Night Crawler

For one Wednesday each month, the Chameleon serves as a pseudo-tropical haven for whacked-out city dwellers afflicted with a hapless passion for garish Hawaiian shirts, surf guitar, and the limbo. As usual, Otto von Stroheim, the editor of Tiki News, is on hand providing the essential seaside decor -- hula-girl marionettes, fluorescent leis, faux seaweed, fishing nets, seashells, 5-foot-tall tiki torches, and a traditionally carved candle for each and every table. Stroheim has also planned the evening's musical menu: a salty indie-surf blend delightfully accented by the Astronauts, the Aquamen, and 7th Day Rototiller. As the flier outside boasts, it is "A Night in Tiki Wonderland" -- even if only for the truly impoverished among the "poverty jet set."

At the door, former Pansy Division drummer Dustin Donaldson accepts crumpled dollar bills from a stream of Mission regulars whose precisely colored hair turns the crowd into a gathering of animated Skittles. In keeping with the evening, Donaldson has added a bright yellow lei to his congenital rock 'n' roll attire (a leopard-spotted jacket and bright floral shirt, with a pair of unbearably hip sunglasses holding back his bleached-blond hair). Still, it is the nearby tray of pineapple upside-down cake that gives our conversation about I Am Spoonman, Donaldson's new post-Gary Numan experiment, such a surreal aspect.

The gooey confection made of candied pineapple rings is just one of the delights offered at the "Grog Grotto," a grass-covered table manned by a lei-addled woman named Baby Doe. Here, while sipping on a glass of "Venom" (a blend of cheap champagne and fruit juice) the tiki virgin might invest in a $7 tiki mug or peruse copies of Tiki News. As is made evident by articles in the 40-page bimonthly zine, this might be just the beginning of an uncontrollable obsession.

"Tiki is a religion," says 40-year-old Michael von Sternberg without irony. "But if it gets too popular it can no longer be true tiki."

Stroheim, who is clad in prerequisite Hawaiian duds made more legitimate by an old totem hanging around his neck, smiles. "The tiki gods were symbols of fertility, but it is the trickster aspect that I think appeals to most people," he says. "Polynesian folklore says that the tiki gods would trick even their daughters into having sex with them." For the past three years, Stroheim and his partner, Sven-Tiki, have been chronicling tiki history and craft in the pages of Tiki News, which gives detailed accounts of tiki bars and artists as well as cocktail recipes and record reviews. Despite large Estrus ads, TN is definitely not a moneymaker, but, as Stroheim says, it is a good way to bring the fanatics together.

"Brother Cleve from Combustible Edison sent me photos of his [tiki] mug collection," offers Stroheim. "I have them on file with all the other photos that people have sent. Tiki News kind of connects the dots, if you know what I mean. We get letters from all over -- Sweden, New Zealand, Canada." Although Stroheim only relocated from L.A. six months ago, he is more than a little familiar with the tiki bars in San Francisco, and in almost any other city, for that matter. "The drinks at the Tonga Room may be expensive, but good cocktails are an art form. Those bartenders are not beerslingers, they are mixologists. If you order a mai tai at the Tonga Room, that is what you are going to get."

In recent months, a number of tiki upstarts have joined the ranks of the more established rooms -- Trad'r Sam's, Trader Vic's, and the Tonga Room. There is now the fashionable Lilo Lounge in Potrero Hill, and even bars like Dalva and the Holy Cow are advertising weekly tiki DJ nights. This comes as no surprise to Stroheim, who says the very word "tiki" conveys fun and excitement. "It just rolls off the tongue. Unfortunately, a good tiki bar takes a healthy investment on the part of the owners. Tiki masks cost money, and it's hard to find carvers these days. Most places come off as a bit thin. 'Tiki' becomes just another word for lounge." Of the Chameleon, he says that it is not quite the right atmosphere for a genuine tiki night, but that it has the appropriate homey feel. "Tiki bars in the '50s were neighborhood bars with a regular crowd. We have that here."

Despite an evident lack of "historical authenticity," the throng gathered does seem to take great and noisy pleasure in sucking up their flower-garnished cocktails; there are enough vulgar floral patterns in the room to make Bob Hope gag; and, as the night wears on, gangs of straw-hat-wearing patrons begin to run amok. When the Aquamen launch into "Jose Cuervo" -- just one of their many tributes to booze -- a pigtailed girl performing a hula beneath a burning tiki torch arrives at an adjective to perfectly describe the night: "It's a giggle."

For six issues of Tiki News send $12 to: 2215-R Market St. #177, San Francisco, CA 94114.

By Silke Tudor

 
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