Minimalist Tiki

Following ‘magical’ 2014, Tiki Kiliki has big plans for The Hukilau in 2015 and beyond

After coming precariously close to saying aloha and goodbye to The Hukilau, the long-running Tiki event she has organized since 2002, Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White is sure glad things turned out differently. “For me, it was the best event in the history of The Hukilau,” she said of the five-day festival in June that not only marked the 13th annual gathering of vintage culture devotees from around the world, but also a new beginning.

The Hukilau's Christie "Tiki Kiliki" White introduces her new partners, Richard Oneslager (left) and Mike Zielinski, during Saturday night's Main Event at The Mai-Kai.
The Hukilau’s Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White introduces her new partners, Richard Oneslager (left) and Mike Zielinski, during Saturday night’s Main Event at The Mai-Kai.

Just months before she planned to close the books on The Hukilau for good, White was approached by two fans of the event who also happened to be experienced businessmen and event organizers who were eager to strike up a partnership. “I consider myself a very lucky person,” she said of the serendipity of the happenstance that led to The Hukilau not only surviving to see 2015, but becoming poised to thrive and reach new audiences across the country.

I sat down with Tiki Kiliki recently at The Mai-Kai, the beloved 57-year-old Polynesian restaurant that serves as the inspiration for the event, to get the lowdown on what she and her new partners, Richard Oneslager and Mike Zielinski, have in the works for The Hukilau and how their mutually beneficial partnership came about. But first, a look back at that memorable event in June that was expanded to five days in anticipation of a last hurrah. Instead, it turned into a celebration of what’s to come.

The Hukilau 2014 was held June 11-15 at the Bahia Mar Beach Resort and The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale.
See below: Gallery of 62 photos from The Atomic Grog. Click on bold links below for galleries by the official photographers at Go11 Media.
Related: The Hukilau offers a deep dive into the history of porthole cocktail lounges
The Hukilau 2015 will be held June 10-14. Get updates at and Facebook.

Modern Caribbean Rum
In the waning hours of The Hukilau on Sunday, artist Crazy Al Evans and author Jeff "Beachbum" Berry get one last chance to savor The Mai-Kai, its cocktails and its tropical garden.
In the waning hours of The Hukilau on Sunday, artist Crazy Al Evans and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry get one last chance to savor The Mai-Kai, its cocktails and its tropical garden.

“This is going to sound really strange, but sort of like Disney, it was kind of like magic this year,” Tiki Kiliki told me. “You can’t really explain it, but everything just fell into place in a magical way. We talked about it afterwards. We don’t really know what the magic formula was, it just happened.”

The magic started on Wednesday, June 11, when what was formerly an informal night at The Mai-Kai became the Unofficial Official Pre-Party. South Florida roots/rockabilly band Slip and the Spinouts jammed in the sold-out Molokai bar while other attendees enjoyed many of the bar’s 47 classic Tiki cocktails and the restaurant’s extensive appetizer and dinner menu in the more sedate dining rooms. Logistical problems at the Sheraton Yankee Clipper forced the cancellation of Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid’s scheduled midnight swim show, but that just gave some attendees the opportunity to begin their room parties early. Disappointed guests were heartened by the fact that there was much more Marina to come.

Those lucky enough to score tickets to Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s sold-out symposium on Thursday afternoon at The Mai-Kai were treated to the author’s most personal presentation to date (see photos below). “Tiki’s Dark Ages: From Fern Bars To Rebirth” delved into much more recent history than many of his past symposiums, covering the period considered the low point in the history of both cocktails and Tiki culture: the 1970s and ’80s. Many in attendance, Berry included, lived through these lean years, making the event even more poignant. The Bum invited attendees to join him in getting into the spirit of things by wearing their polyester finest from that era.

Jeff "Beachbum" Berry presents "Tiki's Dark Ages: From Fern Bars To Rebirth" on Thursday.
Jeff “Beachbum” Berry presents “Tiki’s Dark Ages: From Fern Bars To Rebirth” on Thursday.

