From the monthly archives: "May 2016"
Oceanic Arts co-founders LeRoy Schmaltz (far left) and Bob Van Oosting (far right) with author and his friend.

Oceanic Arts co-founders LeRoy Schmaltz (far left) and Bob Van Oosting (far right) with author and his friend, April 2016.

WHITTIER, Ca.–Every day is a getaway day at Oceanic Arts.

The holy grail of American tiki culture is tucked back in an industrial park in Whittier, Calif., the early home of President Richard Nixon.

Oceanic Arts is to the free blue seas what the Watergate complex was to fishy burglars.

Oceanic Arts is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

Founders LeRoy Schmaltz and Bob Van Oosting are still hanging ten. 

Master carver Schmaltz turns 81 years old on May 14. His large hands are battered and knotty, the passionate notches within a mountain of a man.

Schmaltz’s father Earl was a 17-year-old  choir director on the north side of Chicago, became an insurance salesman and later counted votes for Al Capone. His grandson Darby Goodwin was on the Chicago Tribune’s 2012 All-State Football team as a defensive lineman for Loyola Academy.

The family left Chicago for the west coast and Schmaltz was born in Los Angeles.  Van Oosting, 80,  is a former carver and the Los Angeles native now runs the business end of Oceanic Arts.

Oceanic Arts delivered the South Seas decor to Trader Vic’s, Don the Beachcomber, Disneyland, the Polynesian Hotel at Disney World, the Bali Hai in San Diego and even the set of the “Gilligan’s Island” television show. Oceanic Arts sends supplies to Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash tiki bar on a monthly basis.

The 10,000 square feet Oceanic Arts is open to the public and features carvings, tiki heads, totems, shields, masks, thatching, fake tropical birds, seashell light shades, magazines, tiki CDs and books such as Douglas A. Nason’s “Night of The Tiki (The Art of Shag, Schmaltz and Selected Primitive Ocean Carvings)” [Last Gasp, $49.95]

Oceanic Arts showroom

Oceanic Arts showroom, April 2016

Visitors are greeted by a female mannequin in a grass skirt and a small waterfall as they enter the mall of eternal high tides. Oceanic Arts has two other warehouses in Whittier. It is not known if President Nixon shopped at Oceanic Arts, but Johnny Depp is a regular customer.

The Rolling Stones once rented from Oceanic Arts for a party. “We lost some things,” Schmaltz said during an early April conversation at Oceanic Arts. “We don’t know where the party was but some of our skulls ended up at other people’s houses.

We didn’t do a lot for ‘Gilligan’s Island’ originally. There was another firm that was closer to Hollywood. We got involved in later years with bamboo and thatching for their sets.

Oceanic Arts workshop (D. Hoekstra photo)

Oceanic Arts workshop (D. Hoekstra photo)

Most of “Gilligan’s Island” was shot at Radford Studios in Studio City, Ca. Earlier segments were shot on the beach in Malibu and the pilot was made on the island of Kauai.

Van Oosting said, “Early on when we were broke we were in a barn that was used for horses for a while. To save some money we decided to use some boards on the floor and carve them. They ended up in a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. These boards had been urinated on for years by horses. We wire brushed the boards, hosed them down every day, but we started hearing about this ‘strange aroma’ in this restaurant.”

In his book, Nason wrote of Schmaltz, “Through his work as co-founder and an artist at the Oceanic Arts gallery and shop, he has probably had a larger influence on where tikis appeared and how they were perceived in America than any other individual.”

Van Oosting has been attributed to have said, “As long as the world is in turmoil, people always turn to peaceful, pleasurable worlds–and this is one of them.”

The good Dutchman laughed and said, “That must have been somebody else who said that. It is a fun place to be. We get set designers who meet here for some odd reason and they say to each other, ‘I haven’t seen you in 22 years.’  We get Wayne Johnson, ‘The Rock,’ Bridget Fonda. You supply a tropical movie, then they want to do their house that way.”

Schmaltz said, “In the earlier days we had a lot of people from Disney, architectural firms and interior decorators who made a beeline every Friday to our shop. We were more loose then. We had drinks and barbecues going.”

Oceanic Arts emporium, April 2016

Oceanic Arts emporium.

Schmaltz and Van Oosting met as students at Mt. San Jacinto College, about 25 miles from the current Oceanic Arts location.

