By Tom Reardon, April 2019 Issue.
Growing up in Phoenix in the 1970s was a surreal treat, at times.
For example, across the street from the Arizona State Mental Hospital on the Northwest corner of 24th Street and Van Buren Road was the Kon Tiki Hotel. To say it stuck out like a sore thumb, at least to the eyes of a curious child, was an understatement. As a teenager in the ‘80s, we partied at the Kon Tiki and its charms were not lost on us as we enjoyed the cheap rooms, even cheaper nearby booze from less than vigilant drive thru liquor stores, and the opportunity to lay around the pool and bask in the slowly decaying ode to Polynesia disguised as what was once a destination hotel for visitors to Phoenix.
For a long time, Phoenix has had soft spot for tiki culture, whether it was a somewhat forgotten hotel of a misspent youth or the ghost of Trader Vic’s in Scottsdale, tiki is still alive in well in the desert with local haunts like the Bikini Lounge on Grand Avenue, UnderTow on East Indian School Road, or something a bit more contemporary like Hula’s Modern Tiki on Central Avenue, the desire to even briefly escape to the South Pacific can be sated in the Valley of the Sun if you so desire.
Fans of tiki culture should be pleased to know that yet another opportunity to sip delicious rum drinks adorned with tiny umbrellas from an ornate mug while rubbing shoulders with your fellow devotees from all over the southwest is upon us and this is not an opportunity to be missed. Arizona Tiki Oasis is happening April 12-14 at Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale, and if one of the event’s founders, Otto von Stroheim is to be believed (and he is), it is going to be epic.
“If it turns out even, you know, 90% of what we are planning, it’s really going to be a historic moment and one of those magical moments where people are going to say, ‘I was there’ and other people are going to go, ‘no way,’” says a confident von Stroheim over the phone from his home in San Francisco.
Strong words, for sure, but this is not von Stroheim and his wife/partner, the wonderfully named Baby Doe von Stroheim’s first rodeo.
Since 2001, von Stroheim has been putting on the Tiki Oasis event in Southern California. Originally, the party was held in Palm Springs at the Tropics Hotel (now the Caliente Tropics) until it grew too large for the Tropics to host due to attendance doubling every year and moved to San Diego in 2006. This year’s version in San Diego (which starts on August 7) lasts a whopping five days and is the longest running tiki event in the world.
A combination of music, cocktail parties, lectures on a variety of tiki and cocktail nation culture, as well as elements of punk, burlesque, surf, and exotica, the Tiki Oasis events have a little something for everyone. Attendees are encouraged to don their best tiki and cocktail lounge attire while they dine, drink, and learn about things many of us may have thought were long forgotten. As the years of the event have passed, the sheer number of things to see and do has increased in relation to the growth in attendance. (Check out www.tikioasis.com for more information on the flagship party.)
As a husband and wife team, who initially met at an event Otto hosted in San Francisco, they have an excellent reputation in the tiki scene.
“Otto and Doe have spent over two decades being a nexus for the tiki community, helping to nurture and foster its growth through a series of events that not only unite tiki-piles, but also attract those with peripheral interests into the tiki orbit. In so doing, they’ve opened many eyes to the colorful splendor of mid-century Polynesian-inspired leisure,” says Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, which is probably the most well-known tiki bar in America right now, including being consistently named one of America’s best bars over the last decade by multiple magazines including Esquire and Playboy.
For von Stroheim, tiki has been part of his life for much longer and became an interest, at least passingly, during his youth in the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles. As a boy, von Stroheim’s grandmother would take the family to Disneyland at least once a year and The Enchanted Tiki Hut was always an important stop in their visits. This may have been for Grandma to get off her feet for a little while and enjoy some air conditioning, but it was also planting seeds that von Stroheim would eventually sow in the ‘80s when he threw his first tiki party in 1987 while living in Venice Beach.
“We had an annual party and we made it a tiki party in ‘87. We would have bands play and we made it a huge deal. We’d have 150-300 people in our backyard. I’d make an invite that had tikis on it and mail it out to people… a very formal invitation. Then I started a zine called Tiki News to flesh out my obsession in collecting tiki mugs, and then in 1995, after I had done the zine for about 10 months, a few friends and I did an event called Exoticon. It featured Combustible Edison and about 10 other bands. It drew about 2000 people and our capacity was about 1000. They drank the bar dry before the end of the night and people were pissed,” says von Stroheim.
It seems that von Stroheim was not only good at putting on a fun event, but that he also had a passion for it. It is clear in talking with him that making the Tiki Oasis events a success is an extremely important part of the 55-year-old family man’s life, but also something he applies a great deal of creativity and balance to in its creation.
For the Scottsdale event, the von Stroheim’s are not looking to simply re-create their San Diego event but make something unique in their expansion to Arizona. Choosing the Hotel Valley Ho as a location was a no-brainer as there isn’t a more appropriate spot to hold such an occasion. Originally built in 1956, Hotel Valley Ho was restored to original splendor and improved upon by WestRoc Hospitality to capitalize on its nearly flawless mid-century modern design. For fans of the tiki culture, the hotel represents a chance for attendees to enjoy the feel of a 1960’s hotel with all the modern amenities.
“(Hotel) Valley Ho, in and of themselves have done something historic and then they stand almost alone, and at least head and shoulders above everybody else in the entire country as far as taking a historic architecturally significant site and restoring it to its original state and taking a huge risk financially to do that. Because it was already a historic site when they got it, they had to restore it under the rules of a historic site, so they had to comply with all these rules and they were able to do it and put all the money into it and turn it into a successful business, which is so hard to do,” says von Stroheim, before continuing:
“You know, it doesn’t happen that often. And Valley Ho did that and we have been fully aware of Valley Ho ever since they opened. So now that we’ve really established ourselves in San Diego and the event is bursting at the seams, there’s a huge demand from our own audience just in San Diego to have another event.”
Like the way the old tickets used to work at Disneyland (The Enchanted Tike Room was an “E” ticket, for example), tickets for each Arizona Tiki Oasis event are sold ala carte, so you don’t have to pay for an entire weekend of festivities if you don’t want to under one blanket price as many similar events ask attendees to do.
One of the amazing events happening during Arizona Tiki Oasis is an early Saturday night seminar featuring renowned graphic artist, Andy Cruz, entitled “House Industries: From Sub to Pop Culture.” Cruz, whose name you might not recognize, is a founder of House Industries, which has created several fonts that are instantly recognizable including Jimmy Kimmel’s font for his late-night show, fonts for MTV, and the popular Neutraface font. According to von Stroheim, Cruz, who is a friend of his, regularly sells out large venues around the globe for his speaking engagements.
In addition to Cruz, talented and brilliant local speakers such as Marshall Shore and Alison King will be doing seminars and tours during the weekend and local exotica band, Moonlight Magic, will be providing the soundtrack to Friday night’s soiree in the Zuzu Lounge. For the more daring, there is a fire-eating mermaid named MeduSirena by the pool on Saturday night and the Tiki Oasis bartender challenge to wrap things up on Sunday. Overall, there are over 30 different things to do over a three-day period, so no matter what your flavor is, there is probably something for you.