberous calm and a solitude that were without sound or limit. When the sun sunk down—the one intruder from other realms and persistent in suggestions of them—it was tranced luxury to sit in the perfumed air and forget that there was any world but these enchanted islands.
Twain, being Twain, had the presence of mind to add that "It was such ecstacy to dream, and dream—till you got a bite." He also discussed the native phenomenon of surfing: "I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself.—The board struck the shore in three quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me. None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly."
|Surf-Bathing - Success.|
|Surf-Bathing - Failure.|
Illustrations from Mark Twain's Roughing It.
Global traveller Isabella Bird visited Hawaii for seven months in 1872 and recounted her experiences in the 1875 book The Hawaiian Archipelago, at the insistence of her companions. "At the close of my visit, my Hawaiian friends urged me strongly to publish my impressions and experiences, on the ground that the best books already existing, besides being old, treat chiefly of aboriginal customs and habits now extinct, and of the introduction of Christianity and subsequent historical events. They also represented that I had seen the islands more thoroughly than any foreign visitor... and that I had so completely lived the island life, and acquainted myself with the existing state of the country, as to be rather a kamaina than a stranger..." Of her first impressions she wrote:
Yesterday morning at 6.30 I was aroused by the news that “The Islands” were in sight. Oahu in the distance, a group of grey, barren peaks rising verdureless out of the lonely sea, was not an exception to the rule that the first sight of land is a disappointment. Owing to the clear atmosphere, we seemed only five miles off, but in reality we were twenty, and the land improved as we neared it. It was the fiercest day we had had, the deck was almost too hot to stand upon, the sea and sky were both magnificently blue, and the unveiled sun turned every minute ripple into a diamond flash. As we approached, the island changed its character. There were lofty peaks, truly--grey and red, sun-scorched and wind-bleached, glowing here and there with traces of their fiery origin; but they were cleft by deep chasms and ravines of cool shadow and entrancing green, and falling water streaked their sides--a most welcome vision after eleven months of the desert sea and the dusty browns of Australia and New Zealand. Nearer yet, and the coast line came into sight, fringed by the feathery cocoanut tree of the tropics, and marked by a long line of surf. The grand promontory of Diamond Head, its fiery sides now softened by a haze of green, terminated the wavy line of palms; then the Punchbowl, a very perfect extinct crater, brilliant with every shade of red volcanic ash, blazed against the green skirts of the mountains. We were close to the coral reef before the cry, "There’s Honolulu!" made us aware of the proximity of the capital of the island kingdom, and then, indeed, its existence had almost to be taken upon trust, for besides the lovely wooden and grass huts, with deep verandahs, which nestled under palms and bananas on soft green sward, margined by the bright sea sand, only two church spires and a few grey roofs appeared above the trees.
Even greater changes were in store for Hawaii than the arrival of Cook or the conquests of Kamehameha. The House of Kamehameha fell in 1872 with the death of King Kamehameha V, who had no heir. Governance passed to King Kalākaua amidst riots and the landing of American and British troops. The Bayonet Constitution signed at gunpoint in 1887 stripped the monarchy of much of its power at the direction of politically powerful and collusive American plantation owners (as well as stripping most native Hawaiians of the vote). When King Kalākaua passed away in 1891, his figurehead crown passed to his sister, Queen Lili'uokalani. She announced plans to draft a new constitution in 1893 that would increase the power of the Crown, which incensed the so-called "Committee of Safety" composed of those American interests. When their plot to overthrow the monarchy was uncovered, martial law was declared. Under the pretence that the lives and property of Americans were being threatened, US Marines were landed in Honolulu. Though never having fired a shot, and ordered to only act defensively, the presence of US troops made it impossible for Queen Lili'uokalani's supporters to defend themselves. She surrendered to the Committee of Safety's coup d'état, which promptly flew an American flag over the capital in a petition for annexation to the United States.
