Here’s a fascinating few minutes of documentary footage of the Sunset Strip riots of 1966. The footage is lifted from a longer documentary called ‘The Forbidden’ (which I’ll discuss in the coming days). In addition to the value of seeing the Strip in its heyday (complete with Dean Martin’s caricature smiling at the chaos safely from the perch above ‘Dino’s’ restaurant) we also get a taste of how the LAPD interacted with what appear to be a lot of peacefully stoned young people. Suffice to say, they acted pretty much the same then as they do now. The narration behind the above footage is strictly from the Jack Webb right-wing law-and-order playbook, dripping with venom and sarcasm aimed at the names of the clubs and the bands that were featured on the marquees.
So: what were the Sunset Strip riots all about? By the mid-1960s, the Sunset Strip had become a place dominated by young members of the hippie and rock and roll counterculture. In 1966, the city council at the behest of business owners and residents implemented a handful of measures including nightly curfews to curtail the growing nuisance. They targeted the Strip’s most prominent rock club, the ‘Whisky-A-Go-Go’, forcing its managers to change its name to ‘The Whisk ’ (the rationale being, I suppose, that good old fashioned booze was preferable to that dangerous new gyrating dance). Furthermore, annoyed residents and business owners in the district had encouraged the passage of strict (10 p.m.) curfew and loitering laws to reduce the traffic congestion resulting from crowds of young club patrons. This was perceived by young, local rock music fans as an infringement on their civil rights and for weeks tensions and protests swelled. On Saturday, November 12, 1966, fliers were distributed along the Strip inviting people to demonstrate later that day. Hours before the protest one of L.A.’s rock ‘n’ roll radio stations announced there would be a rally at ‘Pandora’s Box’, a club facing forced closure and demolition at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights, and cautioned people to tread carefully. That evening, as many as 1,000 youthful demonstrators, including such celebrities as Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda (who was handcuffed by police), erupted in protest against the perceived repressive enforcement of these recently invoked curfew laws. The unrest continued the next night and off and on throughout November and December. Meanwhile, the local administration had decided to get tough, and rescinded the “youth permits” of twelve of the Strip’s clubs, thereby making them off-limits to anybody under 21. In November 1966, the always helpful Los Angeles City Council voted to acquire and demolish the Pandora’s Box. The club was eventually demolished in early August 1967.
The significance of the riots lies in their anticipation of a cultural rift that only grew in the coming years. In this light, Bob Gibson, manager of the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas reflected: “If you had to put your finger on an event that was a barometer of the tide turning, it would probably be the Sunset Strip riots.”