This month's find:

That touch of tiki

If it smacks of Polynesian kitsch, Chris Bannister has to have it

May 12, 2007|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Reporter

Pay an arm and a leg for a drinking mug shaped like a severed head?

You might as well kiss your common sense aloha.

"Every once in awhile one would pop up on eBay," says Chris Bannister, who normally goes crazy for anything remotely related to so-called tiki culture. "The first time I saw one it was probably $125."

That was six years ago. The going price is now about $1,400 - an amount most people would find hard to swallow even after they've had a few too many mai tais.

Bannister, a 39-year-old information-technology technician from Nottingham, decided to bide his shopping time. It paid off: He recently found a limited-edition replica mug for a mere $65.

But that's getting a little, um, ahead of the story.

Tiki, or Polynesian pop, culture took hold after World War II. American servicemen returned from the South Pacific with fond memories of potent fruit-flavored drinks, hula dancers, loud shirts, beach-bar music and wood carvings of deities whose high foreheads resemble climbing walls.

That endless-summer sensibility meshed nicely with the easy-going, relatively peaceful 1950s. Today's tiki culture is grounded in mixed-bag, mid-century nostalgia: a celebration of pencil-leg furniture and palm trees, pink flamingos and Sinatra's Rat-Pack cool.

That cross-cultural layering of music, art and history can be addictive, says Bannister. Add to that the allure of mindless escapism: "You can't go wrong when a lot of people want to get together for a drink."

Especially if those rum punches are topped off with teensy paper umbrellas.

Bannister took the tiki plunge six years ago when he and his wife, Joanna, bought their first house in Carney. The rec room cried out for a funky touch. That's when the thought "bamboo mini-bar" bubbled up inside his brain. He bought one through the mail.

Soon after that Bannister read The Book of Tiki, a kind of how-to manual for the sand-'n'-slacker set. It included a description of Polynesian Village in Fort Worth, Texas, a famously quirky tiki bar run by a magician named Ren Clark.

The signature gimmick of Polynesian Village was to serve drinks in mugs inspired by a trick Clark did involving severed heads. Unfortunately, the bar is long gone. So, too, is Clark. Hence those rare-find mugs have become prized by tiki fanatics, who'll dish out big bucks whenever one surfaces on eBay or elsewhere.

For years, Bannister dreamed of stumbling upon a Ren Clark mug at a thrift store or garage sale. But he never hit the good-luck lottery.

Then in March a bulletin-board item magically appeared on Tiki Central, a popular Web site. Ignacio "Notch" Gonzalez, a Northern California artist and tikiphile, announced he was going to make 100 ceramic "tribute mugs" based on old photographs taken at Polynesian Village - and sell them for just $30 apiece.

"He sold out in, like, 30 days," says Bannister.

Serious tiki heads adopt alter-ego nicknames. Gonzalez quickly received orders from Morbidboy, Thunderlips, Sneaky Tiki, Boutiki - and Chris "Turbogod" Bannister. About six weeks later, special-delivery packages were shipped to customers.

"I didn't think it was going to look that realistic," Bannister says, gushingly.

Indeed, the mug has all you could ask for in the way of severed-head details (painfully contorted face, bulging eyes, blood trickling down the cheeks), and it's so faithfully rendered it scared the bejeebers out of Bannister's young daughters, Kassie and Eme.

Turbogod's long-sought-after mug occupies a place of honor on a shelf behind his bamboo mini-bar, the focal point of a recently remodeled basement tiki room. Last summer, the Bannisters moved to Nottingham. Chris had purchased the house he grew up in from his down-sizing parents.

One of the first orders of business was to gut the traditionally decorated sitting room, transforming it into what he describes as "my tiki bar slash man cave."

The best his sister Mary can say of the bar-cave is "it's creative." But what does she know? Mary's heart belongs to Jimmy Buffet, reviled in some circles as the evil purveyor of tiki-lite culture.

Bannister covered the ceiling of his hideaway with palm thatch. He painted the walls a cantaloupe color. He has hung prints by tiki artist Josh "Shag" Agle. On the mantelpiece sit two large figurines acquired from the "Enchanted Tiki Room" at Disneyland. Hundreds of tiki mugs are on display, one of them depicting Abraham Lincoln with slightly Polynesian features.

(Alas, the tiki totem that Turbogod tried to carve himself remains unfinished; work was suspended after 12 stitches were required to close a nasty gash in his left index finger.)

"Clutter's gonna happen. It's kind of expected in a tiki bar," says Bannister. "The idea is to see something new every time you walk in there."

He has visions of adding an indoor tiki fountain, but that may be pushing his wife's patience envelope a bit too far. She tends to react to such ideas with a roll of the eyes, her glazed expression reminiscent of a Ren Clark severed-head mug.

His next buy likely will be a petrified porcupine blowfish, a butterball creature of the deep covered with needlelike spines that give it the appearance of a land mine. He plans to turn the blowfish into a tiki lamp.

Of course, his big-ticket tiki purchase will have to wait until the children are older.

"When he married me, he promised to take me to Tahiti," says Joanna Bannister, teasingly. Instead, she regularly travels to her husband's basement tiki bar. "When I go downstairs and do the laundry, I get a breath of it," she says.

tom.dunkel@baltsun.com

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