Since this story was first published, Tim Glazner’s decade of tiki research at last culminated in a lavish coffee-table book on the history of tiki and its ultimate temple, the Mai-Kai. Published in 2016, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant tells the story of this timeless destination for tiki followers, from pre-Prohibition Hollywood to today. At this June’s Hukilau (the event Glazner started in 2002), he will be hosting a first ever Mai-Kai “suiteposium” as well as presenting a new seminar on tiki history. The suitposium will be a hotel hospitality suite dedicated to the Mai-Kai’s history with vintage video, ephemera, veteran Mai-Kai employees who are profiled in the book, and other historical treasures. For any serious tiki aficionado, the 2018 Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale is a must-attend event.
Originally published July 2012
As with most things tiki, it begins with a cocktail: the 1934 Zombie Punch.
Created by the immortal Don the Beachcomber (aka Donn Beach, aka Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt), the fruity libation is a mystery. Although it was a huge sensation, helping spawn a chain of Don the Beachcomber bars in the ’40s and ’50s—which in turn inspired countless Polynesia-soaked imitators such as Trader Vic’s, as well as a nationwide fad for tiki—the Zombie has been a riddle for generations of drinkers. That’s because America’s original mixologist shrouded his art in complete secrecy. His arcane drinks were made behind closed doors by teams of bartenders, each assembling just one part of the recipe before passing it on the next who would complete it. The ingredients were kept in bottles labeled “number two” or “number four,” so not even his own employees knew what they were mixing together. The written recipes were encoded with fake words like “merilop.” What the hell is merilop? No one knew, except Don the Beachcomber.
Tim Glazner, the man they call “Swanky” in tiki circles, has one of those hand-written recipes framed and hung on the wall of his own personal bar, the Hapa Haole Hideaway. Tucked behind his and wife Stephanie Romer’s mid-century home in Knoxville, Tenn., the Hideaway is not a commercial bar open to the public—but it does welcome tiki travelers from around the world. And it is here in these cool, dark confines that Glazner’s eyes alight as he describes “the drink that started tiki.”
“If you’ve ever had a Zombie, or made a Zombie from a recipe, you probably thought it was the most disgusting thing ever—and they are,” he says, dismissing the lesser imitations that have plagued humanity over the decades. “But it was such a popular drink, it was copied everywhere. It set things on fire. It really was so talked about that Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Barry knew it had to be a good drink. So he spent years trying to recreate it and find the real recipe.”
The nation’s foremost tiki-drink expert—author of such reference works as Beachbum Barry’s Grog Log and Beachbum Barry’s Sippin’ Safari—Barry made decoding the Zombie his personal quest, sleuthing his way through recipes in ’50s men’s magazines and books. Finally, in 2005, he managed to acquire the “little black book” of a Beachcomber employee from 1937. Inside was a coded recipe for the original Zombie Punch; it took Barry a year to crack it. But he did, and the result is served often and with pleasure at the Hideaway.
“This is the recipe that we’re drinking—not just two ingredients, this is actually 10 ingredients for one drink,” Glazner says with reverence, taking a long sip. “Grapefruit, lime, cinnamon syrup, felarnum, three kinds of rum—which is a classic of tiki drinks, the blending of different rums—bitters, pernod, grenadine. But when you taste this drink, you don’t taste any of those—they’re all well balanced. You get a hint of the cinnamon, but it’s not a cinnamon drink. You get a hint of the pernod, which is kind of a licorice flavor, but it’s just barely there. And as you drink it, it will also evolve—you’ll perceive flavors that you didn’t on the first sip. This is a truly fantastic drink.”
There is no choice but to pause for a moment, close one’s eyes, and consider Swanky’s words as the quicksilver fluid slides over the tongue. He’s right: It’s fairly indescribable. There is no one word for this flavor because it’s newly formed the moment the ingredients mingle together. Nothing dominates, nothing submits—each flavor combines into a fresh whole. It’s a truly delicious concoction, one that most drinkers have not experienced in a contemporary bar. No wonder America fell in love with tiki bars and their rum-powered drinks back in the day, a fandom that reached its apex in the early ’60s when most cities had some form of tiki-style retreat from the buttoned-down mores of the time.
In the latter decades of the 20th century, however, tiki was cast aside as an uncool remnant of the postwar years, its Polynesian-influenced décor seen more as a stylistic cliché than the unfettered exotica it originally represented. But what was once kitsch has become current culture again for new generations of tiki followers who don’t so much feel nostalgia for an era they didn’t live through, but who yearn for the lifestyle that tiki represents: relaxed and happy—qualities that have proven ever more elusive in our anxious era of economic decline and “doing more with less” every day.
Despite his landlocked location, Glazner has made himself one of the nation’s leading experts on tiki culture, with Fort Lauderdale’s legendary Mai-Kai tiki bar becoming his primary fixation, leading him to research and write the lushly illustrated Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of The Iconic Tiki Restaurant (Schiffer Books). By following his tiki obsession, with projects both big and small, Glazner has been helping keep the culture of tiki alive—just when we need it most.
