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How Tiki Makers Got Their Groove Back

Since 1956, partners in Oceanic Arts have been suppliers to the world of all things Polynesian.

August 20, 2000|AL RIDENOUR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hawaiian chants wash over the thatched hut and a nearby cargo of bamboo, coconuts and dried blowfish. If it weren't for the shrill beeping of a truck backing up to the loading dock, you might forget you're in a warehouse in the semi-industrial outback of Whittier.

This is Oceanic Arts, your best bet for stocking up for summer's last big luau. Because what island-style celebration is complete without a coconut mug or a mechanized gorilla? It even has genuine Fijian cannibal forks for guests bored with the usual barbecue selection.

Bob Van Oosting, the entrepreneur behind Oceanic, is a dapper 65, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and Walt Disney mustache. Co-owner and resident artist LeRoy Schmaltz is the same age but burlier, perhaps from wielding chisel and mallet since the two went into business in 1956.

Since then, they've rented, sold, fabricated and imported South Seas trappings for everything from backyard parties to legendary hangouts like Don the Beachcomber in Marina del Rey. From Fort Lauderdale to Samoa they've carved figures and tacked up rattan in hotels, restaurants and apartment buildings. They've added a bit of enchantment to Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room, built a Vietnam village for "Forrest Gump" and, yes, even helped the castaways construct their quarters on "Gilligan's Island." Not long ago, 30 of their tikis attended a wrap party for the real-life castaways of the TV show "Survivor."

But what exactly is a tiki?

Though stodgier anthropologists may insist the Maori word refers only to carved amulets representing ancestors, its more popular definition includes any wood or stone carving of a Polynesian spirit. The term has since been further expanded to describe the decorative style of Polynesian theme restaurants and watering holes graced by these figures in the early 1960s. After a steady decline in popularity, the early '90s brought a resurgence of interest in the tiki style, complete with fanzines like San Francisco-based Tiki News.

Enthusiasm for the retro-cool style is evident, Braun says, pointing to the fact that "Target and Walgreens are selling their own lines of tiki shirts this summer--not Hawaiian or Aloha shirts, I mean shirts with a large tiki on them." American Eagle Outfitters, Urban Outfitters and Old Navy also made their own T-shirts with tiki motifs, he says, while Macy's had tikis on display for its annual summer season decor.

This all adds up to booming business for the tiki carvers of Oceanic Arts. Yet today's clientele is more the do-it-yourself type, says Van Oosting, not the big-scale clients of yesterday. Recalling the days of $43,000 floor-to-ceiling customizations for clients like Don the Beachcomber, Van Oosting seems a bit wistful, and he's not alone. He's joined in his nostalgia by a steady stream of pilgrims from all over the world who pay homage at Oceanic's collection of old mugs and artifacts from the more elaborate Polynesian palaces of the past.

Oceanic's owners met in the mid-'50s at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, where Schmaltz studied art and Van Oosting business. Schmaltz had been carving masks from palm fronds since high school, and Van Oosting recalls "seeing them and thinking, "You know, we could make some money here." The two hit the big time when they hooked up with Robert H. Carter, an importer for Don the Beachcomber. Carter employed native craftsmen in Samoa to carve tikis, but the sculptures often weren't theatrical enough for American tastes, so Carter was looking for help reworking them.

"We ended up carving for him," Van Oosting says, "and selling some of his trinkets." Soon, the pair formed an independent partnership and traveled the South Seas for 3 1/2 months gathering materials and making supplier contacts.

Though proud of his more exacting reproductions, Schmaltz is also willing to work for the occasional client who wants a customized job, "a tiki that looks like her husband or a tiki with crossed eyes or a tongue hanging out. Some of the things that are created get rather obscene," he says. Schmaltz says he was once confronted by a visitor who believed he was carving genuine pagan idols rather than mere decor pieces. "He turned out to be a German Baptist" wearing "a flat black hat like a Quaker and speaking in thees and thous," Schmaltz remembers.

Most people who come to this low-profile warehouse are more willing to be swept into the fantasy. Van Oosting remembers an architect for Disney who'd "really just get with it." Before 1985, he says, "we were serving Mai Tais every day. . . . He'd drop in, and after a few drinks, his coat comes off and then the shirt. We've got a picture of him standing there in a big hula skirt with a spear."

A nondrinker with two sons in the ministry, Schmaltz is a bit uneasy with any association between his creations and alcohol-induced nudity. He views the South Seas more in terms of tranquillity. "I think Polynesia has its romantic appeal because it just seems like such a loving peaceful place."

But nothing helps you appreciate island tranquillity better than an occasional jab with a Fijian cannibal fork.

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