Berry’s slideshow and anecdotes about the many misguided fern bars, and his personal journey in search of authentic Tiki cocktails, were among many highlights. The crowd of several hundred in The Mai-Kai’s main dining room also enjoyed three sample cocktails, ranging from the gloriously tacky to one of Berry’s own drinks (in a special souvenir glass) that will be appearing on the menu at his upcoming Tiki bar in New Orleans. The much-anticipated Latitude 29 is scheduled to open this fall in the French Quarter’s Bienville House Hotel, and is sure to please both Berry’s cult following of Tiki enthusiasts and the flourishing craft cocktail scene.

The fledgling barkeep introduced his head bartender, Steve Yamada, a first-timer at The Hukilau but a veteran of the New Orleans bar scene. Before the symposium, Berry and Yamada were seen meticulously tasting all the sample drinks to make sure they were up to snuff. After their work was done at the symposium, they were spotted enjoying the festivities all weekend, immersed in the revelry.

Berry also spent time every day at the Cocktail Kingdom booth in the Tiki Treasures Bazaar at the Bahia Mar hotel, signing copies of his latest book, Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them, which recently won the Spirited Award for Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book at the annual Tales of the Cocktail event in New Orleans. Click here for our Hukilau preview that includes an update on all of Berry’s recent activities.
Coming soon: A full recap of the Hukilau symposium, plus exclusive interviews with Berry and Yamada about Potions of the Caribbean and Latitude 29.

Gallery owner Harold Golen (left) welcomes artist Derek Yaniger and his print that pays tribute to the late Bunny Yeager.
Gallery owner Harold Golen (left) welcomes artist Derek Yaniger and his print that pays tribute to the late Bunny Yeager.

Back at the Bahia Mar, the Official Kick Off Party on Thursday night saw the opening of the Tiki Treasures Bazaar, including vendors and artists from around the world such as Tiki Tower, Art & Alligators, Roadside Attraction, Rocket City Retro, Wally’s Tikis, Livin’ the Dream, Lucky Lou Shoes, Tropiki and many others. As usual, Mrs. Hurricane and I picked up quite a few goodies while browsing the booths [see photo]. And mahalo to Grady Johnson for his usual outstanding cocktails. Also, kudos to Dave “Basement Kahuna” Wolfe for once again organizing the vendors with aplomb.

It was also great to meet so many of the top artists in the Tiki revival, including Danny “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo, Mookie Sato, Eric October, and Derek Yaniger. Gallardo was showing off his amazing new Mai-Kai mug, which I was quick to snap up. It was cool to see October making his first appearance at The Hukilau and The Mai-Kai, and I made sure to buy one of his Mai-Kai inspired items. Yaniger was back for the first time since 2009, showing off his new prints that pay tribute to the late Bunny Yeager. In addition to Yaniger, the Harold Golen Gallery space included many other contemporary artists and was a fun place to browse, as usual.

I finally got a chance to meet Mookie, the longtime contributor to The Hukilau with many great pieces of merchandise and artwork. His Popsips [see photo], produced exclusively for The Hukilau 2014 and inspired by contemporary Japanese pop art, will enjoy a prime spot in my bar. Dominating the entrance to the bazaar were The Hukilau’s official merchandise booths, which looked better than ever and included some great items featuring the work of Mookie, Eekum Bookum (love the mug!), Perry Drake, South Pacific Promotions, Amore Hirosuke, and Heelgrinder.

The Intoxicators rock The Hukilau's Thursday night party at the Bahia Mar Beach Resort.
The Intoxicators rock The Hukilau’s Thursday night party at the Bahia Mar Beach Resort.

And while he didn’t have a booth, it was hard to miss Crazy Al Evans, who seemed to be everywhere throughout the weekend with his new Molokai Maiden mug in hand. Be sure to get your own limited-edition mug co-produced by Swank Pad Productions. Also ubiquitous throughout the weekend were the great cocktails, and for a change they were available beyond the confines of The Mai-Kai.