Schmaltz was studying architecture and carving Palm Frond Masks (the thickest part of a palm tree leaf)  as a side project. Schmaltz and Van Oosting partnered up and sold thousands of Palm Frond Masks (500 per order) to the Builder’s Emporium home improvement chain. Their wives stained and painted the masks.

“We got a little place in Bob’s garage,” Schmaltz said. “In the late 1940s Bob Carter was importing tikis and tapa cloth from the South Pacific (to sell to “Trader” Vic Bergeron and Donn Beach of Don the Beachcomber’s). He saw us and invited us to start working. We didn’t know much about tikis.” One of their earliest popular items was the Tahitian Support Posts for Trader Vic’s.

Oceanic Arts---what a place.

Oceanic Arts—what a place.

Van Oosting added, “We grew into a packing shed in Whittier, overlooking Los Angeles, We started doing carvings for Bob. We did some sales work for him. He was also involved with the Kahiki (in Columbus, Ohio) and we supplied them.” But both men kept their day jobs–Van Oosting worked in a pots and pans factory and the Hickory Hop drive-in restaurant in Pico Rivera, Ca. “Just a hippity hop to the Hickory Hop,” he cracked. Schmaltz was a designer and salesman in mid-century modern furniture at Crossroads Furniture in Whittier.

Initially, their work did not whet any appetite for tropical escapism.

Schmaltz said, “I went to look at mountains near here. So did Bob. That was paradise to us, you got the pine trees. Then the desert areas are kind of neat. We have the ocean here.”

Van Oosting added, “Once we got in the business, paradise was out there.  So we went out there for three and a half months and 37,000 miles.

The carvers are modest about that 1960 journey they call “The Big Trip.”

Schmaltz and Van Oosting traveled from Hawaii through Tahiti, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Guinea, the Australian outback and then New Zealand. “Hawaii was no different than being in Southern California with the same stores and businesses,” Van Oosting said. “Once we got on the airplane and landed in Tahiti we were in paradise. In those Tahiti and Bora Bora didn’t have any hotels. We stayed in grass shacks. Bob Carter helped plant a dream into us. He had a slide show he showed us of his trips.”

“We hired a Chinese Tahitian fellow with a speedboat and went all around the islands. He wanted us to see the schools and figured the kids would get a kick out of it (the visitors in a speedboat). We have color slides of those kids and they looked at us and started crying.” The kids had never seen white people.

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Bob (left) and LeRoy (right) in Chimbu Village near Papua, New Guinea–1960. (Courtesy of Oceanic Arts)

The journey instilled a world of confidence in the young carvers.

“We were supposedly just young punk kids who didn’t know anything,”  Schmaltz said. “We kind of made ourselves an authority. We knew what we had seen. They were filming Marlon Brando’s ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ when we were in Tahiti. So we looked at all the structures and buildings. We never saw Marlon Brando but we heard about him. He wanted a carved head but we didn’t let him have it.”

Van Oosting elaborated, “We learned a lot about design. We saw a book from 1868 in Fiji. We picked up good ideas in Dutch New Guinea. We have their masks and shields we replicated in hardwood. Somehow through gin and tonics and stuff we landed home in Los Angeles with $1.50 in our pockets.”

LeRoy Schmaltz, still carving at 81 (D. Hoekstra photo)

LeRoy Schmaltz, still carving at 81. (D. Hoekstra photo)

The carvers later worked for Pan American World Airways in Samoa and Tahiti. The largest tiki in Tahiti is 30 feet tall–it was carved out of Southern California pine by Schmaltz.

Van Oosting said,  “We never got a ‘big break.’ We were broke all the time. We had enough to buy a good bottle of rum and that was about it. We did a lot of work for Disney World too.

“LeRoy carved a 35-foot totem pole for them, We did Trader Sam’s (the bar at Disneyland in Anaheim,) At one time LeRoy designed restaurants. We worked on restaurants in Tarrytown, N.Y., one near Kalamazoo, Michigan (the since-razed Tur Mai Kai), another in Denver.”

One of their prize commissions is an 18-feet tall and 16’ wide carved redwood tympanium for Marriott’s Kona Kai at their world headquarters in Bethesda, Md.

Schmaltz has done thousands of carvings in his lifetime.

He prefers redwood, sugar pine and mahagony, wood that is easy purveyed from Southern California lumber mills. Schmaltz deploys chisels, routers, sanders, grinders and chainsaws. “The more things I can get rid of to work faster, I prefer,” he said. “If I could use blasting powder, I would use that too.”

