The Happening

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Day 2 View from Stage

The weather was cold and crisp in Laguna canyon, but the vibes were toasty at the 1970 Christmas Happening, a one-time event by and for 25,000 flower children.

By Dana Nichols  | Photos by Mark Chamberlain, BC Space


Forty-two years ago, holiday season 1970, a 50-foot lumber-and-nails stage went up in Laguna canyon as people got word that a big happening—The Great Happening—The Christmas Happening—was to occur. Long-haired hippies came from far and wide, having glimpsed posters of a green angel and red hand-lettering that beckoned, “Be a witness to the birth of the ‘New Age.’ All wise beings who perceive the inner light shining brightly on this village are requested to bring their presence to celestial music cosmic light show, Laguna Beach, California, spiritual center of the world. A coming together to celebrate the birth of the one feeling in all. Dec. 25, 1970.”
The Christmas Happening continued until Dec. 27 in the grassy bowl-shaped Sycamore Flats near the El Toro Road intersection. Conceived as an entirely free music festival with inspirational and spiritual speakers, the event ended up being so good in some ways, and so bad in others, that it was as though the tune of the hippie era had played its last resounding notes to Laguna Beach and anyone else who might be listening.“I remember wandering around the whole area and seeing these long-haired guys, wives, children and the music in this absolutely idyllic setting, climbing up the sycamore trees and looking at free music,” artist-photographer Mark Chamberlain says. “People were giving things away: drinks, joints, food. It was really a magical experience.” Mark, a Midwest transplant, had observed the event with a camera on his arm.

Eiler Larsen, the Laguna Beach greeter, kicked off the concert under the stage’s large cross with a “Merry Christmas everyone!” Peaceniks, runaways and free-lovers boogied to local musicians covering songs of the day, eating vegetarian food donated by neighborly churches and camping overnight.

Peace, Love and Not Much to Eat

“The youth subculture in the United States has found an untraditional way to observe this Christmas weekend. It’s another rock festival—but—unlike previous such events, it seems to have happened almost all by itself, with little apparent organization.” —CBS News, December 1970 

Today, 42 years after the Christmas Happening, decades of development on the 1200 block of South Coast Highway are a contrast to what’s inside Sound Spectrum record store, which was erected in 1967 and still looks like the original establishment. Young Janis and star spangled Hendrix posters hang over the well-worn terra cotta floor where piles of vinyl lean against wooden racks filled with more records. If a place for romanticizing the 1960s exists, it’s here.

“I hear a lot of young people saying they wish they lived in the ’60s,” long-time employee Wave Baker says. “We still had a lot of difficulties then. I don’t know what they think it was like.”

If those young people imagine the Christmas Happening as a peace-promoting love-in, the scent of sandalwood incense drifting over a warm sea of sunny hills where free drugs fall from the sky, they are only slightly right. Dirt, nudity, shivering nights, frostbite, traffic jams, long walks, insufficient sanitation, garbage pits, makeshift drum fire pits and at least one snake bite were very real.

“It was just … a bunch of hippies saying, ‘Well man, we’ll have positive vibrations about it and it’ll happen,’ ” Jim Otto, owner of Sound Spectrum, says. “It wasn’t professionally approached, let’s put it that way.” Jim had gone to the event and describes it as chaotic. “There were so many great concerts going on in those days with good sound and good lighting, and this was kind of the opposite of that.”

On the first day of the event, it became apparent that high-profile musicians like Bob Dylan and Jefferson Airplane, who were said to be playing, weren’t ever going to show up. By one account, the Grateful Dead were close by but thwarted by the fact that canyon traffic was shut off as of 3 p.m. on Christmas Day. Simultaneously, food supplies were running out. According to one report, 300 bad drug trips were treated at the small medic tent.

In the Christmas Happening’s signature hoorah, a single-engine plane with its numbers covered swooped over Sycamore Flats as thousands of Christmas cards fluttered out the side door and over the crowd. Inside each was a dose of Orange Sunshine, the LSD brand of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, which was then operating the nation’s largest narcotics network out of Laguna Beach.

“The fact that folks in the Brotherhood were able to perform the only documented psychedelic airdrop at the concert is more than impressive—and weird—enough to mitigate against all the other failures of the event,” says Nicholas Schou, author of “Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and its Quest to Spread Peace, Love and Acid to the World.” While the event is historically significant, some participants viewed it as a failure “because they took so seriously the notion of trying to change the world.” Nevertheless, plenty of attendees enjoyed themselves: Police had to force at least 1,500 people out of the canyon early on the morning of Dec. 28.


