Rebellion and rock ‘n’ roll: The Sunset Strip in the 1960s

H

Hadley Meares

Guest
In the 1960s, Sunset Strip became a mecca for car cruising culture so loved by American teens.

How go-go dancing teens—and the underage clubs that embraced them—turned the Strip technicolor

It was November 12, 1966. The intersection of Sunset and Crescent Heights boulevards teemed with hundreds of young people—fighting for their right to party past 10 p.m. The gathering, which began as a “a kind of carnival, just a bunch of kids letting off steam,” was centered on the gold and purple painted Pandora’s Box at 8118 Sunset, a psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll club surrounded by a white picket fence.

The club served no alcohol but showcased “subversive” musical acts like Sonny and Cher, and the famous duo were among the hippies who clogged Sunset, protesting law enforcement’s crackdown on the baby boomers who streamed down the Strip every evening.

As the night wore on, tensions between police and protesters heightened.

Protestors began to shake a bus stuck on Sunset, breaking windows and throwing matches near the fuel tank. A Coke bottle and other debris were thrown in the melee, and police attacked protestors with billy clubs, throwing teenagers over the white picket fence.

The riot would soon end with few a minor injuries and arrests, but the incident would signal the grand finale of the teenage culture that had flourished on the Strip for a few brief years in the mid-1960s.

Ironically, there is no doubt that it was these teenagers and their vibrant youth culture that had revived the Sunset Strip after a period of decline.

“New York City had the Village—but we had Sunset Strip.”

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Strip was “pretty dead, really,” singer Johnny Rivers would remember to Vanity Fair. Many of the larger clubs and restaurants had closed, or lost their luster, as loyal patrons aged out of their party years or flew to Las Vegas to see shows and gamble.

The Strip’s decline in popularity allowed the seeds of a counter-culture to take root. As rents had gone down, experimental jazz clubs and offbeat coffeehouses had moved in. One of the most successful of these venues was The Crescendo at 6572 Sunset. Opened in 1954, the club featured hip, young, progressive performers like jazz artists Nina Simone, Anita O’Day, and Art Tatum and comedians Bob Newhart, Redd Foxx, and Jonathan Winters.

“New York City had the Village—but we had Sunset Strip,” says Sunset Strip resident and historian Alison Martino.

This atmosphere of creative exploration would accelerate in the 1960s, as a cultural revolution took hold of America. As Van Gordon Sauter writes in Tales From the Strip: A Century in the Fast Lane, the Strip of the 1960s would also bring a new genre of American music to the masses.

“Although rock ‘n’ roll first appeared in the fifties, introduced by such artists as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, a decade later Sunset Strip musicians drove the form into the mainstream of American music,” he writes.

The nautically themed Sea Witch at 8516 Sunset was the first Strip nightclub to regularly feature rock ‘n’ roll, particularly rockabilly, according to Riot on the Sunset Strip: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood.

Pandora’s Box, which had started off as a 1950s jazz club, became a haven for California rock acts and comedians like the Smothers Brothers. In October 1962, The Beach Boys held a series of concerts at Pandora’s Box, bringing unkempt teenage fans to the area—far different from the slick movie stars and mobsters that had once called the Strip home. The teenagers began to congregate outside the tiny club as well, hanging out on a traffic island in the middle of the street, says Martino.

But it was the nationwide cultural phenom that was the Whisky A Go Go that would transform the Strip into ground zero for American rock ‘n’ roll.

Corbis via Getty Images
The Whisky A Go Go transformed the Strip into ground zero for American rock ‘n’ roll.

The new establishment, housed in the old Bank of America at 8901 Sunset, started out as a French restaurant, and its management was classic Strip. Elmer Valentine, a tough-talker from Chicago with mob ties, looked like “all seven dwarves,” according to Jack Nicholson. Its manager (and later owner) Mario Maglieri, was described by future partner Lou Adler as “one of the toughest guys I’ve ever known in my life.”

But, according to Martino, as the grand opening in January of 1964 fast approached, they were unprepared. The restaurant had no tables or chairs—and no guaranteed clientele.

The owners decided to fake it until they made it. One day, one of the owners took a drive to nearby Hollywood High School. “He saw some kids hanging out,” Martino says. “They looked good, and he asked them if they would just hang around the Whisky that night just at the opening so it looked like something was going on inside.”

