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Thursday 23 February 2017
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A Gay Heyday

Laguna Beach Magazine takes an introspective look at gay life in Laguna Beach and how the town dramatically changed over the years.
By Debbie Lavdas | Photos courtesy of Laguna Beach Independent

 

Not so long ago, Laguna Beach was the place to live and play for an above-average numberof gay people. The town was a mecca and gay destination with bars such as the Boom Boom Room, the Little Shrimp and Woody’s. The town’s gay-friendly reputation dates back to the 1930s when Los Angeles crowds headed to Laguna to escape LA raids on gay and lesbian bars. The Hollywood crowd then hit with Rock Hudson and others coming down in the 1940s. And by the 1970s, 1980s, and even into early 2000, Laguna Beach was a prime gay playground. So what changed everything, and where did they go? Will the gay community in Laguna ever be as prominent as in the heydays? The answers depend on who you ask.

Where the Boys Are

“Laguna has definitely changed. It seems like Newport Coast has kind of infiltrated, and that whole conservative flux has just pushed its way down the coast and pushed all the boys out of town,” says Nick Gannon, a 27-year-old public relations and m arketing consultant. Nick knows a good time and says the social scene here is lacking, to say the least, for a 20-something single gay man.

“About five or six years ago things kind of dissipated. Laguna is still like our little village, but as far as gay outlets, there really are none. I go to more private parties at my friends’ houses. … The Boom Boom Room shut down shortly after I started going—we had a really short, sweet relationship,” he laughs.

Other ways Laguna has changed? “It’s become very mainstream, and it’s really just all about big ‘McMansions.’ … In addition, I feel as though the art community in Laguna is not supported enough. The art culture is branded as a kitschy, crafty art base, when, in actuality, Laguna has amazing talent in the contemporary and sculpting fields. And not to generalize, but a lot of the homosexual community are really art-based. So once the emphasis on the art community went away, that was the last straw.”

Nick has recently decided to transition to permanent life in LA or New York. Where will you find him? Where the boys are. “The place to go was always like West Hollywood, but there’s a huge surge where the gay community is going to the east side of LA: Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Echo Park. It’s a really nice scene. Very neighborhoody and there’s a huge art community there.”

Boom to Bust

“The Boom really was kind of the epicenter of the gay community,” says Fred Karger, gay activist and founder of the organization Save the Boom! The Boom Boom Room closed in 2007 and was the oldest gay bar in the western United States, according to Fred. The Boom and other popular gay bars in Laguna Beach were purchased and flipped for profit, despite their popularity. “The owners bought the Boom Boom Room and Coast Inn in 2000 to flip it. They were successful and sold it just five years later,” Fred says. “Mr. Udvar-Hazy (Beverly Hills multibillionaire) ended up buying the building for $12.7 million that had been sold for $4 million in 2000. The same situation occurred with Woody’s down the street from the Boom; it was also sold by its owners during the Laguna Beach real estate boom in 2005-2006. Both bars were packed, and I know that Woody’s had its best year in its 12-year history the year it was sold.”

The only gay bar left in town now is Main Street Bar, which turns into Club Bounce on weekend nights.

“My fear was that Laguna would end up a lot like Santa Barbara, which was a bustling town with a great gay life in the ’70s. One by one the gay bars closed, and the gay community left,” Fred continues. He has argued with city leaders to bring a new gay bar in. “Palm Springs has become a huge gay/lesbian tourist destination with dozens of gay resorts and 10 or 12 gay bars. It’s a huge boost to that economy,” Fred says. “Younger people are going to Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Beach. It’s not like everyone’s packing up, but we are losing more members of the gay community than we’re gaining.

Mecca No More

“I remember eggs being thrown over the fence at the Little Shrimp, and people driving by yelling ‘faggot!’ ” recalls interior designer John Wallace Benecke, who has lived in Laguna Beach for 13 years. He also remembers all the times at The Boom: the long lines waiting to get in on Friday and Saturday nights, the drag nights there and the goldfish “aquarium” built into the bar top, the summers at West Street Beach packed with gay men, hearing Rudy (a local performer) play and sing at the Little Shrimp, and having drinks at Woody’s after a day at the beach.