George Jenkins and his cohorts in The Straw Hat Barmen not only produced the cocktails for special events such as Beachbum Berry’s symposium and Friday afternoon’s cruise aboard the historic Jungle Queen riverboat, they also put out a stellar lineup of drinks that was served all weekend at the Bahia Mar. I know it wasn’t easy getting the hotel’s bar staff on board with authentic Tiki cocktails, but the effort was worth it. Guests enjoyed the Kiliki Cooler (a Beachbum Berry coffee-laced tribute to the Black Magic), Jasper’s Rum Punch (my favorite, a classic from Jamaica you can find in Berry’s Potions of the Caribbean), and Don the Beachcomber (a tribute to the inventor of Tiki cocktails featuring some of his classic ingredients).

Thursday night’s party at the Bahia Mar was punctuated by a solo performance by Pablus of the The Crazed Mugs, a mash-up of Hawaiian music Georgia-style by Kinky Waikiki, and a surprise appearance by Marina and her pod of Aquaticats. Emcee King Kukulele (aka Denny Moynahan) once again served as ringleader of the festivities, just as he has for all previous 12 events. And the night was capped off, as usual, by Tallahassee instrumental surf band The Intoxicators, rocking The Hukilau for the 11th straight year. They were joined by one of the world’s top burlesque performers, Angie Pontani [see video]. But the night was far from over.

Gold Dust Lounge performs on The Mai-Kai's main stage during the Thursday night after-party.
Gold Dust Lounge performs on The Mai-Kai’s main stage during the Thursday night after-party.

Attendees took over The Mai-Kai after 9 p.m. for the sold-out Official After Party featuring the jazzy surf sounds of South Florida’s Gold Dust Lounge. Russell Mofsky and his band had the rare pleasure of performing on the main showroom stage as the crowd enjoyed the eclectic tunes off the band’s new Lost Sunset album [see previous story]. It was a great opportunity for attendees to have exclusive access to the entire restaurant, though it looked like more tickets could have been sold to perhaps allow more locals to enjoy the festivities. The Mai-Kai is a huge venue when you include all eight themed dining areas, bar and outdoor garden (it seats more than 700). But this was not the last time we’d see a band perform this weekend on the stage normally reserved only for the acclaimed Polynesian Islander Revue.

The Tiki Treasures Bazaar opened for a marathon day on Friday (10 a.m. to 10 p.m.), and the day’s symposiums kicked off at 11 a.m. with “Mark of the Beast – Animal Spirits Tattooed” from tattoo historian and artist Paul Roe, owner of Britishink Tattoos in Washington, D.C. The anthesis of the stereotype of a tattooist, Roe is very stylish and charming – and also very entertaining. This was the third year in a row he shared his expertise at The Hukilau.

Up next was another notable expert, Philip Greene, co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans and author of a fascinating book on Ernest Hemingway. Borrowing the book’s title, “To Have and To Have Another – A Hemingway Cocktail Companion” featured a look at Greene’s wealth of historical information and photos that detail the life of the larger-than-life literary figure. He was also a larger-than-life cocktail enthusiast, as attendees learned … and tasted via sample drinks (again thanks to The Straw Hat Barmen). Greene also talked about his role as brand ambassador and consultant for the Hemingway Rum Co., producers of Papa’s Pilar, the boutique rum brand that salutes Hemingway’s passions in both taste and spirit.

Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid
Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid and her Aquaticats create a splash in the pool at the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel on Friday, June 13, during The Hukilau. (Photo by Pat Duncan)

The Jungle Queen cruise departed at 2 p.m., giving guests an opportunity to enjoy a taste of a classic Florida tourist attraction that dates back to 1935. The riverboat (the updated Jungle Queen IV) sailed out of the nearby Bahia Mar Yacht Club Wharf next to the hotel and provided a guided tour of the inland waterways of the “Venice of America” (aka Fort Lauderdale). The weather was perfect for the 90-minute excursion that featured entertainment by King Kukulele and drinks by The Straw Hat Barmen.

Cruisers returned in time for the next symposium, “Create Your Own Suburban Savage Paradise” hosted by Pam and Kate from, a popular mid-century design website. The were joined by a who’s who of Tiki artists and design experts: Bamboo Ben, Danny Gallardo (Tiki Diablo), Jamie Wilson and Anjy Cameron (Cheekytiki), and David Wolfe (aka Basement Kahuna). A wealth of information was shared by all the experts as attendees sipped complimentary cocktails. I hope to cover some of their great tips in a future blog post. Check out Retro Renovation’s coverage of their first trip to The Hukilau (including lots of photos) here and here.

