Whittier’s tiki king

Times Staff Writer

Blissfully splayed out on a Hawaiian beach, sipping rum from a pineapple and listening to ukulele music waft from -- somewhere -- it’s hard to imagine that the rough-hewn, authentic-looking thatch umbrella shielding you from the sun was likely made back home on the mainland. Ditto for many of the tiki decorations at resorts, bars and even tiki museums in Polynesia and the rest of the world.

If something looks Polynesian, chances are that LeRoy Schmaltz, the 69-year-old co-owner of Oceanic Arts in Whittier, had a hand in making it.

“It’s super ironic,” says Greg Escalante, a Polynesian art expert and curator of the Copro/Nason Gallery in Culver City. “The biggest existing tiki statue in Tahiti was made by Schmaltz, in Whittier. Even in Tahiti, they somehow rely on Schmaltz.”

Once people figure out that he has a place in history, his art will become “super collectible,” says Escalante, who considers the carver “a national treasure.”

Trader Joe’s, Islands restaurants, Disneyland and many Nevada casinos buy tiki decorations from Oceanic Arts. He has helped design dozens of TV and movie sets, including “Gilligan’s Island” and “Forrest Gump.” He lays claim to overseeing the production of thousands of tikis, and a similar number of totems, luau signs and pretty much any other decoration loosely associated with the South Pacific.

He is considered royalty within the tiki art movement’s three schools. The first covers authentic archeological artifacts from the Pacific; the second Americana, post-World War II interpretations in restaurants and bars; and the third new work by artists such as Shag, who combines island motifs into retro-style paintings.

Schmaltz “is the king of the second school,” says Doug Nason, co-author of “Night of the Tiki: The Art of Shag, Schmaltz and Selected Primitive Oceanic Carvings” (Last Gasp, 2001) and co-owner of Copro/Nason Gallery. “Many people can’t afford to go to the islands ... and this Americana movement is a substantial movement in itself. In that way, it’s just as important as ancient archeology.”

Schmaltz, clad in a Hawaiian shirt, of course, strolls proudly through his 10,000-square-foot workshop and warehouse, filled with Polynesia-inspired objects that he built or refurbished. Everything is for sale or rent. Shelves brim with tropical mats, thatched umbrellas, grass skirts and carved wooden signs announcing “Aloha!” and “Welcome to the Luau!” Leis spew from barrels everywhere.

He gestures toward hundreds of palm and redwood tiki statues and totems, ranging from pocket size to more than 10 feet tall. “They have a Polynesian flair,” he says, “but they are imagination, fantasy.”

Ersatz, indeed, but art nonetheless, according to Schmaltz -- a distinction he has been trying to make since he was a senior in art at Cal State Los Angeles in 1956. After Schmaltz began restoring Samoan tiki statues for a local importer, his professors were unhappy when he asked to receive class credit for his tiki time.

“They told me that this is way below my station in life -- told me that I wasn’t worthy of being an art major. They didn’t want me at school,” Schmaltz recalls, still rankled.

A few classes short of his degree, Schmaltz left academia behind. He and a college buddy, business major Robert Van Oosting, pooled what money they had and set off for the South Seas in search of their own Polynesian muses. In Tahiti, they met villagers “who hadn’t seen white guys,” Schmaltz remembers. “Kids cried.”

The pair traveled to Fiji, to New Guinea. They were besieged by stormy weather and almost shipwrecked, he says, but visited sites, museums and shops with everything from drums to letter openers. When Schmaltz returned home, his head was swimming with Polynesian imagery.

Schmaltz put chain saw to lumber and began constructing island objects while Van Oosting handled the business side. At first, they filled small orders, doing Hawaiian-themed signs for local bars, restaurants and retailers, but in the 1960s Sea World, Epcot Center and companies around the world put in big orders. The Rolling Stones hired Schmaltz to decorate for parties, and Bob Dole hired him to carve signs for his presidential campaign.

The secret of the trade is to “try to make yourself into a native. Or, if you’re carving a pirate thing, pretend you’re a pirate,” says Schmaltz, who still spends most days in the workshop with two carvers he employs full time.

Converting a log into tiki can take a day, or a week if it’s 7 feet high. After the design is chalked onto a log, the chain saw is powered up. Power tools and grinders are used to make finer points -- say, the eye markings on a Hawaiian war god -- before the indentations are chiseled out.

He plans to chisel out a few more good years. “Tiki is a form of escapism,” he says. “As long as the world is in turmoil, people always turn to peaceful, pleasurable worlds -- and this is one of them.”