American Tiki culture claims influence from Polynesian-style dress, culture and religion. However, the tiki tradition we know today is more an American perception of island spirit than anything out of the Polynesian islands. Born in the 1930s in Hollywood, tiki culture has influenced American bars, restaurants, fashion and home décor ever since.
1934 saw the birth of first American Tiki-themed bar and restaurant in Hollywood, California. Don the Beachcomber was opened by Donn Beach, who is credited with single-handedly inventing the tropical drink genre with his mixing of flavored syrups with rum. His inventions include such staples as the Scorpion, the Zombie and the Mai Tai. The huge success of Don the Beachcomber’s theme spawned numerous knockoffs and copycats in the LA area. The trend spread up the coast of California and took off in the Bay Area where Victor Berge opened his Trader Vic’s restaurant in Oakland before it became a national chain.
Later, World War II largely contributed to the spread of the tiki trend, with sailors and other veterans returning home from tours in the South Pacific. With them came stories, souvenirs and the memories of tropical tradition. Tiki bars provided them with a place reminiscent of their time spent in the islands and led to a proliferation of bars and restaurants coupling sweet cocktails and Asian-inspired food across the country. The tiki influence spread like wildfire, influencing hit movies such as Waikiki Wedding, the Polynesian/Asian/Latin-inspired jazz of Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny, and the still widely-produced musical “South Pacific.”
Like all fads and trends, tiki culture experienced a brief decline in the 1970s and 80s but has had resurgences in the 90s and now again in the late 2000s with the election of a Hawaiian-born President and a culture of escapism. Today, as in the past, and especially with consequences of the worst economic downturn in history, people are decorating their homes and backyards in an effort to conserve funds while still creating a space suitable for relaxing and entertaining. Instead of vacationing to Hawaii, Americans are “staycationing” in their own tropically-themed backyards.