Playin' Huki

Kitsch is culture for tikiphiles, and Fort Lauderdale is paradise

Of all the big Kahunas at the Hukilau, the third-annual gathering of tiki fanatics that just wrapped up October 9, none stood taller than the diminutive, white-haired Robert Drasnin. Pushing 80, Drasnin is a musician unknown outside the tiki circuit. Within it, though, he's so revered that during his Friday-night concert at Fort Lauderdale's Bahia Mar beach resort, the Hukilau's three bars were shut down, its doors were sealed, and the packed party was shushed into silence. Most of the crowd of 700, here from all over the world to hear Drasnin's set, sat on the floor, captivated and drinkless.

Very un-tiki, perhaps, but to many, the occasion was profound.

"This is only the second time in history that his entire Voodoo album will be performed," explained Formikahini, a tall, curvy Texan with horn rims and a nose stud. "When he wrote it in 1959, it was not intended to be performed live. And although he only made one exotica album, when people talk about their top exotica albums of all time, they mention Voodoo. This is a very big deal."

The hep set at the Mai Kai (left); the lovely Luna Luxx and Buttercup of Dames A'Flame (below)
Michael McElroy
The hep set at the Mai Kai (left); the lovely Luna Luxx and Buttercup of Dames A'Flame (below)
Colby Katz
Cannibal (left), Mike, and Smokin' Joe of the Cult of the Eye
Cannibal (left), Mike, and Smokin' Joe of the Cult of the Eye
Dr. Cardoo, witch doctor and mojo therapist
Dr. Cardoo, witch doctor and mojo therapist

Moments later, Drasnin, Formikahini (whom Drasnin introduced as vocalist Alice Berry), and a band of ten musicians took the stage. For the next hour and a half, they transformed the Bahia Mar's nondescript ballroom into a midnight oceanside bungalow, a steamy jungle hideaway, a South Asian riverhouse, a swanky space-age bachelor pad. Pulsating drums, upright bass, double marimbas, harp, flute, and sax worked that strange island magic Drasnin named his album for. Sort of Disneyesque, cinematic but safe, the music was ingrained with an uncanny sense of exoticism and an undeniably evocative power. For those with the right inclination and a little imagination, this was very heady stuff.

"I think a lot of it has to do with the association with better times," Drasnin later said of his music's enduring popularity. "You know, the world is so different now than it was in the late '50s and '60s. I think it's comforting to people to associate with a time that was not as complicated and not as dangerous, when life was a lot better. It's sort of like comfort food: It's easy to take, it's not too complicated, and it has an exotic feel to it that people enjoy."

A lifelong musician and composer who is currently an instructor at UCLA's film-scoring program, Drasnin is equally astonished and honored by the devotion he garners from tiki's growing fan base. "It's incredible to me, because I've written a lot of music for a lot of different things, but this is the one genre that has a following that is just fervid in their appreciation," he said. "The comments people gave me after the performance last night have blown me away. People said they were in tears!" Maybe a dramatic reaction for music meant to swizzle your mai tai by, but these people are an effusive bunch.

If you're a local, you probably don't realize that our region is at the thrumming heart of a growing, global subculture. Though you've driven by the evidence in every half-century-old, coral pink condo or sat beneath it at a thatch-roofed poolside bar, you probably never guessed these might be precious relics of a gilded era. You'd hardly be faulted for not knowing there are people out there -- clear-headed grownups only mildly lifted by liquor -- who extol Fort Lauderdale's aqua-blue Birch Towers and the dormant neon Searstown sign as architectural marvels.

Wake up and smell the aloha, pal: They're called tikiphiles, and they look to the midcentury modern aesthetic as the paragon of American culture.

They come in many stripes -- tattooed rockabillies, Bettie Page pinups, befezzed bons vivants, and, of course, those Technicolor tikiphiles. They come to shop the Hukilau's Tiki Bazaar, to socialize, to sway to Hawaiian tunes, to drink parasoled cocktails with funny names. They come for the nostalgia and the fantasy. And they come to raise their glasses in sincere appreciation of a time perceived as simpler, purer, and, most important, more fun.

"The '50s and '60s were really like the golden era of America, if you think about it," L.A.-based author Charles Phoenix said Saturday, with nary a whiff of irony. "We went to outer space, for God sakes. That was the crowning touch of the era. And after that, we can kind of historically see that it was a little different. There was this kind of anticipation, this enthusiasm about the future that really crashed and burned, if you will, once we landed on the moon."

