How did the Doll Hut become an O.C. music scene focal point? A new documentary zeroes in
“Everybody was climbing on the stage, on the bar.”
“People were, you know, right in your face.”
“There was always mayhem in the parking lot.”
“It was a happening pad.”
That sums up the Doll Hut.
Despite the pushing and shoving and vocalists screaming lyrics only inches from patrons’ faces — or perhaps because of the intimate chaos — the Anaheim club became and remains an Orange County institution.
So much is it part of local musical history that a documentary is in the works. These critiques appear in the trailer for the film.
Longtime locals refer to the shack, nestled at Adams Street and Manchester, as the West Coast CBGB — referring to the venerable punk rock nightclub in New York City. Many well-known Orange County musicians call it home.
The small venue gained a following in the 1990s in part because of its former owner, Linda Jemison, who created a new hangout for musicians and friends when old stomping grounds like the Commonwealth Pub in Fullerton were no longer around.
Inside the slightly dimmed club, wood paneling is covered with band stickers, and punk rock photographs decorate the wall above the bar. A pungent odor of beer and sweat only intensifies as more and more patrons enter the living room-sized space, which is capped at about 89 people — it was once 49, but pool tables were removed to make more room.
The stage is hardly that but rather a low-rise corner wedge, but from it local acts like The Adolescents, The Ziggens and The Offspring could be heard before their tunes invaded the airwaves and their names became known beyond Orange County.
For a little over a decade, Jemison’s Doll Hut became the go-to spot, but things began to change, and dedicated patrons stopped showing up. After Jemison decided to step down in 2001 to move on to other ventures, many thought it was the end of the club — the end of an era — as a slew of new owners tried their hand at managing the shack but couldn’t last even a year.
Despite periodic temporary closures amid a revolving door of property owners, the Doll Hut still holds its title of beloved bar. Many fans attribute this to current owner Michael “Mac” McGravey, who the regulars say fosters the same love and passion for music as Jemison demonstrated.
And now its colorful — some would say decadent — history is being immortalized in film.
How the documentary began
The plan was to create a 10-minute film on a punk rock club, but when Steve Appleford, an editor with the Los Angeles Times Community News in Los Angeles County, arrived at the Doll Hut in late 2012 and heard that its owners, Blue and Anthony Castaneda, wanted to close its doors by the end of the year, he knew it was an obvious choice.
“He just wandered in one night and explained his project,” said McGravey, who booked shows for the club from 2009 to 2012 and has owned the hut since 2013. “I checked him out, and Steve’s work speaks for himself, so I didn’t feel the need to be involved or ask questions.”
McGravey put Appleford in touch with Jemison and the project grew from there.
“As a journalist, I know a story when I see one, and the idea of a place with this kind of history to go out of business in a very short amount of time, I knew it was going to be rich material,” said Appleford, who has bylines in publications including LA Weekly and Rolling Stone magazine.
The music journalist had regularly visited the Doll Hut. Appleford recalls when he and a few other unlucky patrons were left outside when Social Distortion performed to an overflow of scrappy punks in the ‘90s. And he remembers the draw Jemison brought during the farewell show in 2012, when The Ziggens closed out the night.
“It’s not a documentary about a rock ‘n’ roll club or a rockabilly club as a way to earn riches, but sometimes you make things for other reasons, and I’d like to think it will have a life even though [some] never heard of the place,” Appleford said.
The documentary, which was to have focused on the closure of the legendary club, of course changed course with McGravey taking over the place. The film is expected to feature the history of Jemison’s ownership, how other owners tried to transform it and the current band scene.
It is being called “Down at the Doll Hut.”
The beginnings of Linda’s Doll Hut
Jemison had never owned a business let alone managed a bar, but her passion for booking and promoting locals bands encouraged her to take the leap. So in 1989, at 25 years old, Jemison purchased the Doll Hut.
“I said to myself, ‘I really want this to be like the Whiskey [a Go Go in West Hollywood], and I want to make this place known,’ ” Jemison said, as she sat against the bar on a recent Thursday afternoon. “I just wanted to make it a musicians’ place.”
For almost two decades, the Doll Hut developed a reputation for live, rowdy punk shows and showcasing bands that would become big names in the alternative-music scene. But people became complacent and stopped showing up, instead choosing to love it from afar, Appleford said.
This helped spur Jemison’s desire to sell the club.
With her departure in 2001, a plethora of owners tried their hand at managing it, but most didn’t last a year.
The changes that accompanied the changes in ownership often left once-loyal patrons confused. At one point, property owners radically altered the club, painting the walls bright blue and orange and playing Spanish music. It seemed almost like a cantina in Jalisco, Mexico.
Something clicked for McGravey. Once he decided to purchase the club, he settled the deal on a Monday, got the keys on a Tuesday, repainted the blue and orange walls and restored the band stickers and punk rock photographs, and by that Thursday was putting on his first show as the owner.
“It all happened so fast. The weight and history of this place is tremendous — it’s not a bar at a strip mall or anything,” McGravey said. “There’s still a lot of respect for it.”
For Jemison, the best part was hearing that McGravey became the new steward of the business, knowing that her longtime friend and peer shared the same vision.
When Appleford told her about the project, Jemison said, she was “honored and surprised” knowing that the effort and love she put into the Doll Hut would be documented forever. Jemison has since reached out via social media, asking friends for old photos, recordings and anything that could be used for the documentary.
Reverend Horton Heat, Mike Watt of Minutemen and Steve Soto of The Adolescents are only a few of the many musician’s interviewed for the documentary. Appleford collected ample footage of the Doll Hut’s current scene with McGravey, even including the new generation of bands like Tartar Control and Yeastie Boys.
He’s hoping that he and colleague Brett Smith, who is helping with editing, will have “Down at the Doll Hut” completed by this fall.
“The club is still a vibrant place for new bands to come play as well as rock veterans,” Appleford said. “This is the kind of place where there are a lot of people who have Doll Hut tattoos. I’d never seen a Whiskey tattoo, a Rainbow [Lounge] tattoo, and that kind of dedication from fans is just very rare — it says a lot.”
To view the “Down at the Doll Hut” trailer, visit youtu.be/nh-Kyhh8ofc.