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.
It’s odd but we never met the Standels face to face. They were on set a few days ahead of us and they were gone when we arrived. Odd trick of fate – Ed Cobb who wrote Dirty Water gave it to the Standels about a month before we arrived at American Studios…He thought we should have recorded it instead. So, he gave us Sweet Young Thing in place of it. Timing!
My favorite from the Standells is “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White.” A musician buddy of mine was in a band with Dick Dodd in the early 70s.
Did you actually shoot the scenes in Pandora’s Box or in a studio? From the exterior photos I’ve seen, the club was tiny. I can’t imagine a club sitting on that tiny spot in the middle of the street.
OK – Pandora’s Box was a movie set that really did look like a club..The entire scene was shot late one night in one take…Another odd twist, “Good Guys Don’t Wear White” was offered to us by Ed Cobb in the studio but we turned it down. It fit much better with the Standells and they made it a semi-hit? The difference between the two bands was something we never talked about but was quite remarkable. The Standells were a great LA band. They were tight musicians, professional, they had been together a lot longer than we had. They reminded… Read more »
Thanks for the reply. There were so many great groups happening at that time that it seems like the business wasn’t big enough for all of them.
Yes the riot was not that big of a deal but…Imagine our surprise to be told on a Monday night after playing the Filmore Auditorium the Chocolate Watchband was heading to LA on Wednesday to be in a movie called Riot on Sunset Strip! Much to our amazement, stepping onto the set we were told we had to come up with two original songs for the movie by that afternoon. Don’t Need Your Lovin’ was penned in the elevator going up to the Elvis Presley sound stage to record it…and that’s how history changed!
Great story! I’ll bet you have plenty more. I thought the Chocolate Watchband and the Standells were the highlights of the movie.
In what year was this movie released? I am quite surprised that the author neglected to include this information.
This quickie was released in March of 1967, less than four months after the actual riots.