Cocktails

All the Tiki That’s Fit to Print

January 13, 2020

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

Art: Tiki News

How a graphic designer with a penchant for punk created Tiki News—accidentally becoming a lightning rod for the modern revival along the way.

Back in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early ’90s, before the internet was really humming, back before the modern tiki renaissance had found its footing, the only way to learn where tiki bars were located was by word of mouth. North Hollywood housed the Tonga Hut; Torrance, the Hale Hawaii Lounge; and in Bellflower there was the Hawaiian Room. There were nautical bars, too, like Tony’s on the Pier in Redondo Beach, all of which survive to this day. Though Los Angeles was the rare city where tiki bars still existed in this era, none of them actually served genuine tiki drinks.

“I had a saying back then: ‘Beware the red Mai Tai,’” says Otto von Stroheim, a lifelong Californian who would eventually start printing the locations of these bars in the world’s first tiki magazine, a creation that helped usher in the genre’s revival. “They’d be served with grenadine and white rum and maybe a splash of canned pineapple. Every Mai Tai was different and none of them was the Trader Vic’s Mai Tai,” he says, of the drink’s gold standard.

In his early 20s, von Stroheim had become obsessed with the tiki aesthetic that pervaded Southern California in the mid-20th century. An art school grad who was freelancing in graphic design, von Stroheim had moved to Venice in 1987. “I’m from a DIY punk ethic,” he explains, and that informed a lot of his offbeat hobbies. He fostered relationships with pen pals; he dabbled in mail art and sending out personal newsletters for $1 apiece. He started recording punk shows on his Sony Walkman and trading cassette tapes around the world.

“Then, after punk you get into lounge, to piss off the punks,” he recalls, explaining how lounge and exotica music from college radio station KXLU’s Molotov Cocktail Hour, as well as Ultra-Lounge CD compilations, were the catalysts that landed him smack-dab in the center of a nascent tiki resurgence.

With the printing of issue #1 in January 1995, he’d unwittingly created the world’s first-ever tiki magazine.

He started going to tropical bars to listen to lounge acts like Combustible Edison and Frenchy LaRouge; he was disappointed to find the caliber of cocktails there failed to stack up to that of the music and nightlife culture. “You’d order a Manhattan or a Martini and the bartender would say, ‘Oh wow, a Martini! Let me look up how to make that,” recalls von Stroheim.

Despite the quality of drinks at the time, von Stroheim eventually started living a tiki lifestyle, collecting mugs, hosting mug swaps, and, while living in Venice, co-hosting an annual summer backyard “Tiki Party” with his roommate Ivan. As with all his hobbies, he went all in.

As he delved deeper into the culture, von Stroheim began connecting with other local  enthusiasts like Sven Kirsten, at the time a budding tiki historian who would go on to author several books on the topic, and Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, future tiki author and bar owner who was then working as a Hollywood script doctor, reconstructing classic tiki recipes on the side.

“My real impetus for finally starting a tiki magazine was to trade mugs—I figured, hey, I got 50 or 60 mugs, there’s gotta be somebody in, like, Phoenix with 50 or 60 mugs from the bars around them that wants mine from, say, the Outrigger in Monterey.” With the printing of issue #1 of Tiki News in January 1995, he’d unwittingly created the world’s first-ever tiki magazine, one that would help resuscitate tiki’s past while cataloging its present, even if that hadn’t been von Stroheim’s intention from the start.

The launch party, held in Venice, was attended by many prominent tiki-philes, like Kirsten and Berry, who went on to drive and define the modern tiki revival that still flourishes today. In the first few issues, every article was written by von Stroheim himself, aside from an occasional history lesson from Kirsten, whose first piece, “Tiki—Who Was He?” would lay the groundwork for his eventual Book of Tiki, published in 2000. But the original intention of Tiki News wasn’t exclusively to showcase deep-dive features; rather, to address the motivation behind starting the magazine, von Stroheim dedicated a full-page spread in the first issue to the five mugs in his collection that he hoped to trade.

Stroheim also produced the photos and illustrations, and laid out the magazine. He printed the first issue in black and white on a laser printer in his bedroom—the drum burned out during the process, and he ended up losing money. That didn’t deter him. Most of the issues were just 12 pages, three sheets of paper, quartered, then stapled on the spine. Another staple sealed it shut, and von Stroheim would place a 52-cent stamp directly on the back cover, mailing it out at the U.S. Postal Service’s 2-ounce rate at the time.

“But back then I didn’t know about the existence of zines,” he explains. “Only later did I find out other people did this too.”

