May/June 2010


Lake George's retro roadside resort

“Aloha,” says Jimmy Faatauvaa, emcee and frontman of the Waikiki Supper Club house band at the Tiki Resort, in Lake George. “A-LOOO-ha!” he repeats, before launching into lounge-style renditions of “Stand by Me” and “My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua.” This is the dinnertime entertainment before the main event—an all-dancing, all-fire-eating Polynesian revue that runs nightly in the summer months.

To visit the Tiki Resort is to be transported—though not nec­­essarily to the tropical islands that are its motif: The palm trees planted in front of the A-frame motel are artificial, built for enduring below-zero off-seasons rather than swaying in balmy breezes. The faux-Polynesian wood carvings on the walls were made by a Seattle company called Witco. The leis presented to dinner guests on arrival are the ruffled cellophane kind that scratch your neck.

No, this is a trip on the Kitsch Express, destination: 1963. That was the year theme-entertainment pioneer Charley Wood opened the Tiki Motor Inn, capitalizing on the craze for all things Polynesian that seized America following Hawaiian statehood. East Coasters who couldn’t afford an island vacation in­stead drove to Lake George for a simulated tropical experience.

Plenty has changed here since then. Much of the original groovy decor has gone the way of the lava lamp, replaced in a series of renovations over the years. Enough remains, though, that it is starting to attract a new kind of customer to the lakeside Adirondack village: Tiki nostalgia buffs. To them, the vintage Witco carvings are collector’s items, and the ersatz tropical flora is part of the place’s charm.

In September 2009 more than 200 revelers came from around the country to attend the first annual “Ohana—Luau at the Lake,” a weekend-long celebration of 1950s-, ’60s- and ’70s-era tikiana. Ohana is a Hawaiian word meaning extended family.

Hosted by the Fraternal Order of the Moai, a nationwide organization of people interested in the pop-Polynesian aesthetic, the event included performances by surf-rock bands, outdoor vintage-movie screenings and, of course, a luau—with proceeds benefitting the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island. In 2010 the festivities moved to June 24–26, in hopes of more sarong-compatible weather.

The organizer of the event, Michael “Bargoyle” Sullivan, of Bloomfield, Connecticut, says his group chose the Lake George Tiki because, as far as he knows, “it’s the last Eisenhower-era Polynesian resort” in the country, if not the world. (Never mind that the building was erected a couple years after Eisenhower’s second term ended.)

It’s not just a retro island in a lake of modernity. One of only three surviving Howard Johnson’s restaurants in the country is across the street (the others are in Bangor, Maine, and Lake Placid; see “HoJo’s Hangs On,” December 2007). The rest of Lake George village is stuffed with kitschy mini-golf courses, classic cabin courts and a ’50s-style silver-bullet diner (even if it is a replica, having re­placed the structure that burned in 2007). And that’s not counting what goes down during the annual Elvis Festival.

“Lake George is a town trapped in time, which for our particular group is fantastic,” Sullivan says. In contrast to The New York Times travel section, which recently advised readers to by­pass “tacky” Lake George village for quaint neighbor Bolton Landing, the mostly 30- and 40-somethings who attend Ohana see the dated surroundings as part of the appeal. “Most of us didn’t get to live through those times,” notes Sullivan.

If they had, they might have caught the bawdy comedy sty­lings of Hurricane Hattie (aka Dolores Dargie), whose act punctuated hula performances by the glamorous Kaena Peterson. As Mark Frost writes in a 2003 profile of Charley Wood for an amusement park association publication, “In contrast to fairy tale Storytown [Wood’s amusement park down the road; today it is the Great Escape], Tiki nightlife was a little outrageous.” He goes on to quote Wood reminiscing about the buxom bartender, Lani, who would “put her boobs right up on the counter and say, ‘What can I help you with?’”

Peterson, who now splits her time between Warrensburg (where she and her son opened a bed-and-breakfast) and the big island of Hawaii, recalls that Canada Street would be so packed and rowdy in the summer that fire hoses were occasionally used for crowd control.

Today Lake George, though still crowded at peak season, is a bit quieter, and the Tiki’s Polynesian show is tamer and more family-oriented. On an August evening, a multi-generational clan of about 40 people made up a good portion of the audience; they come up from Fishkill every year, they said. The story was the same onstage—Faatauvaa’s entire family, including wife, children and grandchildren, took part in the pageant, performing dances from throughout the Pacific islands. The littlest granddaughter was barely out of Pull-Ups but stole the show, shimmying in her grass skirt. During the finale, the kids in the audience were invited onto the stage for a hula lesson.

That all changes when the luau group takes over the resort, with its room crawls and a cocktail contest sponsored by Dole—last year’s winner was called Fire in the Dole and featured a flaming pineapple ring—temporarily reviving the raucous party atmosphere of the former nightclub scene. Unlike Tiki guests of yore (and plenty of Lake George’s present-day working-class visitors), many of the luau attendees could probably afford to go to Hawaii for the real thing. But in a way, they consider the Tiki’s lack of cultural authenticity a form of period authenticity—as worthy of preserving as Great Camps and Victorian mansions.

Sullivan explains, “I guess we see it through mai-tai-tinted glasses.”

Correction: The original print version of this article misstated the number of remaining Howard Johnson restaurants.