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History of Tiki Culture and Where It Fits Today

tiki cultureThe tiki culture is more about a style that originated in American restaurants, clubs, and bars in the 1930s than it is about the actual history of the tiki.  Though inspired by Polynesian mythology and artifacts, such as the Tiki, a wood or stone humanoid carving, the tiki culture itself began as a theme and grew into a fad that spanned many decades, including the time period of World War II, the addition of Hawaii as a US state, through the pop culture of the 1950s and 1960s, and into today.

The First Tiki Bar

The first tiki themed bar was opened in 1931 by Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, who had found himself moneyless in Los Angeles after traveling to some of the world’s more tropical destinations.  With his collection of South Pacific artifacts and his knowledge of the South Pacific region, Beaumont-Gantt was often called upon in Hollywood as a technical adviser on film sets with South Pacific themes.  He eventually opened his first bar, Don the Beachcomber, where he housed all his South Pacific artifacts and created a imaginative rum infused drink menu, which in turn brought patrons who were ready to try whatever exciting concoction he was making. 

Besides, his South Pacific style bar, which eventually needed to be moved to a bigger location because it became “the place to be seen” in Hollywood, Beaumont-Gantt was also known as the inventor of the tiki bar, a tiki culture staple for entertainment still to this day.  The lifestyle became so much apart of Beaumont-Gantt’s personality that he eventually legally changed his name to Donn Beach. 

Donn Beach was eventually sent off and was injured in World War II.  After his return, he opened a tiki themed joint in what was at the time a small beach town called Waikiki Beach, Hawaii, which shortly became one of Hawaii’s top tourist drinking holes and restaurants.  Donn Beach eventually died at the age of 81 in 1989, but was around to see his passion grow into what is now known as the tiki culture.

Other Influence on the Tiki Culture

Besides Beaumont-Gantt, or Donn Beach, there are a number of other things that have influenced the rise of the tiki culture.  For instance, Victor Jules Bergeron, known for Trader Vic’s restaurants and the classic drink the Mai Tai, was also a huge influence on the tiki culture with his South Pacific style restaurant themes.

There was also a huge rise in movies, including the 1937 Bing Crosby movie, Waikiki Wedding which brought the tropical and exotic theme into the minds of many Americans.  Music of this time period was also very influential with musicians such as Les Baxter, Martin Denny, and Arthur Lyman who integrated the Polynesian and Latin rhythms and feeling into their jazz.  

After World War II ended, servicemen were returning home with snapshot and tales of their experiences throughout the South Pacific, including James Michener who won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection of short stories, Tales of the South Pacific, which was the basis for the movie South Pacific.  All these influence romanticized the Polynesian culture and at one point it seemed like all of America was embracing the tiki culture.

The Tiki Culture of Today

During the 1950s and 1960s, with Hawaii’s indication as the 50th state, the tiki culture became a part of the suburban pop culture.  Tiki bars and décor were popping up in households across America and it seemed like every man owned and flaunted his aloha shirt to show just how relaxed and ready for entertaining he was.  Like every fad, however, it died off and for the period of the 1970s and 1980s, the tiki culture took a back seat as many gradually thought of it as tacky. 

Though, the tiki culture is once again making a huge comeback for many reasons.  First, like most everything, fads skip generations, and many people are embracing the vintage feel of the tiki culture.  Also, the tiki hut style bar is once again making a comeback for the modern outdoor living and entertaining backyard.  And this modern day tiki culture has brought the aloha shirt into a higher class with a small designer called Tommy Bahama (which of course can be found in most department stores as well as boutiques all across America.)

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