ELK GROVE, Calif. — Like vines wrapped around the edges of a bamboo bar, theirs is a love intertwined with Tiki.
Wendy and Dan Cevola’s first dates were to Zombie Hut, the former tropical oasis on Freeport Boulevard, where they danced to island music and feasted on Polynesian food. Now, almost 40 years later, their Elk Grove home resembles a never-ending Hawaiian honeymoon. Hundreds of Tiki mugs sit stoically on various shelves. Tropical plants creep up walls, merging in a canopy of green on the ceiling. Cha cha tunes play gently on a hi-fi stereo.
Their house, unassuming on its exterior, doubles as a workspace for Wendy Cevola, who creates highly coveted ceramic Tiki mugs for collectors and one-of-a-kind items for bars such as midtown’s Jungle Bird.
Soft-spoken Dan Cevola is the avid collector, who scours thrift shops and eBay for new Tiki finds — all the while amassing a library of 4,000 vinyl records, with a particular focus on rare Beach Boys albums.
Just don’t go looking for a freshly crafted mai tai in the kitchen. The Cevolas rarely drink alcohol. Instead, Tiki is their ticket into a community obsessed with mid-20th-century decor and an enduring form of escapism signified by a Hawaiian lei around the neck and a Tiki mug in hand.
“Our whole lives right now are nothing but Tiki,” said Wendy Cevola, as a small fleet of ceramic mugs rested on a nearby table. “The amount of work that goes into these is amazing. But what grabs you is the relationships you make with all the people, the artists and collectors.”
Rooted in the 1930s, American fascination with Polynesian culture arrived as a kind of tropical daydream during the Great Depression.
The vibe was reinforced by World War II servicemen returning home from the South Pacific with tales of exotic locales and ocean sunsets. Tiki-themed bars and restaurants soon flourished throughout the United States, including Sacramento, which hosted Zombie Hut, Coral Reef, The Tropics and many other spots.
Those local haunts are long gone, disappearing not long after the Tiki trend began to fizzle in the 1970s and ’80s. During that time, in the early years of their marriage, the Cevolas worked at Sutter General Hospital. Wendy Cevola was a nuclear medicine technologist; Dan Cevola worked as an X-ray technician.
In the late 1990s, Dan Cevola discovered Tiki News, a niche publication dedicated to Tiki worship and its collectors of mugs, tchotchkes and other items of the era. The magazine spoke to his collector’s spirit and stirred memories of growing up in Sacramento.
“Tiki was really popular when I was a kid in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” he said. “The entrance to the parking lot where we shopped had two big Tikis. The bowling alley had Tiki in the landscape. When I stumbled on that magazine, it brought everything back.”
Tiki mugs, with their colorful glazes and intricate etchings, clicked with Wendy Cevola, who was raised in an artistic Sacramento family and painted in her spare time.
The Cevolas started their own collection, and their mugs and other memorabilia have transformed their two-story home. Tiki mugs and mementos are found in virtually every room of the house.
But the showcase can be found upstairs, in a former guest bedroom now dubbed “the jungle room.” It’s rigged with three stereos that play simultaneously, transporting the visitor with a hybrid of tropical storm sounds, Hawaiian music and more. Faux foliage snakes everywhere. The windows are covered, as if the outside world doesn’t matter once you take a seat in a large wicker chair.
“It started about 20 years ago when a friend of ours gave us a couple of artificial trees,” said Dan Cevola, who’s the chief decorator of the house. “Even before Tiki, I had a fascination with movies that had jungle settings. So I’d buy a bush or a tree every now and then, and over the years it turned into a jungle.”
On most days, you’ll find Wendy Cevola parked on the family room couch, not far from a series of 3-foot Tiki idols, as she etches and crafts her custom mugs. She taught herself ceramics in 2010, around the time the couple retired, and spent $10,000 on a kiln that’s housed in a backyard shed.
Wendy Cevola’s mug creations, which include odes to classic designs and even the likeness of a severed head, have found an audience with those participating in a Tiki renaissance. The craft cocktail movement of the past decade has taken a renewed interest in Tiki, and Cevola has emerged as a go-to artist for creating mugs, especially through the online community at www.tikicentral.com
Her works generally sell between $175 and $250 per mug, and she’s been tapped by such bars as Forbidden Island in Alameda and midtown’s Jungle Bird to create one-of-a-kind showpieces. “Clay is the greatest love I have,” she said. “I spend 14 hours a day sometimes (working on the mugs) but I love it.”
At Jungle Bird, you’ll find her mug ensconced in a cabinet near the dining room. It’s a handmade, ceramic replica of the bar’s signature Tiki idol with a toucan perched between its eyes, a kind of totem for one of Sacramento’s most buzzed-about bars.
“A lot of her mugs are pieces that you would buy like art,” said Buddy Newby, a bartender and co-owner of Jungle Bird. “People who collect her stuff are willing to spend top dollar. People love her a lot within the Tiki community, and it’s fun to work with her.”
Dozens of in-progress mug creations can be found around the Cevolas’ house, including one that resembles the classic KZAP cat.
“Ceramics is hard work,” Wendy Cevola said. “But if you retire and sit down and do nothing, you die. The culture of Hawaii is fun, and when you see the artwork that people do with Tiki, something just clicks inside of you.”