One cannot imagine what the modern Tiki revival would be like without Otto von Stroheim. A much less festive place, that’s for sure. Since 2001, the Los Angeles native has produced, along with his wife Baby Doe, the first and largest Tiki event of its kind in the world, Tiki Oasis in San Diego. Before that, he was among a small group of devotees that is credited with igniting interest in mid-century Polynesian culture that continues to thrive and grow more than 25 years later.
Tiki Oasis: Aug. 14-17, 2014, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel and Bali Hai restaurant in San Diego. Includes live music and entertainment, symposiums, vendors, car show, and more. Go to TikiOasis.com or Facebook for more info.
In addition to Tiki Oasis, Otto was the creator of several influential touchstones in Tiki’s modern history, including Tiki News magazine, and a series of curated art exhibits and books (Tiki Art Now). Otto can also be found at Forbidden Island in Alameda doing a regular monthly DJ gig.
I cornered Otto at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale during Miami Rum Renaissance Festival in April and asked him five burning questions:
1. You’ve been at ground zero of the Tiki revival since the very beginning. What do you miss about the early days, and what’s better now?
Back then, there were fewer eyes watching you, less pressure, less people to answer to. And, you know, there was less knowledge so if you got something wrong or it was yet to be proven, or if you got a fact wrong, or if you told a story and left out a fact, or if you had a recipe and didn’t get the ingredients right, nobody was there to say whether that was right or wrong. You were moving the peg forward either way. Now there’s so much knowledge and so many people involved, and the knowledge can be dispersed very quickly, if you make a statement or you’re interviewed in a newspaper or a blog, or you write a book or post something or publish something, there’s going to be somebody out there who knows a little more, or knows that you left something out, and they’re going to call you on it. It’s kind of funny because in the old days, people were like, “Oh, that’s great, cool. The recipe for the Mai Tai. Awesome. You know that, alright.” It was a little more relaxed in that way. A little bit less pressure, which would allow you to kind of have more fun in a way.
On the other hand, now, the opposite is also true. If you publish a recipe and it has, say, cinnamon syrup. And someone says, “no, no, no, that’s Don’s Spices #2,” you’re like “thank you, awesome, that’s what was missing.” As you move the ball forward, somebody else moves it forward again. And you get all these facts. Like on Tiki Central, if you post something like “I found this matchbook from this place that hasn’t been posted” and someone jumps in and says “I have an ashtray from there,” and someone else says, “I found the location on Yahoo Maps and here’s a picture of it before it got demolished in 1987.” It’s funny. Locating Tiki is my favorite thread now on Tiki Central. It’s literally an encyclopedia, what Tiki Road Trip aspired to be, and 100 times better. I’m not exaggerating. It has thousands of locations with dozens of entries per location. That’s a great example of what’s happening now that is just so much better than it was 15 years ago, when you just had no idea. You had to try to write a letter to somebody in Ohio, then they would write a letter to you back. Or if I had e-mail on AOL and they didn’t, or we couldn’t send a file through e-mail. Just weird, frustrating things that are just taken for granted today and are just so easy.
2. What’s your all-time favorite Tiki Oasis theme, and what’s one proposed bad idea that never happened?
One proposed by me that never happened is ’80s Tiki. It almost came to fruition. We would have gotten musicians from the ’80s as the headliners. So you would have maybe had Devo doing their easy listening group from the ’80s, or you would have Eliott Easton from the Cars doing the Tiki Gods. Or Fred Schneider from the B-52s doing his New Wave thing. You would pack the musical lineup with these ’80s stars who are now doing lounge music, like Todd Rundgren or somebody like that. And all the audience would dress like the ’80s on Saturday night. It never happened because we thought, “Do we really want to make everyone dress ’80s?” That would not be super cool, actually. There were several others that have been submitted in the suggestion box, like Metal Tiki or Religion Tiki, like missionaries and stuff. Or Porno Tiki, and you would invite the porno stars from Hawaii and show their films. I’ve gotten some “out there” suggestions for themes.