During my visit he was working on light fixtures for LuLu’s in Waikiki.

LeRoy Schmaltz--hand of a carver.

LeRoy Schmaltz–hand of a carver.

What does the master carver think about as he works?

“When I was carving with other people I would go into fantasy land and pretend I was one of the characters I was carving,” he answered. “I’m a New Guinea guy. Or a pirate–arrrrrgh. I try to think how they would be thinking.”

He sells his work to collectors for anywhere from $300 to $2,000. I picked up a hand carved table size Hawaiiian Bloxam Idol warrior for my home tiki bar for $300. The detail, especially in the face, is exquisite. It is made with care and dignity.

Schmaltz still works in his shop on a daily basis.

“I still do carvings,” he said in reflective shades. “Fine art. I keep pretty busy, but I don’t do as many big tikis as I used to. I have to bend down and lift them.” That’s okay.

LeRoy and Bob have uplifted the spirits of people all over the world.

Courtesy of National Blues Museum

Courtesy of National Blues Museum

ST. LOUIS–The National Blues Museum is in a former department store in downtown St. Louis. The museum got a lot of love even before its April 2 grand opening, as the $14 million center was named a top travel destination by the New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine.

I waited until the doors opened to get my mojo talkin’.

The National Blues Museum is a snappy, well told story with lots of panels, posters and photographs. It has an ambitious vision. It is billed as the only institution of its kind dedicated exclusively to preserving and honoring the history of blues music and its impact on American and world culture.

There’s also the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Ms., the Blues Hall of Fame in downtown Memphis and the quaint River Music Experience  in Davenport, Ia.

Am I missing any important blues cities?

The majestic St. Louis building was born in 1906 as the Grand-Leader department store. The 23,000 square feet of the museum gives it ample room to grow and evolve, just like the blues itself. That’s what is exciting to me about the St. Louis development. I’d like to see more interactive exhibits, more source interviews and sounds and more original artifacts at the National Blues Museum.

For example, the museum points out that W.C. Handy “The Father of the Blues” lived in St. Louis circa 1892-93. On display in front of his picture are a random coronet and a regular trumpet that denote his instrumentation. In 1967 the new St. Louis Blues hockey team was named in honor of Handy’s legacy.

Conversely, the interactive highlight comes from a $100,000 gift from rocker and Paramount Records blues archivist Jack White. [The eagle eye will notice the museum’s “Ma Rainey’s Mystery Record,” recorded in 1924 at Paramount in Grafton, Wis.]

Jack White: 21st Century blues man.

Jack White: 21st Century blues man.

White’s “Mix It Up” room is the end result of a series of touch monitors throughout the museum that allow visitors to create their own blues persona, music (with harmonica, guitar and piano), lyrics and album artwork.

Each monitor visit can be mashed up into a unique song delivered in the “Mix It Up” room at the end of the museum tour. Guests received a free mp3 “Mix It Up” file as a souvenir.

During my visit on a rainy weekday afternoon, the “Mix It Up” room had the most visitors–and the most young people.

The museum tells the story of the blues through its migratory path from Mississippi through Memphis, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Canada while also branching out west to California. It moves on up to modern day, illustrating the blues imprint on hip-hop artists such as Kendrick Lamar.

It messed me up to read about Chicago’s rich blues history in a St. Louis museum. One museum panel paid homage to the blues inspired jazz and vaudeville artists who performed at The Chicago Theatre. Around the corner I saw wall sized portraits of Chicagoan Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers.

That’s as lame as seeing an image of Stan Musial in a Chicago baseball museum.

Chess Records architect Willie Dixon--his family runs a modestly visited tourist site in Chicago.

Chess Records architect Willie Dixon–his family runs a modestly visited tourist site in Chicago.

There are Chicago connections at the museum. Interpretative manager Jacqueline K. Dace was formerly project manager for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Ms. and collections manager  at the Du Sable Museum of African American History in Chicago.

And the first person I bumped into after walking through the front door was the friendly volunteer docent, Paul Bruce, retired director of safety from METRA. The Chicago native’s daughter lives in St. Louis. He showed me the museum’s 150-seat music venue, deployed with four HD (High Definition) cameras for internet screening. Regular live performances just began.

The museum is part of the new MX (Mercantile Exchange) district, an emerging downtown destination that includes an Embassy Suites on one side of the museum and Sugar Fire Smoke Barbecue on the other side. Most important the museum is two blocks from the America’s Center Convention complex.

