Expectations of a Christmas "love-in"--a Woodstock West--drew 25,000 people to Laguna Canyon 20 years ago this week. But when the love festival had became a weeklong party and guests still refused to leave, police donned riot gear, sang "Here Comes Santa Claus" and broke it up.
Even in a community known for its tolerance, the event panicked city officials and some residents who feared the surge of people descending on the small city could cause a riot. The police response: to close off Laguna Beach on Christmas Day, 1970.
"We ruined a lot of people's Christmases. They couldn't come in and visit their families because we closed this place down," said Police Chief Neil Purcell, who was then fresh out of sergeant's academy.
The crowd that gathered in the canyon that December was eclectic--longhaired youth mixed with servicemen, Vietnam veterans with Hells Angels. Some of the young people were naked; one elderly woman wore fur.
Despite the passage of time, those involved in the rock festival still have clear memories of the event. One recalled LSD tablets fluttering down from an airplane like snowflakes. Another remembers a hilltop silhouette of police in riot gear.
The drama began in early December with a rumor that thousands of youth would soon wind their way to Laguna Beach. It ended Dec. 28 when an abandoned campsite was bulldozed and set ablaze by police.
Between the rumor and the blaze, an estimated 25,000 people were drawn to Laguna, almost tripling the city's population and setting city officials' nerves on edge. Music and marijuana filled the canyon air, seven babies were born and two people died.
The key players in The Happening have since found a way to categorize the experience. Then-City Manager Larry Rose calls it the consummate challenge of his career. Police Chief Purcell says it was a turning point in Laguna's history. For participant Beth Leeds, it was simply the best Christmas of her life.
"There was a huge star we called the Star of Bethlehem. It hung over and none of us could sleep it was so bright," says Leeds, a Laguna Beach resident who helped organize the event. "This was like the young people celebrating Christmas the way they wanted to, in spite of the fact that every single step along the way there were policemen or city officials telling them they couldn't do it."
If the festival was a dreamy celebration of Christ's birth to Leeds, it was something less benign from the city manager's point of view. Rose received word in early December that posters had materialized on the East Coast inviting people to a Christmas love-in on Laguna's Main Beach.
"In a matter of days we began to get the impression that the whole world was coming to Laguna Beach," Rose said. Worried about crowd control and the potential for riots, he turned to Kenneth Huck, then the police chief, for help. "I said: 'What are we going to do? We've got to get prepared. We've got to do something.' "
Word of the festival hit the underground press. Rock stations passed it on. Calls to the city multiplied. Where is Laguna? callers wondered. Does the Greyhound bus stop there?
"It began to build," Rose said. "There was clear evidence we were going to get thousands of people there."
Just 16 months before, 400,000 young people had flooded a White Lake, N.Y., farm for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Laguna began to brace itself, fearing that a "Woodstock West" was about to materialize.
Surrounding communities were called for help. Local police started working 12-hour shifts. The city brought in an armored tank.
"I think we began to prepare ourselves in a military sense, actually," Rose said. "We were preparing to defend the business district."
The city got its first big break when a narcotics officer infiltrated a group of locals, convincing them that the canyon would be a better place for a rock festival than Main Beach, Rose said. Now they had a game plan: funnel the youth into the canyon and seal off the city.
"By that time, I had gotten extremely desperate," Rose said. "We were approaching Christmas. They were showing up."
Purcell remembers Christmas Day 1970 vividly. A "command post" for 450 officers had been set up at Laguna Beach High School. From Dec. 20 to Christmas Eve, police had been working 20-hour shifts, Purcell said. On Christmas Day, they stopped going home at all.
Some city officials still thought The Happening might fizzle, Purcell said. But when Christmas dawned, all doubt evaporated. Youth by the thousands began to stream into the canyon--in cars, in converted school buses and on motorcycles. Some came on foot; at least one arrived on horseback.
"All of a sudden, it's like they came out of nowhere," Purcell said. "They were here."
At one point, police say, 500 cars an hour were rolling into the city en route to the canyon clearing known as Sycamore Flats. "By about noon Christmas Day, we had approximately 25,000 young people in town, attempting to get there, or on the site," Purcell said.
