Talking Tiki

It is a little after 7 a.m. on Friday, and, strangely, everyone in the Bikini Lounge is drinking beer. The strange part is not that the patrons are drinking at 7 a.m., but that they are drinking beer.

Beer in this place? In Phoenix's last remaining shrine of ripped-off, modified, non-American culture, taken direct from the enchanted Ports of Paradise--Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii, Trinidad--where hand-carved masks of grimacing deities hang in bamboo shacks near sparkling surf that caresses coves of azure ringed by towering palms? Palms whose only job is to turn the warm trade winds into a sibilant song, a blossom-scented invitation to a carefree place that is as real as it is a state of mind?

Yes, beer in this place. The crowd in the Bikini at 7a.m. is not, to put it lightly, the type to favor frothy, pastel-colored drinks with cherries or little umbrellas sticking out.

Old Milwaukee is about as exotic as it gets here in this aging home of tiki, a place where the regulars arrive when the doors open at 6 a.m., folks who work the night shift, folks who are retired and, well, folks who like to drink beer early in the morning. But what the hell, it's on tap and, at $1.50 for a small pitcher, slightly more reasonable than a mai tai. The lounge does have a blender, but, as Barbara the bartender tells me, "We mostly use it for margaritas. We don't get much call for pia coladas and that."

Hipsters in New York, L.A. and San Francisco are heavy into tiki/lounge culture these days. They're wearing the loud shirts and the sharkskin suits, listening to reissues by pioneers of easy-listening exotica--Martin Denny and Les Baxter, for example--getting pointers from the RESearch volumes on Incredibly Strange Music and 'zines like Tiki News, downing drinks that are shaken, not stirred.

And, while the usual patrons of the Bikini are not sucking at cocktails, marveling at the ambiance, I like this place for the authentic, albeit faded, decor. The joint isn't big, it's not beautiful, but it tells a bamboo-and-black-light story of a once-thriving architectural/fashion/party era that has pretty much gone toes up here in the Valley of the Sun. And the Old Milwaukee ain't bad, either, however inappropriate it may be.

From the end of World War II until the early '60s, the South Sea influence swept its languid, intoxicating self across the country, and Phoenix took to it like Coppertone to a pale thigh.

And we're not just talking about bars (Beachcomber, Shipwreck Lounge, Tropics, all long gone); here is a list of apartment buildings from a city directory, circa 1965:

Aloha Apartments, Bali Lanai, Golden Sands Resorts, Hidden Cove, Majestic Palms, Paradise Harbor, Paradise Village, Paradise Shadows, Quiet Village Apartments (Martin Denny fans, take note!), Sand Dollar Apartments, Sunrise Village, Tahiti Palms, Trade Winds Apartments, Sands & Coral. And four Hidden Village Apartments complexes.

Of course, these places didn't always look as sexy as their names might imply, but whaddaya want? Throw up some bamboo, some grass thatching, colored lights and palm trees, open the bartender's guide to "rum" and gather 'round the pool. You're always on vacation, with affordable month-to-month payments.

Now let me take you back to the Bikini, where I am sitting in a darkened booth while dawn is glaring down on Grand Avenue and everything else in sight. But that's outside. Inside, this is what I see: directly over the hunched shoulders of plaid and denim belonging to the boys atthe bar, a life-size portrait of a buxotic hula girl. She has been swaying motionless in this same spot since the place was built, some 50years ago.

Moving out and away from the hula queen, I see seven chunks of bamboo stalk, holes drilled into them, hanging down above the bar from the ceiling. These are the main sources of light in the place. Then there are the intricate panes of woven matting on the walls, thin, twisted fingers of bamboo spidering across each square. A lattice of bamboo (certainly the cinder block of tiki construction) is suspended overhead. There are a few paintings of island-influenced patterns radiating psychedelic voodoo behind tubes of black lights. The black lights don't actually hum, but they look like they should.

Then there is me sitting in one of the five booths, and, behind my hunched shoulders, we have a bamboo sign on the wall that spells out "Bikini." In letters of bamboo. And--the crucial element that no self-respecting tikibar could do without--the tiki mask. Inthis case, two of them, one angry, one surprised, both menacing, wicked and silly in a way that only a tiki mask can be.

And right next to me is Penny Haats, who started tending bar at the Bikini in '73, and is now the owner. She's there four mornings a week from 4:30 to 6 to do the books; sometimes, she hangs around after the doors open to yak with regulars like Dean and Duck. (At one point during the morning, a guy at the bar will say, "Some people have hemorrhoids. We have Duck.")

Penny is talking about the hula queen.
"Somebody told me that the body was one person and the face another, so I don't know. It used to be a nude, and one of the guys that bought the bar didn't want a nude, so he had the skirt and the lei painted on." Which I don't quite get. On close inspection, the hula queen's chest is very apparent.

The hula queen is shrouded in mystery. Later, someone says he thinks it is an owner's wife. Then the night bartender, a Hawaiian woman named Westley and a patron named Mike have this conversation:

Westley: "She used to be a customer."
Mike: "All I know is she's got nice tits."
Westley: "Hey!!"
Mike: "You got nice tits, too."
Westley: "Now I feel better."

Penny says that the guy who started the bar, whose name she doesn't know, was in the South Sea Islands during World War II. "He loved them. When he came back, he built the Tradewinds downtown, then on the south side he built the South Seas, and then he built this one andnamed it after Bikini atoll."