|Queen Lili'uokalani, last monarch of Hawaii.|
|Iolani Palace, home of Hawaiian royalty, circa 1890.|
Nevertheless, 1893 was not 1836 and Honolulu was not the Alamo. President Grover Cleveland immediately condemned the coup, saying "Substantial wrong has thus been done which a due regard for our national character as well as the rights of the injured people requires we should endeavor to repair the monarchy." Though Cleveland felt strongly that reparations should be made and the monarchy of a sovereign nation restored, his efforts were frustrated by pro-annexation Senators. Official annexation would have to wait until 1898 when Cleveland was succeeded by William McKinley. In the meantime, Sanford Dole appointed himself president of the Republic of Hawaii. When the annexation ceremony was held in 1897, the atmosphere more closely resembled a funeral. Native Hawaiians wore symbols of the Hawaiian nation and shuttered up their homes. Dole was appointed governor of the Territory of Hawaii and the true purpose of annexation was made apparent: the unencumbered flow of Hawaiian agricultural goods into the United States. Shortly thereafter, one of Sanford Dole's cousins - James Dole - came over and started the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, which aggressively cornered the market on the king of fruits and eventually came to be known by the family name. From the turn of the century onward, the newly-minted Territory of Hawaii became a tourist spot as hot as the volcanic features that formed it.
Before air became a viable medium of transportation, the only way to get across the Pacific was by ocean liner (a tradition Disney Cruise Line has continued with annual Hawaiian excursions). William Matson began shipping goods between San Francisco and Hawaii in 1882, expanding his operations when tourists became as lucrative a market as produce. In 1909, the Matson Navigation Company's newest and most luxurious liner - the SS Wilhelmina - debuted, ferrying well-heeled passengers to the isles. Matson's lines expanded across the Pacific Islands in the early Thirties with the SS Mariposa, SS Monterey, SS Matsonia, and SS Lurline. Amelia Earhart was a passenger aboard the Lurline in 1934, along with her aircraft stowed away below deck. Once it was unpacked, she flew it back to Oakland, California in an historic flight in 1935. Walt and Lillian Disney also took their first trip to Hawaii in 1934 aboard the Lurline (returning several times over the next decade).
|Walt and Roy hamming it up on the beach at Waikiki.|
Whether in the 1910's, 20's or 30's, new arrivals at Honolulu were greeted with the customary lei. Traditionally given as expressions of "aloha" spirit at celebrations and life transitions, leis can be made of virtually any available material, including flowers, shells, and feathers. Most tourists became familiar with leis made from plumeria blossoms, offered by vendors lining the streets adjacent to the piers at Honolulu. As the tourists shipped off for home, they would throw the petals of their leis into the waters around Diamond Head, Honolulu's extinct volcano. They hoped that, like the petals, they too would soon return to Hawaii's shores.
|SS Wilhelmina, circa 1917. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.|
|SS Lurline pulls into dock at Honolulu, circa 1930's. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.|
|New arrivals receiving the customary lei, circa 1920's.|
Photo: Hawaii State Archives/Pan-Pacific Press Bureau.
|Hula show, circa 1937. Photo: University of Hawai'i at Mānoa Library.|
|Surfing at Waikiki Beach, circa 1920's. Photo: University of Hawai'i at Mānoa Library.|
To meet these tourists' need for accommodation, the Moana Hotel was built on Honolulu's then-neglected Waikiki Beach in 1901. Nicknamed "The First Lady of Waikiki," the Moana Hotel sported the popular Neo-Classicism of the time and boasted telephones and bathtubs in each of its 75 rooms, as well as the first electric elevator in Hawaii. In spite of its luxurious appointment, it was not originally profitable and the owner sold it to the Territorial Hotel Company in 1907. As the Twenties roared in and travel reached its first Golden Age, the Territorial Hotel Company worked with the Matson Navigation Company to build "The Pink Palace of the Pacific." At six stories and 400 rooms, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel was the place to see and be seen on Waikiki Beach when it opened in 1927. Designed in the Spanish-Moorish style popular in California, it earned its nom de guerre by its distinctive pink stucco work. Both hotels were passed on to Matson in 1932, and eventually the Starwood chain, under whose banner they still welcome guests today.
The grand entrance of the Moana Hotel, circa 1908.
