Tracking Tiki culture, influence

HB Independent

May the Tiki gods smile on Chris Jepsen tonight when he takes the stage at Don the Beachcomber (formerly Sam's Seafood) amid waterfalls and carved island statues.

After all, it's like a dream come true for the Huntington Beach native, whose passion for Polynesian pop culture runs as thick as fresh lava flowing down the side of an island volcano.

Jepsen is vice president of the Orange County Historical Society and assistant archivist at the Orange County Archives, as well as a member of the city of Huntington Beach's Historic Resources Board.

For 15 years, he has been studying mid-century commercial architecture and design and "Polynesian Pop," as he calls it.

Tonight's presentation, being done in conjunction with the historical society, is the first time Jepsen has done a full-on public presentation on the history of local Tiki culture and influence, so it seems appropriate that the event is taking place in such a vaunted Tiki landmark.

But that was no accident, as Jepsen explained during a recent chat at his office in the historic Orange County courthouse.

"If you're going to talk Tiki, I can't think of a better setting," he said. "Among the ancient gods. Well, at least since 1960, when the old Sam's restaurant adopted the Tiki motif after a fire."

Laying out some of the history of local Tiki culture for me in his droll and wry manner, Jepsen made it clear that his immersion in the subject has shaped him into a foremost expert — and a compelling one, at that.

So imagine warm breezes, swaying palms and enjoying an exotic tropical drink in the shadow of a Tiki statue as Jepsen takes us back to the beginning of Polynesian Pop.

"Themed restaurants, sort of a foundation of Tiki culture, actually go back to the 1880s, in France," he said. "As far as the U.S., in the 1930s, we started to see bamboo bars, then restaurants including Trader Vic's, Don the Beachcomber (the one in the Huntington Beach is a distant cousin of the original), the Coconut Grove nightclub, Stephen Crane's Luau; these are the places that sort of set the mold of what was to follow. And then the rest of the influences started to gel."

As for the Orange County connection, Jepsen said, "The palm trees, the Tikis, the backyard luaus fit in really well in Orange County, where you already have this semitropical environment, a very good setting for the Tiki motif. As for why people embraced it, I think there are several reasons. For one, Tiki was a symbol of escape. We didn't know about these parts of the world in the 1930s, Polynesia and such, and all of a sudden in the 1940s, everyone is being sent there to fight! Next, Americans were reading about it. And our collective curiosity was raised about this exotic culture.

"Then the war ends, and James Michener's book, 'Tales of the South Pacific,' becomes a best-seller." The book was based on the writer's anecdotes while a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy on the island of Espiritu Santo.

"From there, the book becomes a popular musical called 'South Pacific,' then a hit movie. And now, Tiki and Polynesian culture are pop culture phenomena. Then you have Thor Heyerdahl's 'Kon-Tiki' book, which presented several theories that, while perhaps lacking in anthropological accuracy, was great, exciting reading. Another best-seller, and more Tiki lore being embraced by America."

In Orange County, the phenomena manifested itself in many ways.

"Want to theme your backyard? Go Polynesian! Having a party? Make it a luau! Plant sub-tropical flora, because hey, it will grow here," he said. "The theme was fully embraced in Orange County as it became almost a status — a sign of class and distinction. A normal bowling alley now became 'Kona Lanes,' and it stood out. Developers even incorporated the Tiki theme into their housing projects."

This is evidenced at several housing tracts in Huntington Beach, especially at the Royal Hawaiian Apartments on 12th Street. It stands out as a surviving Tiki structure, and is one of Jepsen's favorites.

"I love how our country found ways to realize these cultures and fads in the real world," he said. "We didn't just go see 'South Pacific,' we lived it. Same thing went for Westerns. We'd take that motif and build ranch-style houses with doors on the garage that look like barn doors."

And as for anyone who doubts the historical significance of these cultural phenomena, Jepsen has an answer.

"We're used to things being called historic because they're Victorian and full of gingerbread," he smiled with a bit of mischief. "But historic resource boards, state or national, say that 50 years is the point that you can start looking at things as historic. And guess what? The '60s just turned 50."

No doubt Jepsen's presentation at Don the Beachcomber is sold out, but it's easy to follow this exceptional historian whenever you'd like.

He has two websites, Googie Architecture Online ( and O.C. History Roundup (, that bring his passions to life, from Tiki to Googie to all things pop culture (and local).

Congratulations on tonight, Chris. May we all hoist a mai tai, Navy grog or other suitable concoction in your honor.

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