The last remaining temples of tiki bear names that still spark the imagination with primal memories of island gods: The Bali Hai on Shelter Island near San Diego, the Hala Kahiki in Chicago, the Kona Kai in Philadelphia, and perhaps greatest of all, the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. In Tennessee, the last original tiki edifice is the not-so-exotically named Omni Hut in Smyrna near Murfreesboro, possibly the state’s oldest Chinese restaurant and still run by the family of the Air Force pilot who opened it in 1960. But Knoxville’s never had its own true repository of tiki. So how does one become a tiki expert in a place with almost no tiki culture, or even a beach?
A punker-turned-medical-software-developer, Glazner started collecting mid-century ephemera in 1982, canvassing local thrift stores for what was then a fairly abundant commodity: discarded ’50s stuff with spare, modern design. But contrasting the streamlined appliances and Danish-style furniture was always the grinning visage of Ku, Hawaiian god of war—the universal symbol of exotica adapted to thousands of products, from wall art to napkin holders. Amid the atomic age’s desire to vault into the future right now was a concurrent urge to embrace the “primitive” lifestyle of carefree Polynesia. And, despite a few decades’ worth of disdain from hippies and yuppies, it still strikes a chord today.
“A surprising number of my friends who are really into tiki used to be punk rockers,” Glazner says, a slim, bearded fiftysomething often attired in a tasteful aloha shirt crowned by a bone pendant dangling from his neck. “I don’t know how that came together. But it’s a lot of people my age—late 30s to late 40s, people who were coming of age in the ’80s. For me, when I was in my teens, the ’50s were still there, so many places that were googie—had the architecture and the style. I’m old enough that it’s not exactly my history, but it is in my history—the TV shows that I was watching reruns of as a kid were My Three Sons, where dad came home in a suit and tie every day. It’s not exactly anything I lived through, but it’s part of what I grew up with, my cultural consciousness.”
A trip to Atlanta in 1990 included a stop at Trader Vic’s, a vestige of the national chain once popularized by Hilton Hotels. It deepened his interest enough to start researching tiki culture and reading early zines such as Tiki News, published by Otto von Stroheim, who later started the ultimate convention for the tiki faithful: Tiki Oasis in San Diego, now in its 12th year. Stroheim also threw the closing party for the Kahiki Supper Club in Columbus, Ohio in 2002, which Glazner attended—and he was so impressed that he decided to hold his own tiki convention that same year, Hukilau in Atlanta. He expected around 25 enthusiasts to show up at Trader Vic’s—but it ended up attracting 350, which was beyond the bar’s capacity. That year was a watershed for tiki, seeing the publication of Hukilau attendee Sven Kirsten’s The Book of Tiki, which presented tiki as not only a pop-culture fad (“Polynesian Pop”) but also as an art form in itself.
With his second edition of Hukilau, now held at the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, Glazner experienced the epiphany that transformed his hobby into a passion. Built in 1956 by two brothers from Chicago who spared no expense—even hiring Don the Beachcomber’s number two Chicago bartender, Mariano Licudine—the Mai Kai is one of the last remaining grand palaces of tiki, with eight dining rooms and a tropical garden still intact. It also continues many of its original traditions, such as the ceremonial Mystery Drink served in a giant Mystery Bowl by a lovely Mystery Girl. The entire experience is largely unchanged since tiki’s heyday.
“When I went to the Mai-Kai in 2003, the immersive nature of that place—the otherworldliness of it, the over-the-top everything—made a lasting impression on me that I’ve carried with me since then,” Glazner recalls. “I’ve been to a few other places that gave me the same sort of feeling—a fascination, an out-of-time-and-reality sort of feeling.”
Since that turning point, Glazner has made tiki his life’s pursuit. Hukilau is now the second-largest tiki convention in the country (though he turned its management over to a business partner in 2006 after a hurricane made him realize how little he was enjoying it). He’s written articles for Tiki Magazine, started tiki sites such as The Grogalizer (dedicated to tiki drinks), published a calendar of tiki art, started the first tiki carving seminars (“Coon Tiki”), makes puffer fish lamps for sale (“I’ve bled a lot from them.”), and has recently entered the tiki mug business with a personal-sized replica of the Mystery Bowl (“Soon I’ll go and get it and see if the factory actually did what I asked them to, or if I’ve got a big pile of expensive junk.”).
But it’s that original sense of escapism he discovered at the Mai-Kai that he most savors, and what inspired his biggest tiki project: the Hapa Haole Hideaway. It has taken 10 years of collecting authentic Polynesian artifacts, a year and a half of construction, a couple of different iterations, and endless planning and reshaping—all in an effort to create the perfect tiki bar.