“Laguna Beach is not a gay town at all anymore,” John says. He believes high housing costs have contributed to the decline of gay life in Laguna Beach. “The older gay population living here took advantage of the housing boom and cashed out and moved … to more gay-friendly places.” He also cites the lack of city support for the change in the gay scene: “The city of Laguna Beach did nothing to try to keep gay people in Laguna, and the [visitors bureau] did nothing at all to try to invite gay people to come to Laguna Beach to vacation, spend their money, stay and play! They never recognized the value of the gay population.” Additionally, he says that gay people are able to meet others on dating websites—explaining why bars aren’t as important now as they once were.

Gay Women Weigh In

It seems it’s not just gay men leaving Laguna Beach. “Yes, I’m making a big transition in my life in moving out of Laguna,” says Fernanda Rocha, manager of Laguna’s Art of Fitness. Fernanda has been a large part of the local gay community, as well as involved in the national scene in campaigns such as NOH8.

“I’m in a relationship, and love and business are taking me to LA,” says Fernanda, also known for her lesbian reality role on Bravo’s “Housewives” empire.

Fernanda, now 35, repeats a shared sentiment that the town isn’t what it used to be. “I miss the energy from the gay community, the bars, the dancing. For me, it’s now very quiet. I used to go to the Boom Boom Room. … Woody’s was another bar we’d go to. Back then, Laguna was a very open place for the community. When those bars went away, a big part of the community went away as well,” she says.

Fernanda moved from Brazil to LA in 2001, then moved to Laguna in 2003. “I remember my first time here in Laguna. I was impressed. People said that Laguna was so open; they accept anyone; everybody’s friendly. … And now that the gay community has been going away to places where they can socialize more, those qualities of Laguna are disappearing. That, to me, is not good.”

Fernanda isn’t alone with her move to LA or thoughts that the gay scene in Laguna Beach is gone for women as well.

“I haven’t lived [in Laguna] for almost a year,” comments Brittenelle Fredericks, 26, who now lives in Hollywood and works at a marketing firm in Beverly Hills, as well as owns Homme-Girl, an online retail company. “There really wasn’t a gay scene for the most part that I knew of—and if there was, they were really good at hiding.

“I feel like the gay community is constantly evolving. The crowd I used to hang out with years ago has grown up, and we would much rather participate in amazing dinners and group events, as opposed to going out and getting crazy. I feel like the ‘scene’ migrated up to LA because of the opportunities.”

Brittenelle says she still loves Laguna, and it still has the best beaches. “It’s always a great place to go, clear your head and get away from whatever is going on in your life.”

The Upside

Town today is definitely not the same as it was for gay people five, 10 or 20-plus years ago, but some continue to see the glass half-full.

“The Boom was a dump,” says David Clemens, 46, who has lived in Laguna the last 10 years. “Society has changed, and gay people now can go and be themselves anywhere. Back in the day, gays had to sneak out of LA and come down here. But now, we can go anywhere and be who we are. And we don’t want to go to these dumps anymore. If you look at West Hollywood, they’ve really upped the ante. People spend millions of dollars on these bars now. The Boom never kept up,” David says.

“My partner and I didn’t come here to Laguna to live because it was a gay town, we came because it was a beauty. My partner was apprehensive of coming here because of its stigma of being a gay city. He’d probably say it’s more refreshing now,” he adds. “It’s not hostile or anything. A lot of places have fixed themselves up—and there are a lot of new restaurants that we wouldn’t have if it weren’t for all the tourists coming.” David admits that he had a lot of fun here in the 1980s and misses some of those times, but would he trade it for present day? “If I had to give up the upgrades that I’ve seen in Laguna to get those times back, would I? Probably not.”

