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Laguna Beach in the Sixties: A Colony for the Arts

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It sounds like a description of a war zone:

"The police had spread the piles of trash around with their bayonets and were throwing it all up in the air. They were burning the stage and they had a big backhoe, and they were digging a trench and filling it with all the pots and pans from the churches. Some of the cars that were left behind were being burned... smoke was everywhere... the men in black were using their bayonets to make a mess."

Yet, this isn't a recounting of some distant conflict region. Welcome to Sycamore Flats in Laguna Canyon, December 28 1970, where an onslaught of officers descended on the recently shut-down "Christmas Happening" concert and festival. Beth Leeds was there. She grew up in area, and is often referred to as, "the Sweetheart of Laguna." Today she is 75, but back then, she was deeply involved in this town's 1960s counter culture movement and helped organize "The Happening," held December 25 to 27, resulting in the debacle that she describes above.

That event was considered a West Coast version of Woodstock -- with the promise of superstar performers. Yet, faced with the possible convergence of thousands of hippies onto Laguna's Main Beach, the city moved the concert to the three-acre Sycamore Flats, four miles outside of town. While few star performers showed up, more than 25,000 longhaired youth set up camp in Laguna Canyon, enjoying three days of music, free love, free food and spiritual communion.

View from the stage at The Happening music festival in Laguna Beach, 1970. | Photo: Mark Chamberlain/BC Space.
An encampment at The Happening music festival in Laguna Beach, 1970. | Photo: Mark Chamberlain/BC Space.

Although this "Gathering of the Tribes" remained peaceful, the town officials were so unnerved by its presence that police soon blocked vehicle entry to the canyon, forcing people to walk miles or hike over the hills to get in. And before air space was restricted, one attendee parachuted in; and the local "Brotherhood of Eternal Love," an evangelical psychotropic drug dispensing group, flew a small plane over the site, dropping hundreds of postcards affixed with LSD (Orange Sunshine brand) tabs.

After three days and nights, with 450 police recruited from nearby towns and a tank in reserve at the high school football field, the city sealed off the canyon, cordoned off the area, and routed everyone out of the site. They bulldozed everything into a trench and burned all evidence of the event.

Flashback a decade, Laguna Beach -- which entered the 1960s as a quiet and quirky artists' colony -- soon became a major mecca for the hippie revolution, second only to San Francisco on the West Coast, with hordes of flower children and a major Hare Krishna center. Leeds -- who later evolved into an entrepreneur, owning restaurants and boutiques, and a volunteer lobbyist, preserving Laguna's canyon and ocean -- explains: "It was exciting to be young and free here back then. The beauty of the area brought people here, while we all talked about the need to spread love throughout town." Nearly 50 years later, Leeds, a grandmother of two, but still youthful in spirit and uninhibited, serves guests vegetarian fare in her Glenneyre Street Laguna cottage with its ocean view.

The Happening music festival aftermath, 1970. | Photo: Mark Chamberlain/BC Space.

John Gardiner, 68, a Shakespearean actor and "Laguna's poet laureate," has similar memories from the '60s. He had been attending UC Berkeley, majoring in performing arts, minoring in hippiedom, and hanging out in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. But, "exhausted," from his inveterate drug taking, he made a fresh start, moving here in 1968; he lived in a dirt-cheap beach shack near scenic Victoria Beach and majored in acting at UC Irvine. "I chose Laguna because it was known as a 'hot spot for hippies.'" He hung out with fellow actors and with musicians, all from "my tribe," he explains.

Gardiner's poem, "Down From Reno," inspired by his 1969 "Journal Notes," reads: "Driving all night in 'Toad Hall,' a strange looking psychedelic house-truck with Day-Glo mushrooms on the hub caps, a three foot paisley lizard attached to the cab, and a covering of celandine flowers painted like a field of poppies -- driving all night in this locomotive diesel freak, just begging to be busted, drawing stares even in the Haight -- driving all night from Reno in early June of 1968, Bobby Kennedy two days dead, driving from San Francisco and Berkeley, twin cities of my angry-cosmic roots, to pick up some weed in Laguna Beach."

After graduating from UC Irvine, Gardiner moved to New York City, worked as a itinerant actor, performing in Shakespeare plays all over the country, always writing poetry. He moved back to Laguna Beach in 1991 because, he says, "I have a calling here." Today, as a performer, mentor, poet, and stand-up comic, he acts in skits, including his own rock 'n roll "Shakespeare's Fool" presentations, teaches drama and poetry at UCI, and obsessively writes and reads his poetry locally and worldwide.

