Indy was a bit behind the curve on original Tiki craze


Urban Times contributing editor

The next time you see a guy in a tropical shirt or a gal in a mumu, don’t feel disdain about their fashion sense, follow them to their favorite Tiki bar.

Tiki has hit Indianapolis in a big way, although it’s possible you haven’t noticed. There are secret at-home Tiki bars, known only to the select invited few, big sellout Tiki events and, of course, entire venues devotedly pledged to making Tiki a part of life for those with a nostalgic feeling for a mid-century past that wasn’t streamlined and glass-walled.

The first Tiki bar, owned by the aptly named Don Beach (his legally adopted moniker), opened in California in the 1930s. Trader Vic’s soon followed and a slow wave of Polynesian-inspired lounges and restaurants began spreading around the country in the late 1930s/early 1940s. Indianapolis seems to have been immune to this fad of the Great Depression years, though.

Along came World War II when troops gained first-hand experience of the Pacific Islands and returned home inspired. Then, in 1947, explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s voyage from Peru to the Polynesian Islands on the Kon-Tiki inspired both a best-selling book and a movie in 1950. Then Hawaii became a state in 1959. And the popular TV show, Adventures in Paradise, featuring handsome Captain Troy sailing his Tiki III around the Pacific to save various damsels in distress, began a five-year run that year.

In the post-War boom era, America was smitten with girls in grass skirts, swaying palm trees, Easter Island heads, and the exotic otherness of far-away places in the South Pacific (which, also happened to be the name of a 1949 musical that became a film in 1958).

The mid-century movement inspired by this exoticism enveloped architecture, fashion, decorative arts, and any number of drinks with umbrellas. Wildly misappropriating and weirdly amalgamating unrelated cultures, Tiki encompassed and compressed the Easter Islands, China, Japan, Hawaii, and all points between and around, into one great big happy reason for a party.

It was a party that arrived late in Indianapolis. Newspaper research doesn’t reveal any mention of “Tiki” until about 1961. But the slow rumble of the volcano built from advertisements for Tiki torches, to newpaper articles about Hawaiian and Tiki-themed parties at Highland Country Club and the Officers’ Club at Fort Benjamin Harrison, to the full eruption of the city’s first Tiki lounge in 1961: Tiki Ho.

Newly established in the decades-old Antlers Hotel, Tiki Ho first opened around race weekend in 1961 as the KonTiki, but by August the owners, Bernece, William and Reba Gray, had renamed it Tiki Ho.

With “just a single step through the doorway,” Tiki Ho, according to an article in The Indianapolis Star, served up a ‘“trip” to an entirely different and completely enchanting world of dining and entertainment.” The “virtual island of paradise” replaced the former bowling alley inside the hotel at 750 N. Meridian Street.

Tiki Ho’s staff, headed by Larry Dea as chef and Sammy Quema as “mixologist,” traced their heritages to China, the Philippine Islands, Japan and “the new state of Hawaii,” The Star reported. The menu included American, Cantonese, Javanese and Indian dishes and “island appetizers.” And two full pages of exotic elixirs.

In 1962, Tiki Ho and its “Polynesian food and exotic drink” was featured as part of the “night of fun” bus tour, which also included LaRues Club for cocktails and dancing and the Pink Poodle for more cocktails and a show. The tour into Indianapolis’s exotic Tiki Ho world departed nightly from both the Claypool and the Marott Hotel. In 1963, the Indianapolis Press Club borrowed one of Tiki Ho’s large Tiki figures. The return of the 7-foot, 100-pound wooden sculpture the next day, by taxi, made the news.

Sadly the news reported no word about the fate of the 100-pound tiki on the day that a fire destroyed Tiki Ho in 1964. Faulty electrical wiring was the cause of the blaze that caused a reported $22,000 damage. Indianapolis was Tiki-less.

Local devotees waited a long, joyless four years for another Tiki destination to open in Indianapolis. That Tiki wonderland, a “Polynesian style restaurant/lounge,” according to one of the numerous want ads that manager Jim Graham ran in local newspapers in 1968, was Knobby’s Mai Tai Restaurant and Kahuna Lounge.

Nestled inside an “ordinary drive-in restaurant” building that was rejiggered by Bill “Knobby” Knoll  into a breeze-block decorated “long house” with a high-peaked roof, the Mai Tai restaurant and Kahuna Lounge offered “the luxurious beauty and friendly atmospheres of the South Pacific,” according to a March 19, 1978, article in The Star. The building, most recently a karate studio, still stands at 38th and Shadeland.

Inside the lounge, “gaily garbed, comely waitresses, grass-thatched walls, colorful exotic lighting and relaxing but interesting entertainment by singer Eddie Mack,” took Tiki to a whole new level here. The waitresses could be prevailed upon to dance the hula or break into a “South Seas duet” with Eddie. The drink speciality? Mai Tais, of course.

The Kahuna Lounge had a long run in Indianapolis, operating for a least a decade. A certain Urban Times historian might have visited it herself, in fact. But by 1980, it is no longer shown in the City Directory. Victim to the whims of the shopping mall generation.

Today, The Kahuna Lounge is the stuff of legends to Indianapolis Tikiphiles: a local realtor recently suggested that the building should be listed on the National Register of Historic Places (an idea worth considering); A Kahuna lounge tiki cocktail bowl sold for a few hundred dollars last year at a local Tiki event.

Tiki Ho and Kahuna Lounge have gone the way of the hula hoop, unfortunately. But luckily, today’s Tiki fans have new venues to satisfy their longing for a time when the drinks were served in coconuts and the very word “Tiki” was a charm.