The kids (who had been paid $20 each) quickly made the club their own. The Whisky became LA’s first discotheque, with pompadoured singer Johnny Rivers as its main act. Despite its old school management, the Whisky embraced its young clientele and the new fads that came with it. In a 1964 issue of Playboy, a reporter described the scene:

Los Angeles has emerged with the biggest and brassiest of the discos—Whisky A Go Go… Two short-skirted maidens demonstrate the latest dance in a nine-foot-square glass-enclosed booth dangling 30 feet above the floor. When the live musicians take five, the girls convert the place into a true discotheque, playing record requests made from strategically located floor telephones on a $35,000 stereophonic sound system.
These female DJs—including Patty Brockhurst and Joanie Labine—in their iconic fringed crop top dresses and white boots became known as go-go dancers. According to Martino, the booths they danced in had originally been cage-like rafters where security would watch over the bank. “They thought it was kind of a cool gimmick,” Martino explains. “The Whisky is an organic story where it just magically happened.”

Soon the dance floor was crowded every night with stars from the old generation and the new, including Steve McQueen, Cary Grant, Jayne Mansfield, and members of The Beatles. “Oh, my gosh, how those girls jiggle so much with their titties while theyʼre dahn-cing,” Valentine recalled actor James Mason gasping with his clipped British accent.

Eager to capitalize on the changing times, the venerable Ciro’s reopened in 1964 as Ciro’s Le Disc. In March 1965, the newly formed group The Byrds began a legendary residency in Le Disc’s all-red main room, performing their hit “Mr. Tambourine Man,” written by Bob Dylan.

The LIFE Images Collection/Getty
Dancing the watusi at the Whisky.

“What The Byrds did to Ciro’s was unbelievable,” wrote Hit Parade magazine. “There were queues up and down Sunset Strip of desperate teenagers clamoring to get in. The dance floor was a wild and wonderful mad house. A hard core of Byrd followers—wayward painters, disinherited sons and heirs, bearded sculptors, coltish, misty-eyed nymphs with hair all over the place—suddenly taught Hollywood to dance again.”

The dancing would only become more frenetic. According to Priore, in July 1965, a new county ordinance “permitting minors to participate in the dancing at public eating places even if not accompanied by a parent” went into effect, and the Strip was flooded with teenagers below the age of 18.

Ciro’s changed its name again to It’s Boss, and redecorated with designs that Priore writes featured “vintage comic strips and pop stars in the style of Roy Lichtenstein: Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie juxtaposed with various Beatles, Stones, and James Brown silhouettes.”

The Strip and its new plethora of underage clubs were now drawing young rock ‘n’ roll fans, hippies, mods, freaks, and fame-seekers from all over America.

“There was a string of nightclubs on the Sunset Strip from Crescent Heights to Doheny, maybe twenty-five clubs with live bands every night, and there was a whole movement of people that went there every night and walked up and down Sunset—hundreds and hundreds of people,” manager and record executive John Hartmann explains in Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood.

Popular clubs of the 1960s included the Playboy Club, the Hullabaloo (at the Earl Carroll Theatre), Gazzarri’s, The Trip, and London Fog. After shows, people congregated at diners like Ben Frank’s (now Mel’s Diner and the futuristic coffeehouse Fred C. Dobbs. For those looking for more adult entertainment, there were burlesque and strip clubs like Largo and The Body Shop.

The Strip also became the epicenter for mod and hippie fashions in Los Angeles. The first miniskirt ever displayed in an LA window was at the hip Strip boutique Belinda, according to Martino. Then there was De Voss, an upscale clothing store at Sunset Plaza frequented by Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and the Mamas and the Papas (the Mamas and the Papas even shot this amazing video there).

Redferns
A string of nightclubs, including Gazzarri’s, hosted live bands and drew crowds every night.

“I liked the plastic glamour of the place,” recalled famous LA artist Ed Ruscha, whose seminal 1966 photography book Every Building on the Sunset Strip helped cement him as a pop legend. “But suddenly there was this changeover to the hippie thing. What I remember most is that you could stand anywhere on the Sunset Strip and see cars going down very slowly, always with someone in the backseat tapping on a tambourine—going tap, tap, tap.

