Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Sunset Riots - 1966

The Classic Cat
The Hollywood elite of the 50s hung at posh eateries and nightspots like Ciro's and the Trocadero. There was an elegance to the Sunset Strip, and yet a casual spirit prevailed, spurred on by less stringent cabaret licensee requirements (West Hollywood was an unincorporated part of the county, not governed by Los Angeles). Snuggled up to the Macambo and the Villa Nova, where Marilyn Monroe had her first date with Joe DiMaggio, were burlesque clubs like Largo and the Classic Cat (Largo today is The Roxy; the Villa Nova, The Rainbow). It was that bohème spirit, a perceived sense of lawlessness, that evolved into the Strip; the place where you could "get away with it." It was young, wild and rebellious, and at its core was music.  The Trip was the model for the modern rock venue, but there were others, before and after, that were catalysts to rock's greatest moments.

London Fog, The Galaxy and The Whiskey
By 1966, there were over a dozen music clubs on the Sunset Strip, among them The London Fog, an afterthought between Hamburger Hamlet and the Galaxy, was the first real club date for the Doors. Jesse James' London Fog was initially called Jesse James' Opera House until the name change in 1965. The Doors played for five dollars apiece (less, btw, than the Sounds of Shadows), four sets per night, seven nights a week, beginning May 1966. The only stalwart and recognizable song of the sets was "Strange Days." The audience, mostly UCLA film students, grew as the foursome honed and experimented, and Morrison, at first standing with his back to audience, shy and unassuming, evolved into the Lizard King.  Though the gigs were ardently attended, and obviously ahead of their time, the Doors began to scare people; eventually they were "let go."

Morrison said in 1967, "Our first Job was at the London Fog on Sunset Strip. It was a small club that no longer exists, and the most people it could hold I’d say would be about fifty. There was a bartender named George, a doorman named Sam and a dancer named Rhonda, who danced in a little roped cage across from the band stand. Jesse James was the owner. He was a young man, but he was dying of cancer, and it was kind of a struggle to keep the place going." 

The Sea Witch, a 50s era dive with a nautical theme just next to Dino’s Lounge (where Dean Martin’s illuminated face would shine down on the Strip) was among the first to realize that the teenager, a particularly new innovation, had money to burn. That ideology was even more prominent at Pandora’s Box at Sunset and Crescent Heights. Some would argue it was Pandora’s Box that truly initiated the L.A. club scene (and not The Trip), with performances by already known bands as early as 1964, but this was sporadic (not policy), and it wasn’t till the Fall of 1966 that bands like The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and The Grass Roots made Pandora’s Box what it would infamously become.

Initially a jazz/beat club, Pandora’s Box was acquired by KRLA DJ and host of ABC’s Shindig!, Jimmy O'Neill, in 1963 and immediately began catering to a younger crowd. That would spark, in 1966, what many call the Sunset Strip Riots. General teen rowdiness all hours of the night, not to mention the increased traffic on the Strip (a main artery between Hollywood and Beverly Hills), prompted the L.A. County Sheriff’s Office to enforce a 10 pm curfew for teens under 18. To make matters worse, the club was shuttered for being out of compliance with County code requirements. On November 12, 1966, a protest was organized that attracted more than 1000 youths for six consectutive weekends. Jack Nicholson was on the scene, as was Peter Fonda who was handcuffed by the Sheriffs, then released. Growing up in L.A. this was the big story on The Big News with Gerry Dunfey. Everyone was horrified and incensed by those hippie kids.

The protests inspired the Buffalo Springfield’s AM10 single “For What It's Worth,” played on the air the first time  when Pandora's Box reopened for one final performance, Christmas Day 1966. The Sonny and Cher number, "We Have as Much Right to Be Here as Anyone," was also inspired by the riots. 100s of arrests took place during those weekends, both at Pandora’s Box and at teen coffee shop hangout, Ben Frank's (today’s Mel’s Drive In). Pandora's Box was demolished in August 1967 after the County condemned the building to "realign the streets." The once famous corner where The Garden of Allah and Schwab's Pharmacy also stood, bears no recognizable feature for one to point out and say, "I remember that." [Click the photo below to view newsreel footage of the riots.]

 Sunset Strip Riots