Where’d All Those Darn Hot Tubs Go?
It came from the Sixties and confronted Suburbia, bubbling over with the West Coast mythos of peace, love and understanding--and rotting in the sun. In middle America, curiosity eventually got the better of suspicion, and it was co-opted. In three decades it passed from novelty to popularity to banality.
Poor old hot tub, seemingly spent icon as worn as an old redwood barrel and guilty by association with a more licentious time.
How uncool is the hot tub today? Merely mentioning the words can make Westside real estate agents shudder, robbing them--momentarily--of the power of euphemism.
“It’s something associated with canyon living,” sniffs Beverly Hills real estate agent Jeffrey Hyland. “Topanga Canyon.”
“I used to find them in Marina del Rey,” reminisces Cecilia Waeschle, another Beverly Hills broker, who warns that nowadays hot tubs can be, as she ominously puts it, “a liability.”
The classic hot tub--an aboveground redwood barrel or customized wine cask--ideally sits on a deck with a view, out of sight of the neighbors. It was this organic wooden tub that pioneered getting into hot water as the pinnacle of California-style leisure, but it soon gave way to mass-produced adaptations in Gaudi-like shapes of molded acrylic. By the 1990s, manufacturers bent on suppressing certain freewheeling connotations of hot tub-dom began emphasizing health benefits. And so was the humble hot tub re-christened with a name suggestive of the illustrious soak-holes of history: Bath in England, Baden-Baden in Germany and, of course, Spa in Belgium.
“The term ‘spa’ is more contemporary and more accurate,” insists Suzanne Stearns of the National Spa and Pool Institute. In other words, what was once sybaritic is today therapeutic, thanks to a good scrubbing by marketeers anxious to rid the tub of residual hedonism. The hot tub loosened inhibitions; the spa eases tensions. And make no mistake: In its day, “hot tub” was shorthand for “Let’s get naked and party.”
“It was sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll--oh, I do miss those days,” sighs Barry Glick, onetime producer of redwood tubs and founder of the 10-member Wood Tank Manufacturers Assn., defunct now for eight years. “But for the sake of business, yeah, we had to clean up the image of the tub.”
Yet hot tub is still reflexively invoked whenever squeaky-clean spas get into trouble. Since 1980, more than 700 people have drowned in spas and hot tubs, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Several were caused by body parts or hair being sucked into drains, including an incident in May when a 16-year-old New Jersey girl drowned in a 10-person spa during a prom-night party--news reports all called the spa a hot tub. And when police questioned Ray Combs before his suicide about a bloody bump on his head, the former host of “The New Family Feud” told them he’d banged it on the “hot tub.”
Larry Davis recalls the hot tub’s decline and fall all too well. His retail tub outlet, HydroSpa, outfitted many an up-market hippie. In the late 1970s, when Davis realized there was a load of money on the Westside but not a lot of space to install hot tubs, he opened a rent-by-the-hour concern--one of many once scattered as profusely across the Southern California cementscape as water bed emporiums.
Davis’ first Le Hot Tub Club, in Westwood, was awash in lurid neon and fuchsia, turquoise and black. Business boomed. John Belushi stopped by during his final binge-driven days and nights in 1980. Then, in 1985, Rock Hudson died of AIDS. More than anything, says Davis, that pulled the plug on the hot tub.
“No one knew where AIDS came from and everyone was sure it came from everywhere,” he says. “So people stopped wanting to have fun.”
Davis, however, didn’t close his Le Hot Tub Clubs. He scrupulously re-marketed. “I had to reposition myself from wild to calm, because sex was dangerous.” Le Hot Tub Club became, and still is, Splash--The Relaxation Spa, painted in cleaner hues of blue and white. “The more stress there is, the better business is,” says Davis, leaning against the wet bar in the $100-an-hour Japanese Garden Room, its waterfall misting.
The sexual-health alarums of the ‘80s threatened to kill off the hot tub as thoroughly as its partner in decadence, disco, but what they really announced was the domestication of desire. By the ‘90s, the hot tub-cum-spa had found a happier home within the walled domain of the bathroom. From communal bliss to private gratification, the hot tub proved remarkably adept at catching the next wave of lifestyle faddism.