“My tiki bar in my home is the escape pod,” he says. “At the end of the day, you go in there and you’re not anywhere else. It’s not necessarily back in time, it’s out of time. It’s its own place, its own world that you can go to whenever you want. It’s usually quiet, stressing conversation over the typical bar, which is loud and rowdy. It’s a place where you can reconnect with your friends or your spouse or whoever, and just unwind.”
Before you enter the Hideaway, you should remember that Swanky is a tiki purist. Though he claims not to be offended by the bastardized tiki products found at, say, Party City, you can tell he’s gritting his teeth.
“Any mug that has a face on it has been co-opted into being called a tiki mug,” he says wearily.“People like me who are hardcore or purists work hard to make sure that when someone says this is a tiki mug…. it’s not a tiki mug, it has nothing to do with tiki. It’s a mug. It’s not truly tiki. We have to set the record straight. If people are annoyed by that, fine.”
So what you’ll discover in Swanky’s Hideaway is as authentic as any tiki temple that’s ever been. It’s just on a much smaller scale. But that doesn’t diminish the impact of your first view.
One moment, you are sweltering in the rain-forest heat of a Knoxville summer well into the crazy age of global warming. The next moment, you’re inside, and everything is different. The temperature is a third less horrific. There is no sound but soft island music and the piddling of an unseen water fountain. No sunlight invades the interior; it will take your eyes a good 10 minutes to adjust to the hidden, low-level glow. And when they do, you’ll lock gazes with a 7-foot tall figure with a grinning mouth, stuck-out tongue, and, well, a sizable penis.
“This is an oratory table from the Korogo village in Papua New Guinea,” Glazner explains. “It’s 75-85 years old. This was in the men’s house, the council house of the village, as sort of a hero spirit who watched over all official proceedings, to keep people straight.”
Much of the room’s décor was sourced from an anthropologist in Bloomington, Ind. who studies Papua New Guinea culture, financing his trips by bringing back cast-off pieces. The Headhunter Lounge (opposite the bar) is filled with primitive masks and figures entirely lacking in kitsch value, looking more like museum pieces. But then there are the vintage mugs and artworks from classic tiki bars that crowd several shelves, plus works from the original tiki bar supplier, Oceanic Arts, still in business. A vintage tiki figure by well known artist Milan Guanko was discovered in a West Knoxville antiques store. Other pieces by contemporary tiki artists with names like Thor, Basement Kahuna, Tiki Diablo, and Crazy Al Evans were purchased directly, and adorn every available surface. Glazner’s wife, Stephanie, has a predilection for shrunken heads.
Yet, the room does not feel crowded. As it comes into focus, it is the bar that dominates. And it is here that Glazner’s true art is pursued.
“I’m making all of my drinks by hand, from scratch. You’re not going to get one any better, because no bar is going to go to those standards,” he declares. “That’s not bragging, it’s just that I’m fresh-squeezing everything, getting the best possible ingredients, and carefully measuring the drink exactly to the recipe.”
Chip Vassey, Glazner’s next-door neighbor, is a former bartender himself and a tiki-drink convert, courtesy of Swanky. “I’m kind of glad this is about the only place to get drinks like this, ’cause honestly, there would be some real bad-off people,” he attests.
Glazner’s dedication to the cocktail knows few bounds. He lobbies local liquor stores to stock allspice dram, a standard in many tiki drinks. He makes his own felarnum, a sweet syrup that’s also spicy. One of the few liquors he can’t find locally is Lemon Hart 151 Demerara Rum from Guyana, a staple of tiki drinks, which he is working on getting onto Knoxville shelves. (“Most people know Bacardi 151, which I’d sooner suck juice out of a dirty sock—it’s horrible,” he attests.) But he says most of the proper ingredients for great tiki drinks could be stored in a milk crate; the bigger problem is that many drinkers don’t know what they’re missing, though the mixology movement is helping change that.
“Most people are used to highballs, and that’s the standard today: some booze with some mixer, and that’s it,” he says. “That decline of the cocktail started in the ’70s and continued on. Vodka became king, which is an odorless, colorless, tasteless beverage—nothing good is going to come of that. The martini craze kind of helped get people back into the notion of making a real cocktail instead of a highball or a shooter. Now more and more places are offering what they call craft cocktails, and tiki has been making craft cocktails since the beginning.”
But more than simply better ingredients and personal attention, you get the sense that tiki cocktails are tantamount to an expression of personal philosophy for Glazner. For him—and, he believes, most others, if they would just try it—a perfect tiki cocktail is the stuff of life.
“I think it’s true for a lot of people: The highlights of my day are the things I consume,” he muses over a Jasper, created by Jasper LaFrance of the Bay Rock Hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica, circa 1970s. “That first cup of coffee in the morning, I look forward to that and it tastes so good. The cocktail after work—that’s the best thing about work, it drives me to drink.
“Beverages are a big part of the best things in life. And when you make a good drink…”
The tiki gods smile.
Related gallery: Tiki restaurant relics from the mid-20th century