The Molokai Bar at the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale

What Music Was Played in Polynesian Restaurants and Tiki Bars?

An early postcard for the Tonga Room in San Francisco includes a drawing of the house band
An early postcard for the Tonga Room in San Francisco includes a drawing of the house band

Vintage postcards let us see what Polynesian restaurants looked like, menus let us see what they were eating, recipes let us taste what they were drinking, but we lack a corresponding clear record of the sound of these places. To understand what might have been heard in midcentury tiki bars, let’s also learn about how music was heard. During the heyday of Tiki (let’s say from its origins in 1933 to it’s semi-collapse in the ’70s), there were only a few different ways music would be heard in restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

Very early on, it was live music, or often… no music at all. In the decades preceding the rise of Tiki, having music in restaurants was still often seen as counter-culture, outré, bohemian. The rise of jazz clubs in the ’20s did much to popularize music as part of the nighttime experience.

When tropical bars and Polynesian restaurants first came into being, starting in the ’30s and through to the ’50s, the music heard in them was live music. Hawaiian, hapa-haole and other Polynesian acts had already been touring the country for years thanks to the sound’s growing popularity after the Pan Pacific Expo in 1915. The many tropical bars, restaurants and nightclubs that were springing up were a natural destination for these acts. Some restaurants, like the Tonga Room in San Francisco, had their own house bands to play Hawaiian and hapa-haole music. (Later into the ’50s and ’60s, as the restaurants became more elaborate, they were likely to also combine their house band with a Polynesian dance show.)

1968 photograph of Lokelani and Her Islanders performing at Tahitian Hut in San Francisco
1968 photograph of Lokelani and Her Islanders performing at Tahitian Hut in San Francisco
"Stanley Mendelson at the piano" - 1966 ad for Outrigger Bar and Lounge in the Sheraton in New Orleans
“Stanley Mendelson at the piano” – 1966 ad for Outrigger Bar and Lounge in the Sheraton in New Orleans

Many Polynesian restaurants, possibly the bulk of them, simply had whatever standard “supper club” acts were available in their local community, or hosted other non-Polynesian touring acts. Music gets heavy mention in the Polynesian restaurant ads of the era, with many proclaiming “ENTERTAINMENT NIGHTLY.” This could have been a full band and a dance floor, or simply a guy at a piano.

"NATIVE ENTERTAINMENT NIGHTLY DANCING" - 1967 ad for Trader Island in San Bernardino
“NATIVE ENTERTAINMENT NIGHTLY DANCING” – 1967 ad for Trader Island in San Bernardino

With the smaller bars, ones that don’t seem to have had live entertainment, it’s possible that these places just didn’t have music. Today that would seem weird, but back then, it wasn’t. It’s possible these places may have had jukeboxes to play 45 records, but that would have been more common in diners, soda shops, teen hangouts… a decidedly different scene than your typical tropical getaway. However the original tiki bar, Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood, employed a sort of proto-jukebox, a lovely wooden cabinet by Capehart that was able to play a collection of Hawaiian LPs.

Muzak-logoDeeper into the golden era of tiki, into the ’50s and ’60s, a new technology became widely available: Muzak. It’s reasonable to assume that many of the Polynesian restaurants during this time would have been playing these mild instrumental tracks as background music. I’d love to know if perhaps Muzak provided blocks of music tailored for Polynesian restaurants. It could have made good business sense to do so, as licensing hapa-haole tunes for re-recording in the Muzak style would likely have been relatively affordable, and these restaurants were a sizeable chunk of the market. As much as Muzak is derided, it would have been a nice fit. The eventual rejection of Muzak and of Tiki happened hand-in-hand, after all.

"Melodies for Dancing" was recorded at the Hawaiian Room in New York City
“Melodies for Dancing” was recorded at the Hawaiian Room in New York City

Over in Hawai’i, something magic happened: the live house acts in the nightclubs catering to tourists started to develop their own jazz sound, and it was good. Les Baxter, Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman each played roles in creating this new sound: Exotica. Recordings were produced that became massive sellers on the Mainland. “Quiet Village” in particular became one of the great musical standards of the ’50s and ’60s.

