Tony Gleeson

Tiki, I was told, is good times. Simple but permissively excessive, from the exotic rum drinks to the fun Polynesian prints. So Hukilau just seemed right for a reunion with my Nordic hunk, Antti, when he visited last week from Finland. That´s how we found ourselves around the pool bar at the Bahia Cabana Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale for the Thursday-night kick-off of the four-day tiki summit. But, hey, just because I suggested it didn´t mean I understood it.

Like, who knew we´d need new names? Organizer Christie White preferred the moniker Tiki Kiliki. Attendee Elizabeth, who was dressed as Carmen Miranda, asked to be called StumpGrinder (because she carves tiki heads from tree stumps); her boyfriend was Loki for a day. Performer Denny Moynahan had dubbed himself King Kukulele (he sings kooky songs to the ukulele). My man could easily make the transition from Antti to Anttiki, pronounced ¨On tiki.¨

I wasn´t sure exactly what a hukilau was. Would there be ceremonial rituals? Sacrifices to appease the gods and thwart natural disasters? And was such an event BYOV? Because I wouldn´t even know where to look for a virgin in South Florida.

So I started with what I knew, which was how to match bamboo sandals and a basket purse with a polka-dot dress and how to hold two cocktails at once -- a mai tai and a mystery shot with dark rum -- while getting some answers.

¨It´s a coming together,¨ a woman in a blue Hawaiian dress told me. ¨A big feast.¨

¨With rum,¨ her friend in a leopard satin muumuu added, also noting that at the event, ¨People feel free to be who they are and to express themselves.¨

This marked the second year these two, Jessica and Jennifer, had traveled from Virginia for the event. What was last year´s craziest rum-inspired happening?

¨Everyone jumped in the pool!¨ Jennifer said. Clearly I was about to be initiated into a peaceful party culture that values the simple life and honors the child within.

Four guys in ape masks and orange space suits, the Disasternauts, were kicking up a storm of surf music. The lead guitarist held up a single finger, grunting his acknowledgment that they would play one more song (the band really gets into character, monkeying around and aping the crowd), so I decided to hold off on conversation while the band launched into its finale.

Antti and I surveyed the scene from the less-populated, second-story patio, which was an excellent vantage point for us to spot Mike Jones, owner of the Lake Worth hipster joint Jetsetter Lounge, which happens to have its own tiki gardens. Dressed in an aqua/blue retro floral, Jones was snapping pics of a crew of Jetsetter regulars in their Hawaiian prints and vintage duds.

¨Classy as always,¨ Antti observed as Jones put the camera down his pants for a close-up.

Maybe things were vintage tiki down there too? I wouldn´t be surprised.

The band´s last hot surf number inspired a flurry of dancing, including a guy whose variation on the swim combined a drowning flail with the doggy paddle. When we got a little closer, I recognized him as a co-alum from grad school. Besides collecting advanced degrees, John also had a pretty impressive stash of plastic tiki tumblers from the drinks he´d consumed earlier at Jetsetters.

¨I´m a sweaty pig,¨ he said when I commented that his soggy state had lent some authenticity to his dance. He explained that the rum had helped him so that he´d ¨devolved past the evolutionary self to the point where it´s instinctual.¨

That´s the benefit of extensive education: Even when the self devolves, the pretension remains.

As we waited for the next band, the Haole Kats, to set up, a guy dressed in only a bathing suit and still dripping from the pool commandeered the microphone. This was King Kukulele, who strummed a little something on his ukulele (which he loved so much that another entertainer accused him of bogarting the mic on Friday) and warned us not to trust anyone over the age of 12 ¨because they don´t play fair.¨ As part of his shtick, he interviewed a kid who provided the pool report (70 degrees, 100 percent humidity).

Nearby, Jetsetter Jones himself was indulging both his inner child and his adult proclivities by refilling his glass of rum from a vintage ´60s thermos decorated with spaceships, which he kept stashed in his ¨My first cocktail¨ metal lunch box. Always a good sport, he was extraordinarily fun tonight.

When I told him we´d spied his questionable photography practices, he tried to blame it on the band. ¨That was the Disasternauts´ camera!¨ he protested; then he changed the subject by introducing me to a who´s who of the tiki scene.  

That´s how I met the author of Tiki Road Trip, James Teitelbaum, one of the event speakers. His book made the event´s claim that a person could ¨experience all Polynesia right in America´s vacationland¨ more than just a grandiose come-on. I wondered aloud what his journeys had taught the Chicagoan, who had documented Polynesian bars around the world.

¨People always ask me why tiki is important,¨ he said. ¨I say, it´s not -- it´s completely frivolous, and that´s why it´s important. Because in these troubled times, it´s important to have a retreat. Tiki is an escape from everyday life.¨

Despite all the rum-drinking and getting lei´d, there were some drawbacks to being a tiki friki. Teitelbaum noted that it was irritating ¨having to continually explain it to people who don´t get it.¨ But what he hated most was having it ¨misinterpreted and watered down,¨ citing commercialization, or what he called having it ¨Wal-Martized¨ and ¨Targetized,¨ as his biggest complaint. ¨If you care about something, you want to preserve it.¨

Serious about fun: I liked that. When I asked how I could keep in touch, he handed me a business card that described him not as a writer but as an audio and music producer and educator.

¨Tiki´s fun, but it´s not a career,¨ he said.

For a moment, my own career outlook seemed bleak. But I brightened when Antti brought me another mai tai -- in truth, the best I´ve ever had. While the Haole Kats got down with their hapa haole (half foreign) songs, I struck up a conversation with Stacey and Marie, two women in black hipster glasses and tropical prints who were buzzing about Jones and his retro flair.

¨He´s so swanky,¨ Marie gushed.

¨I was like, That guy´s the epitome of Florida tiki,´¨ Stacey effused, a silk hibiscus tucked behind her ear.

With the Mike Jones fan club having reached a unanimous vote, I moved that we table the swooning for swank and move on to the next item on the evening´s agenda: what was beneath Marie´s Hawaiian frock. The Los Angeles P.R. flak unzipped to reveal both a vintage Penney´s dress label and a new tribal tiki tattoo.

¨It´s an optical illusion -- two tikis in profile and one face on,¨ she said over her shoulder. As we examined the image, she explained that it represented her relationship with her boyfriend J.P., AKA JonPaul Balak, photo editor of Tiki Magazine. ¨Instead of getting my boyfriend´s name tattooed across my tit,¨ she said with disdain, ¨I got something symbolic.¨

Since J.P. tended to prefer the charms of tiki to her own -- ¨Sometimes I don´t get sex because he´s such a geek about it¨ -- she´d evidently found a way to transfer his love of tiki to her. The relationship would now have a better chance of enduring as long as the romantic gesture of a tattoo.

Stacey´s ring, on the other hand, was a less permanent symbol of her relationship with fiancé Doug Horne, a Phoenix tiki artist whose work was sold from Jones´ hipster HQ. True to her promoter instincts, Marie blew Doug´s horn by boasting that his artwork, which had appeared on the cover of Tiki Magazine, caused the issue to sell out and had fetched seven times its cover price on eBay just a year later.

I asked Doug why the tiki vibe was so contagious. ¨The vintage restaurants are kind of an escape,¨ he said. ¨After the war [World War II], they created these restaurants because the GIs had fond memories of Tahiti and all these exotic places.¨

¨Like Some Enchanted Evening,´¨ Stacey said, referring to a 1940s hit from the 1949 musical South Pacific.

I wondered what exotic contributions soldiers would bring home from the war in Iraq. Marie stopped to think.

¨Coffee, tea...,¨ she began. She stopped, noting that the Middle Eastern culture didn´t allow for the rich cultural exchange that the Polynesian cultures had, mostly because it wasn´t much fun.

She was right. Burqas aren´t as much fun as bikinis.

¨Another good argument for bringing home the troops,¨ I said.

Before I committed my attentions entirely to my man, the rum, and the music, I stopped by to introduce myself to Disasternauts guitarist Gary Evans, whose day job as a database administrator back in Tallahassee had lucrative perks for a married man but who had found a certain freedom in music.

¨When you´re in a monkey mask, you can get away with murder,¨ he said, his hair still wet from the heat of the foam and fur of the full-head masks. My friend John, still a little sweaty himself from the dance floor, was down with that. ¨Any aspect of life in which you maintain your dignity with a monkey mask on... it´s all very sophisticated,¨ he blurted. ¨When I´m in the audience, I spontaneously orgasm.¨  

That probably explained John´s dancing style.

Having fulfilled the ¨coming together¨ definition of Hukilau, it also concluded my discovery mission and allowed me to turn my attention to Antti. My own, private ¨on tiki¨ experience awaited like a big, irresistible dessert.

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