Friday, November 11, 2016

50 Years Ago: Counterculture Riots on the Sunset Strip

1,000 Teenagers Riot on the Sunset Strip, November 13, 1966
Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

At over 1.5 miles long, the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles is a landscape of billboards, shops, boutiques, and trendy restaurants, bars, and clubs. And so, it seems, it’s always been. But look back fifty years to 1966 and you will see that the Strip was a hub for the counterculture movement that captivated America’s youth and transformed a society.

As CHS begins the countdown to our commemoration of one of the counterculture’s most memorable events, the Summer of Love, we remember the series of 'riots'—from November 1966 to February 1967—that turned the Sunset Strip from a colorful street scene into a wave of protests.

At the first “happening” on November 12, 1966, just prior to an imposed 10pm curfew for minors, a crowd gathered at Pandora’s Box, a club popular with teenagers, with “bell bottoms, tied dyed shirts, marijuana smoke, and loud rock and roll—it was small and cramped, full of energy that spilled out on to the Strip.”

Interior, Pandora’s Box, 1966
Courtesy Tommy McLoughlin

As explained in the public events brochure for WeHo Arts’ There’s Something Happening Here. . . On the Sunset Strip 1966:
To walk down Sunset Strip in 1966 was to see a sidewalk thronging with groovy guys, Beatle-haired teens, and flower children. Teenagers came to catch a glimpse of their favorite musicians, many of whom lived in Laurel Canyon, in part because of its close proximity to the Sunset Strip clubs.
The Strip Goes Teen, 1966
Courtesy Ugly Things Magazine

Fashion on Sunset Strip, 1966
Courtesy Alison Martino, “Vintage Los Angeles”

Some businesses and residents were unhappy with the traffic and crowds. By late 1966, authorities began imposing a decades-old 10pm curfew law for those under age 18. Seeing this as an infringement on their rights, “Striplings” as they were called invited people to demonstrate at Pandora’s Box. 
Reports vary, but perhaps between 900 and 3,000 demonstrators, including celebrities Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, erupted in protest. . . . As Cecilia Rasmussen wrote in an August 5, 2007 LA Times article, “the confrontation with police also inspired musician Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield to write “For What It’s Worth,” . . . Stills’ song, with its famous line “There’s something happening here” debuted during a short-lived truce on Christmas Day at Pandora’s Box and eventually became an anthem of the protest era.”
Oratory in front of Pandora’s Box, November 15, 1966
Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Youth Being Searched by Police during Crackdown on the Sunset Strip, November 20, 1966
Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

In front of Pandora’s Box on the Sunset Strip, November 26, 1966
Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library


As noted above, Buffalo Springfield's song, "For What Its Worth," was written in response to the crackdowns on the Sunset Strip. As noted in this article in Rolling Stone, the song grew to be one of pop music's most covered protest songs. You can hear the familiar song below:



As things quieted down on the Strip in early 1967, Los Angeles established itself as the Southern California haven for Human Be-ins, Love-ins, rock ‘n’ roll, and counterculture communities—particularly in the Laurel, Topanga, and Malibu Canyons. Experimentation and creativity ruled the dynamic L.A. scene. It would not be long before the generation of the Sunset Strip Riots at the dawn of the Summer of Love would stun the world with protests against a far-away and unpopular war.

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager
skale@calhist.org

Sources

  1. Gordon Alexander oral interview, April 23, 2012, Glendale College, Glendale, CA. In Andrew Ernest Ligeti, Spatial Empowerment and the Los Angeles Counterculture, 1965-1967: The Search for Hallowed Ground in the City of Angeles, Master’s Thesis (December 2012), California State University, Northridge
  2. Mike Che, Domenic Priore, There’s Something Happening Here. . . On the Sunset Strip 1966, project brochure, WeHo Arts, October 2016.

Learn more about WeHo Arts Project, There’s Something Happening Here… On The Sunset Strip 1966.

Additional articles reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of the Sunset Strip riots are here:

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/11/sunset-strip-riot-hippie-los-angeles
http://www.laweekly.com/music/what-were-the-1966-sunset-strip-riots-really-like-eyewitnesses-look-back-7587386

Learn more about CHS’s 50th Anniversary Summer of Love celebration.
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