Bringing it Back

Could Laguna Beach ever return to its gay mecca days? Most doubt it, but not all. “Oh sure,” Bob Gentry, former mayor of Laguna, says. “There could be more of a gay presence in city government, marketing done to the worldwide gay community—a multimillion-dollar travel possibility—and if that is ever tapped, and Laguna is seen as coming back, welcoming and wanting to be part of this movement, Laguna would flourish in a minute. It would be like the revitalization of gay Laguna that’s in everyone’s minds—for even young people who’ve heard about it. So I think yes, it’s extremely possible.”

 

 




16 thoughts on “A Gay Heyday

  1. Gregory Hinton

    I moved to Laguna in the summer of 1977 from Boulder, Colorado, and without knowing it, only two blocks from the Boom Boom Room. I remember walking to the beach and later playing pool in the lower bar of the Boom and listening to Leon Russell singing “Back to the Island.” What wonderful memories. The best move of my life!

    Reply
  2. steve crippen

    worked and lived in Laguna Beach from 1980 to 1990. Bartender at the Little Shrimp when Mike Michaels owned it……Have some VERY good memories of all the wild things we did there…..One of the best was a Christmas Eve when we bar hopped starting at the Shrimp to Main Street then to Ron’s then off to the Boom Boom room and back to the Shrimp….Police told me I couldn’t carry this one Marine on my shoulders as we were bar hopping…….cant believe I didn’t end up in jail that night……Lets just say a certain Marine did not get off my shoulders…..and all this to try to cheer up a certain entertainer that was working at the Shrimp…….Oh the times………

    Reply
  3. HTTP://primesolarwindowshades.blogspot.com/

    “A Gay Heyday | Laguna Beach Magazine | Firebrand Media LLC” in fact causes me imagine a small bit more.
    I really enjoyed each and every individual component of this post.
    Thanks for your time -Patty

    Reply
  4. Ed Surla

    Thank you so much for this article! I moved to Laguna Niguel in the early 1970’s. The Little Shrimp was the first Gay Bar I went to. The guys there and the Gay community in Laguna were so open and friendly that I felt I had finally arrived at home. In the 16 years I lived there I made the best of friends and lovers. Bar and Restaurant hopping on weekends with friends who came down from LA was fun.

    I moved to San Diego in 1984 when the AIDS crisis hit Laguna. The party was over. I saw good friends and friendly acquaintances die off or disappear from the scene.

    Living in Laguna was the best years of my young life. I reinvented myself and moved around comfortably in my Gay sexual orientation.

    Reply
    1. MIcaela Myers

      Hi, Ed! We’re really glad you liked the article. We feel that it is important to share our city’s history and culture!

      Reply
  5. lee stowe

    I moved to Laguna in the early 70s…it was the best….I remember the Christmas Festival of 1970…closed Laguna Canyon Road for 4 days…I remember the gay bar before all the rest…on Main Beach….yes Main Beach…played volleyball in front of their open patio…then one day…it was all locked up….and suddenly…like magic…it all moved to West Street Beach…like we all instantly knew to go there…The name of that bar was Dante’s…yes on Main Beach…where PCH and Laguna Canyon Road meet…anyone remember a great café named Kibby’s?I’d kill for one of their guacamole omelets…

    Reply
  6. Rich & Sam

    In the very early 1980’s as a young 20-something, I was welcomed into a group of beautiful 30- and 40-something professionals that were magnets for the single beach boys who could hold a smart dinner conversation and had the scruples to know when it was time to say thank you and leave the party. There were countless dinner gatherings in beautiful homes and then we’d head down to the Boom Boom Room to dance. Seventeen years later, in July of 1997, I met the love of my life in the upper bar. I had never had a steady date in 18 years. We took a walk on the beach below the bar in the wet sand that night. Something was different about this special person named Sam. It is now April 2014 and as I am writing this on my iPad, he’s fast asleep at my side in bed. We’ve been together ever since. Thank you Laguna, the Coast Inn and “the Boom”. A casual drop-in that Independence Day week nearly 17 years ago set the compass for a new direction in my life. I have fond memories of those glorious early days; and while it may be over, I inadvertently left at the appropriate time and took the grand prize with me.

