Maybe Tiki god was out of sorts that day, May 14, 1955.
Wigwam, a 30-kiloton atomic explosion set off in the Pacific 490 miles southwest of San Diego, rumbled deep beneath the ocean and surged upward in a formidable column. With unpredicted force, the blast swept over the 6800 sailors deployed nearby on a 30-ship fleet.
“When the light bubble broached the surface, it was a spectacular display of pure uncontrolled hell,” recalled chief petty officer R.J. Ritter of the U.S.S. Tawasa, the Cherokee-class fleet tug out of 32nd Street that had towed the B-7 Betty depth bomb into place. The fireball rose to a height of 12,000 feet and generated a 1200-foot tidal wave around its radius, spewing deadly radiation.
“My husband said that after the detonation, for as far as the eye could see, the ocean was covered with dead marine life,” recalled Joan McCarthy, the widow of a Wigwam sailor who subsequently died of leukemia at age 44. Across San Diego County, radiation levels spiked over 30 times normal, a situation that locals weren’t told about.
Six decades later, it’s happy hour in San Diego at the city’s most famous Tiki joint, and Wigwam comes up.
2230 Shelter Island Drive, Shelter Island
“I don’t remember that,” says Susie Baumann, Point Loma High School class of 1963. “That probably would have scared the tar out of me.” Baumann owns the Bali Hai, the Polynesian-themed drinking and dining emporium on Shelter Island, where she is being interviewed for a story about the soon-to-arrive 60th anniversary of the place.
It’s a few miles down the bay to Naval Base Point Loma, headquarters of the Third Fleet and its flotilla of Los Angeles–class nuclear attack submarines.
Tiki bars and America’s atomic bomb blasts of the 1950s are bound together in history by the Cross Spikes Club, an improvised grog shack set up by U.S. servicemen on Bikini Atoll during Operation Crossroads, the fearsome first round of American atomic explosions detonated after the end of World War II. Starting in the early ’50s, places like the Bali Hai grew famous in the shadow of Cross Spikes for providing liquid courage to ward off nuclear anxiety.
Baumann may not recall Wigwam, but she says she will never forget the Cold War fear that permeated San Diego in the ’50s and ’60s like a dose of hidden radiation. It was enough to drive men to drink, and more. Some went to church to ask God to spare the world from incineration. Others turned to her father, Tom Ham, who founded the Bali Hai.
For them, Ham was the god of good times.
“Tiki was helping to create a myth and identity for ordinary Americans: a design and style that contained within itself a strong note — at least on the level of fantasy — of sexual liberation, of escaping the Puritan restraints of American life,” writes historian Kevin Starr in Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950–1963.
“The connection between alcohol and sexuality was made explicit on menu cartoons and other illustrations depicting bare-breasted wahines associated in one way or another with elaborately concocted and named (Navy Grog, Cobra’s Fang, Vicious Virgin, Islander’s Pearl, Scorpion) rum drinks.”
The Bali Hai opened in the months before Wigwam. But even after six decades, a bit of Cold War chill lingers over the bar despite the colorful Polynesian tchotchkes and bright sunshine pouring in from the bay just outside the expansive, ’50s-redolent picture windows.
“It was a very fearful time,” says Baumann, who runs the Bali Hai with husband Larry, a Navy vet whom Susie met after he became a Bali Hai bartender. “They were able to keep things more quiet than they can today.”
It’s hard not to keep track of San Diego’s military-industrial complex from the bar at the Bali Hai. Perched on the east end of Shelter Island, the restaurant has a sweeping view of San Diego bay and its military installations.
“Special Tables for Spies, Espionage Agents to View the U.S. Fleet — Binoculars furnished to U.S. Citizens only,” said a 1950s advertisement for the restaurant. Dressed in one of his famously flowered Hawaiian shirts, Ham would work the room, greeting Navy brass and yeomen sailors as they imbibed and watched warship flotillas sail past in the bay and Navy fighter jets arriving and departing from North Island’s runways.
“You know,” says Baumann, “if you sit at any table up in that dining room almost any day of the week there is a lot going on, even today.”
There were Tiki bars before the A-bomb and Cross Spikes, but the 23 Bikini blasts from 1946 to 1958 triggered a frantic yen for escape via Mai Tais and sex. Ham lived the culture and embraced the Tiki dreams with what some later thought was too much devotion for his own good.
“The icon of the style, the Tiki figure, frequently resembling the statues of Easter Island but appearing in other variations as well,” writes historian Starr, “was in its multiple meanings either the first man who made the first woman and procreated the human race, a phallic symbol, or the god of art.”
Ham’s introduction to the mid-century love god came when he was dispatched in 1954 by his employer to assess the chances for reviving a bankrupt establishment on Shelter Island then known as Christian’s Hut.
Details of the restaurant’s troubled genesis have been mostly lost to history, Baumann says, but they had something to do with its first proprietor, a San Diego woman with the last name of Hudson. And before Hudson, there was Art LaShelle.
Besides what later became the Bali Hai, there were two other Christian’s Huts in California and another in Honolulu. Arguably the most famous was on Balboa in Orange County’s Newport Harbor. Its Tiki and coconut quasi-Polynesian concept had been masterminded by Arthur Gregg Wellington LaShelle.
The Hollywood promoter based the Balboa model on the original Christian’s Hut he opened on Catalina Island in 1934 for the cast and crew of MGM’s Mutiny on Bounty, starring Clark Cable and Charles Laughton. Like many productions of its day, the picture was shot on the far side the island.