Tiki Bar at the Waldorf Hotel celebrates 60 years of history

By Yasmine Shemesh
The legendary hotel is reinventing itself once again.

The legendary hotel is reinventing itself once again.

VANCOUVER — In 1946, Bob Mills, a U.S. Marine, bought a property in Vancouver at 1489 East Hastings. Shortly after his purchase, right on the heels of World War II, the young man was dispatched to Bora Bora—the South Pacific island chosen to operate as an American military supply base. Though his time there was short lived (the base closed in the summer of the same year it opened), it impacted Mills greatly. He fell in love with Polynesian culture and purchased eight paintings from a local, then-unknown artist named Edgar Leetag at $250 a pair to bring home as souvenirs from his journey. After Mills was discharged and returned to Vancouver, he began building what would become the Waldorf Hotel. In 1955, seven years after the Waldorf officially opened its doors, Mills decided to create a room that reflected his experience in the Pacific Islands — the “Tahitian Cocktail Lounge.” Today, 60 years later, the Tiki Bar is one of the oldest surviving Polynesian Tiki rooms in North America and as it celebrates a milestone, it’s on the cusp of a renaissance that intends to carry its legacy far into the future.

As it did for Mills, Tiki culture evoked a sweet nostalgia for homecoming soldiers of war. It also represented accessibility to the exotic and forbidden world that middle class day dreamers—enamoured with fantasies of faraway places—wanted to indulge in. Architects Mercer and Mercer restructured the hotel’s streamlined Moderne interior to create a space steeped in tropical romance — the navy coloured half-domed ceiling, studded with twinkling lights gave the artifice of a night sky. Bamboo matted walls, artificial palm trees, floral carpet, and Mills’ beloved Leeteg black velvet paintings completed the effect.

In an era where Hastings Racetrack and Empire Stadium were Vancouver’s primary entertainment facilities, the Waldorf quickly became an important fixture in the community — the beer hall was a frequent hangout for rail industry workers and the Tiki Bar was a sexy little nightlife hot-spot. In the 1970s, Mills sold the Waldorf Hotel to the hotel’s resident cook, Frank Puharich, who purchased the entire block of real estate. Under ownership of the Puharich family, good times and golden years at the Waldorf and its Tiki Bar continued on well into the next century.

In 2010, the Puharichs leased the hotel to Waldorf Productions — a collective of artists, musicians, architects, and restaurateurs who re-imagined the legendary space as vibrant hub for arts and culture. The collective (who later re-branded as Arrival Agency) breathed new energy into the Waldorf and brought in art exhibitions, live music performances, and themed parties. However, despite public plaudits and the enthusiasm of the local arts scene, financial outputs surpassed the inputs and three years later, the property was bought by Viaggio Hospitality — a branch of the Niradia Group of Companies, known mostly for its real estate development.

The sale, expectantly, hit a nerve. After far too many casualties of historical landmarks like the Ridge and Pantages Theatre to make way for yet another condominium, people did not want to lose a further piece of their past or, furthermore, the culture that was fostered at the Waldorf. And since the hotel was never recognized as a heritage site, the threat of demolition was scarily and easily plausible. Multiple protests followed, including a petition that collected at least 23,000 signatures. Even Mayor Gregor Robertson released a public statement, though critics rejected it as a “sentimental bid for hipster votes.”

Where does the Waldorf, and its beloved Tiki Bar, stand now? “Right now, we’re 100 per cent work going,” states Jon Campbell, the Waldorf’s marketing director and talent buyer. “It won’t be torn down.” Instead, Viaggio Hospitality renovated the hotel, redesigned the cafe to house a traditional Italian eatery called Nonna’s Table Cafe & Pizzeria, and kept the space as a place that continues to host various events including concerts, music festivals, private performances, weddings, and, of course, those infamous themed parties.

As for the Tiki Bar, it is getting a present for its 60th birthday: a restoration that intends to restore the Polynesian palace back to its original grandeur. “Basically, we’re keeping it the same, but we just need to clean it all up,” Campbell says. “A proper restoration because it’s 60 years old of course, so it needs a little upkeep. We’re going to get nice new mirrors on the back, we’re going to get new palm leaves — all of that. Just give it a nice full clean… We’re going to put a 2015 touch on it, [with] some newer LED lights, so it looks a little bit modern with the history in it.”

A spit-shined Tiki Bar that promises to honour its history will be unveiled at Tiki 60, a party held in the room on December 12 that celebrates the bar’s diamond anniversary. The party will pay tribute to the watering hole’s storied past with a two-part evening that spans the decades. It begins with a time travelling, invite-only media event that hits a different year each hour on the hour. “We’re going to start from 1950 and have 50s themed music, 50s themed cocktails, and we’ll have dancers,” Campbell explains. “Then every year. We’re going to create the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s… We’re going to go from decade to decade to nowadays.”

Doors then open up to the public at 10:00 p.m., where the Waldorf will play host to a variety of local acts, alongside a full visual production that displays photos and highlights of the hotel over the years. “We were thinking of doing a big, huge, DJ thing, but everyone can do that,” Campbell says. “We want to make it an experience for the people.” Weekly themes like Friday’s Casual Encounters and Dream Suite Saturdays will be showcased, as will live sets from Toro Y Moi frontman Chaz Bundwick. The South Carolina musician will be performing as his electronic side project Les Sins during the media portion of the evening before heading downstairs to DJ in Tabu Nightclub until the wee hours of the morning.

Tiki 60 is not a rebirth. Rather, it’s a renaissance of sorts; it’s the beginning of a brand new era, which recognizes, respects, and celebrates the iconic past of both the Tiki Bar and the Waldorf Hotel while stepping into what vows to be a prolific future. 1489 East Hastings is a rare gem, shining brightly in a sea of quickly fragmenting heritage — an important cultural centre for East Vancouver, distinguished and defined by its liberal attitudes and its inclusivity as much as it is for its kitschy décor.

And it’s going to stay that way: a space people can go to for a Mai Tai and a dance, an oasis that the artistic community can feel excited about, a place that Bob Mills, a U.S. Marine who fell in love with an island in the South Pacific, would be proud of.

Tiki 60 is held at the Waldorf Hotel on December 12.

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