Optimism Up for Grabs

“LAGUNA SEALED OFF AS ROCK FANS GATHER: 10,000 at festival; sponsors say it could last for a week.” —Los Angeles Times, December 1970

When the Christmas Happening came together, Ronald Reagan was the governor of California, Altamont had taken place the previous December and the Summer of Love was a recent impression. The Kent State shootings had occurred just eight months before. Sympathizers of Timothy Leary were still celebrating the psychedelic revolutionary’s escape from prison in September, but in Laguna Beach, with Brotherhood leader John Griggs deceased, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love headquarters Mystic Arts World mysteriously burned, police raiding more drug operations and local residents growing weary of all the hippies in town, the scene was becoming more volatile and less utopian. One local member of the counterculture, Curtis Rainbow, aka Curtis Reed, was a sage of vegetarianism and full of youthful energy.

In William Kirkley’s yet-to-be-released documentary, “Orange Sunshine,” artist Dion Wright explains how the event took shape: “[Curtis] came up to me on the street wild-eyed … [saying] ‘Look at this, Look at this!’ He had this flyer that Bill Ogden had made; it was encouraging people to come and have a riot on Main Beach, basically. I said, ‘You can’t do this. You’re gonna wind up getting everybody in jail. Let’s change the perspective so it’s more religious, so it’s got a spiritual overtone. It’s gonna be Christmastime.’ So I made up this poster. And he took this poster and had thousands of them made and sent it all over the country.”

What happened in the canyon reflected what was going on in the country at the time. “People were trying to find a way to exist within that time period, to express their opinions and still keep their humanity,” Mark says. On Dec. 28, he witnessed police, armed with batons and SWAT gear, moving down the road. “My head had just been spun around by all this other activity and all these other cataclysmic events, and now I’m looking at the place that I’ve chosen to make my home, and here it is.”

Happiness Tent bLaguna Beach officer Neil Purcell, who would later become chief of police, first saw a poster for the Christmas Happening on Dec. 11 and was told it would be the West Coast Woodstock. He was among the officers who helped peacefully confiscate drugs at the door during the first two days. By day three, it was time for everyone to go home, according to authorities.

“As the sun came up … we had surrounded in a horseshoe form, all 450 of us … Captain Brown gave the signal and down we came,” Neil says in the “Orange Sunshine” documentary. By 10 a.m., any Happening attendees who weren’t locals were on buses headed toward the 405 Freeway.

Belongings were burned or buried by bulldozers to forever rot away under hard-packed dirt.

The vibe had changed. Hippies returned to life in Laguna Beach but kept lower profiles. It was a rude awakening, says Mark, who remembers a crackdown on drifters after the Happening.

“It’s part of the collective memory now, that there were good and bad aspects to the Christmas Happening on both sides,” Mark says. “Initially the police were directing traffic, and then they turned. And initially the partiers were peace and love, and then they had some downers. … The greatest unpleasantry was the police and the city and county and state authorities overreacting, in my estimation, and just forcibly shutting it down. But it did happen without anyone getting killed.”

“The people that thought those hippies were trouble said, ‘Yep, see. They closed the canyon. That was trouble,’ ” Jim says. “If you said, ‘Oh, the man puts us down,’ [it was] ‘Jimi Hendrix would’ve been there if it hadn’t been for the man.’ ”

The likelihood of The Happening ever happening again, with its free entry, haphazard organization and canyon roadblocks, not to mention uninhibited free love and free drugs, is slim to none. It’s an event to remembered as one of the last revels of a colorful era, a time gone by in Laguna Beach.

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  1. Thanks for reminding me of that concert.There had been many folks living on the caves in the rocks up on that canyon. Remember John Mayall and the guy who wrote Moondance,
    both lived in Canyons and
    were inspired by the natural
    vibe of 1970

    • Van Morrison wrote ‘Moondance’ he has lived in Mill Valley’ since the 60’s.

      John Mayall lived in a Laural Canyon mansion.

      Neither were LB cave dwellers.

      • I remember the caves on top of the world and some that lived there.
        I heard the Police dynamited them and dipursed all of those kids there.

    • I had just returned from Amsterdam. I remember the sunshine express handing out “free acid” .
      I’m approaching seventy and I wish I could back to that time.

      • Oh me too, Peter. I was there at the Christmas Happening, 47 yrs. ago. I’m writting about my experience there for my Grandchildren to know about the Magic that took placed. I lived in Laguna Beach at the time. Best Christmas I ever had.

