Tracking Tiki culture, influence

In The Pipeline

June 09, 2010|Chris Epting

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."

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