Finding history on a bar stool

Like beauty, history is in the eye of the beholder. And when the beholders are viewing it from the vantage point of a bar stool, history can be a bit blurry.

Take Tuesday’s testimony about when and whether the Boom Boom Room, aka the South Seas, was or became a gay bar.

Only in Laguna could this argument rise to the level of a City Council debate. The issue at hand: whether a wine bar should be required in the renovated Coast Inn. The verdict? A resounding “yes” from the Council. But not just because “Everyone likes wine,” as one councilwoman quipped. It’s about history, not just fun beverages. And the Boom Boom Room is a bar, shall we say, with a past.

The hearing included personal testimony from some of Laguna’s gay luminaries — including former Mayor Bob Gentry, who became the country’s first openly gay mayor in the 1980s, and Fred Karger, the first openly gay Republican presidential candidate — as well as longtime residents who disagreed about the history of the Boom but concurred that a bar of some persuasion had been at the location, well, forever.

Carolyn Smith, whose grandfather, John “Pappy” Smith, built the hotel in 1927, told the council that the South Seas bar was the first establishment to obtain a legal liquor license in Laguna Beach after the end of Prohibition. Smith said the bar was not identified as gay until the late 1970s.

“My father owned it until 1978, and then it became a gay place,” she said. “Gays were there, but it was not predominantly gay.”

Her recollections coincided with those of another former Mayor, Kelly Boyd, who is currently on the council and as a teenager worked at the hotel. Boyd, who owns the Marine Room Tavern, has apparently kept tabs on all the bars in Laguna over the years.

“The first gay bar in Laguna opened in the 1940s,” Boyd recalled. “That became Dante’s. Then the Little Shrimp opened. My dad leased the restaurant at the Coast Inn in the late 1950s. People’s recollection of when the Boom Boom Room became fully gay is wrong. The idea that it started 50 years ago isn’t true. It wasn’t ‘the gay bar.’”

He recalls that, in the 1970s, the owner of the South Seas began running ads all over the country touting the Boom Boom Room as “the” gay hangout. “That’s when it became gay,” Boyd insisted.

But don’t tell that to Arnold Hano. Hano, a resident since the 1950s, asserted that the Boom was gay way back then. “This was a gay bar since 1956 when I was here,” Hano told the council. “It was very well run and courteous, a quiet place. At that time gays were closeted and the gathering place was the Boom. That’s where the social and political coalitions occurred, and the gay community became a force to be reckoned with.”

Jack Morse, a resident since the 1930s, said he knew of only one gay bar in his early years in Laguna Beach, and it was next to the Hotel Laguna.

“I spent many happy hours in the South Seas and it played a big part in my life,” he said. “I met my wife there in the 1960s.”

Morse said he remembers being at the South Seas when the Little Shrimp had an overflow.

“They sent their overflow to the South Seas,” he recalled, and the Shrimp operators even called ahead to warn the South Seas patrons so they wouldn’t be shocked by the incoming gay clientele.

Gentry, along with longtime resident Gene Rowland, testified by video about the Boom Boom Room as a popular nightspot for gays and Hollywood celebrities, including Rock Hudson and Bette Davis, who go pretty far back in this town.

“The Boom was there in late ’58 or ’59, and it was predominantly gay,” Rowland said. “People came from all over.”

Gentry, who has not lived in the city for some years, said that, in its heyday as a gay resort, Laguna Beach was known across the country as “the Provincetown of the West Coast,” a reference to Provincetown, Massachusetts, a popular gay resort. And it all centered around the Boom Boom Room and Coast Inn.

“It was Nirvana,” Gentry recalled. “The whole area from Mountain to Thalia was a gay social section. The gay military came to Laguna to socialize.”

And we all know that history happens when people get together, even in a bar.

“The Boom Boom Room and Coast Inn are a symbol of the city’s and the U.S.'s gay history,” said Chad Ratner, who couldn’t have been a day over 25. “That was when gays were being kept track of by the post office, and raids were conducted by police on gay bars. The Boom Boom Room survived this period.”

Karger, who founded Save the Boom in 2006 when the bar was to be closed down by its current owner, declared its status as “the oldest gay bar in the U.S.”

Gay activist Audrey Prosser, however, called the Boom the oldest gay bar in the western U.S.

Karger has a photo of the South Seas (which got nicknamed the “Boom Boom Room” by the Navy types who frequented it) showing a bevy of smiling men, not a woman to be found. But does that mean it was a gay bar at that time? Not necessarily.

I have my own theory about the history of the South Seas/Boom Boom Room, based on research I did years ago on the California bar scene during World War II. It seems that, back in those days, many military men liked to have a drink without women around. And many of the bars that catered to military types had two rooms: one for everyone — men and women — and one “inner sanctum” where women were forbidden to enter. (This would now be considered discriminatory, of course.) The Coast Inn also had two bars; an outer bar (which ironically held a “Ladies Night” for gay women up until it closed) and the Boom, with its fabulous ocean view and exclusive cache.

It’s my contention that the Boom Boom Room was designed as a “men only” bar during this wartime era. And eventually the Boom became a gay bar with a primarily male clientele.

But that’s just conjecture. What everyone can agree on is that, whether it was called the South Seas or the Boom Boom Room, whether it was gay or straight, for men or women, or both, it was a bar for a very, very, very long time, and a gay bar for anywhere between 40 and 50 or more, years. And any way you look at it, that’s historic.