With its 1.7 miles of winding road, the Sunset Strip became a mecca for the cruising culture so loved by American teens. Gridlock on the Strip facilitated the fateful meeting of musicians Richie Furay and Stephen Stills with their future bandmate, Neil Young.

“We got caught in the old Sunset traffic, and this hearse with Ontario license plates pulled up beside us,” Furay told Priore. “Stephen knew that Neil had a hearse, and we both knew he was from Ontario. We maneuvered our way through traffic and pulled up beside, and, unmistakably, there was Neil behind the wheel.” Only a short time later, in the early summer of ’66, their new band Buffalo Springfield was in residency at the Whisky.

But it was another band whose avant-garde, outlaw spirit would manage to push Valentine, the Whisky’s part owner, over his typically groovy comfort level.

During the summer of 1966, The Doors were also in residency at the Whisky, opening for Buffalo Springfield, Love, Them, and The Turtles, among others.

“We’re the house band at the Whisky a Go Go, and I’m sitting upstairs looking out the window,” The Doors drummer John Densmore told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s like a Tuesday night, and it’s complete gridlock and thousands of hippies on the street and I said, ‘Wow, we’re taking over.’”

The Doors front-man Jim Morrison was often drunk or on acid during their sets, falling off the stage, but his mesmeric presence captivated everyone, including Valentine.

One night, however, Morrison debuted his now infamous Oedipal freestyle over an instrumental raga version of “The End,” which culminated with the phrase “Mother... I want to F***YOUMAMAALLNIGHTLONGYEAAHHHH!”

It was too much for the good old Catholic Chicago boys who ran the Whisky. The Doors were fired at the end of the week.

Bettmann Archive
Actor Richard Burton dances the Watusi with Tammy Grimes at the Whisky in 1965.
Bettmann Archive
Beatle George Harrison, accompanied by Ringo Starr and John Lennon, throws his drink at a photographer at the Whisky in 1966.

The summer and fall of 1966 were the tipping point for county officials and Strip landowners. “We really upset the city fathers,” Byrds’ manager Jim Dickson said. “They wanted Sunset Strip to become a huge financial district and were trying to lure investors so that big skyscrapers could be built.”

Two main opponents of the “long-hairs” were the Montgomery family, who continued to own 13 acres on and around the Sunset Strip, and Ernest Debs, a county supervisor whose master plan for a Laurel Canyon freeway and financial district in the area was being sabotaged by packs of youth roaming the Strip.

According to Priore, the family gave an interview to the LA Times, decrying the kids “all over the place causing commotion,” spending no money, and scaring paying customers from going to high-end Strip institutions.

These complaints were not pulled out of thin air. Charlotte Dale, who had run the swank old Hollywood eatery Villa Nova at 9015 Sunset (now the Rainbow Bar and Grill) with her husband Allen since the 1940s, told Martino that the new element of the Strip had forced them out of West Hollywood.

“When the hippies started to come in on the Strip and stand around in front of the restaurant they lost business,” Martino says. “She told me that they moved the Villa Nova all the way to Newport Beach to get away from them, because she was like, ‘We’re used to very glamorous people coming in dressed to the nines, and then suddenly there’s hippies loitering and asking for money out front and panhandling and walking around with no shoes!’ And it freaked them out, it really did.”

Under pressure from the Montgomerys and the Sunset Strip Chamber of Commerce, the county sheriff’s department began to enforce a 10 p.m. Strip curfew for minors. By October 1966, countless teenagers were being hauled into the sheriff’s station in West Hollywood, waiting for their parents to pick them up.

Loosely defined “vagrancy laws” were also increasingly enforced. Love drummer Michael Stuart-Ware was even kicked out of the seemingly hippie-friendly Ben Frank’s by the local sheriff one night. “When a bandmate politely asked the police why, he was smacked on the keister and advised, ‘Keep walking hippie, they don’t want you here.’”

Getty Images
Some 1,000 young music fans gathered at Pandora’s Box to protest a 10 p.m. curfew.

In response, members of the counter-culture began to organize. “This was a time when people—the kids—were actually starting to fight authority, which was not really popular before the ’60s. It wasn’t very common,” says Martino.

But the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and political upheaval had given baby boomers a voice, and youth on the Strip were no exception.

