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Sunset Strip Riots 1966

by Dr. Derek Lamar

"What a field day for the heat. A thousand people in the street. Singing songs and carrying signs. Mostly say: hooray for our side." This song, "For What It's Worth," was written by Steven Stills* after witnessing the famous Sunset Strip riots in 1966. The police had used violence to break up a demonstration. This happened right outside of Pandora's Box, one of the more "hip" clubs right on the "Strip" at that time. (This flashback is out of order in the chronology of this series. However, the person who actually organized this demonstration, contacted the Blackboard and gave his perspective of the history as it happened. It seems appropriate to morph it in now.)

(Right: Steven Stills witnessed the riots and penned "For What It's Worth... an icon of 60's angst. Below right: Rocky and Bullwinkle.)

Scott Thomas Lowe, poet/artist/actor/musician, was living in the basement of the Fifth Estate Coffee House in 1966, perhaps the same room I lived in just a few months later. Next door stood the famous statue of Rocky and Bullwinkle at the offices of Jay Ward Productions in what at one time was the home of Fess Parker, TV's "Davy Crockett." Lots of notables used to hang out at the Fifth Estate. Scott recalls author Michael Kurland, character actor Tim Scott, and musician Neil Young, among many others. There were several rooms underneath the coffee house and for a time the Los Angeles Free Press operated out of there.

(Scott Thomas Lowe stands on top of the famous Sunset Strip toward front in jacket bus which shortly thereafter would be set on fire in front of Pandora's box. Pandora's box was a seedy nightclub which was famous for such rock icons as Leon Russell, The Seeds, The Doors, Arthur Lee and Love. Scott stands with friend Gary Branch and others.)

Scott says: "There were drawings all over the wall by Ron Cobb and there was a round table in the middle of the room with a Gallo wine bottle in the middle covered with the melted wax of a hundred candles." One day after being harassed one too many times by the local police Scott was furious. When he finally got back to the coffee house he told the owner, Al Mitchell, and the others, that they should organize some sort of protest of the harassment which was taking place on the Strip.

As Scott said: "So we printed up flyers and handed them through the windows of the cars cruising down Sunset the week before November 11, 1966. The flyers said: 'Protest police harassment of long haired individuals in Hollywood, November, 11, in front of Pandora's Box teenage nightclub.' or words to that effect.'"

Scott goes on to describe what happened next: "The following weekend a thousand people showed up. Gary Branch climbed up on top of a city bus and I thought to myself, 'I'll bet I could see a lot more from up there.' So I climbed up on top of the bus. Gary jumped down and someone handed a Pedestrian Crossing sign up to me."

(Left: Scott Thomas Lowe and Atascadero perform music with 60's roots and influences.)

(Above right: Sunset Strip at Horn Avenue looking East toward the Playboy Club. A few years later Spagos will become the in-spot of this corner across the street from Tower Records.

"There was a picture of me holding that sign on the front page of the Los Angeles Times the next day," Scott said. "I climbed down and went East on Sunset almost up to Schwab's drugstore where another bus had been stopped and was watching two cops hold a man down and another cop do knee drops on his neck screaming, "This will teach you to try to set fire to a bus!" At this point Scott recounts walking across the street and then West on Sunset back toward the coffee house. Suddenly two plainclothes policemen stop him and said: "You're under arrest for arson." Scott snapped back, "I didn't set fire to anything!" Immediately they closed ranks and a cop in full riot gear yelled "Is this the guy that set fire to the bus?" He grabbed Scott in a choke hold until Scott almost passed out. They handcuffed him and loaded him onto the police bus where he was later taken to the Los Angeles County Jail. He would sit for two weeks waiting for trial.

Just a week following Scott's arrest they held another protest which included Peter Fonda, John Drew Barrymore and Bob Denver all of whom were arrested. They were bailed out in fifteen minutes, according to Scott, but they did get their names in the paper. Finally after much maneuvering Scott was placed before a woman judge who suggested that he "should find other ways to protest things" and gave him a year's summary probation.

The Sunset Strip suffered more confrontations during this period but the actual violence stopped. Local businesses and politicians realized that the face of Hollywood continues to change from generation to generation and they did their best to rake in the money despite the "anti-establishment" mood. But the old Hollywood would continue to be stripped away, especially in the heart of the Strip, from Fairfax Avenue to the 9000 Building . One of the favorite pastimes of this period was to cruise up and down the Strip playing loud music and keeping time with a tambourine. For several years this would be the sound as the crowds milled about and moved along the boulevard. "Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship, my senses have been stripped, my hands can' t feel to grip, my toes to numb to step, wait only for my boot heels to be wanderin'. I' m ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade into my own parade, cast your dancin' spell my way I promise to go under it." (Mr. Tambourine Man by Bob Dylan)

L.A. Free Press, icon of the underground press.
One famous location was right next door to Pandora's Box. It was called The Garden of Allah and was a hotel made up of several bungalows which were inhabited by movie stars during the 1930's and the 1940's. It was a commonplace attraction for tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite star. It was torn down in 1950 and it became the site of a bank. A reference to this could be found in a well known song during the 1970's: "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin' hot spot. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got 'til it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." (Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell)

Riot On Sunset Strip documents the history of Sunset Strip rebellion in its own Hollywood way. Starring Aldo Ray and Mimsey Farmer. A cheap exploitation film wreaking of rock and roll, drugs and hippie sex.

Pandora's Box was closed. It sat there boarded up for a time. I used to sit on the steps of Pandora's Box eating food out of tin cans that the Valley girls would bring us during the day . And we would use the corner to sell underground newspapers to cars waiting for the light to change. The Free Press was 15 cents and usually your customer would hand you a quarter. If you wore tight pants and took a long time to try and extract a dime, the light would change and the driver would say "keep the change". In the evening the parade of freaks would begin and the cars would keep on rolling. Ultimately in 1967 the landmark nightclub was torn down and the road was widened to eat up most of the island which it stood upon. This would end the focal point of youthful indiscretion by simply paving over the history. Now the island is very small and has a bus stop on it.

In 1988, Schwab's Pharmacy, just East of where Pandora's Box stood, was finally torn down only to build a block long shopping mall. Already famous as a Hollywood hangout, Schwabs went a step further and made up the story of Lana Turner being discovered at the soda fountain to bump up business. In the 1960's a friend and I used to go there and he would discover people in the men's restroom. And while I was out front on the sidewalk I discovered Al Lewis of Grandpa Munster fame strolling down the boulevard in full vampire regalia.

Schwab's Drug store stood for many years as the hope of Hollywood.

F. Scott Fitzgerald did have a heart attack there while buying cigarettes in 1940 however. And as in Billy Wilder's film, Sunset Boulevard, comebacks usually only attract a crowd for a moment. If you're ready for your close-up, look yourself straight in the eyes and get out of the way because Hollywood is famous for plowing over the past and moving on to a new future.

Get Scott Thomas Lowe's CD, shown to the right, on his website at: Scott Thomas Lowe & Atascadero.


Saga continues: From the Sunset Strip to Hollywood Boulevard, from the underground press to Teen Screen Magazine and Hollywood Boulevard of the Stars.

© Copyright Derek Lamar

* "For What It's Worth" also launched the tremendously successful career of The Buffalo Springfield whose musicians turned a band into a super-group: Steve Stills, Neil Young, Richie Furay, Dewey Martin, Bruce Palmer (1946 ~ 2004) and finally, Jim Messina. Other super-groups of this era were The Beatles, The Byrds, The Yardbirds and Blind Faith. (The Big Three and The Mugwumps fits in there somewhere.)

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