But for my favorite theme, it’s a tie between the last one we did in Palm Springs and a recent one we did in San Diego. The last one we did in Palm Springs was “shipwrecked” (Marooned at Tiki Oasis, May 2005). You could be a beachcomber like you were shipwrecked on an island, or you could be a pirate. Some people came in full pirate regalia. The stage was set up like a huge shipwreck, like half a ship. The cargo was spilled out onto the lawn adjacent to the stage. And the mast was a white canvas that the headlining band Ape projected onto. So we didn’t have to have a cheesy screen behind the band. It went off really well because up until then, sometimes people didn’t get into the theme as much. But that was the one year where it really clicked with the entire audience. Everybody had some sort of a costume. Obviously, Crazy Al is already a beachcomber, but he was dressed up like a full-on pirate. And other people dressed up like Crazy Al. And we handed out a bunch of Halloween pirate gear, like plastic swords and eye patches. So even people who were there just in Hawaiian shirts and shorts had an eye patch on. It was kind of funny. The audience was still kind of small, maybe 500 then. Then once the themes really caught on, and it became well-known that there was a theme and you should have a costume, my favorite was the spy year (Exotic Espionage & Polynesian Pulp, August 2012). People really bought into that, and it was so awesome on Saturday to see everyone convert from wearing shorts and Hawaiian shirts and straw hats into wearing tuxedos, and the girls were in evening gowns with pearl necklaces and their hair done up like they’re going to a Monte Carlo casino. That’s easily my favorite recent thing.
3. What was the most memorable moment at the event?
In 2003, our friends Rich and Gretchen got married at Tiki Oasis. And coincidentally, the 6 o’clock news was there. So just as they came off the stage and were walking across the lawn, they had just set up their cameras. And they were like, “What’s going on here? Oh, a wedding.” And they were interviewed, so that was pretty cool. Their wedding was on the news. I thought that was pretty memorable.
4. What are the qualities you look for in a great Tiki bar? And can you name some of your favorites?
I look for everything. I analyze everything at a Tiki bar. For example, Forbidden Island is my local Tiki bar, and when Martin Cate started that up with Michael and Mano, one of the partners wanted to have baseball caps, and Martin said no. And I thought, you’re right, that’s cheesy, that’s bad, that’s non-Tiki. That’s lame. Then they were like, “let’s have T-shirts,” and Martin said no. He said, “if you want a shirt, let’s do bowling shirts.” It was a rockabilly, ’50s style bowling shirt and it looked great. Again, I thought that was a good move. I would never have a T-shirt for my Tiki bar. It makes it look frat or Jimmy Buffett, or at the very best, surf. It’s just not Tiki and lounge and exotica and Martin Denny. So even little aspects like that are important. Do they have a cheesy bumper sticker? That’s bad. You’re devaluing your bar. But first of all, they have to have a rum collection. Second of all, they have to have an atmosphere, an ambiance. And preferably, your room is divided into different ambiances. Like even though Forbidden Island is a very small bar, they have a little grotto in the corner, they have some booths in the middle. So you can kind of get away and say “that’s my favorite spot.” You can be in the couches next to the grotto, you can be in the booths in the middle, or you can be at the bar. And they have a little outdoor area. It’s nice to have division of space, which creates options for you to be in and experience.
And then, of course, quality drink selection. A good menu, and a menu that has a story, preferably. With information that you can read. Forbidden Island has the history of how it was built. It’s all fake, Martin scripted it all, but the concept is a ship wrecked and they took the remains and used it to build their bar. You look at the walls and it’s all planking that looks damaged. And then there’s stuff hanging from the ceiling that’s the cargo of the ship. So a good Tiki bar would have proper decor and atmosphere, proper rum selection and quality liquor, and proper drinks. You can have some off drinks like an Island Mai Tai, which is bad and common and plays to the general public, but you’ve got to have some good classics, and they’ve got to be well made. You’ve got to have something for a Tiki expert. You can’t just have run-of-the-mill drinks. Like Martin and Smuggler’s Cove. Every single drink is interesting, historical, well made, quality ingredients, authentic. It’s unbelievable what he’s done with that bar. And people are copying him, so he’s like Don the Beachcomber reborn, in a way. Other Tiki bars internationally come to Smugger’s Cove, drink the drinks, and try to copy his template that he set up. [See our Take 5 with Martin Cate]
5. What’s your favorite cocktail at The Mai-Kai and why?
The Zula, because I’m drinking it now. My favorite is usally the one I’m drinking, which happens to the Zula #1. I like it, it’s complex, very fruity. It almost tastes light, but it’s actually very strong. Which is a very interesting and unique feature to tropical drinks. I prefer strong tropical drinks like a Navy Grog or a Zombie. But it’s nice to have one that’s refreshing and kind of light tasting, yet still strong. I do like the Mutiny and the Black Magic a lot. I don’t know which one I like better or worse, but I have had those over the years and those are what I know The Mai-Kai for. And if anybody asks me, “What should I drink when I go to The Mai-Kai?”, I would recommend those. When I had those here 12 years ago when I first came here, those stood out as unique. I’d never had anything like that at any other bar. And, actually, not really since. Martin served a drink at Forbidden Island that had coffee in it, but they stopped. … There aren’t many bars that have a drink like that with coffee in it.
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