There could be a great movie made about the 1966 Sunset Strip riots but the low-budget quickie “Riot on the Sunset Strip” isn’t it. This melodramatic drive-in cheapie was designed to attract the lucrative teen market with lurid posters and bands like the Standells and the Chocolate Watchband while pandering to the fears of parents nervous about being outnumbered by hoards of teenage Baby Boomers.
Looking at the tiny traffic island that now sits in the middle of Crescent Heights Blvd. just south of Sunset, it’s hard to imagine this area being the epicenter of a historic uprising pitting the growing young generation with older Sunset Strip business owners who feared having their well-heeled customers scared off by the rowdy youngsters. It’s not hard to understand why the local establishment was upset seeing the glamorous nightclubs of Hollywood’s Golden Age replaced by raucous hangouts for long-haired, bell-bottomed hippies.
Ciro’s, the legendary nightspot founded by Hollywood Reporter owner William Wilkerson, had closed in 1957 and reopened in 1965 as Ciro’s Le Disc, then The Kaleidoscope and later It’s Boss, which lured teens with an age limit of fifteen and acts like the Byrds and the Turtles. The luxe Earl Carroll Theatre was transformed into the underage nightclub Hullabaloo and later became the Aquarius Theatre, home of the hippie musical “Hair.” The Trip stood on the spot formerly housing The Crescendo and featured top soul acts as well as avant-garde rockers like the Velvet Underground instead of big bands. New hole-in-the-wall clubs like the London Fog and head shops were popping up in spaces once occupied by more upscale businesses catering to an older, more sophisticated clientele.
A major target of their ire was a small shack sitting on the island which in the mid-sixties was inhabited by a club called Pandora’s Box. The island was quite a bit larger back then and the club attracted many young customers with popular rock bands and a no-alcohol policy that allowed underage kids banned from most Strip nightspots. This made Pandora’s Box a hangout for rebellious young people and a target of the police that sided with the business owners. The teens became even more rebellious after the passage of laws against loitering and a curfew that forced anyone under 18 off the Strip at 10 pm.
The young people weren’t going to take this lying down and soon a demonstration was planned for November 12, 1966. Young entertainers like Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, and Sonny & Cher supported the protesters while others dropped by to check out the action. Fonda attempted to record the action but was one of the first to be busted by the cops and loaded into a paddy wagon. Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield was inspired to write his classic “For What It’s Worth” by observing the action that continued through November and December.
The riots happened several years before I moved to L.A. but I was always fascinated by the altercation and all the celebs that risked arrest by supporting the young people. While I was working at Schwab’s Drugstore in 1972, a pharmacist showed me a copy of the L.A. Times that was kept locked in the safe. The front page of the paper showed the front of the store behind a bus that was being stomped by a group of angry teens.
Alas, the demonstrations did not save Pandora’s Box. The club was razed to widen the boulevard, leaving just a tiny island where pedestrians could wait for the light to change. However, the kids won in the long run, taking over the Strip with their own style as the older “Rat Pack” acts moved to Las Vegas where the adults were still in charge.
Now Sunset is evolving again, as landmarks fall under the wrecking ball to make room for shiny new hotels catering to the rich and famous but the Strip as rock ‘n roll central was fun while it lasted.