Few were as successful as Tiki News, however. The first issue was circulated to around 300 people, and before long he had 1,000 subscribers. (The subscription rate was $6 for four issues a year.) Von Stroheim’s previous pen-pal passion and tape-trading hobby, as well as his job working mail order for Bruce Licher’s Independent Project Records, gave him a built-in following and industry know-how.

He started offering issues to record stores to sell on consignment. Eventually, Tower Records started stocking Tiki News internationally, sending a single issue to stores in far-flung places like Israel, where von Stroheim developed a small following of fans, many of whom remain friends today. Get Hip Recordings! in Pittsburgh and Seattle’s famed Sub Pop also would buy a dozen or so copies. Eventually, von Stroheim was selling 5,000 copies per issue, produced in full color by a commercial printer in Canada. Von Stroheim says that number would have put him in the top 10 percent of circulated zines in the world.

He printed the first issue in black and white on a laser printer in his bedroom—the drum burned out during the process, and he ended up losing money.

The magazine was immediately influential among tiki enthusiasts dispersed the world over, becoming a central hub around which they could coalesce. Well-known tiki artist Josh Agle (aka “Shag”) illustrated the cover for issue #2, and returned for later covers even after his art began getting gallery shows. Bosko, a prominent tiki carver, did issue #13. Chip Wass, an award-winning animator for Nickelodeon cartoons, even reached out to von Stroheim asking to contribute a cover, which he did for issue #14.

“That was one way to grow [Tiki News] and give back to all the artists at the same time,” explains von Stroheim. In a way, the visuals were as important as the news. “As Sven says, tiki is an art movement—an American art movement, not a Polynesian art movement.”

Articles tackled such topics as “Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Empire” or “Music to Soothe the Savage Beast” (reviews of the latest exotic and surf releases); there were stories on tiki bar matchbook collecting, the emerging tiki pog scene, and travelogues reporting back on Fort Lauderdale and New York City’s tiki locales. Later issues were dedicated to overall themes such as the “Wood Phallus Issue” (#10), “Exotica, Erotica” (#14) and “Tiki News Invades San Francisco” (#11), the last one appearing just as von Stroheim moved to the Bay Area in 1996, becoming a lightning rod for the area’s booming tiki scene. There, he continued releasing Tiki News, sometimes quarterly, occasionally only three times a year, whenever he had time and could afford to take a few weeks off from freelance jobs to put together a new issue.

“At that point I was making money [from the zine], maybe $5,000 a year, but I was working all year long and all the time on it,” von Stroheim explains. “So I was probably earning about $1 an hour.”

With the internet fast approaching, in 1999 he launched what he claims was the third tiki website in the world, hoping to bolster the circulation of the magazine even further. (Another enthusiast, Baby Doe, started the first known tiki site in 1994, Baby Doe’s Obsessed, cataloging people’s mug collections.) That plan didn’t really work, however, as the server he used went out of business, though the website remains online today, not appearing much different from how it looked in 1999.

Eventually, as von Stroheim says, life “kinda closed in on” him. He married Baby Doe and they had two kids. He gave up the freelancing world for a regular paycheck. Today he lives in Alameda in the East Bay and works as a graphic artist and print production specialist for a marketing execution firm. Tiki News unceremoniously, and without warning, folded in 2001 with a $3.95 double issue.

“At that point I don’t think the scene was developed enough for anyone to think it would have any value,” says von Stroheim, when asked if anyone ever offered to take over the magazine. He does note, however, that publishers occasionally ask if he has any interest in anthologizing the 17-issue, six-year run.

But even with Tiki News behind him, von Stroheim’s tiki career was hardly over. The year he folded, he organized and produced Tiki Oasis, a gathering of tiki enthusiasts held in Palm Springs, in the hopes of raising money to rehabilitate the Caliente Tropics Motel, a midcentury icon. His early days hosting the Tiki Party in his backyard offered a crash course in promoting events, and had helped him establish a network of friends and lounge acts. By 2006 the party had moved to San Diego; today, the five-night event is the longest-running “island lifestyle” festival in the entire world. Von Stroheim also DJs once a month at Forbidden Island (a tiki bar near his home), attends frequent tiki conventions and occasionally conducts interviews for Tiki Oasis TV.

Today, Tiki News is fondly remembered by early members of the era’s tiki scene. Old issues sometimes pop up on eBay, selling for as much as $50. Four years after Tiki News shut down, Nick Camara launched Tiki Magazine in the spring of 2005. Von Stroheim claims it was a bit too “commercial” for his tastes, but it was a financial success, at one point having 17,000 subscribers before changing ownership and eventually fizzling out in late 2017.

While von Stroheim has no regrets about the demise of Tiki News, he still wonders occasionally what could have been. “I would see Tiki Magazine and think, ‘Wow, I could do better,’” he recalls. “Man, maybe I should have just kept it going.”

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