A loose-knit, far-flung group initially based around a few online message boards, these folks have their de facto moderators, ringleaders, and provocateurs. Fort Lauderdale's own Tiki Kiliki, née Christie White, organized the first Hukilau in her native Atlanta. King Kukulele, a lanky, ukulele-strumming actor also known as Denny Moynahan, emceed the weekend in a grass skirt and bamboo pillbox hat. And Phoenix is a self-described "histo-tainer," an archivist and tour guide who maintains the popular GodBlessAmericana.com website. He presented his "Space Age Tiki Slideshow" to a rapt audience Thursday night at the Bahia Mar.

The Hukilau horde was dominated by white 30-somethings and aging boomers -- no surprises there. Most were clad in vintage Hawaiian shirts, elegant floral-print dresses, or the occasional mall-bought replica. But there was another contingent as well, younger and edgier, sporting greaser hairdos, work shirts, wallet chains, and body parts spattered with tattoos. For instance, the well-inked kids of Miami's Kreepytiki collective gave the crowd a much needed, if totally benign, sense of danger.

"I just turned 30, and as I got older, I got into hanging out in bars and drinking," explained Jaksin, one of Kreepytiki's resident tattoo artists and tiki carvers. He sported a shaved head and a black Misfits hoodie; dual Sailor Jerry swallow tatts swooped across either side of his neck. "There was a connection between the tikis and punk rock in the sense that it's something that was pushed aside. It's something that America embraced for a while throughout the '50s and the '60s, but they were kind of ashamed of it. They put it on the back burner, and they forgot about it. There's a resurgence in it with a lot of the punk kids because it was underground and it's something that hasn't been exploited."

That's good news for the few tiki palaces left over from when American GIs first brought tiki culture back from their WWII tours of the South Pacific. Elaborate Polynesian theme restaurants like Trader Vic's in San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio,'s Kahiki Supper Club were erected midcentury as landlocked shrines to island life and the fleecing of willing tourists. Most of these places have come and gone over the years, victims of American faddism. One of the last and greatest, a blip on Federal Highway to locals but a mecca to tikiphiles, is Fort Lauderdale's Mai Kai, a dark, intricately decorated warren of bamboo lairs and tropical gardens that turns 50 next year.

On Saturday night, the Hukilau denizens flocked to the Mai Kai for the weekend's final fling. Giddiness electrified the air, buoyed by strong drinks, tropical couture, and the last-hurrah camaraderie accrued from three days of relentless tikiphiling. The surfside sounds of the Haole Kats, a three-piece Hawaiian swing band from Tampa, poured from the Mai Kai's Tahiti room, while the burlesque bombshells of Atlanta's Dames A'Flame steamed up the low-lit, wood-paneled Molokai bar.

"The Mai Kai is just incredible," said Crazy Al Evans, a youthful 38-year-old tiki carver attending his third Hukilau. Crazy Al's shoulder-length hair matched his handlebar 'stache; a pinky-sized bone was braided into his goatee. "It's very rare to have an original establishment be what it was back in the heyday. I come from California, and almost every tiki palace has been sold and resold and run down and eventually closed. It's ironic -- now that the movement is growing, almost all of the old places have been destroyed, torn down, and now people are having to make new ones."

Mahalo! Did he say movement? "It is, actually. There's a website, TikiNews.com, and they have a manifesto there. And then there's the Book of Tiki, which this guy Sven Kirsten wrote, which is sort of the Bible, as they say, because he just spelled it out. Before then, there was no documentation of it. He coined the phrase Poly-pop or Polynesian pop and made it into a classification of a design phase, a style, basically."

And so the Hukilau is a rallying cry for this funky faction, one that's urging us all to, you know, relax, have fun. Enjoy American culture -- which has always been about appropriation -- as an art form, not a product. "An era has returned," said North Floridian Mike Holberg as the Boston-based Waitiki Polynesian band packed up their gongs from the Mai Kai stage at the end of the night. "I won't be so bold as to say revival, but... There's always been an element of kitsch to this stuff, but now there's a serious element, because this was a serious art form for a long time."

Or as Charles Phoenix put it: "For decades, we've been told that midcentury modernity is tacky. But you know what? It turns out maybe it wasn't as tacky as we thought."

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