While the Tiki Treasures Bazaar was closed briefly for a sound check for the evening’s entertainment, guests walked over to the nearby Sheraton Beach Hotel (aka Yankee Clipper) to catch Marina (aka Medusirena) and her pod of mermaids perform a special edition of their Friday night swim show at the historic Wreck Bar, est. 1956. The hotel, the site of The Hukilau 2013, has been renovated over the years, but it retains its distinctive facade and mid-century style. Marina’s performances in the pool, visible via portholes in the lounge, are a favorite of locals and tourists alike. The small bar was overflowing with guests and VIPs in town for a special symposium (see below), but it’s too bad the small space prevented everyone attending The Hukilau from getting a good view of this slice of mid-century performance art.
* See photos and our previous coverage of the event

The Sweet Hollywaiians and Nani Maka had the crowd at the Bahia Mar enthralled during Friday's Main Event.
The Sweet Hollywaiians and Nani Maka had the crowd at the Bahia Mar enthralled during Friday’s Main Event.

It was back to the Bahia Mar’s giant Commodore Ballroon for the Friday night Main Event, emceed by King Kukulele and featuring live music by The Smokin’ Menehunes from California, Grinder Nova from Atlanta, and headliners The Sweet Hollywaiians from Japan. There were also performances by Medusirena and Angie Pontani, plus most of the vendors kept their booths open all night for shoppers. This spacious 8,200-square-foot ballroom is hands-down the best site for the Main Event that The Hukilau has had to date, offering great sightlines, a large stage, and plenty of room for the merchandise booths, all in one space. The hotel’s one weak spot, its cocktails, was remedied this year. The Hukilau’s sixth main event at the Bahia Mar was arguably its best ever. It’s too bad there will be major changes at the hotel that will likely force a change of venue for next year (see below).

The Sweet Hollywaiians, making their second trip across the pond exclusively to play The Hukilau, were joined by several special guests. Artist Mookie Sato sat in for several numbers, and noted mid-century Polynesian entertainer Nani Maka performed traditional dances during a poignant closing segment. The seemingly ageless Maka was a fixutre at South Florida hotels and nightclubs during the heyday of the exotic supper club, becoming a regular at the Yankee Clipper’s Polynesian Room, Miami’s Polynesian Gardens, The Mai-Kai, and many more. Seeing her perform with The Sweet Hollywaiians was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Things got a little less traditional during the psychedelic free-for-all billed as the Official After Party. Hosted by South Florida’s own master of mod, Mike “Jetsetter” Jones, the live music and dance party was more aptly subtitled “Jetsetter Reunion: Intergalactic A-Glo-Glo,” featuring a mid-century space-age vibe and day-glow color scheme. Free glow sticks were handed out to attendees as DJ Action Pat spinned retro dance tunes and Jones conjured up memories of party nights at his old Jetsetter Lounge. Medusirena reprised her role as The Orion Slave Girl, and the evening was capped off by a tradition at The Hukilau, a wild and wooly late-night performace by simian surf band The Disasternauts.

A historic gathering at the "Cocktails & Fishtails" symposium
A historic gathering at the “Cocktails & Fishtails” symposium (from left): Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid, mid-century performer Nani Maka, Kelly and Jeff Kunkle of Vintage Roadside, mermaid pioneers Sharon and Donna Jean, plus current Wreck Bar mermaid Erin Amasan Masala. (Photo by Tom Duncan)

For those who survived Friday night in one piece, Saturday’s events kicked off early with a 10 a.m. opening of the bazaar, and an 11 a.m. performance by The Left Arm of Buddha [see photos]. This “retro-exotico-moderno orchestra,” which formed in 2012 in Belgium, is a full-blown multi-sensory experience featuring dancers and performance artists, elaborate sets and video projections, but also very serious musicians performing mid-century exotica classics.