“The Fifth Estate coffeehouse became a rallying point for those who were outraged at how ‘curfew enforcement’ was being handled,” writes Priore. “Its proprietor, Al Mitchell, started work on a movie about the police situation, Blue Fascism. One day, two 17-year-old kids came in with a flyer promoting a peaceful demonstration to be held in front of Pandora’s Box. Mitchell felt the flyer had merit and pitched in $20 to print 2,000 more; after passing the hat around the Fifth Estate, another 3,000 were made.”

The demonstration, on November 12, 1966, would be immortalized as the “riot on the Sunset Strip.”

“We sat, cross-legged, in the street, Sunset Boulevard, holding hands and singing,” legendary groupie and performer Pamela Des Barres told Vanity Fair. “Kids had guitars, thousands of kids, it stopped traffic for miles on either side of Sunset.”

At 10 p.m. the Los Angeles Police Department and sheriff’s department began to use more aggressive tactics. “At 10:35 p.m., the officers, many in helmets, began a sweep and clear operation. Advancing along the sidewalk in a column of about fours, they pushed bystanders out of the way, sometimes using nightsticks,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “The police, tempers visibly short, ordered everyone to leave the area.”


This skirmish would be the inspiration for one of the most famous songs of the era. On the night of the riot, Stephen Stills was driving from his home in Laurel Canyon to the Strip. When he got a block away, he saw the skirmish unfolding.

“The commercial merchants on Sunset Boulevard in a certain area decided that the element of young people on the street every night was not conducive to commercial enterprise,” he explained in a 1971 interview, according to Rolling Stone. “A bunch of kids got together on a street corner and said we aren’t moving. About three busloads of Los Angeles police showed up, who looked very much like storm troopers… And I looked at it and said, ‘Jesus, America is in great danger.’”

With that, he turned away from the Strip and wrote “For What It’s Worth” in around 15 minutes. Recorded weeks later by Buffalo Springfield, the song would soon be adopted as an antiwar anthem:

There’s battle lines being drawn.

Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.

Young people speaking their minds,

Getting so much resistance from behind.

I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that
sound?

Everybody look what’s going
down.

The “Sunset Strip Curfew Riots” would continue for days, although they were more like low-key demonstrations and marches that clogged traffic and led to stare-offs between the hippies and police. In retaliation, Debs and the county Board of Supervisors revoked the permits allowing youth under 21 to dance at clubs without chaperones. Clubs including It’s Boss, The Trip, and Pandora’s Box were forced to close. On Christmas Day, Pandora’s Box was allowed to open for one night only—and Buffalo Springfield performed “For What it’s Worth.”

Tempers would flare up periodically. “It was really serious,” Martino says. In August 1967, Strip teens took their last stand, forming a line in front of the bulldozers sent to demolish Pandora’s Box. “The kids are standing in front of it literally like ‘We’re not moving if you take this thing down,’” Martino says. “And the bulldozer was really going for them like ‘okay, then we’ll run you over too.’ And the kids get out at the very last minute. It’s really shocking... I think that was sort of the end of that movement in LA, when Pandora’s Box went down.”

This series of disturbances would have a huge impact on youth culture. They were immortalized in the 1967 exploitation movies Riot On the Sunset Strip and Mondo Mod. The persecution of Strip teens also inspired activism. According to The Guardian:

Dissatisfied with coverage in the local press and use of the term “riot” to describe events on the Strip, the Byrds’ manager and Elektra record producer, Jim Dickson, teamed up with the Beatles and Beach Boys press officer, Derek Taylor. With support from the Woolworth heir Lance Reventlow and Gilligan’s Island actor Bob Denver, they formed Community Action for Facts and Freedom (CAFF), which, among other things, organized a benefit concert to raise bail money for those arrested and help pay for damaged property.
Post riots, the Strip would take on a darker, more decadent hue. While organizers of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival made sure to honor the Strip, stating in the program, “we strolled the Strip as though it were the hallway of our common apartment house,” the hallway was already changing at a rapid pace.

As drug culture took a turn toward cocaine and heroin, and rock ‘n’ roll became corporate, the Strip of the ’70s and ’80s would make the Strip of the mid-’60s look like a wonderland romp. And for many who were there, that is just what it was. Love’s front-man Arthur Lee would write years later that the ’60s Strip was “like a psychedelic movie in technicolor!”

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