FIRST PERSON: Remembering Mom, honoring the Boom

The first time I visited Laguna Beach was during spring break freshman year. It was 1983, and I had come west from Chicago for college. I was with my very straight, very "SoCal" roommate and best friend from Pasadena, and we were on our way to visit his high school girlfriend at her parents' beach house.

The moment we swung off the 405 onto Laguna Canyon Road in his yellow pickup, I knew I was somewhere special. It was still a two-lane road back then that skirted strawberry fields and ponds close enough to touch, and the record winter rains of that January had given way to emerald hills that swayed in the late March breeze. As I looked out at the Pacific from their living room perched on the bluff above West Street beach, I had no idea just how important to me this place would become.

Four-hundred miles away in Palo Alto, the news that year of Robert Gentry's election in Laguna Beach as one of the country's first openly gay elected officials seeped into my fraternity boy consciousness and gave me a sense of hope and possibility that I hadn't realized I lacked.

When I returned to pursue my master's at USC film school in 1988, Laguna became my weekend destination of choice, and its gay heart "” the Boom "” the iconic bar of my youth.

Like so many others, I found love, friendship and acceptance among the sandy, tattered pool tables and rambling open-air rooms. I even met one of my first boyfriends there and with him made my first feature film. The name we chose for our production company was Boom Pictures.

My relationship with Laguna took an unexpected turn in 1991 when my mother followed me from Chicago to Leisure World in Laguna Hills. The youngest of seven children, I had come to California to chart my own course, so at first I was reluctant to embrace what I viewed as my mom's encroachment. But nearing 70, she had been diagnosed with an emphysema-like disease, and she could no longer take the brutal winters or humid summers.

Over the next decade, my reluctance melted, and Laguna came to mean so much more to me than I could have ever imagined on that day I first encountered it.

Surrounded by the familiarity of my youth, it became my refuge from L.A., and a place I could still be my mom's baby as her breath grew shorter. Heading out for a Saturday night, I can still hear her asking, "Where you going, honey, the Boom?" Even she was in on it.

When she passed six days before my 35th birthday, I took solace in being able to be with her, holding her hand as she took her final breath and we said goodbye. I remember sheepishly setting the pine box containing her ashes on the table next to me at the Zinc Cafe for one last meal together before heading north on PCH. I took the long way home that day.

It would be seven years until I saw Laguna again.

Fred Karger was a guy I'd met during my Laguna years. He had grown up in the suburb just next to mine back in Illinois, and we shared a hometown camaraderie.

So when I received his first e-mail blast about the Boom's sale and imminent closing in June 2006, I gave it a dutiful read. It was slated for redevelopment as a boutique hotel and restaurant. Just what Laguna needed. It was another sad passing, but it had been so long since I'd been down there. And I was determined to keep the past in the past.

When I bumped into Fred at a party a few days later, I expressed my regrets and wished him luck. But Fred's not just any guy. In my regrets he heard resignation, and anyone who knows Fred knows that's not a good answer. Before I knew it, I was heading down the 405 again, camera in tow to document Fred's efforts to save the Boom. It was Fourth of July weekend, and I was back in Laguna.

The strawberry fields were single-family homes, Laguna Canyon Road a four-lane highway with a towering toll road cutting through the San Joaquin Hills above it.

Quaint oceanfront trailer parks had given way to five-diamond resorts, and the youth-oriented surf culture had become just another set piece for reality TV.

The earthy charms that had made Laguna an oasis of inclusiveness on the Orange County coast had become its main draw, and many people, the gays included, had been priced out of the market.

Armed with an arsenal of strategies honed during a career in politics, Fred succeeded in extending the Boom's life span by one year. Documentaries have a way of hijacking a filmmaker's life, and this was no different.

Every time I found myself heading south for another petition drive, protest, or City Council meeting, I secretly cursed Fred and his moxie. His "Men of Laguna Beach Calendar" contest was hatched, I'm convinced, just to keep me hooked.

It worked. Over the weeks that turned into months I found myself rediscovering Laguna. People I had somehow missed my first time around were eager to share their own Boom histories with the audience my camera promised. And places I had been countless times before offered up new surprises.

Nestled on the bluff below the Boom, The Garden of Peace & Love had been there the whole time. I must have passed it a million times on my way to the beach at the foot of Mountain Avenue. But the vagaries of youth blinded me to a lot of things, and the garden was one of them.

Founded by Michele Martinay in the 1980s, it began as an impromptu AIDS memorial. With the ocean surf crashing just beneath it and under the watchful care of Michele, it evolved into a hallowed ground where all Lagunans could memorialize loved ones of any stripe. I realized that my film was no longer just about a bar but about a history and the community that history had launched and nurtured.

It was also inexplicably and inescapably about Mom. The pine box where she resided had become an interesting if macabre conversation piece back home in L.A.

Ironically, her only request had been that she not end up in my closet. For more than eight years, I had been looking for an answer to a question I had been unwilling to ask. In saving the Boom, I found my answer.

With the bar and dance floor already shuttered for months above us, my siblings and I gathered at the foot of Mountain with our mom one last time. We added her name to those that had come before, painted on rocks and etched in wood, and gave her the ocean view she had always wanted.

As the breeze carried her away, I caught a glimpse of the boy that I had been. I wondered if he had become the man she had intended. I wondered if Laguna was still the town it wanted to be.

JOHN KEITEL has two films screening at the Newport Beach Film Festival. His "Saving the Boom" screens at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Edwards Island 2. "Prodigal Sons" screens at 5:30 p.m. Monday at the Edwards Island 4.

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