Photo: Hawaii State Archives.
|Moana Hotel from Waikiki Beach. The extra wings on each side were added in 1918.|
For the less affluent masses of Middle America, their main acquaintance with Hawaii would not have come from travelling there, but from the radio programmes broadcast from the ballrooms of these grand hotels. In 1934, Nebraska native Harry Owens caught a huge break when he was appointed the musical director of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Scouring the islands for music and transcribing it into Western notation for the first time, Owens made the Royal Hawaiian Orchestra practically a household name. Their smooth, distinctive rhythms drawn from traditional songs lulled listeners with the aural landscape of everything tranquil and tropical. When his daughter was born in 1934, Owens penned a song for her that would become the Royal Hawaiian Orchestra's theme and an Academy Award winner: Sweet Leilani. That Academy Award came by way of Bing Crosby recording it for the film Waikiki Wedding in 1937. Another song appearing in Waikiki Wedding was Blue Hawaii, made famous by Elvis 25 years later. From 1935 to 1975, the Moana Hotel hosted Harry Owens' programme Hawaii Calls. The story goes that listeners thought that the radio static was actually the sound of waves on the beach, and so producers rushed down to the seashore to record the real thing in subsequent broadcasts.
Waikiki Wedding was not the only film of Hollywood's own Golden Age to be set in this exotic, palm-fringed territory. The first one shot on location was Hawaiian Love, released in 1913. "It Girl" Clara Bow played a wild child in 1927's Hula. Harry Owens and the Royal Hawaiians performed Sweet Leilani for the 1938 Fred MacMurray film Cocoanut Grove. Betty Grable and Victor Mature got up to hi-jinks in Song of the Islands in 1942, for which the Royal Hawaiians also performed. Hawaii Calls became a film of its own in 1938, but its great music was offset by stock footage and rear-projection livening up a shoot on Hollywood soundstages. In keeping with the theme of soundstages, Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper was updated in 1939's Honolulu, where it was jewelled with the comedy of George Burns and Gracie Allen, and the astonishing dancing of Eleanor Powell. She returned opposite Red Skelton in 1942's Ship Ahoy, where the WWII spy plot on a cruise ship to Puerto Rico required her to tap out a message in Morse code in the middle of a dance routine. As mentioned in a previous article, it was Tommy Dorsey and Ship Ahoy that helped propel the song Hawaiian War Chant into public consciousness (from which it eventually migrated into the climax of the Enchanted Tiki Room).
Lavish musicals not only brought the mystique of Hawaii to American audiences, but dressed it up with Tinsel Town glamour. They were also the lighter side of the jungle adventure films that had already been popular for a decade, like Trader Horn (1931), King Kong (1933) and the Tarzan series starring Johnny Weissmuller. One such film was 1932's Bird of Paradise, which featured on-location shooting in Hawaii, authentic hula dances, interracial romance, a nude swimming scene, and an invocation of the old girl-and-the-volcano trope. Abbott and Costello riffed on it in Pardon My Sarong (1942). Typical of every movie made in Hollywood's Golden Age, cultural sensitivity and accurate representation were not high on the list of priorities. Escaping the drudgery of the Great Depression was, even for an hour or two. But sometimes paradise is Hell, as Leslie Howard (The Scarlet Pimpernel, Gone with the Wind) discovered in 1931's Never the Twain Shall Meet, in which his love for a flighty native girl demoralizes him into becoming an alcoholic beachcomber. Like Trader Horn and Tarzan the Ape Man, Never the Twain Shall Meet was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, who had previously directed White Shadows in the South Seas and The Pagan in 1928 and 1929 respectively, both filmed on location in Tahiti. There was even a Western, in the form of 1938's Hawaiian Buckaroo!
The generalized melange of the "Adventureland" aesthetic, blending Polynesia, Asia, Africa, and Latin America - invented by Americans and for Americans - was inadvertently reinforced at the Golden Gate International Exposition. Held in San Francisco in 1939-40, it was ostensibly to celebrate the completion of the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge. It's real theme, and drawing card, was "The Pageant of the Pacific." Mainly nations with shores on the Pacific were in attendance, including pavilions for the United States, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Japan, the Indies, and, of course, Hawaii. Standing tall and keeping a watchful eye over her artificial island near the Bay Bridge was the monumental statue of Pacifica. There was also a demonstration of the new technology that would revolutionize travel through the Pacific: airplanes.
|The Sun Tower. Photo: UC Berkeley - Bancroft Library.|
|The Statue of Pacifica at night. Photo: UC Berkeley - Bancroft Library.|
|Entrance to the Hawaii pavilion. Photo: UC Berkeley - Bancroft Library.|
|Replica of the King Kamehameha statue at the Hawaii pavilion.|
Photo: UC Berkeley - Bancroft Library.
|Hawaii pavilion at night. Photo: UC Berkeley - Bancroft Library.|
|Netherland Indies pavilion.|
Photo: UC Berkeley - Bancroft Library.
|A Pan-American flying boat available for inspection.|
Photo: UC Berkeley - Bancroft Library.