“The hot tub is an icon of the 1960s and ‘70s in the same way that an old converted van you’d drive all around the country was,” says Chuck Kleinhans, who teaches a course in popular culture at Northwestern University. “After a certain point, though, all icons wear out. The hot tub has ended up being redefined as something you can write off your taxes as a medical necessity.”
And aging baby boomers, as is their wont, are buying--385,000 spas sold in 1993, a 52% increase since 1989. Statistically, spa owners are married, middle-aged, well-educated and live in mid- to upper-income suburban households. There are an estimated 3.3 million home spas across the country, a third of them in California. The Roper Starch organization, tracker of American consumer trends, reports that in 1995 the second most popular response to the question, “If money were no object, name two or three features you would have in your ideal dream home,” was a spa.
“There is a definite emphasis today on the self--on personal pampering,” says Roper’s Susan Hayward. “Soaking in a spa is for yourself. It’s something to share only very occasionally.”
The man who, in 1968, put compressed air to water and shot the mix through built-in nozzles agrees. “The market is in the bathroom,” says Roy Jacuzzi, whose company is still the world leader with annual sales of $300 million. “We sell a lot of two-person tubs, but the reality is that the majority [of customers] want to get into a very large tub all by themselves.”
Which is about as far as you can get from encounter-group esprit of the hot tub’s beginnings. Long before the counterculture flocked to Big Sur and the Esalen Institute, there were the Esselen Indians and their hot springs. The man who bought the property in 1910 perched a couple of bathtubs on the seaside cliffs and, by the late ‘50s, Slate’s Hot Springs became notorious as the prototype for gay bathhouses, says David Price, the Esalen Institute’s operations manager. The scene, if you can believe it, was policed by one Hunter S. Thompson. “He used to patrol with Doberman pinschers to clear out the baths and make them respectable for humanity,” Price recalls.
Esalen held its first mind-expanding workshops in 1962, where free-thinkers shed Establishment constructs along with their clothes. Those who sampled the baths, theorizes Price, spread the gospel. “They wanted to re-create that at home--they went back to Marin County and shared some of these notions. They were the first people who had tubs, the Marin County hot tubbers--like the ones in the movie ‘Serial.’ ”
The redwood tub migrated south to L.A.’s canyon dwellers and thence directly into popular culture. Which is how, in the early ‘70s, Barry Glick, then a woodworker fashioning gun cabinets from wormy chestnut on a farm in Renick, W.Va., came upon a magazine photo of California hippies stewing in a wine cask. He and a buddy found some discarded oak boards, bound them with pallet strapping and placed a couple of sandstone boulders inside for seats. They then filled a 20-gallon metal trash can with water, lit a fire under it and ran 100 feet of copper plumbing coil to the makeshift tub to circulate the heated water. Under a starry sky they climbed in and opened a bottle of Korbel.
“It was cosmic. It was, like, instantaneous. It was, ‘Wow, this is incredible--this is the big one,’ ” says Glick.’
In other words, he’d found his life’s work. With a $100,000 loan, Glick and his buddy, Bob--”You always remember who you were with the first time”--turned Glick’s basement into a business, importing California redwood and sending finished hot tubs back west. By 1987, their brainchild, Almost Heaven, had grown to a 12-acre facility with 102 employees. When sales stagnated on the West Coast, Glick explored other markets and expanded into acrylic spas. Most of his business today is overseas. His best client these days is a sheik in Saudi Arabia. “Overseas is like California 15 years ago,” Glick says. “It’s all new to them.”
Meanwhile, back on our ranch, where boomers find it necessary to invoke upwardly mobile stress maladies to justify spa ownership, the hot tub of old is but a sodden memory. But making over the hot tub as a spa was, in the end, a safe bet on the human condition. Pleasures of the flesh are fleeting, the desire for comfort constant. Someday, no doubt, aging veterans of the mosh pit will ease their tattooed limbs and pierced torsos into a hot tub, or spa--or whatever it’s called by then--and wonder at the vigor of youth.