  2. I was there…took a camera with a few shots left on the roll…not quite sure what to expect. It was so disorganized that it isn’t really possible to describe…but most people seemed to enjoy themselves, and it didn’t get cold until the sun set over the hills…then it was time to drive out through the back, up the fire trails, and home…out over Top of the World…in Scott Garcelon’s green VW squareback. Those were days of wine and roses…proof positive that “you can’t go home again…”

  3. I remember a guy on horseback with saddlebags full of Brotherhood Christmas Cards. I still have the card to this day; without the orange sunshine.

  4. I was there and a resident of Laguna at the time. It was peaceful and the only problems were the ones created by the overreacting officials. It was not pleasant watching a bunch of (not from Laguna) cops beat the stuffing out of a little skinny kid who politely answered their condescending questions at the road block.
    Many of those young people eventually became business owners, tradesmen, taxpayers, voters, and spend their money elsewhere after that. The whole affair was not handled with any intelligence (with some exception by a few local officials), just with negative, if not hostile, reaction.

    • I was there too. I watched as an out of town ‘policeman’, in front of the Taco Bell on Cleo Street, who’s last name was ‘Louisiana’, grab a young female who was about seven months pregnant, and beat her down with a nightstick. He beat her in the stomach area and was severely, kicking her while down. It was rumored the BEL informed officer Neil Purcell that a generous dose would be administered to the town’s water supply if they didn’t get officer Louisiana out of the town. I don’t know how true the rumor was however, I never saw him again.

  5. yes i was at the laguna beach 1970 christmas happening…i hitched down from west la to come enjoy the vibes…it was interesting because i touched base w/folks i havent seen for awhile….there were many i havent seen since the event… was friendly despite.te the fact we had a 7 mile walk from el toro road…fortunately i was able to finagle a ride to the site and it was an escape from honkie culture…
    i ran into friends from sf and la…there were folks from the hillcrest park liberation front, the white panther party and assorted street people from laguna…the smell of pot was everywhere..many were woman complained that her sleeping bag caught fire in the middle of funzies w/a lucky guy….i brought green power (who focalized the griffith park love-ins) to give out free food and a christian missionary named arthur blessit (minister of sunset strip) showed up to proselytize.
    i stuck it out until sunday evening when a ride to santa monica was offered…i felt the heat was going to show up on monday…therefore i had to keep at least a step ahead of the orange county blue meanies..-good idea

    • Hey aron, I used to serve turkey at the food tables at Griffith Park before the Sunday concerts would begin. The last Green Power dinner I worked at was the Sunday of the Buffy Saint-Marie concert in 1969 or ’70. There were about 5-6 thousand people there already. Her two year old daughter got lost in the crowd and she was hysterical on the microphone. I found her and was rewarded with some good lovin’ from Ms. Marie. Good days! By the way, contrary to an earlier comment by another person, Hendrix was NOT scheduled for that event. Case you’re wondering who I am, I hung out with Eddie Coleman, Crazy Gordon, Jimmy Rammos, Kit, and a few other good friends from Woodland Dr. I’m a black man who had the misfortune to be arrested by Mr. Purcell.

      • Hi James, I was there at only 14, a naked black guy who was trippin came up and asked if we wanted to share a large reefer and of course we said yes, he sat next to me for about an hour and we discussed life as we saw it at the moment, wondering if perhaps that was you? BTW, there’s a great Facebook page for all those who went to the festival, check it out, look for the Laguna Happening. Also the originator of the festival, Curtis Rainbow, is down on his luck right now having his belonging stolen recently. Everyone please help if at all possible. He has a “go fund me” page set up. Go to “go fund me” and type in Curtis Rainbow, he really could use some support and many of us owe him I think? Peace, Ken

      • I remember the caves on top of the world and some that lived there.
        I heard the Police dynamited them and dipursed all of those kids there.

  6. thanks for the article and also to the commentors.
    i was a laguna little-kid at the time and felt all this atmosphere but without understanding details. i’m still trying to learn more about john griggs and about ron stark also.
    still no one has come up with any better ideas than love and consciousness ! long live real hippies and hippie values !

  7. WOW! thought everyone but me forgot about that event. Our VW bus was behind the flatbed loaded with porta-potties and stood next to the driver as the cop said ” I don’t care what paper work you have, turn the truck around and leave.” So we went through the ranch land to the south of the canyon and went in anyway. I remember that woman who was bitching about her sleeping bag having caught fire, Buddy Miles playing, freezing my but off at night, and my friend tripping over something in the night and landing on his but in a cactus. As bad as it was, we loved it.

