Written by Dave Arnson
The cult of Tiki is an intriguing one, one of disposable income and alcoholic hedonism coupled with an artfully fantastical version of a faux- Polynesian paradise. These elements all come together once a year (for over 20 years now) in San Diego at a brilliantly curated event, “Tiki Oasis.” Organized by the uber-suave power couple Otto Von Stroheim and Baby Doe, an entire hotel is booked out by rabid fans of retro Tiki culture. There are antique car shows, a massive vendor area, music around the swimming pool, amazing bands, and after 10:00 p.m. or so at night- the legendary room crawl! On every floor of the hotel there will be rooms where people will trick out their spaces to resemble tiki bars, replete with all kinds of exotic booze, more bands and DJ’s, and a lively party attitude.
The event features a different theme every year (“The Enchanted Sea”, “International Espionage”, “Outer Space”, etc.) but most of the women here will be decked out to the nines in vintage fashions, glamorous hairstyles and generally looks that kill. It’s much simpler for the guys, just a Hawaiian shirt and perhaps a fedora is the commonly accepted go-to. Some super cute couples will wear matching prints for their dresses and shirts! Tiki Oasis also features seminars throughout the day, ranging from lectures by pop culture authors, the art of cocktail making to surf guitar and ukulele lessons and various kiddie events.
The original Tiki Oasis was held at one of the last remaining Tiki-themed hotels left in Palm Springs, and to the organizers’ credit has spawned many offshoots taking place in various locales such as Arizona, the Mojave Desert, and various California locations. And it’s still growing. The event was recently moved to a hotel with over 600 rooms as opposed to the former’s roughly 400. Then there’s the large contingent staying at neighboring hotels, etc…
The allure of having one’s own tiki bar is a strong one, (remember this is a culture of disposable income!) and there are about 100 vendors ready to sell you tiki carvings, mugs, lamps, bar accessories, vintage clothes and other accoutrements to make your swinging pad a retro Polynesian paradise. As for myself this year, I bought a couple bamboo tiki lights and a sparkly blue green sharkskin men’s suit!
Personally, I’m not much of a drinker. I attend mainly for the music, and it’s rarely a disappointment. This year Tiki Oasis featured music by a recreation of Les Baxter’s orchestra, and a current exotica band from ace musicians, the Tikiyaki Orchestra. There was music by the Devo of the surf world, “Man Or Astroman?”and the spooky instrumental stylings of Russian surf goth, “Messer Chups.” This year’s big sensations were both under the umbrella category “exotica’, and interestingly both from Spain-the noir jazz of “L’Exotighost” and the Turkish psych sounds of trio “Mohama Saz’.” As usual, the musical events were hosted by the irrepressible (some would joke unbearable) and comedic expert ukulele player King Kukulele.
Another stalwart performer is the amazing Marina The Fire- Breathing Mermaid, who actually is the ringleader of a cadre of actual mermaid swimmers at a Florida bar. Marina does some amazing fire breathing dancing and is practically a borderline superhero!! You’ll also count on seeing legendary character Crazy Al , an accomplished tiki carver and mug maker in his own right, leading some merry dancing, frequently hopping on stage with the bands to add some joyous percussion.
As might be expected at an event reliant upon elegant alcoholic intoxication, there’s occasional ripples of people’s personal dramas here and there, but overall the general feeling is that of what the Hawaiians called ‘ohana’ or family tribe. Tiki Oasis is a place to drink without driving, party in a stylish and chill manner and celebrate the summer. I sometimes cheekily call it ‘Burning Man for alcoholics’, but seriously, it has become a world famous unique and reliable California institution and a classic cultural event of a true slice of retro and retro-futuristic Americana. Long live Tiki Oasis!