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Arts & Culture

Tiki Oasis Goes Beat, Can You Dig It?

This year's Tiki Oasis posters boast a Beat theme.
Tiki Oasis
This year's Tiki Oasis posters boast a Beat theme.

Fourteen-Year-Old Convention Will Draw Thousands

Tiki Oasis 2014
Tiki Oasis 2014
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando checks out the crazy scene at Tiki Oasis 2014.

Tiki Oasis boasts that it is the biggest tiki weekender on the planet and will quell your wanderlust and quench your thirst. Check out the crazy scene.

I had a hard time tracking down Otto von Stroheim at the old Hanalei Hotel, now the Crown Plaza in Mission Valley. Maybe that’s because he was wearing tiki camouflage. Dressed in a green '70s style cabana outfit he blended into the lush tropical vegetation in the atrium at the center of the hotel. Von Stroheim is the founder of Tiki Oasis, a 14-year-old convention that serves as a mecca for people who are into tiki style.

"So people that like sitting on the beach or being in the water or near the water, like a waterfall, like we are doing right now. Or people who like design or artistic things, you know, the architecture and the exterior design of tiki restaurants and interior design of tiki restaurants are really dense and elaborate, kind of like a Disneyland ride," von Stroheim said.

It’s that kitschy fake environment that musician Jason Lee says offers a perfect form of escape from urban life.

"So this way you could take the back room in the house and totally convert it to a tiki room and have your friends over for cocktails or you go to someone else’s house and for that evening, that’s the idea of escapism," Lee explained.

Tiki is a way of life for the longtime attendees of Tiki Oasis. Great care is especially taken with appearances. Men sport hats and vintage Hawaiian shirts, women coif their hair in '50s and '60s styles, and couples might have matching island outfits. But Lee says newcomers should not be put off, the tiki tribe is very welcoming even if you have nothing vintage to wear.

"It’s still a subculture and it’s going to be nice to still get more people into it, to discover that kind of music and art, these are lost types of subcultures that a lot of people are never going to see in the mainstream," Lee said.

Part — a very tiny part — of Jason Lee's tiki mug collection.
Katie Schoolov
Part — a very tiny part — of Jason Lee's tiki mug collection.

So what exactly defines tiki culture?

"If I had to boil it down to one word it would be fun. If I had to boil it down to two words I could say island lifestyle," von Stroheim said.

Von Stroheim says tiki can be traced back as far as the 1930s in the United States but peaked in the '50s and '60s before dying out in the '80s.

"Oh my gosh, all these tiki palaces were closing and dying, this is a lost culture and a lost slice of American society," von Stroheim added.

His desire to save and document that culture led him to create a zine called "Tiki News". Then he decided to physically gather the tiki tribe for a convention.

"It started in Palm Springs to save a hotel there called the Tropics and we did. And we outgrew it so we moved it down here to the Hanalei Hotel," von Stroheim said.

Now the convention draws 3,000 people, runs four days, and has some 60 hours of symposiums. At Tiki Oasis you can learn how to throw a luau, play ukulele or hear Rolly Crump — original Disney Imagineer and creator of the Tiki Room tikis — wax nostalgic. You can also learn surf guitar from Jason Lee. Lee, who has an iconic tower of blond hair that has been immortalized in a tiki mug, is part of the band Jason Lee and the RIP Tides. He says surf music is one of the subcultures that folds into tiki and it’s defined by reverb.

"So if you don’t have the reverb you’ll have that dry early sound the guitar had. But the minute you hear that decay … that’s instantly surf, everyone associates it with it. You’ve got the surf beat and the reverb with the surf guitar and that’s like the sound. Surf’s kind of the extreme in the realm of tiki and maybe the softer music, like exotica, is kind of the standard," Lee said.

Tiki Oasis founder Otto von Stroheim shows off this year's Beat tiki mugs.
Katie Schoolov
Tiki Oasis founder Otto von Stroheim shows off this year's Beat tiki mugs.

Tiki Oasis is good at mixing subcultures. This year it brought in the Beat Generation, two years ago it was Bond. James Bond. It’s also good at mixing drinks with world renowned mixologists.

"For a real tiki drink you have to get everything right and these are the guys at the top of their game that know how to do that," Lee said.

Lee has one final word of advice to attendees regarding the drinks.

"Mai tai is definitely the drink of choice. You can get different drinks but don’t mix them, that’s going to be the rule of thumb. If you get a mai tai stick with a mai tai because there are so many different ingredients that might not mix with you the next day. And the next day start over," Lee recommended.

So if you want to dig some of this crazy scene, head on over to the Crown Plaza Hotel this weekend (through Sunday) and escape to the Tiki Oasis.

Shag, perhaps the definitive tiki artist, will be in attendance and releasing an exclusive ukelele.

If you want to extend the tiki mood, here's a list of tiki-themed films (you have to watch at least one with Dorothy Lamour) and since this year's theme was Beat, here's a list of Beat Generation films. Plus there is a guided tour of tiki in San Diego.