    Reply
  7. R Spicocchi

    I agree that the world in Laguna was at one time the mecca for gay vacationing. I began visiting there back in 1981 and it seems Laguna was THE place to be on all major holiday’s (Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day). Bars and streets were packed, great restaurants and many great memories. It was the playground for the LA boys for 20 years. However, as I reflect on my life and interests I can see how our GLBTQ community has evolved and we no longer are isolated from society. We went to these bars to find love, socialize or to party. Now that we’ve been embraced by friends and family I feel it is a natural movement away from the bars and begin to live as equal members of society. We have kids, neighbors and yes even churches embrass us as equal members. It is matter of days- gone- by and I gladly let go of what was to embrace what is.

    Reply
  8. Amy Adams

    I lived in LB during the 1980s and into the 1990s before leaving there. I was younger and it was the place to be and hangout with friends. The Little Shrimp had pretty good food and the Boom Boom Room was a great place to dance. For a quieter, more intimate evening out, there was Ron’s. Times change. It is great that we no longer ‘need’ a place to go to be ourselves. The memories of LB Gay Heyday will always be there for me.

    Reply
  9. Bill HInderliter

    The physical layout of the gay scene has changed. Castro is more straight Hispanic than gay now, Laguna’s public gay scene went belly up, even Oceanside had two gay bars open at the same time, both long gone. Gay and straight is all integrated now, the idea of gay and straight bars is retro now, they are just bars. Young people don’t have a need to self segregate by sexual orientation, the nation has culturally shifted in a very short time. Gay ghettos are a relic from the last century. I sometimes miss the underground clandestine nature of the gay scene in the 70,s, it’s all so mainstream now. I shouldn’t miss it because there was a lot of hatred and homophobia back in the day. But I loved the tight sense of community among gay men and that ever present whiff of danger kept you sharp. Gay bashing was a real threat then. , glad to have live through it all!

    Reply
  10. Daryl Sweetwater aka Gibson

    I am trying to find out where some friends of mine are during my time in the 60’s 70’s and early 80’s like up to l983. I would like to see more pics of the bars during that time. What was the name of the bar that was on the beach in what was called downtown Laguna Beach. Boats would dock and either come into the beach on their dingy’s or swin in if it was a sail boat. Then enjoy the beach and the bar. I am also looking for the mayor Bob Gentry an his friend whom I understand passed away a long time ago and his name was Gary Burdick. I believe that Bob & Gary were partners. Gary Burdick owned a Hair Salon called Newporter Inn Salon. Their are some others but I will have to wait and be sure I have the first and last names correct. Their was a woman by the name of Lynn Rose who played piano and entertained at The Little Shrimp.

    thank you for allowing me to write all of this. Anyone wanting to get in touch with me may call me at 951-537-4707. I live alone in Hemet, Ca. Riverside County. I live about 45 mins. west of Palm Springs.

    Reply
  11. L.V. Sage

    This was a great & very helpful article. I have written a book about the hippies, bikers, Vietnam war called Red, White & Blues. I have just completed a sequel that follows the same characters & their children through the 1980’s and have large portions of the book that focus on the gay community in San Francisco. This book is not published yet, but I am now working on the third (& final) book wherein I will continue with the characters from the previous books. A few are gay men-one moves to Laguna Beach in the early 1990’s; two others move to Palm Springs at the same time. I love reading about everyone’s experiences & memories from their time spent in Laguna.

    I worked at Tower Records in El Toro, CA from 1984-1999 & had several gay friends. I remember going to some wild & fun parties at the Coast Inn that were hosted annually by a friend of a friend. Every year had a different theme such as silly hats or glow sticks. I have lost many gay friends over the years, but cherish my times with them & the wonderful memories of the great times we shared in Laguna & elsewhere.

    Reply
  12. George Hushman

    Well this is George Hushman
    Worked at The Little Shrimp Laguna Beach from 1967-1992.
    Always had a great time Sure miss all my Great Friends there.
    Am now 80 years old but still Kicking around.

    Have heard that most all Gays moved to Palm Sprimgs, Ca.
    But some still live in Laguna.

    Reply

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