Closing of club ignited the ‘Sunset Strip riots’
There’s battle lines being drawn.
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.
Young people speaking their minds,
Getting so much resistance from behind.
I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that
Everybody look what’s going
-- “For What It’s Worth”
Gangsters, nightclubs and rock ‘n’ roll make up much of the Sunset Strip’s colorful history -- along with a little-remembered tussle in 1966 that became known as “the Sunset Strip riots.”
The melee erupted as young rock fans were protesting efforts to enforce a 10 p.m. curfew and to close nightclubs that catered to them -- including Pandora’s Box, at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights boulevards.
The confrontation with police also inspired musician Stephen Stills to write “For What It’s Worth,” released two months later by Stills and the band he was in, Buffalo Springfield.
“Riot is a ridiculous name,” he said in an interview. “It was a funeral for Pandora’s Box. But it looked like a revolution.”
The club, painted purple and gold, was perched on a triangular traffic island in the middle of the Strip. It drew a crowd of mostly clean-cut teenagers and twentysomethings wearing pullover sweaters and miniskirts.
Ensuing traffic jams annoyed residents and business owners, who pressured the city and county to get rid of the kids, the clubs and the congestion.
It’s unclear from Times files whether Pandora’s Box or other clubs had been closed by the time the protests began. But young rock fans interpreted efforts to enforce curfew and loitering laws as an infringement on their civil rights.
On Nov. 12, 1966, fliers were distributed along the Strip inviting people to demonstrate. And hours before the protest, “One of L.A’s rock ‘n’ roll radio stations made an announcement that there would be a rally at Pandora’s Box and cautioned people to tread carefully,” wrote Domenic Priore, author of the 2007 book “Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood.”
As many as 1,000 people turned out, along with such celebrities as Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda.
"[Nicholson] just showed up to see what was happening,” said lifelong Sunset Strip denizen and Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker. Wanamaker played drums in a band called Mike and the Mad Men, which sometimes performed at Pandora’s Box, and was there that night as an observer.
“Everyone called them hippies just because some had long hair,” Wanamaker said. “But they weren’t the flower-power types from San Francisco, just rock ‘n’ roll fans, mostly students.”
The event began peacefully. Protesters sat on the Strip blocking traffic, holding hands and singing. Trouble began when a car full of off-duty Marines got into a fender-bender. The Marines got out of their car and at least one punched the driver of the other car, The Times reported. Fighting spread.
Police and sheriffs’ deputies closed off part of the Strip and ordered everyone to leave, but some protesters ran amok.
They rocked a city bus until passengers and the driver got out. Then they knocked out the windows, dented the roof with an uprooted street sign and let the air out of the tires.
One youth tried unsuccessfully to drop lighted matches into the fuel tank, The Times reported. He was booked for attempted arson.
Protesters hurled rocks and bottles and smashed storefront windows and car windshields. Fonda, son of actor Henry Fonda, was handcuffed.
But when he said he was merely filming the melee, he was released without charges.
The unrest continued the next night and off and on throughout November and December. Some clubs shut down within weeks.
“These kids weren’t looking for trouble; they were simply going out to see their favorite bands and hang out with friends,” Priore wrote.
Demonstrators carried signs that read, “We’re Your Children! Don’t Destroy Us” and “Ban the Billyclub.” Mayor Sam Yorty showed up and invited the protesters to City Hall. Los Angeles County Supervisor Ernest Debs called the youths “misguided hoodlums.”
Sonny and Cher, who got their start on the Strip as Caesar and Cleo, made an appearance in front of Pandora’s Box in December.
The ensuing publicity got them kicked off the Rose Parade float they were supposed to ride two weeks later. The float sponsor, the City of Monterey Park, figured this was not the image it wanted to show the world.
“I admit at first we were somewhat hurt, shocked and a little upset,” Sonny Bono said at a news conference after the duo was bumped. “They never even gave us the courtesy of notifying us personally. I heard it on the news.”
Bono denied being part of the protest. "[The demonstrators] saw I was there and I told them to be peaceful, that’s all,” he said.
On Christmas Day, Pandora’s Box reopened for one night only, according to Priore. There, Stills first publicly performed “For What It’s Worth.”
The Los Angeles City Council condemned Pandora’s Box, claiming that it had to be demolished to realign the streets.
On Aug. 3, 1967, a wrecking ball turned Pandora’s into rubble. “Hippies Pout, Politicians Cheer,” The Times reported.
No sign of the triangle occupied by Pandora’s remains today; it was eliminated by the street rerouting.
As for Stills’ song, many fans saw it as an antiwar anthem, but he says that was only part of the equation.
“It was really four different things intertwined, including the war and the absurdity of what was happening on the Strip,” he said in the interview. “But I knew I had to skedaddle and headed back to Topanga, where I wrote my song in about 15 minutes. For me, there was no riot. It was basically a cop dance.”