Martin Denny and his band on stage at Don the Beachcomber in Waikiki, circa 1961
Martin Denny and his band on stage at Don the Beachcomber in Waikiki, circa 1961

More bits and bobs of music inspired by other, non-Polynesian cultures made their way into the mix. “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Room,” the theme song for The Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland? Listen closely—that’s calypso. Duke Ellington’s jazz standard “Caravan” sits alongside these recordings quite comfortably. Oh, hello there, Yma Sumac! Much of the “Hawaiian” music of Billy Mure, from his albums Hawaiian Percussion and Pink Hawaii, has a Caribbean feel. The greats of Exotica music incorporated unusual percussion wherever they could find it, producing a mélange of early “world music” that fell into the broad “Exotica” category.

These Exotica and other early “world music” acts started to travel to the Mainland to perform as well, and this music was certainly being played in homes, but it’s unclear to me how much Exotica recordings would have been played in Polynesian restaurants. Perhaps in Muzak form?

It’s unlikely that surf music would have been heard much in these places. That was the music of the younger generation. As tiki bars and Polynesian restaurants started to fade and struggle in the ’70s, the ones that held on sometimes hosted a relative grab-bag of live acts. No Doubt played Kono Hawaii in Santa Ana in 1992, years before they made it big.

A 1960s postcard from the Royal Tahitian in Ontario, California shows live musicians, Polynesian dancers, and restaurant patrons on the dance floor.
A 1960s postcard from the Royal Tahitian in Ontario, California shows live musicians, Polynesian dancers, and restaurant patrons on the dance floor.

Today, it’s a pretty random mix out there. If you visit the Tonga Room, there is still a house band… but it’s playing dance hits of the ’80s and ’90s. Modern Top 40 is heard, karaoke nights are not uncommon, reggae and Jawaiian music… what you might hear today is so all-over-the-place, the misfit surf sound seems pretty good by comparison. At the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, the house band is still playing beautiful Polynesian and hapa-haole music, and there is still a fantastic Polynesian dance show. Many of the better-executed modern tiki bars tend to have playlists consisting of lots and lots of Exotica, hapa-haole, traditional Hawaiian, and some compatible vintage Latin sound to add a bit of pep.  More and more modern Exotica and hapa-haole bands are cropping up, providing a fresh influx of sound.

In a future article, I’ll be sharing resources to elevate the playlist at your own tiki bar: online radio stations, music service playlists, modern bands, classic must-have albums, podcasts for inspiration, and ways to dig deeper into these musical styles. Do you have an online playlist, podcast or radio station to recommend?

9 thoughts on “What Music Was Played in Polynesian Restaurants and Tiki Bars?

  1. There are many great podcasts, radio stations, and specialty shows. The ones I listen to most frequently are Darrell Brogdon’s “Retro Cocktail Hour” (KANU), Glen Leslie’s “Jet Set Planet” (KFAI), Gaylord Fields’s show on WFMU, Cyrano & Señor Amor’s “Molotov Cocktail Hour” (KXLU), LuxuriaMusic, Nicholas Yee’s “Bridging the Gap” (KHPR-2), and Koop Kooper’s Cocktail Nation podcast. However, there are many more fine programs out there… as well as several fine live groups!

    Tiki friends out there, please keep supporting public radio stations and live music!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can confirm that jukebox exclusive exotica releases did exist. Some jukeboxes could play special 7″ 33 1/3 records that gave the customer more bang for their buck. Each side generally had three songs and the most common were the generic Seeberg releases. I have two Martin Denny 33 1/3 releases. I think they were on Liberty like his other releases.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fantastic, thank you! I’d like to understand better what scope of locations tended to have jukeboxes, and during which eras. With the broad popularity of some of the Exotica stuff, particularly Martin Denny, it makes me wonder if those tracks would have been isolated instances found in a mix of generally popular music, and found more commonly in non-tiki establishments like those noted in the article… or if they actually could have been providing a true soundtrack for tiki places (and if so, how commonly, and what sorts of tiki spots — I would think they would make more sense in the smaller bars, vs larger, grande-dame restaurants that were maybe leaning more towards Muzak or house bands).

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  3. If you would like to listen to some great current island music from Hawaii, take a look at Danny Couch, lots of you tube video’s as well as his own web site dannycouch.com Aloha to you all.

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