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Woodstock of Laguna revisited

On Christmas Day, 1970, approximately 25,000 young people gathered in Laguna Canyon for a one-day music event. It ended after three days.
(Mark Chamberlain / Coastline Pilot)

It was billed as a one-day event of peace, love and music, but after three days, it turned out to be much bigger than expected.

An estimated 25,000 people gathered in a field of sycamore trees in Laguna Canyon for what was known as the Christmas Happening.

Despite massive traffic jams, chilly night air and insufficient food, thousands of young people, Vietnam veterans and other servicemen came in droves on Christmas Day in 1970 for a weekend party on hundreds of acres near the intersection of Laguna Canyon and El Toro roads.

It all evoked the scene a couple thousand miles away in New York the year before. Woodstock also ran longer than planned — to an unscheduled fourth day.

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“I put that out of my mind 45 years ago,” Neil Purcell, a retired Laguna Beach police chief who was a sergeant at the time, said of the Christmas Happening. “I had to stretch my mind and dig down deep to remember what happened.”

He was addressing a full house at Laguna Beach City Hall on Thursday, telling the story to people who were at the event more than four decades ago and others who were just curious.

For participant Sunny Taylor-Colby, it was the best Christmas of her life. As she walked amid the happening’s potential disasters — drugs, low temperatures dipping into the 30s — she felt something of an Aquarian spirit in the air.

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“I was 18 then and I had a wonderful time at that event with my boyfriend Bobby Lee Gregory,” said Taylor-Colby, a current Laguna Beach resident who had traveled from her hometown of Pasadena to the coastal city that day in 1970. “I rode in on a bicycle’s handlebars and it was just great. Everybody there was calm and awesome and beautiful and kind and sweet. Seriously, we were all mellow and chill.”

Purcell, 76, who began his career in 1961 as a reserve officer in Newport Beach, stepped into the limelight the year he moved to the Laguna Beach police force with the arrest of counterculture guru Timothy Leary. Leary went to trial in 1970 and was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for possession of marijuana, LSD and hashish.

It was a highlight of Purcell’s career, and it illustrated the silver-haired chief’s activist role in fighting narcotics.

But that same year, during Leary’s trial, came the chaotic Christmas Happening, when Purcell was working as a sergeant in the Laguna Beach Police Department’s narcotics division.

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Local residents had been growing weary of the hippies in town and the surge of drug operations. Drug dealers were selling around a restaurant on Cleo Street, near hotels and along the coastline, from Main to Bluebird beaches, the retired chief recounted.

At the time, the state narcotics division was not helping local officers, so Purcell decided to dispatch two undercover officers to the troubled areas in an effort to throw the dope dealers in jail.

The two officers grew beards, bought wigs and purchased fatigues and Army jackets at the now-defunct Grant Boys firearms and outdoors store in Costa Mesa.

“In a week’s time, they looked just like the creeps we were dealing with,” Purcell told the crowd. “We wanted them to get in deep.”

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That October, the officers told Purcell that they were picking up information about a group in town who were planning to gather drug-addled music lovers, hippies and activists for an event like Woodstock.

It was a socially contentious time. National Guardsmen had shot unarmed college students in May of that year at Kent State in Ohio, and state police opened fire at Jackson State in Mississippi 11 days later.

Christmas Happening organizers originally wanted to host the festival at the relatively small Heisler Park but changed their plans as they envisioned thousands more people attending.

For weeks, promoters arranged for flatbeds to deliver wood for the stage and trenches to be dug to create open toilets in the canyon.

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But as the free festival began to build momentum, the city of Laguna Beach was undergoing its own changes. A new city manager from the state of Washington, whom none of the police force had met, was installed on Dec. 10.

With growing concerns about the 25,000 estimated flower children planning to show up at Laguna Canyon, every police agency in Orange County was called for mutual aid. Local school gyms, closed for the holiday, would be the temporary living quarters for more than 300 officers, while dispatchers, record clerks and the police chief stayed at the Surf & Sand Resort.

Three days before Christmas, local officers began to notice long-haired hippies coming into town from Kansas, Illinois and places unknown.

That Dec. 25, at 5:30 a.m., Purcell kissed his wife and left for the canyon.

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“I don’t know when I’ll be back,” he told her, “but you know where I am at.”

**

Since 7:30 that morning, cars jammed the south and north end of El Toro and Laguna Canyon roads. The acting police chief decided to shut down those streets and Pacific Coast Highway to lock out the surge of people.

The preventive measure did keep out one high-profile music group. By one account, the Grateful Dead were nearby but were thwarted by the canyon traffic as the road was shut down around noon.

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But that didn’t stop people from leaving their cars and walking to the grounds.

Jerry Hoffman, a Laguna resident who lives in the Top of the World neighborhood, recalled looking down into the canyon from his home and watching waves of passerby and cars.

“I remember seeing a piano being driven around in a convertible,” Hoffman said, “and I thought, ‘What nuts are going around with a piano in a car?’”

The peace-promoting love-in resulted in nudity, makeshift fire pits, stolen furniture, drug overdoses and 10 arrests. An unidentified single-engine plane hovered over Sycamore Flats and released thousands of Christmas cards that included a dose of Orange Sunshine — the LSD brand of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, which was then operating the nation’s largest narcotics network out of Laguna Beach, Purcell said.

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After the second day, the cold weather and lack of resources forced most of the attendees out, but about 1,500 people decided to make the canyon their new living space.

Purcell and fellow authorities decided to encircle the remaining Happening participants the following morning. As the group found themselves surrounded, a plane flew above instructing them to hit the road.

That demand, Purcell said, was met with screams, flashes of the middle finger and bare behinds, but the lingerers left.

Nearby homeowners cheered and clapped. City crews dug a giant hole, partially buried leftover belongings and burned the pile to the ground. Purcell and fellow officers returned home on the fourth day.

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Soon after, the City Council approved an ordinance that set a limit of about 2,500 people for a single-group meeting. The new city manager had commended the police force and added pay equaling 72 hours of work to each officer’s paycheck.

“I’ll drive by that area and think, ‘There’s a lot of stuff buried there,’” Purcell, who now lives in nearby Laguna Woods, told the crowd with a laugh. “But I’m happy the way it ended. That was quite an experience for us all.”

**

Curtis Rainbow, the brainchild of the Happening and a wanderer, had hitchhiked from New York City to Toronto to Laguna Beach. He was managing a hippie boutique in town called Thing when he started developing the idea for the music fest.

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“It was different in town,” Rainbow said Thursday evening. “I spent a lot of time camping out in the woods, and then I was across from Taco Bell and I had this idea: Why not have a Christmas festival with everyone? Let’s get together, let’s just do it. Everyone came. It just got bigger and bigger.

“I went barefoot and got frostbite, and all these girls carried me around — that was great — but the police surrounded the place and they started singing, ‘Here Comes Santa Claus,’” Reed said, throwing his head back in laughter. “The canyon was a nice place to live.”

With that, Rainbow, dressed in camouflaged pants, his brown hair in a ponytail, walked up to Purcell.

“I wanted to thank you,” Rainbow said as he shook the retired chief’s hand. “Let’s take a picture.”

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He flashed the peace sign.

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kathleen.luppi@latimes.com

Twitter: @KathleenLuppi

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