Barricades sprang up at every entrance to the city--on Coast Highway and on El Toro and Laguna Canyon roads. "We didn't let anybody through. Nobody," Rose said. "We had gotten to the point where I decided 'We are not going to blink.' "
Purcell added, "We really had a serious situation on our hands."
It was a different situation for those quarantined among the sycamores along 500 acres near the intersection of Laguna Canyon and El Toro roads. Douglas Miller, a sailor on liberty at the time, had hitchhiked to Laguna from San Diego.
"It was harmless enough," said Miller, now a Laguna Beach resident. "It was the thing to do. You really missed out if you didn't go. I think it was really wonderful, but the city was really neurotic about it."
An impromptu community erupted.
Tents were erected for shelter, trenches dug for toilets. A large tent went up, furnished with cots, to treat drug overdose victims. Free food was served several times a day.
At night, when temperatures dipped to the 30s, weary celebrants huddled in sleeping bags near fires.
The big-name stars that rock fans had hoped to see didn't show. Only drummer Buddy Miles appeared to entertain the crowd. Amateur performers took turns on a wooden stage, putting a balky sound system to use. The crowd accepted them, said Roger Van De Vanter, a La Quinta resident who lived in Laguna Beach at the time.
"I just remember everything was so passive and sedate, without any form of violence whatsoever," he said. "I just thought it was kind of an interesting way of life that was going to be the future of the world."
Drugs were plentiful.
LSD, hashish, Thai sticks and opium were all on the menu, Van De Vanter said. "Hippie chicks" in see-through garments skipped gaily through the crowd with baskets of LSD.
"They were just bouncing along with big smiles on their faces, with braids in their hair with flowers in it," he said. "If you ever thought you were coming down, you could get more whenever you wanted it."
At one point, a plane buzzed the canyon and LSD tablets stuck to postcards fluttered through the sky. "It just looked like a bunch of little birds in the air," Purcell said.
By Dec. 27, police and city officials were fed up. Some had worked several days straight and had missed Christmas with their families. Although thousands of festival participants left when the city offered to bus them elsewhere, Purcell said that about 2,500 had established what amounted to "squatters' rights."
"We decided it was time to move them out," Rose said.
Leeds recalls the chilly morning of the 28th as a sharp intrusion on a peaceful memory. She was cooking oatmeal at daybreak when she saw the first row of policemen in riot gear silhouetted on the ridgeline. As one row moved down the hill toward the bleary-eyed campers, another row appeared, she said.
"We were encircled," Leeds said. A police helicopter hovered, belting out a message: 'Disperse. This is an illegal assembly,' " she recalls.
"It was hell that morning," Leeds said, "after this most beautiful thing."
It was less beautiful from Purcell's point of view. He recalls campers "mooning" the aircraft and making obscene gestures. A few people burned flags, he said.
But with police arriving in waves, the party was finally over. The campers were herded onto the highway, marched into town and loaded onto buses.
That afternoon, police bulldozed "everything in sight," Purcell said, including hundreds of tents, thousands of sleeping bags and a couple of cars. Everything was burned to the ground, he said.
Then they took the tally: In the three days the youth claimed the canyon, Purcell said, there were scores of drug overdoses, seven births and two deaths--one from an overdose, the other from a motorcycle accident. The discoveries of the bodies jarred the community, he said.
"That's when this city decided that will never, ever happen again," Purcell said. "I feel it was a turning point. It woke a lot of our citizens up. Enough's enough. We're a pretty tolerant community, but there was no way that we can tolerate this type of thing."
Laguna Greenbelt president Elisabeth Brown, who hikes in Sycamore Hills, says traces of The Happening still linger.
"There're still suitcases and bits of clothing stuck way back in bushes that have been there for years," she said. "It was a disaster for the environment out there."
But for Douglas Miller, the Laguna Beach rock festival is a memory to cherish. Someday, he says, he will sit down with his two young sons and tell them about the Christmas of 1970.
"It was just an adventure, really," Miller said, "part of growing up."