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Kitschy Kitschy COOL : Tiki became tacky after its heyday in the 1950s and '60s. Now the style is back, in all its campiness.

July 20, 1996|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tour the older neighborhoods and business districts of Orange County, and you'll see remnants of a paradise lost.

Here and there stand aging A-frame motels, restaurants and apartments with tiki torches, totems and palm trees--all part of the tiki style that blossomed in the 1950s and '60s, when Americans became enamored of the South Pacific.

Paradise, in the eyes of many, meant a tropical oasis populated by exotic blooms (plastic flowers would do in a pinch), fierce wooden tikis that guarded kidney-shaped swimming pools and flaming tiki torches.

By the '70s, tiki was deemed tacky, and much of the colorful decor and architecture was either torn down or modified beyond recognition. Now some people have again discovered paradise.

They've begun to appreciate tiki's kitschy charm.

At the Anaheim Museum, guest curators Kevin Kidney and Jody Daily have assembled an exhibit of tiki that might make you want to dance the hula and sip mai tais out of clam shells.

Visitors to "Tiki--Native Drums in the Orange Grove" (through Sept. 21) will find themselves in a hut straight out of "Gilligan's Island," stocked with island-inspired furnishings, tiki gods, vintage pictures of local architecture, grass skirts and other trappings of the Polynesian pop era.

"People are really interested in tiki. It has this very cool retro image," Kidney says.

Today people love the campiness of tiki, but in its heyday tiki appealed to mainlanders because they wanted to alleviate the sameness of suburbia with something exotic. They decorated their houses with shell lamps, bamboo and rattan furniture (usually made in New Jersey), coconut ashtrays, shell curtains and plastic pineapples. They could go to pottery shops and buy huge tiki totems for the yard.

"People could buy whole living-room sets with tiki gods carved all over them. Needless to say, they're not pretty," Kidney says.

They installed tiki torches on their patios and held backyard luaus, playing island music, dancing the hula and serving tropical drinks in hollow coconuts or tiki mugs. They prepared exotic food supposedly consumed by islanders that was usually "Chinese food with pineapple," Kidney says.

"You could lend an exotic feeling to your mundane life," he says. "But we weren't very authentic. The word 'tiki' does not even exist in the Hawaiian language."

Tiki was not based on any one authentic Pacific Island culture but rather was a curious conglomerate of Hawaiian, African, New Zealand and other influences mixed with the mainland's loud, streamlined or "googie" style.

"It's a mishmash," Kidney says.

Mainlanders copied the islands' idols or totems and sold them as tikis, turning them into salt and pepper shakers and other knickknacks. Some tikis in the exhibit are miniatures of the towering stone gods of Easter Island.

"In these days of political correctness, I'm waiting for this to become controversial. Tikis are based on gods from the ancient days, and we've hollowed them out and put frozen drinks in them," Kidney says.

Polynesian pop culture sprang from World War II, when soldiers stationed in the South Pacific returned with photographs, souvenirs and stories of their island adventures.

Despite the war, "they were sentimental about this exotic place," Kidney says.

Hawaii became a state in 1959, and, as more Americans began to vacation there, fascination for the islands grew. Books such as James Michener's epic "Hawaii" (1959) fueled the imagination of stay-at-home explorers, Kidney says.

They had visions of tiki gods, birds with colorful plumes, spouting volcanoes and lush tropical landscapes with birds of paradise and palm trees.

"People were Hawaiian-crazy," he says. "Here was a bunch of mainlanders, and suddenly they had this exotic place right here in America."

One record album in the exhibit, "Ritual of the Savage," features a cover illustration of a young couple in a hot embrace, surrounded by tiki gods.

"You just know their names are Doris and Bob," Kidney says.

In 1963, when Disneyland opened its Enchanted Tiki Room, built to look like a thatched island hut populated by wisecracking tropical birds, "it heralded the acceptance of tiki as mainland Americana," Kidney says. During the '60s, the Orange County Fair had a shop devoted to tiki.

Tiki flourished throughout Southern California, especially in Orange County, as local attractions sought to draw tourists who couldn't afford the flight to Hawaii.

"People still didn't travel as much as they do today. California was as close as many could get to Hawaii," Kidney says.

Cocktail lounges, restaurants and motels would install tall tiki totems and flaming tiki torches, some made out of neon--the perfect blend of Hawaiian and mainland motel/auto cultures.

The structures were built to resemble ceremonial houses of Polynesia. They had giant A-frame roofs with beams jutting out three or four feet to resemble the stabilizers on outrigger canoes.

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