During the afternoon, Beachbum Berry held his final book signing, and one last symposium was held in the Bahia Mar’s Ocean View Room. “Cocktails & Fishtails – The Untold Story of the Porthole Cocktail Lounge,” presented by Vintage Roadside and Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid, was a fascinating look at the history of a unique mid-century phenomenon.

A few “mermaid shows” still exist at The Wreck Bar and a few other locations across the country, inspired by the pioneers from the 1930s through 1960s. Several of these pioneers were on hand for the symposium, reuniting with old friend Nani Maka. This was obviously a labor of love for Vintage Roadside’s Jeff Kunkle, whose dogged research unearthed many vintage photos and cool artwork. Thanks to TikiTomD for his in-depth coverage for The Atomic Grog, including exclusive photos and images used in the symposium:
* The Hukilau offers a deep dive into the history of porthole cocktail lounges

By 4 p.m., the vendors at Tiki Treasures Bazaar has sold their last vintage souvenirs, and guests were making the pilgramage to The Mai-Kai for the traditional Saturday Main Event. It’s a marathon evening filled with happy hours, live music, special on-stage presentations, plus The Mai-Kai’s unique dining experience and, for those seated in the showrooms, the Polynesian Islander Revue, est. 1961, the longest running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii).

Pablus of The Crazed Mugs performs in The Molokai bar.
Pablus of The Crazed Mugs performs in The Molokai bar.

Happy hour started early (4:30-5:30 p.m.) in The Molokai bar as guests enjoyed many of The Mai-Kai’s classic drinks. The Smokin’ Menehunes, a trio from Huntington Beach, Calif., set the perfect mood with their jazzy Hapa Haole tunes from the golden age of Hawaiian music. Crazy Al joined the band on percussion, and everyone seemed to be having a great start to their evening. Mahalo to The Hukilau and The Mai-Kai for implementing changes this year that ensured the bar and restaurant did not become too overcrowded at any point during the evening. It was the first time in years that I was able to enjoy the Saturday early happy hour in The Molokai. In the past, we had to retreat to the back dining rooms due to the overcrowding.

Over the course of the entire festival, The Mai-Kai seemed a lot more comfortable and never packed beyond capacity. And having bands on the main stage was a great enhancement. Tiki Kiliki credits The Mai-Kai for the changes. “Sometimes people, even if they have tickets, show up later in the night, and they weren’t getting access to The Mai-Kai because there was too many people here,” she said. “We set different times for them to show up for happy hour. So we kind of staggered the crowd. That way, everyone can enjoy the happy hour in The Molokai, which is really their happy place, then they can be seated for dinner 30 to 45 minutes later. Then other people can replace them.”

Skinny Jimmy and the Stingrays crank out the classic surf tunes Saturday night at The Mai-Kai.
Skinny Jimmy and the Stingrays crank out the classic surf tunes Saturday night at The Mai-Kai.

At 7, Pablus took over for a solo set during the second happy hour in The Molokai, with percussion from Crazy Al, of course. His performance of Rum Barrel, which name-drops the very bar he was performing in, was greeted by a round of Barrels for many lucky imbibers, courtesy of Martin Cate, owner of San Francisco’s acclaimed Smuggler’s Cove. Shortly thereafter, these lyrics came true: “Rum Barrel tricky. Rum Barrel fool ya. Rum Barrel make a haole dance the hula.”

The bar’s late set was a surf and retro-rock party hosted by Deerfield Beach’s Skinny Jimmy & The Stingrays. The band matched its stylish dress with an impeccable set of instrumental classics, plus originals such as Hurricane Surf and Espionage.

While The Molokai was rocking in the front of the restaurant, the Tahiti Room in the back was also party central with rollicking sets by El Capitan (Atlanta surf scallywags), Grinder Nova, and The Intoxicators. A special award should go to The Hukilau’s entertainment coordinator, Brian Crum, who not only made sure all three stages were running smoothly but also did his usual great job behind the kit for The Intoxicators. I just hope he found the time to eat (and drink).

