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DispL.A. Case #15: Tiki From Oceanic Arts
The history of Los Angeles as told through 232 objects.
Los Angeles was founded on September 4, 1781. Between now and the 232nd anniversary, we are gathering the stories behind iconic objects that help explain our city. Los Angeles is older than Chicago, Atlanta or Washington, D.C. In fact, when L.A.’s founders were gathering at El Pueblo, New York City was still occupied by the British army. We have a long story to tell, let’s take a look back and see where the city came from. Feel free to add to this exhibition. Email your ideas to [email protected]
Tiki is the first man. In South Pacific lore, he is a religious figure and a protective totem. In 1934, Don the Beachcomber opened in Hollywood and three years later, Trader Vic opened his first cafe in Northern California. Through drinks and décor, the duo adapted island culture into a series of bars and restaurants and America fell in love with Polynesian Pop. By the mid-1950s, exotic theme bars were in every corner of the country, Adventureland came to Anaheim and tiki culture was in full swing. That’s when college buddies LeRoy Schmaltz and Robert Van Oosting took a trip to the Pacific Islands. They met natives, studied the art and came back to Whittier where they opened Oceanic Arts, a décor warehouse providing bamboo, thatch and tiki supplies. LeRoy started carving his own interpretations of the ancient sculpture and it’s these figures, not the island originals, which found their way into tiki bars, theme parks and rumpus rooms around the world. “The biggest existing tiki statue in Tahiti was made by Schmaltz, in Whittier.” Art expert Greg Escalante told the Los Angeles Times. “Even in Tahiti, they somehow rely on Schmaltz.” The pair has exported their work to Fiji, Samoa and throughout the Pacific. The carving pictured here doesn’t have an ancient name or much of a backstory. A client in Hawaii requested their stylized Hawaiian figure shortly after the island achieved statehood in 1959. They simply refer to her as “#444 Hawaiian Carved Figure.” After more than 50 years, Oceanic Arts is still going strong. Schmaltz rules the workshop with a hammer and chisel and Van Oosting works with clients at the front desk. ”They hired U.S. designers to create Polynesia in their islands.” Says Van Oosting. “And they contacted us to supply the décor.”