Let’s see. In Chicago, the Chess Records studio and the historic Record Row is within walking distance of the McCormick Place convention complex.

But NOOOOOOH, our mayor wants to borrow more than $1 billion for a Star Wars museum filled with Norman Rockwell paintings? Wonder if it’s because he has a brother with Hollywood ties.

Executive Director Dion Brown (Courtesy of the National Blues Musem)

Executive Director Dion Brown (Courtesy of the National Blues Museum)

National Blues Museum founding executive director Dion Brown came to St. Louis in June, 2015 after serving as Executive Director of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, Ms..

How did St. Louis pull off what Chicago has so sadly failed to accomplish?

“I’ve followed this museum since 2011,” Brown answered during a conversation in his office. “I even asked ‘Why St. Louis?’ The answer I got was that it belongs wherever people wanted it. St. Louis pushed for it and had the donors who actually wanted to see it here.”

That’s how I felt about the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

I thought it should have been built in Memphis, but Cleveland worked the hardest to get it.

Brown said, “If you look at the central location to Chicago, Memphis, down to the Delta, geographically, St. Louis is the best place for it. Everybody can come to it. They started talking about this in 2010 and they pulled this off in six years. That’s something. And this is only going to get better. It has so much room to get better.

“I’m a dreamer. Being the  National Blues Museum, what’s wrong with having a branch in Chicago? It’s about branding and growing the museum.”

Besides Jack White’s involvement other notable museum supporters include St. Louis native and actor John Goodman, Devon Allman, Morgan Freeman, and Chicago’s Buddy Guy. The turning point in making the museum a reality came in 2012 when Pinnacle Entertainment, which formerly owned the nearby Lumiere Place casino and hotel, invested $6 million into the project. Prior to that bet the museum had raised $1 million.

Freeman provides narration for an introductory blues film.

Maybe Rahm can hire R2D2 to do the voice over for a Chicago blues museum.

The National Blues Museum in St. Louis (courtesy of the museum)

The National Blues Museum in St. Louis (image courtesy of the museum)

“We had Bonnie Raitt come here before we opened,” Brown said. “She just fell in love. We didn’t ask her to do anything, but she believes in what we’re doing so much she went and raved about us at her sold out concert here in town (at the Peabody Opera House). That’s from the heart. We weren’t there, it’s not like we gave her a script.

“That’s what I love about this.”

The National Blues Museum was designed by Gallagher & Associates, who also did the B.B. King museum, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans–and The Mob Museum of Las Vegas. The ceiling design incorporates original railroad ties from the area while the gift shop and performance area uses reclaimed wood from the Mississippi River.

Brown is from Decatur, Ill.–the hometown of former Chicago Cubs great Bill Madlock. Brown’s father worked at the since-closed Wagner Castings plant and his mother worked at Decatur Memorial Hospital.

“I’m a die-hard Cubs fan,” the 51-year-old Brown said with a proud smile. “Actually on media day I had my Cubs hat. They go, ‘ You’re not going to go on stage with that cap on. You’re gonna’ close that museum before it even opens.’ Jose’ Cardenal. Big Cubs fan.”

American poet and Cardinals fan Chuck Berry recognized with his "Special Occasion" Gibson ES-355 that he deployed in the 1987 documentary "Hail!, Hail!, Rock n' Roll" (Museum photo by Bill Motchan)

American poet and Cardinals fan Chuck Berry recognized with his “Special Occasion” Gibson ES-355 that he deployed in the 1987 documentary “Hail!, Hail!, Rock n’ Roll” (Museum photo by Bill Motchan)

Brown obtained a Bachelor of Science degree (Magna Cum Laude) in Human Resources from Southwestern College. He is also retired from the United States Air Force after 21 years of service. Brown grew up as a fan of jazz and sports talk radio.

After leaving the air force, Brown was first hired as Director of Human Resources at Exploration Place and was promoted to Chief Operating Officer at Exploration Place in Wichita, Ks. He moved to the B.B. King museum in December, 2010. In 2013 the Delta Business Journal as named Brown as one of its “Top Minority Business Leaders.”

“My last job there was to bury Mr. King there at the museum,” Brown said. “We buried Mr. King on May 30 (2015) on the grounds of the museum, drove my wife back to Kansas on May 31 and drove here June 1.”

And now, the blues are reborn in St. Louis.