  8. I had just been released from the Army in December, 1970, and I had been back from Viet Nam for less than a week when I went to the rock festival with a friend. I had lost everything that was important to me while I was in the Army and I had come back to a world that I no longer fit into. Being a Viet Nam vet was not a very popular thing to be at that time and It was a very difficult time. The festival was a very unique experience, but I was hoping that the music and the atmosphere there would help me forget what had happened in my life during the previous nineteen months. The contempt in this country for the war made me a virtual pariah to anyone who knew I was a Viet Nam vet, which is something I could never understand since I didn’t join the Army; I was drafted. It took me nearly 30 years to overcome that stigma. I thought going to the rock festival would help. Unfortunately, it didn’t.

  9. This event was created by a company me and others created called The Light Revolution we had developed a light system that worked with music and were creating a system for a club in San Diego called Earth. Harry Macres was associated with the Fairgrounds in Costa mesa (Macres Florists) and had been involved with the 1968 Newport pop festival and had made contacts to get talent. Harry lived in Laguna and had secured permission for a happening in the canyon. We were associated with a company called Flag Sound which did the sound and staging. Days before the event because of flyers and the fear of large crowds the authorities did everything they could to squash it. I had delivered materials for staging and sound the day before but was not able to attend because of roadblocks.

  10. Out of town musicians that couldn’t get through would meet at the Light Revolutions facilities a large industrial bldg in Santa Ana. Waiting to see if they could get through. Crazy couple of days lots of sound equip and instruments lots of good jams.

  11. I helped frame the stage, was there thru it all. LOL Could ride a motorcycle forever in those hills back then. A great time to be alive.
    Glad some folks still remember, brothers really pitched in. Great memories.
    Anybody been to Laguna Lately?
    Who remembers the Skydiver, Krishna, the Greeter
    Woodland Drive, Mystic Arts, Sound Spectrum, Top of the World, the Witches house or the Castle?

    Wow 44yrs ago. WTF LMAO


    • Hey Doug,
      I think you were friends with Larry and maybe in CT too…I was there, 17, running away from home again…lucky I survived all those adventures…it was a fun time too though, and Laguna always a special place to me…happily pretty much retired now and living in Hawaii…always wonder about larry. Remember flying out of Los Angeles, bringing in a couple a….


  12. the blight of gentrification has done more to try to obliterate history…..the real estate vultures come in to trash evidence of a thriving freek community ala laguna beach so they can rake in the profits….that is depraved!!! our hipstory will continue to go on!!!

  13. On Christmas day I remember waking up to someone on the stage reading or paraphrasing the nativity story from the book of Luke. It was surreal but I was glad.

    Before the forceable removal by the police, I appreciated the warning for those who would volunteer to leave peacefully because I was pregnant. I was at the concert because I was homeless until my landlady’s daughter went home from her vacation with the family. The concert seemed like it would be a wonderful escape from short term trouble. At 18 I didn’t know I had tenant rights.

  14. 1967, me and a friend hitch hiked from St. Louis to Laguna searching for my older brother only to find he moved to San Francisco. It was filled w/memories that are still worth it’s weight in gold!!!! I could write a book on the adventures we had!!!

  15. I just came across an article in the Register about the Laguna Beach concert 1970. I was taken back and flooded with memories. I started researching the event and found several pictures including one of the stage with the big cross that I helped decorate with colorful yarn. I remember how sore my arms were wrapping that yarn around the wood. My boyfriend at the time (Gary) worked on the stage and asked me to help with the cross. I have talked about this concert with my husband, no not Gary, and about that cross. I lived on Cress St., Laguna, in a hotel on the corner where many “hippies” at that time lived. Those days and this concert are some of my most treasured memories. I remember the concert being peaceful until the police came rushing in and yelling at all of us to leave. I was surprised because the event was peaceful and we were just all having fun!

    • I went to the Christmas Happening Concert with my husband at the time, Michael Thurmond. We got there mid-day Christmas Eve, and stay until Sunday, cause we heard the police were coming to hurt us. We slept in our turquoise super van with blankets, and still was really cold. We knew many people who helped put this event on and it was one of my best Christmas memories ever. I was changed for the better with the Magic, Peace and Love. God was there, all was united and feeling the same good energy. I’m writing about this wonderful time for my Grandchildren, a unique part of the Hippie history.

