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Column: 50 years ago, the Sunset Strip riots made L.A. the ‘magical’ epicenter of a revolution

Demonstrators outside Pandora's Box on the Sunset Strip in 1966.
Demonstrators outside Pandora’s Box on the Sunset Strip in 1966.
(Riot on Sunset Strip)

I laced my high-tops in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I grew up under a cloud of many illusions, one of which was the idea that Los Angeles was not worth visiting.

As part of this Northern California superiority narrative, the revolution of the 1960s was a San Francisco and Berkeley thing. Nothing of consequence happened in the sun-blasted parking lot that called itself Los Angeles.

I packed my ignorance around for decades, until an editor with a keen sense of history talked me into considering a novel set in the Los Angeles of the ’60s.

Until then, I didn’t know about the massive antiwar protest outside a Century City fundraiser for President Johnson, with dozens of demonstrators clubbed by police and carted off to hospitals.

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I didn’t know Elysian Park had its own flower child love-in, with swarms of eucalyptus- and pot-scented rebels grooving near Dodger Stadium to the sounds of Strawberry Alarm Clock.

Los Angeles was the epicenter of rupture in the ’60s — a civil rights uprising, a growing antiwar movement and a cultural revolution that was built in large part around the rock, folk and psychedelic music scene on Sunset Boulevard, which had quickly evolved from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa. For several years, the Strip was the international center of a movement that John Densmore, the Doors drummer, refers to as magical.

“So we’re the house band at the Whiskey a Go Go, and I’m sitting upstairs looking out the window,” Densmore said. “It’s like a Tuesday night, and it’s complete gridlock and thousands of hippies on the street and I said, ‘Wow, we’re taking over.’”

But the nightly throngs rattled the nerves of homeowners and some merchants. Local officials ordered a curfew and a crackdown.

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Pandora’s Box, a popular club at Sunset and Crescent Heights Boulevard, had been scheduled for demolition, and rebels rallied Nov. 12, 1966, in an effort to save it. The Times reported that Sonny and Cher, Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda were among the demonstrators, and that Fonda was carted away in handcuffs.

Pandora’s Box did not survive.

By some accounts, skirmishes on the Strip continued into the early ’70s.

I bring this up now because this past weekend marked the 50th anniversary of what became known as the Sunset Strip curfew riots.

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Clubs around town celebrated the music and spirit of the time, with performances by Brenda Holloway, the Shag Rats, the Pandoras, Loons and Love Revisited. A candlelight vigil was held at the empty triangle where Pandora’s Box once sat.

Johnny Echols of Love Revisited — known as Love when it was fronted by Arthur Lee and was one of the hallmark bands that worked the Strip in the ’60s — thinks back generously on those days. He recalled hanging with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, and landing at Canter’s Deli for middle-of-the-night meals with fellow musicians.

“It was a good time because it was a time of change,” he said.

Domenic Priore, who helped organize last weekend’s events, wrote the definitive book on that moment in history: “Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock ’n Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood.”

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It was the music that had sparked his interest, he told me, recalling how his older sister and her friends stood him on a twisting disc in their Monterey Park home and taught him how to dance to the music of the Turtles, the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. But when, as a journalist, he climbed back inside that time, the soundtrack took on deeper meaning.

“What made it feel more important to me was that it was the period when music became a lot more socially conscious,” Priore said.

What made it feel more important to me was that it was the period when music became a lot more socially conscious

Domenic Priore, author of “Riot on Sunset Strip”

The Vietnam War had a lot to do with that, said Echols, a Tennessee native who grew up on 27th Street near Crenshaw Boulevard and went to Dorsey High.

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“My parents were pretty conservative, and they thought that when you came of age the thing to do was serve your country,” Echols said.

But for him, there were plenty of reasons to doubt parents, authority and the political marketing about the domino effect of communism.

“A lot of the people I’d gone to school with were missing in action or killed in action. I’d see people I’d gone to school with my whole life coming back maimed and disfigured,” Echols said. “White kids were in college and had deferments, but minority people did have to go and die and we started questioning that.… I’m not a pacifist, but I didn’t want to go and kill people because the government wanted me to.”

The ’60s — acid-infused, tuned in and turned on — were not without darkness, and free love didn’t turn out to be entirely free. Kids had babies. Minds got twisted. The Manson family was spawned.

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Densmore, for one, prefers to focus on the good.

“I think the seeds of the peace movement, feminism, they were all planted in the ’60s,” he said — and the world was reminded of the power of music, art and poetry as weapons against hypocrisy and injustice.

Densmore lamented the recent passing of Tom Hayden and Leonard Cohen, followed by the rise of Donald Trump. He said he was reminded of Bob Dylan’s line, “Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear, it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

And yet demonstrators have taken to the streets again, as they did in the ’60s, a political revolution inciting a political rebellion.

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Today, Sunset Boulevard is a different animal, corporate and commercial, with plenty of style but little soul. Fifty years ago, it was alive with beatniks, hippies, and armies of kids looking for a dance, a party, a connection.

The revised and updated version of Priore’s “Riot on Sunset Strip” includes a remembrance from Stephen Stills. He wrote the signature song of that time, which began, “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

“On the night of the riot, I was coming to the Strip from Laurel Canyon,” Stills says in the book. “We got about a block away, I see kids, and a line of cops, lined up like Roman Centurions. I turned the car around — didn’t even want to go in there. I’d seen all I needed to see, and I wrote ‘For What It’s Worth’ on the way back.… It reminded me of … the politics of fear, like we’re doing today.”

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Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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