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.")