Words and Pictures by Jennifer Cassity
The truth is, if my partner in crime – Agent “Case Closed” hadn’t stumbled across the likes of Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman and Les Baxter over 10 years ago – we may have never stepped into this oasis in the first place. With my first experience here being last year’s Latin themed “South of the Border”, I was again intrigued by this annual festival that celebrates mid-century lifestyle and faux Polynesian-pop. Since this year’s theme came with an espionage twist, our mission was to submerge ourselves into the world of symposiums, music and finely crafted cocktails. We were to spend the 4 day festival learning everything we could about this event that has propelled from 30 or so people 12 years ago – to 3 hotels, 16 symposiums, 18 DJs, 20 artists, 20 bands and entertainers, 31 cars on show, 40 dancers, 80 different vendors, 420 hotel rooms and over 3,000 attendees today. We were on a quest to place ourselves amongst those that frequent the event year after year to escape their everyday reality and step into the shoes of their favorite spy persona. Armed with last year’s memories and the “Peter Gunn Theme” echoing in my mind, I packed the car and headed down to San Diego, California for Tiki Oasis ’12.
The setting could not have been more beautiful. It was a clear crisp evening in San Diego and Agent Case and I pulled in the Bali Hai restaurant on Shelter Island. With the sun quickly setting, we approached the party kick-off and were immediately greeted by the friendly Oasis staff who led us to an area with cocktails, music, and a large group of party-goers. Hmm, they look suspiciously famil… I began to recognize attendees from last year’s event! Something clicked. This is not just a music festival or gathering – this is a community. At that moment we struck up conversation with “Tiki Bob” who began to tell us the lore of Tiki Oasis’ past. He told us how it began with just 30 diehard tiki fans out in Palm Springs, and how it has taken on a whole new meaning in the last few years. Keeping in mind that this is a celebration of pastime Americana, and not a blowout boozefest seemed to be something important to the Oasis veterans.
We sipped our ridiculously charged cocktail, the evening’s host King Kukulele took the stage along with his signature uke and began his patented brand of wacky emcee antics. He introduced a shifty looking character named “Otto” who took the stage, and in a choppy Russian-esqe accent welcomed us to this year’s festivities. He then mentioned to be on the lookout for poisoned cocktails that were making their rounds, and if one were to be “poisoned” (a small sticker at the bottom of your glass), you would be awarded a prize. Ah, so there was more than meets the eye everywhere we started looking… He was then followed on stage by the evening’s headliners – Tikiyaki Orchestra. In elegant evening wear, the band ripped into the “James Bond Theme” and a version of it that would undoubtedly perk Ian Flemming’s ears. As lead guitarist Jim Bacchi, picked that oh-so-legendary guitar line, we found ourselves fully immersed, practically drenched, in the exotic espionage “theme” the organizers worked so hard to create. It felt incredible. With the ocean air wafting through the dance floor, we had psychologically been transported somewhere more in common with Dr. No’s island than southern California.
Staying at one of the nearby “partner” hotels, we found ourselves a small hop, skip and some steps walk to the event epicenter, the Crowne Plaza Hotel. After checking in and getting our credentials in order, we followed the sounds of Jack Fetterman who was DJ’ing poolside. His blend of lounge exotica that he brings to NYC’s tiki-themed PKNY bar on Tuesday nights was a great compliment to the sunbathers and pool frolicking. Once we wet our palette; it was immediately time for the day’s first symposium. “Come Spy with Me” with Duke Weiss (aka Double Ought Duke) was a look into the world of spy music and the LP cover artwork that compliments it. “Martini?” a woman asks as we reach our seat. The organizers hadn’t missed a beat. Ever sipped a martini at 10 AM with the original soundtrack to On Her Majesty Secret Service playing? It’s never tasted better. Then for the next hour we heard samples from spy films and television shows. As part of our mission was extracting as much intelligence as possible, we made it to other symposiums throughout the weekend. They included spy guitar lessons conducted by Jason Lee (of the awesome surf guitar band – Jason Lee and the Riptides), “Growing Up Mancini” with Chris Mancini (Henry Mancini’s son!) sharing his life stories of Neil Young, Frank Zappa, having Peter Sellers as a baby sitter and 20 time Grammy winner as a father (he passed around his father’s Oscar for the crowd to hold). I also attended Pin-up Hair and Makeup conducted by Tana the Tattooed Lady and “How it all began – Unpublished Images from the Golden Days of Tiki Archeology” with the author of The Book of Tiki – Sven Kirsten. Another stand out was Charles Phoenix’s Retro Slideshow. Charles, a pop culture humorist, had collected slides from 50’s and 60’s backyard BBQs and pool parties and presented them in a hilarious fashion. Rounding out the day was Martin Cate’s always impressive cocktail presentation. This year’s journey through drink history taught us the origin of places like TGIFridays, known as “fern bars”, through a time traveling adventure meets history lesson. It ended with the audience taking their newfound knowledge and reinventing the tiki cocktail in a drink making competition sponsored by numerous high end rum and assorted mixer brands. Luckily the agents at table 13 were able to reverse the damage done and history was preserved.
