Vale: Why did you start publishing Tiki News?
Otto von Stroheim: One of my major goals was to save places like Kelbo’s which was taken over by a strip joint in 1994, even though people like Joey Sehee [lounge entertainer and bandleader] were trying to save it. In the greater Los Angeles area it seems like there used to be thousands of tiki bars, one on each corner, where mostly local white home-owners would come in after work. Now only a dozen (or less) remain, and I wanted to save those. Also, I wanted to build an appreciation for tiki culture. A lot of the articles I publish are “travelogues,” because people should be encouraged to track down and visit the remaining tiki environments. Once you start visiting the bars and seeing the old menus and photographs of all the old places, you realize, “This used to be a whole other world.”
The tiki bar scene started with Don the Beachcomber’s in 1934. I just got a plate from Trader Vic’s that boasted “From 1934,” but in 1934 Trader Vic’s was still a hotdog stand. It didn’t really open as a Polynesian restaurant until 1948. There were bamboo, exotic, Hawaiian-style nightclubs all over L.A. in the ’20s and ’30s, but only Don the Beachcomber’s was truly tiki, having switched from a more nautical-style decor to a trader-style place featuring hand-carved Polynesian artwork.
When you go to a place like the Tonga Hut in North Hollywood, you’ll notice details like the hand-made lighting fixtures, a kidney-shaped dropped ceiling–the place is artistic and it was all built by the owners. Kelbo’s was also built by the owners–self-made. It’s total folk art to the max–yet nobody cares about it. It hasn’t been documented in any art or architectural publications that I know of. There were all levels of craftsmanship involved, from John Doe at the corner bar doing carvings for his own bar, to some exceptionally skilled carvers and designers. Basically, this was an incredible art movement that was nationwide, coast-to-coast and all-encompassing (places like Kansas, New Mexico and Texas had tiki bars, as well as Canada, Mexico and Europe due to Thor Heyerdahl, as well as the Bahamas). They were so prevalent, and then they were all wiped out. It’s amazing that nobody documented anything-this blue collar cultural phenomenon just came and went.