  16. Great stories about the event I didn’t even know existed! Can anyone tell me who played the event? What groups performed? Known or unknown I like to know. Thanks again, Groove time Grover

    • Buddy Miles is one. Think Blue Cheer was another one. There were so many. Lots of the ones expected couldnt get thru though.

  17. Kathy Sassi, just read your comment.
    Yup, friends indeed. Larry and I did run together. He wasnt @ the Happening though.
    I am the Doug your thinking of, Im sure of that. I know Ed has moved close to you I hear. Gary Q. has been to your place and many others. Maybe make it over there again someday. LOL
    See Wexler from time to time. Larry is still in Downey and so is Beyrooty and a few others.
    I’m still a knucklehead. Ride a Harley and so on. LMAO
    I dont wanna grow up.
    Dont drink or party anymore.
    Go on runs and campouts, when I can.
    Doug W

  18. Harry Macres, Jr. and I were married when the events took place. We had two boys together. We never lived in Laguna Beach, however, did spend some week-ends there as his parents owned apartments on the highway. When the event at the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa took place, I was the one who scattered flower petals from a helicopter; Harry was fearful of helicopters. So glad I got to go…what fun and excitement! We divorced in 1972.

  19. Harry Macres, Jr. and I were married when the events took place. We had two boys together. We never lived in Laguna Beach, however, did spend some week-ends there as his parents owned apartments on the highway. When the event at the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa took place, I was the one who scattered flower petals from a helicopter; Harry was fearful of helicopters. So glad I got to go…what fun and excitement! We divorced in 1972.

  20. Does anyone remember Yogie the old hippie with long grey-blond hair and a braided beard who removed the statue of Prabhupad from the Hare Krishna temple throne and sat in it to show that we are all G-d? He was a friend of the homeless cave-dwellers and a potgrower, healer, original dude with a golden heart. His friends included Panama Bill, Gary, Raven, Tammy, Pablo, Mimi, and many others. I had his son and we are visiting Laguna now to find the people and places we knew 35 years ago. Does anyone remember the Rajneeshies who turned the canyon church into a meditation center? Those were some days, right?!

  21. I was there with my future wife, I picked up a Orange Sunshine card from the ground that had been tossed from a helicopter, and had a great time smoking Afghan hash with some brothers that I knew, The cops tried to stop all traffic and close the event, but it was easy to go by coming in from the land behind the event, if you knew the area. I also attended Altamont and had a great time there, I did not know it was a bummer until the next day, I was picking up Orange sunshine tabs from the ground that were being tossed out of a large grocery paper bag by a brother, on top of a converted school bus.
    After the Laguna Christmas Happening My future wife and I split to Europe, Morocco, and India & Nepal on the hippie trail, we got back and moved to Santa Cruz. S California was just not where I wanted to be. Eventually I left the USA and still live in the EU, what a long strange trip it has been.

  22. I was a senior in high school, living in the “other O.C.” A friend from school heard something about the happening in the radio Christmas morning, so we drove down for the afternoon. I had recently purchased a Pentax SLR and took it and a few rolls of Tri-X with me. Was there when Buddy Miles showed up with a Gibson SG and went on stage. I still have the photos of that and the some of the crowd. My favorite image was a guy sporting a festival tee shirt checking me out though binoculars — cigarette with considerable ash between two fingers — as I was taking a photo of him through zoom lens. Haven’t thought about it in decades until this morning when I came across an unrelated performance of Buddy Miles on YouTube. I googled to confirm event before posting a YouTube comment and came across this article. Thanks

  23. I was there with friends we drove there in a 1967 VW van that my buddy Mike was letting me use due to I was homeless. Had just graduated from Bolsa Grande High School in June. We had to park several miles away from the event but could hear the sound checks from the stage which made our walk more up beat. It was a nice sunny day and we didn’t even think of it bring anything for the night and cold. We were going to leave but then ran into the guy on the horse with the Orange Sunshine which we took at sunset. That night was crazy to say the least! There were several bond fires and fellow folks on the LSD. We stayed overnight and they were saying all these bands were coming but never showed! It was a mind altering experience! When the military came in to escort out it was an eye opener! We were somewhat anti military and anti political. When we walked back to our VW Van it wasn’t there someone had stolen it. I was telling my sister about and she said she saw on the news people standing and giving away clothes and other things out of the van. There went all my possessions! I can’t complain life in the 1970’s was really really a great time to be young and experience the soul of the era!


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