By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
In the Valley, at least, the Hawaiian craze lasted well into the Sixties. As late as 1966, a small Polynesian-themed strip mall was built in the 6700 block of East McDowell Road. Although the development (which included such unlikely tenants as Norge Polynesian, the Valley's only Hawaiian-style laundromat) has since been razed to make way for a car dealership, a steep-roofed, tiki-themed Dairy Queen, long closed, has somehow escaped the wrecking ball.
@body:The Kon Tiki should be so lucky.
Little more than a decade after the Kon Tiki opened for business, East Van Buren's motel row was already a far cry from the mecca of tidy tourist havens that it had been in 1962. Strapped for customers when the new interstate to the south drained tourist traffic from the street, many of Van Buren's small-time innkeepers fought for survival by transforming their motor courts into adult motels, complete with waterbeds, closed-circuit porn and mirrored ceilings. Although the Kon Tiki didn't realize it at the time, it was the beginning of the end.
"It was still great when I first went to work there," reports former night auditor Dale Hickox, a Kon Tiki employee since 1986, some nine years after the original owners had sold the motel to a San Francisco businessman. "We had a good clientele, people from all over the world and a lot of snowbirds who'd stay there until they could make more permanent arrangements." Sometime during this period, the motel also worked out a contract with AHCCCS, providing discount rooms for out-of-town patients from around the state who needed special medical attention available only in Phoenix. Hickox recalls a female cancer patient who spent an entire summer shuttling between the Kon Tiki and the nearby county hospital for treatment. "Sweetest girl you'd ever want to meet," says Hickox. "Every day she went through that damn radiation treatment and twice a week she'd have chemotherapy on top of it. It was heartbreaking."
By the late Eighties, the motel's clientele had grown even more diversified. Because of the Kon Tiki's proximity to several clubs, its plummeting room rates and, most important, its funky atmosphere, the fading Polynesian palace eventually developed a reputation as the place to stay for rock bands who were playing Phoenix. As a result, as once happened in 1988, it was possible to find a pair of winter visitors from the Midwest sunning themselves at one end of the pool, while at the other end, a musician from Great Britain chatted with a local journalist, recounting a profound LSD trip that had changed his life forever.
"I interviewed more bands in the Kon Tiki than I can remember," says Andy Van De Voorde, New Times' music editor during that era. "And with few exceptions, all of them commented on what a great place it was. I remember this one guy in particular--don't ask me from which band--who just couldn't get over the place--Hawaiian charm in the heart of Phoenix!'"
@body:But by the late Eighties, the charm was wearing dangerously thin for the not-so-little grass shack on Van Buren. Engulfed in the tsunami of vice that had already swallowed much of that hardened artery, the once-swank motel's guest registry eventually began to resemble a police blotter.
"You have to give that place credit," says a former cab driver familiar with the neighborhood. "They held out for as long as they could. Up until a few years ago, it was a respectable place--or as respectable as you're going to find on Van Buren. But it finally got to the point that they had to take whatever business they could."
"One thing led to another, and the first thing you knew, we were renting rooms to drug dealers and hookers," Dale Hickox recalls. "Of course, we tried to keep em out, but if someone walked in there and he or she was dressed decently, we had no way of knowing what their occupation was until it was too late."
The dead giveaway that a guest was up to no good? An overloaded switchboard. "Some of these people were making more calls in one night than I make in six months," explains Hickox. "That was a pretty good indicator they were selling something--whether it was guns or drugs or pussy or what have you. And once word gets around to these kind of people, it was almost impossible to keep them out."
"Towards the end, all we were getting were people off the street," agrees Marsha Heberlein, the motel's manager for the last two years. "That neighborhood has gone into serious decline; now it's overrun with street people, drugs and prostitution. It finally became very difficult to fight that all the time."
Making matters worse, says Hickox, was the absentee owner's decision to sublease the motel's restaurant and cocktail lounge to a Valley promoter who used the facility to stage after-hours raves--not exactly the sort of activity to engender repeat business with whatever legitimate customers the motel still had.
"Before you knew it, we had 250 teenagers hanging out in the parking lot until four o'clock in the morning," fumes Hickox. "It was ridiculous. I could be within five feet of the telephone and that damn music was so loud I couldn't hear it ring." And on those rare occasions when he could, Hickox claims he was absolutely powerless to do anything about noise complaints because of the way the subleasing deal had been set up. "If a guest called to complain about the noise, we actually had to tell them to call the police," says Hickox. In spite of the fact that the landmark is now far more tacky than tiki, both Dale Hickox and Marsha Heberlein regret that the motel will soon be history.