Island Dreams

How Polynesia’s Tiki culture found a home in Fort Lauderdale.

BACK TO THE FUTURE: The Mai-Kai restaurant, with its quintessential Polynesian-inspired décor, recently celebrated its 60th anniversary.

By Tom Austin

Time and the workings of nostalgia are a slippery notion, and at certain landmark moments—such as the recent 60th anniversary celebration for the Mai-Kai Restaurant—decades somehow slip away and everything suddenly becomes new again. That happened on December 28, which the Broward County Board of County Commissioners proclaimed as “Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show Day.” For one fantastic evening, the restaurant transported guests back 60 years to when brothers Bob and Jack Thornton launched the restaurant, igniting Fort Lauderdale’s never-ending Tiki obsession and attracting a crowd that included Johnny Carson, Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Weissmuller.

Apart from the Mai-Kai—which USA Today considers one of the top 10 Tiki bars in the United States—Tiki-mania lives on in Fort Lauderdale at the Kreepy Tiki Bar and Lounge (billed by Conde Nast Traveler as “one of the 22 best Tiki bars in the United States”) and the underwater mermaid swim show at the Wreck Bar at the former Yankee Clipper hotel, now the B Ocean Resort. Tiki culture embraces all that is exotic and South Seas-related—including mermaids, considered the ultimate Tiki sirens.

NEW AGE: Modern takes on the Polynesian-inspired venues come in the form of the Kreepy Tiki Bar and Lounge, which is known for its hula girl?neon sign.

Years ago, when America was a big, brassy and confident nation, the Mai-Kai and other Fort Lauderdale Tiki venues—such as the now-gone The Polynesian Room and The Kon-Tiki—were akin to stepping into an episode of “Mad Men.” Now Tiki bars have an irony-infused layer of pure cool, and the Tiki cult—fueled by surfers, former punk rockers, the neo-burlesque rage, lounge music devotees, the craft cocktail movement, Disney nerds and the generally whimsical—is bigger than ever.

The Wreck Bar, Kreepy Tiki, the Mai-Kai and the international Tiki cult come together during the annual Hukilau festival, a four-day Tiki culture celebration held in June at the Hyatt Regency Pier Sixty-Six, the ideal Hukilau backdrop. Pier Sixty-Six’s tower, opened by Phillips Petroleum Co. (now called Phillips 66) in 1966, is a true Richard Humble gem. Originally a revolving lounge at the top of the hotel circulated every 66 minutes (the space has since been converted for special events), and there are 66 pointed Statue of Liberty-style spikes around the tower’s crown. This is perfect Space Age midcentury architecture, and as it happens, the American a-go-go sensibility of the Space Age intersects with 1960s Tiki culture.

Now in its 16th year, the Hukilau—part of an international Tiki festival circuit that encompasses San Diego’s Tiki Oasis—attracts groups of tatted-up, post-ironic Brooklyn hipsters who romp around Pier Sixty-Six and take in neo-burlesque entertainers named Lila Starlet and Kitten de Ville, and Tiki bands such as California’s The Tikiyaki Orchestra. Over the years, the Hukilau has featured such stars as Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann on “Gilligan’s Island.” During one Hukilau, Wells even led the inevitable “Three-Hour Tour” boat cruise around Fort Lauderdale. Every Hukilau also features intelligent, profoundly scholarly symposiums on Tiki culture, with such panelists as author and bar owner Jeff “Beachbum” Berry of Latitude 29 in New Orleans.

TIKI TIMES: The annual Hukilau event features live bands, such as the Intoxicators, playing nostalgic songs.

Naturally, the Tiki sensibility gathered force in the late 1940s, after American GIs returned from the war in the Pacific. It grew with Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition, James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” Hawaiian statehood and exotic rum drinks such as the Zombie and the Missionary’s Downfall. Some of the great original Tiki bars, including the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, established in 1945 at the Fairmont San Francisco, are still going strong.

The Mai-Kai’s 60th anniversary celebrations also brought together the worlds of Tiki-culture kitsch and scholarship. On hand to celebrate was Gaspar Gonzalez, co-creator of a public television documentary on American Tiki culture and bars called “Plastic Paradise: A Swingin’ Trip Through America’s Polynesian Obsession.” Sven Kirsten, author of the seminal Tiki Pop: America Imagines its own Polynesian Paradise, also did a presentation on “Tahitian Cannibal Carvings: The Logo Tikis of the Mai-Kai,” examining the history of the Mai-Kai’s logo, a triumvirate of cannibalistic Tiki-shaped creatures. Tim “Swanky” Glazner, author of Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, screened a 1963 segment from “The Tonight Show,” which had Mai-Kai “mystery girl” Sally Sewell fly to New York to serve Carson a ritualistic “mystery drink.”

Mai-Kai “mystery girl” Sally Sewell appears on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.

The Mai-Kai anniversary celebrations also featured the debut of a new Polynesian Islander Revue, a blur of sarongs, twirling Samoan fire knives (or lethal-looking torches) and authentic Polynesian dances. The shows are choreographed by Mireille Thornton, a Tahitian who married the Mai-Kai’s late co-owner Bob Thornton in 1971. For Dave Levy, Mireille Thornton’s Tahitian-born son and general manager of the restaurant, the resurgence of interest in Tiki culture has been a positive movement that is respectful of Polynesian culture. “Some of these Tiki scholars have really done their homework,” he says. “When they talk about the histories of the artists who’ve done our Tikis, they mention things I don’t even know.”

Tiki culture has always been an antidote to white bread, post-World War II American culture and open to all manner of ironies and curiosities on the international front. Tiki bands from Italy and Japan have played the Hukilau, along with the Swedish band Ixtahuele, who perform in black-tie attire and are a dazzling blend of respect and irony. For Pia Dahlquist, the Mai-Kai’s Swedish-born director of sales and marketing, Tiki is invincible. “To Swedes,” Dahlquist says, “simply being in Fort Lauderdale is exotic, even without the Mai-Kai. And of course we’ve always loved Polynesia. After all, Pippi Longstocking’s father was a South Seas ship captain.”

The upcoming Hukilau, which takes place June 7-11 at the Pier Sixty-Six, will once again feature Tiki band Jason Lee and the R.I.P Tides, and attendees will descend on the Mai-Kai, the mother-lode of Tiki culture. For Glazner, it all makes perfect sense. “Fort Lauderdale is subtropical, and like most of Florida, built on fantasy,” he says. “Tiki restaurants are over-the-top Hollywood film sets with great cocktails from the past. How can you beat that combination?”

Mai-Kai girls.

Originally appeared in the Spring 2017 Issue.

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