Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse than 2020 or 2021, along came 2022. The past three years have been rough, any way you slice it. But for the Tiki community, things turned tragic last year with the devastating loss of multiple legendary figures. But rather than mourn their passing, let’s take the opportunity to remember and reflect on their great impact. And while we’re at it, let’s also give thanks for the positive news that made it into our annual list of the most impactful stories of the year.
Related: The Year in Tiki 2022 – Take a trip back to the year’s top events
Bonus recipes below: Harry Yee’s Tropical Itch | Stephen Remsberg’s Planter’s Punch
1. A FAREWELL TO KINGS: OCEANIC ARTS CELEBRATION AND AUCTION
The top story of 2021 – the retirement of Robert Van Oosting and LeRoy Schmaltz – continued into 2022 with the epic events that marked the true end of an era. Spread over three weekends in April, Aloha Oa! 65 years of Oceanic Arts Celebration took place at the Whittier, Calif., headquarters of the longtime purveyors of South Seas decor. Tikiphiles from around the world came to pay tribute to these two men and their legacy, which can be found in not only Tiki bars and restaurants but also in theme parks, hotels and motels, apartment complexes, and countless other venues built over the past half century. It’s heartening that both were able to be there to see the appreciation for their decades of work on behalf of an artistic style that often is overlooked. Thousands attended the events that featured live music and entertainment, presentations and history lessons, plus an array of tropical libations. And, of course, the opportunity to meet Bob and LeRoy and peruse their vast warehouse of historic Ocean Arts lamps, floats, carvings, and many more items that were cataloged for auction.
Part 2 of the extravaganza was The Oceanic Arts Vintage Tiki Collection Auction, held April 23-24 and featuring likely the most extensive collection of mid-century Polynesian inspired decor and artwork ever offered for sale at one event. Curated by Jordan Reichek, a longtime friend and owner of nearby Peekaboo Gallery, the auction drew bidders large and small seeking to take home a piece of Tiki history. A portion of the proceeds from the event were donated to humanitarian aid and relief for Tonga, which was hit by a volcanic eruption and tsunami in January.
The monthlong celebration proved to be a fitting farewell for Oceanic Arts, providing both great memories and a unique opportunity to pick up items that will never be made again. For those who couldn’t make it to Southern California, three was a gigantic 500-page book compiled by Reichek featuring artwork from the auction along with archival photos and insightful conversations with Van Oosting and Schmaltz. Oceanic Arts: The Godfathers of Tiki tells the story of not just the small studio that influenced generations of artists, but also the entire Polynesian Pop movement in America.
2. LEROY SCHMALTZ, THE PAUL BUNYAN OF TIKI, PASSES AWAY
Less than two months after the Oceanic Arts celebration, the Tiki world lost a legend when carver and artist LeRoy Earl Schmaltz passed away on June 17, not long after celebrating his 87th birthday. The amount of art and woodwork created by this one man was awe inspiring. The Paul Bunyan of Tiki will loom large for generations to come. Schmaltz joined with business partner Robert Van Oosting in 1956 to create Oceanic Arts – a bar, restaurant and entertainment design firm that continued to have an over-sized impact on the industry, even after the pair retired in late 2021.
While Van Oosting ran the business and guided its creative efforts, Schmaltz did the heavy lifting with the workmanlike precision of a lumberjack but the sensibilities of a fine artist. The men had a true affinity for authentic Polynesian art, traveling there often for inspiration in their youth. They also imported and sold the work of artists from across the Pacific Rim. But it was the original works created by Schmaltz (and the many other artists Oceanic Arts employed) that drove the company forward though lean times. Eventually, new fame (and business) arrived with the Polynesian Pop revival in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Beyond Tiki-carving, Schmaltz was proficient in many other disciplines: Mosaic work, watercolor, pastels, charcoals, assemblages, sculptures, architectural design, and much more. Always a humble artist, when Schmaltz was asked what his greatest accomplishment was, he answered without hesitation: “My family.” He was a devout and church-going family man who left not only an artistic legacy but also a vast clan including six children, 10 grandchildren, and 2 great-grandchildren.
3. COCKTAIL AND MUSIC LEGEND BROTHER CLEVE DIES
The influence of Brother Cleve was as vast as his interests. When the craft cocktail pioneer died suddenly in September at age 67, the tributes poured in from across the entertainment world. As a testament to his importance and status as a fixture on the East Coast scene, he was eulogized by writers from the Boston Globe, New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal,.
According to The Journal, Cleve (born Robert Toomey) was in Los Angeles to appear at a Tiki-themed bartending event when he died of a heart attack. His first claim to fame was music as a keyboardist in the 1980s. He played in countless bands, including stints touring with the Del Fuegos and Combustible Edison. Then, he had a revelation. As the obituary tells it: “One day in the mid-1980s, at a diner in Cleveland, he noticed scores of cocktails listed on the menu. He began searching thrift shops for cocktail-recipe books and learned to mix and tweak classic drinks.”