Tiki Kiliki honored Brian and her entire crew of coordinators – including Sherill Gross, Doug Stewart, Stacie (Heelgrinder) Herndon, Patrick LeJeune, Bill Dillard, Joe Garcia and all the volunteers – before the first dinner show. All received a special limited edition of the official mug by Eekum Bookum, and joined Tiki Kiliki on stage for a bow [Photo]. King Kukulele presided over all the main stage shenanigans, doing his usual fine job of keeping the several hundred in the main dining rooms entertained while they enjoyed their exotic food and drinks. Every so often, you heard the gong signaling that another Mystery Drink had been ordered. Among those treated to the ceremonial dance and massive communal bowl were The Sweet Hollywaiians and Mookie, Martin Cate, Beachbum Berry and Steve Yamada (see photo below), and this surprised writer (mahalo John Tremain!).

Jeff "Beachbum" Berry and Steve Yamada (head bartender at Berry's upcoming Latitude 29 in New Orleans) enjoy a Mystery Drink during dinner at The Mai-Kai.
Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and Steve Yamada (head bartender at Berry’s upcoming Latitude 29 in New Orleans) enjoy a Mystery Drink during dinner at The Mai-Kai.

Things got even more interesting, when Mai-Kai owner Dave Levy took the microphone for his annual mahalo to all The Hukilau guests, and a tribute to Tiki Kiliki. He recalled the dark days during the previous months when it looked like The Hukilau was calling it adieu. He said he was forced to enlist manager Kern Mattei and director of sales and marketing Pia Dahlquist in totally new roles. Kern and Pia then appeared onstage and proceeded to do their best impersonations of King Kukulele and Tiki Kiliki [see photo], much to the delight of the assembled revelers. Tiki Kiliki later returned the favor with her traditional gift for Levy, a mystery dance by a special guest – this year the alluring Angie Pontani (see photo below).

Luckily, Kern and Pia never had to assume those roles in real life, thanks to the emergence of The Hukilau’s white knights. Tiki Kiliki brought Richard and Mike up on stage and told the story of the nearly missed opportunity that led to them keeping the event going. As she told me later, they came to the The Hukilau as fans, with one of them attending for two years and the other joining him last year. “They attended every Tiki event, plus Rum Renaissance and Tales of the Cocktail,” Tiki Kiliki said, “and they loved The Hukilau the most.”

They were searching for an event to get involved with, but they didn’t know which one until they heard in late 2013 that The Hukilau planned to hold its final event in June. They thought about it for a while, Richard sent an e-mail in December, “and it went into my spam folder,” Tiki Kiliki said. “I never saw it.” Luckily, Mike was persistent. A couple months later, his e-mail escaped the spam filter and got through to Tiki Kiliki, who was busy planning her final event.

Burlesque star Angie Pontani presents Mai-Kai owner Dave Levy with a ceremonial mystery dance, with a little help from Crazy Al Evans, during Saturday night's Main Event during The Hukilau 2014.
Burlesque star Angie Pontani presents Mai-Kai owner Dave Levy with a ceremonial mystery dance, with a little help from Crazy Al Evans, during Saturday night’s Main Event during The Hukilau 2014.

“I was dead set that it was the last one,” she said during our recent conversation. “We never made a profit, but that wasn’t what it was all about. It’s still not about that for me. Just breaking even would have been nice. My goal always is to just bring the best show … for people coming so far and spending so much money.” She said that Richard and Mike “were the first people to offer up solutions to problems that I actually had involving staffing, involving budget concerns, just general help.”

The negotiations lasted several months, but when they realized that they could work together to improve the event while also keeping it genuine and authentic, a deal was done and it was announced that 2014 would not be the finale after all. “They knew we had The Mai-Kai, we had really genuine flavor,” Tiki Kiliki said. “We weren’t pimping something that didn’t exist.”

“When you sign your name on the dotted line and you’re responsible for everything, it’s just a big weight on your shoulders,” Tiki Kiliki continued. “So to know that I had these two people waiting in the wings, who were willing to support me and help me and kind of take over that burden and let me be the creative being that I am, it’s almost like you want to pinch yourself every day. Because that just doesn’t happen in life. I consider myself a very lucky person.”

The Hukilau’s longtime attendees are always near the top in the list of considerations. When it was announced that the event would continue, Tiki Kiliki offered full refunds (or credit toward a future year) to anyone who had booked a trip based on it being the finale and chose not to come, as a sign of good faith. On stage during Saturday night’s Main Event, Richard reassured everyone that he and Mike would not mess with Tiki Kiliki’s vision. He related the three most common requests from The Hukilau community: More rum, let Tiki Kiliki do her thing, and “don’t f*** it up.”

Artist Jeff Chouinard (right) presents a tiki he carved for The Mai-Kai to owner Dave Levy and manager Kern Mattei (as King Kukulele) during Saturday night's Main Event during The Hukilau 2014.
Artist Jeff Chouinard (right) presents a tiki he carved for The Mai-Kai to owner Dave Levy and manager Kern Mattei (as King Kukulele) during Saturday night’s Main Event during The Hukilau 2014.

Another special presentation was made onstage by Florida artist Jeff Chouinard of Surf Soul Tiki, a longtime vendor and contributor to The Hukilau, who donated a massive carving that will live among the many other great Tikis inside The Mai-Kai (look for it behind the stage area).

After all the announcements, the first of two Polynesian Islander Revue dinner shows enthralled the audience and, as usual, was one of the highlights for many. But there was a special surprise still to come that wasn’t on any printed schedule. The main stage also hosted some late-night performances by the The Sweet Hollywaiians (see photos below), joined by Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid, providing another “only at The Hukilau” moment. It was like taking a trip back to the 1950s to see and hear this vintage performance in a historic setting. The main dining area, with it’s huge A-frame roof, was the original structure that opened on sleepy Federal Highway in 1956.

But it wasn’t over yet. Aside from the unofficial room parties every night that I’m sorry I missed (especially this one at the nearby Bahia Cabana hotel featuring live surf music and drinks by The Straw Hat Barmen), there was one more day of scheduled activities. Sunday’s festivities started early for The Mai-Kai (noon), but luckily Skinny Jimmy & The Stingrays were still set up in The Molokai from the night before. The band rocked everyone back into party mode while guests looking for a more sedate experience could explore the quiet dining rooms and outdoor gardens while perusing a special exhibit of historic items from The Mai-Kai’s archives.

The Tahiti dining room was filled with historic photos, costumes, scrapbooks, mugs, dinnerware, menus and more. Standing watch in the corner was late owner Bob Thornton, shown in a framed photo holding a commemorative silver Rum Barrel mug for the restaurant’s 25th anniversary (the frame normally hangs in the back office). The mug itself was on display nearby for hands-on examination. The old costumes appeared to be in great shape, and it was surprising how heavy the fabrics are. It gives me even more respect for the Polynesian Islander Revue performers, past and present.

A photo of The Mai-Kai's late owner, Bob Thornton, welcomes guests of The Hukilau to the display of artifacts in the Tahiti dining room.
A photo of The Mai-Kai’s late owner, Bob Thornton, welcomes guests of The Hukilau to the display of artifacts in the Tahiti dining room.

The main dining rooms quickly filled up for an encore showing of the film Plastic Paradise: A Swingin’ Trip Through America’s Polynesian Obsession, produced by Miami filmmakers Common Machine. Filmed in part at The Hukilau and The Mai-Kai in in 2011 and 2012, it was previewed at the 2013 event. The full, final edit of the film was shown this year on the heels of airings on PBS stations across the country. Tiki Kiliki, Beachbum Berry and many other movers and shakers from the Tiki revival are featured in the film, which traces the history of the phenomenon from its origins through today. A Q&A session followed, then it was back to The Molokai for more live surf music and a wind-down that for many lasted all night. Die-hards were still keeping the party going into the late evening when I adjourned for some much-needed rest.

So what made the 2014 event run so smoothly? Mother Nature was certainly more accommodating, and there were no weather woes to speak of. “For me, it was the best event in the history of The Hukilau,” Tiki Kiliki said during our interview, citing several different reasons. “Part of it was we finally got the right people in place, as far as staffing, to really make a difference.” She was also very happy with the diversity of entertainment and guests this year. “We brought together people from Europe and Asia to kind of represent all the different cultures that really play a part in Tiki culture as a whole,” she said. “And everybody who was associated with the event really cared. We all put everything forward. I don’t think I ever gave more of myself than this year. And I think the people who came this year really made a huge difference.”

What’s next? The Hukilau goes on the road to spread the Tiki gospel

The obvious question is, then, what does the future hold? Tiki Kiliki is in the process of relocating from her native Alabama to Florida, making the logistics of running the event much easier. “It’s paradise here,” she said while sitting in The Mai-Kai’s lanai. “And if I can share that with everybody, that’s all I need. I want to be back here. I want to be near The Mai-Kai, I want to be in a place where I can help them any way I can.”

The Smokin' Menehunes perform during happy hour in The Molokai bar at The Mai-Kai on Saturday.
The Smokin’ Menehunes perform during happy hour in The Molokai bar at The Mai-Kai on Saturday.

And, as stated above, having her new partners makes a huge difference. “We’re busy planning 2015,” Tiki Kiliki said, “but there’s growing pains. … We all have to rely on each other regarding what needs to be done and when. And how it needs to be done. But the bottom line is, it’s great knowing that there’s two sources of support. And not just rely on yourself to make all those decisions.”

One thing that will surely remain is the authenticity of the event. And hopefully any growth will not take away from the intimacy, a hallmark of The Hukilau. “They didn’t really want anything to change,” Tiki Kiliki said of her new partners. “Their commitment level is going to depend on how authentic we make the event.” She said they’re still working on a structure of how things will run, but “the people who have been with me for many years are still going to be there.”

Unfortunately, one thing that may not be there next year is the Bahia Mar, host hotel for six of the 13 years. A recent ownership change points to major upheaval coming to the resort, including work to add trendy shops, restaurants and condos. None of which points to an enhancement, or even preservation of, its mid-century charm. The Yankee Clipper has hosted The Hukilau four times, but it lacks the proper indoor/outdoor facilities.

The Sweet Hollywaiians perform a special midnight show at The Mai-Kai.
The Sweet Hollywaiians perform a special midnight show at The Mai-Kai.

Tiki Kiliki said she and her partners are looking for “someone we’re going to partner with for many years.” With inclement weather always an issue in June, she said, “we want to partner with a property that’s going to be able to move stuff indoors seamlessly and without repercussions. And for it to be good for every attendee. We just want more of a relationship with a property than we’ve had. To me, Tiki culture encompasses a tropical feel both indoors and outdoors. So we’ve got to find a space that marries the two.”

The Hukilau is also looking beyond Fort Lauderdale. “It’s our goal to have different events around the country and help spread the word about The Hukilau … and to just share aloha,” Tiki Kiliki said. “There’s a lot of Tiki bars opening up, and some people never reach The Hukilau. Some people never reach Tiki Oasis. There’s a whole new generation.”

These events and their organizers are now the keepers of the torch of the Tiki revival. Dedicated individuals like Tiki Kiliki see it as their life’s mission to keep it “alive and thriving.” For those newbies just now dipping their toes into the ocean of Tiki culture, she says, “we have to – we must, it’s essential – to open up their minds to everything out there.”

“We’ve got a lot planned, a lot going on,” she said, promising details as soon as they’re available. “Just follow the rum trail in he ocean.”


Exclusive Atomic Grog photos
The Hukilau 2014 at the Bahia Mar and The Mai-Kai
(click on thumbnails to see larger images or to view as slideshow)

More photos
* See more than 2,300 images from Go11 Media, the official event photographer

More on the Web
* Retro Renovation stories, photos: The Hukilau | The Mai-Kai
* Photos gallery from Broward/Palm Beach New Times

Official sites
* | Facebook page | Facebook group | Flickr | YouTube

Atomic Grog related coverage
* The Hukilau offers a deep dive into the history of porthole cocktail lounges
* Full coverage of The Hukilau 2014
* Past photo recaps of The Hukilau: 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009
* All posts on The Hukilau | The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide | All Mai-Kai posts

See you in 2015 …

The Hukilau 2015

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