Pan-American Airlines set its sights on Hawaii not long after it spread its wings across the Americas in 1927. Most flights were originally for cargo, but each of the great "clipper" flying boats could carry along fewer than a dozen passengers. In that early era, air travel followed the same paradigm as ocean liner and railway travel. Each passenger was assigned a cabin or a berth to sleep in, and during the day, relaxation and dinner could be had in the spacious lounge. A flight to Hawaii from California would take in excess of 18 hours, but the conditions were clearly much nicer than today. Once in Honolulu, Inter-Island Airways could ferry passengers to the sights on Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii Island. Inter-Island, founded in 1929, eventually became Hawaiian Airlines. Unfortunately the age of the flying boat came to pass after the war. In the fight for passengers, it was cramming people into tubes for an economical price that won out over leg-room, luxury, and otherwise humane treatment.
|An Inter-Island Airways flight over Molokai.|
Photo: National Air and Space Museum.
|Pan-American ad. Adjusting for inflation, an overnight flight to |
Hawaii aboard the Honolulu Clipper cost approximately $4000.
Photo: National Air and Space Museum.
|And this is why. Dinner service on a Pan-American flight.|
Photo: National Air and Space Museum.
Arguably the most lasting contribution of this time period to Tiki culture's profusion across the United States was a small bar that opened in Hollywood in 1933. The proprietor, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, decorated his establishment off the corner of Hollywood and Highland with an array of items he picked up in the South Pacific, including tribal masks, nets, statues, and the like. He then chose the evocative name "Don's Beachcomber Cafe" and inadvertently created the world's first Tiki bar. In 1937 he moved across the street and renamed it "Don the Beachcomber," but it was already famous for numerous cocktail concoctions including the Mai Tai, Navy Grog, and Zombie. The food was standard Chinese-American fare, but it still reinforced the escapist ambiance of the exotic and far-flung. The novel bar was a hit with the Hollywood crowd, including Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Howard Hughes, and Walt Disney. Over in Oakland, another cafe owner named Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr. was running a BBQ place named "Hinky Dinks." When he chanced to visit Don's Beachcomber Cafe, he was entranced with the tropical theme and renovated his own bar. It was rechristened "Trader Vic's," becoming another legendary Tiki bar (and claimant for the invention of the Mai Tai). During the Forties and Fifties, both expanded their chain of restaurants and bars. Unfortunately Don lost his and the right to open any more in the United States in a divorce settlement, prompting his move to Hawaii before it achieved statehood. These days, the name of Don the Beachcomber is leased to a restaurant in Huntington Beach (about a half-hour drive from Disneyland) and the Royal Kona Resort on Hawaii Island. Trader Vic enjoyed considerably more success, including opening his restaurant in Hawaii by will in 1950. The Trader Vic's® company currently has a chain of restaurants and franchises around the world, including Tokyo, Munich, London, Dubai, and the flagship in Emeryville.
|Exterior of the original Don's Beachcomber Cafe.|
|Inside Don's Beachcomber.|
|Victor Bergeron's Hinky Dinks.|
|Remodeled as Trader Vic's.|
Some historians define Tiki culture as beginning in the Thirties with Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic's. Others define this as a nascent stage of "pre-Tiki" (Pritiki?) that would lay the groundwork for the post-war profusion of Tiki culture. Either way, it does demonstrate a truism that to understand what Disney was doing in the Fifties and Sixties, it is helpful to look at what was going on in the Twenties and Thirties. Comparable to why the protagonists of Tangled and Zootopia have names that were cool in the 1990's, the films, radio shows, and images absorbed by Disney's Imagineers in their youths culminated in Adventureland, the Tahiti Terrace Restaurant, and Enchanted Tiki Room. Just as Disney was present when it all began, in shorts like Hawaiian Holiday, it was also there at the end. Walt Disney World's Tropical Serenade and Polynesian Village Hotel were during original Tiki culture's last gasps. Still, as Trader Sam's became a bi-coastal franchise and Moana due shortly in theatres, Disney is also tapped into Tiki's post-modern resurgence.