The Bikini is all that remains of this unknown soldier's tiki empire, a last gasp of unique designon a stretch of Grand Avenue that is less than breathtaking. Though the masks and lights and hulaqueen may have little to do with it, the Bikini has turned into a home away from home--or, in some cases, a home, period--for the gang at the bar.

Let's go talk to white-haired, white-bearded Dean, who looks a little like Willie Nelson. He is funny (this during a pool game: "You better call home and tell 'em to sell the outhouse 'cause you're gonna lose yer ass!") and actually possesses the kind of wry twinkle in his eye that is usually reserved for fictional characters and actors in Frank Capra movies.

"The decor? I like it. It's different. I come here because I like this bar. I've been coming here since 1978. I like the people. I've seen a lot of 'em come and go. See that flag up there? That was for one of my best friends. He died last year; he used to come in here every day. His name was Norman. That flag is from the American Legion. He was a serviceman. He was a good old man, he was a regular, came in every day and had his Beam and his beer. To me, it's a neighborhood bar. I can look up and down this bar in the morning and name almost everyone.

"These bartenders, they always take care of us street people, that's the way I look at it; you can interpret it any way you want to." For the record, Dean is not actually a street person. But you can interpret that any way you want to.

"Maybelline" begins to play on the juke as Dean orders another pitcher. Westley buys Duck a shot of Bacardi, Mike is at the other end of the bar working on a pitcher of his own and contemplating his cigarette. The tiki masks are frozen, the hula queen shimmers in the smoke, everybody roars in a shared joke. It is roughly ten minutes to eight in the morning.

Long live the Bikini.

I know this guy, name of Ben, he works at a record store and he hasnever been to the Bikini. Yet he is no stranger to the ways of tiki. In fact, he built a tiki bar in his own backyard and, through a tasteful ensemble of certain tropically oriented items, has managed to capture a bit of what the Bikini must have exuded in its heyday.

He's got the fiber-glass fish hanging on the thatched bamboo wall, actual shark jaws gaping, palm-tree-stump, hand-carved tiki gods, wind chimes tinkling away in the breeze, a three-foot-tall Mayan statue reaching for the stars (or is that an ancient astronaut?) and strings of red, green, yellow and pia-colada-colored plastic Easter Island heads hanging from the roof, glowing warm and inviting light through their stern faces. All in all, it's an incredible simulation of an incredible simulation.

But where is Thurston Howell III? Shouldn't he be stepping through the stands of potted bamboo, saying, "My dear boy! Have a cocktail, for God's sake"?

"Gilligan's Island!" spews Ben, face glowing. "Yes! Huge! Huge! A huge influence! A lot of the stuff I do now relates back to what I liked when I was a kid--the Rat Fink stuff--and you associate that with the surf culture, and the surf culture with the tiki stuff," says this man who was born and raised in Buffalo, New York.

The store where he works moves plenty of musical surf exotica, reissues and stuff from current bands like Enchanted Tiki Tones, Tiki Men, and Bomboras. "There's tons of that music coming back. There was that LoungeCon recently in L.A., they rented a hotel. There were like 2,000 people there, most of 'em dressed in vintage garb; the guy who carved my tikis was selling his mugs and tikis. They had clothes you could buy, and tons of bands."

Now, don't get me wrong, I have a stuffed marlin and some lawn chairs in my backyard, but this at chez Ben is truly an impressive effort. "It's in its embryonic phase," says the owner/operator. "You can never stop adding, you can just keep finding stuff. Whether it's nautical stuff or tourist stuff, kooky postcards of hula girls to weird masks. A lot of grandparents' stuff."

Many of these magical totems came from friends who searched and scored.
"You just have to go to places that you might not, estate sales, thrift places," he explains. "Because suddenly this reselling pop culture is getting to be a premium, with stores like Do Wah Diddy [in Phoenix]. Sooner or later, people tend to like to buy stuff they remember when they were a little kid.

"The Valley is a good place to find this stuff because you don't have as many people who are hip and aware. Trying to find some of this stuff in L.A., I'm sure you just can't, unless it's sitting on Melrose in a store window. People are highly aware of what they have now. Back when people were originally buying this tiki stuff, they were never thinking about it being collectible. Like now, you see little kids who collect baseball cards. They don't put 'em on their bike wheels to make funny noises; they put 'em in a holder right away."

But baseball cards aren't for everyone; many youngsters these days are turning on to the very real pleasures of an evening spent in the company of a soft breeze, a rayon shirt covered with ceremonial love gods, the strains of vintage Arthur Lyman on the hi-fi and a nice, refreshing beverage, blender fresh.

Looking back over the many parties his tiki setup has hosted, Ben claims never to have had a disappointed guest. "They're like, 'What the heck is this? This is great.' And it's kinda like an icebreaker, with the lighting the way it is, and the theme atmosphere seems to put people into a festive mood; they can't wait to tie into a nice beachcomber," he says, gushing. "It's a good excuse to do something different, instead of just throwing some chicken on the grill and having a beer."

The Beachcomber:
11/2 oz. light rum
1/2 oz. lime juice
1/2 oz. triple sec
1/2 teaspoon maraschino liqueur
Shake well with ice, strain into prechilled, sugar-rimmed cocktail glass.

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap