Tiki Takeover: The Influence of Tiki Culture in Post-War America

Written by: Jason Henderson, co-author of California Tiki: A History of Polynesian Idols, Pineapple Cocktails and Coconut Palm Trees

This summer my friend and co-writer Adam Foshko and I will be releasing our book California Tikia history book about how American culture for a period suddenly went bonkers for recreating the South Pacific all over North America. It was one of those movements that existed in the background for me, without ever really penetrating or causing me to ask why. After World War II, the default mode of expression for American culture was festooned with palm trees, colorful drinks, fake idols, and music—exotica, it was called—that sought to give the American listener a “soundtrack for a movie that didn’t exist.” Go give a listen to Martin Denny’s Quiet Village (1959), which we feature in one of two chapters on the music of Tiki Culture: Denny’s music is intended not to be listened to so much as existed in. You’re supposed to play it and feel like you’re in another world.

And when I say Tiki Culture was dominant, I mean so dominant that you almost don’t notice it—when Bob Hope and Lana Turner go out for drinks in Bachelor in Paradise (1961), they go to a tiki bar, but of course it’s not called a tiki bar. There are wild decorations and palm trees, because that’s just what bars are like. During the whole of the midcentury, roughly from the late 40s to Woodstock, public and private spaces were awash in faux island motifs.

I didn’t really come to notice it myself until I started researching surf culture, which itself soared into national consciousness in the late 1950s and saw its heyday in the 60s. I was reading about the original Gidget (a character based on amateur 50s surf personality Kathy Kohner, who will be a guest at this year’s Tiki Oasis in San Diego) and lo and behold, Gidget’s mentor (Cliff Robertson in the 1959 movie) wears a straw hat and lives in a little hut on the beach. He’s a beachcomber, the moniker adopted by early Tiki establishment Don the Beachcomber. Cliff’s character, Kahuna, is living out the dream of millions, having tossed his responsibilities to live day to day in the sand and surf, eating fish he catches and foreswearing paid work. That’s Tiki as perfectly described as you can get: Cliff has run away to another world, and we run away for a few hours with him. So surf and Tiki Culture were enwrapped from the start.

But the why hit me like a slap, and it’s even there in the film, when Cliff says that he came to this life “after that Korea jazz.”

That Korea jazz. Cliff, a pilot, is running away from his memories of war in faraway lands. But he’s adorned his new world with fetishes of the nightmare, misunderstood carvings and idols, and everywhere palm trees and a hat made of grass.

That Korea jazz (with a different war) is exactly what’s at work in the vitally important The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) by Sloan Wilson, which was about a man haunted by his memories of war in the Pacific.
If Gray Flannel Suit helps explain the mindset of WWII and Korea vets, the work that kicked off Tiki Culture more than any other is South Pacific (1949), the musical based on the James Michener book Tales of the South Pacific (1947), about servicemen trying to amuse themselves during the long dreary periods interrupted by death and mayhem in the Pacific Theater.

Tiki Culture wasn’t an accident. This culture that predominated the mid-century was a deliberate exorcism of trauma and fear by a generation who saw or were influenced by action in the beautiful Pacific. To us, the experience of the Pacific is the key understanding of Tiki Culture: that this desire to escape from everyday life is also a desire to re-enact an American trauma.

California Tiki is a history primer of sorts, exploring the cultural history of this movement. The remarkable thing is that we learn more and more about the culture and history of Tiki every day. We’re learning backwards and forwards, because the buried-trauma Tiki of the midcentury has become the earnest, re-interpretive and sometimes nostalgic Tiki art movement of the present. But that’s for another day.

I hope you’ll join us as we look at this fascinating period and movement in American culture. California Tiki: A History of Polynesian Idols, Pineapple Cocktails and Coconut Palm Trees by Jason Henderson and Adam Foshko comes out July 30 from The History Press.

To learn more about American Music & Entertainment visit Arcadia Publishing.