Evenings at Tiki Oasis are another story. Other spies watched from their balcony rooms overlooking the pool and stage as the Martini Kings soothed the cooler evening air with songs from their new LP, Palm Springs Serenade on Dionysus Records. After their set completed, King Paris joined them and began hypnotizing the crowd with his guitar. San Francisco based The Devil-Ettes performed a skit, and were followed by Phoenix based The Love Me Nots. Nicole Laurenne, lead singer, purred and howled at the excited crowd. Sweden’s The Barbwires headlined the first night with a reel-to-reel tape machine on stage as they began a set of popular songs from their “Searider” album. Mike Barbwire led the band with his Fender Stratocaster and even managed a few shots from a generous tiki goer’s flask. Their set, full of energy and twisting guitar licks was a great climactic ending to the main stage’s festivities.
One would think the evening would be over with our senses on overload, our stomachs full of libations cocktails and our brains still hearing the comforting sounds of the vibraphone; however, for this crowd – the party is just beginning. After all, in our program upon arrival it was stated that our assignment was to ‘gather intelligence, document suspicious or gregarious activities and to ensure that rum consumption remains safe for the free world’. A secret agent spy does not stop when the main stage entertainment does – rather, they head to the numerous room parties hosted by the likes of Marie King and the famous Tonga Room crew, and Martin Cate of the 19th Best Bar in the nation (according to Drinks International Magazine), Smugglers Cove and other room crawl parties sponsored by Trader Vic’s LA Live, Bachelor Pad Magazine and Fez-o-Rama. The parties featured a multitude of bands and styles from surf rockers like Thee Swank Bastards to the wild Creepy Creeps (who also double as Creepxotica). The room parties, with dozens of rum fueled party goers dancing into the night, give Tiki Oasis its unique flavor and appeal.
Saturday night’s artists were just as impressive. Kicking off the main stage were Oasis veterans and previous night’s room party host Thee Swank Bastards. They played their brand of hi-octane surf rock before the Exotics took the stage and cooled the room with their smooth loungy exotica set list. Adding a comedic twist was The Lampshades (with Kate Flannery of NBC’s The Office and Scot Robinson from Anchorman), whose lounge-comedy act self proclaimed as the “funniest fake lounge act in Hollywood” had the outdoor arena roaring. With their high-brow humor and quick-wit personalities, this comedy duo’s tortured relationship unfolded on stage and gave the audience something to really remember. Finally, 80’s soul mod/revival band The Untouchables brought the house down. Traveling a short distance from Silver Lake, Los Angeles – this septet headlined the evening with their energetic soulful set that got everyone in high spirits.
Heading back to Pinpoint HQ we had gathered so much more intelligence and documented more suspicious activities than we had ever imagined. Our stay at Tiki Oasis Village was the most sensational experience and the party that the man from T.I.K.I Otto von Stroheim and Agent from A.L.O.H.A Baby Doe threw this year was one for the history books. With our bellies full of Demerara rum and with next year’s theme HulaBilly on the horizon, there’s no doubt Tiki Oasis is becoming one of my favorite weekends of the year.
Tiki Oasis 2012 Pictures
Photos and Words by Jennifer Cassity