Mystic Arts World in Laguna Beach, 1968. | Photo: Robert Altman.

Gardiner read one of his early poems at Mystic Arts World (MAW), an idealistic Laguna counterculture center, created in 1967 by The Brotherhood of Eternal Love. MAW, devoted to transforming the world through psychedelic art and psychotropic drugs, displayed art of the new cosmic age, hippie attire, music, literature on Eastern mysticism and drug paraphernalia. The venue's back room featured a psychedelic light show and offered LSD as a sacrament. The Brotherhood even obtained legal status as a church and enticed LSD guru Timothy Leary to serve as its high priest. MAW inspired other similar shops and soon this city was a major hippie mecca.

One presumed reaction to this hippie invasion occurred on Christmas Day, 1969, when Mystic Arts World burned down under mysterious circumstances. Although faulty wiring was the official cause, the belief persists that the fire was started by arson, inspired by the Chamber of Commerce and by the conservative John Birch Society.

Another Laguna landmark, Sound Spectrum, also opened in 1967 and is still in business. While this record store at 1264 South Pacific Coast Highway has been upgraded over the years, it maintains its psychedelic style facade and '60s emporium interior. Along with old rock music blasting from loudspeakers, and the smell of incense, there are stacks of vinyl records (back in fashion), including vintage Bob Dylan, Moody Blues, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Willie Nelson, as well as posters of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, tapestries, lava lamps and record players.

The interior of Sound Spectrum in Laguna Beach, 2016. | Photo: Mark Chamberlain/BC Space.

If you're lucky, today you'll be greeted by Sound Spectrum's founder and owner, Jim Otto, age 70. "I grew up in Arcadia, and moved to Laguna in 1966," he says. "I was just hanging out, a kind of semi hippie, while my instrument was the electric stereo. My favorite rock groups included the Troggs, the Kinks, Pretty Things and a group called Them. I also liked the Dead, the Beatles and just about any British group."

When asked about the neighborhood in the store's early days, the tall gray-haired, composed Otto says, "Well, there was a flop house, and a head shop selling drug paraphernalia across the street. Nearby, there was the Pottery Shack with people throwing pots in the front. In fact, the whole block was about art. And there were a lot more gay people here back then." How does he feel after nearly 50 years in the same location in the same business. "I feel like I'm still in the '60s," he replies. "That era shaped me." But he does mention one caveat. "I was part of a revolution that thought that things would really change."

The year that Sound Spectrum opened, 1967, the Sawdust Art Festival (celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer) became an official venue in Laguna. The genesis of the Sawdust began in 1965 when "The Experimental Artists of Laguna Beach" showed their artwork and crafts in a downtown vacant lot. This display was a reaction to the nearby Festival of Arts' (FOA) recent policy, which was to jury in its artist exhibitors and to jury out these renegade artists. Some FOA exhibitors and media called this hastily formed exhibit, "The Rejects Festival."

Sawdust Festival booth, 1969. | Photo: Mark Chamberlain/BC Space.

The festival, re-naming itself the "Laguna Artists and Gallery Owners Association," opened on North Coast Highway in 1967. After the exhibitors spread sawdust on the ground to keep the dust down, the local media unofficially named it the Sawdust Festival. In 1968, several dozen artists and four board members left this festival to become the "Sawdust Splinters," soon renamed "Art-A-Fair," and still in business nearby. That same year, the Sawdust began renting two-and-a-half acres from Walter and Dorothy Funk at 935 Laguna Canyon Road (where it is today), across from the Festival of Arts. With their DIY spirit, these exhibitors built their own booths (they still do), covered the ground with sawdust, officially named their display the Sawdust Festival (later renamed the Sawdust Art Festival), and opened for business.

Jay Grant, the Sawdust's president, recalls in the book "The Sawdust Festival, The Early Years," that "visitors had streamed to the Sawdust that July night to see and purchase the wonderful arts and crafts filling the booths, but more than that, they also came to experience the eclectic atmosphere of strange characters and unusual sights... Old barn doors. Peasant dresses. Boots. macramé... Long beards and longer hair... Rustic, funky, charming and brimming with the oddest collection of individuals you'd find anywhere."

Doug Miller, age 68, is one of the longest continually exhibiting artists at the Sawdust: this summer will mark his 46th year. The painter, photographer, violinist (playing jazz with his group, "The Moon Police") paints obsessively, creating one to two small acrylic paintings of Laguna landscapes every day for decades. "I haven't missed a day in 20 years," he says, adding, "I've painted 16,500 individual pieces and have sold more than 14,000." The now white-haired "icon" of this city and the Sawdust also roams the city streets, attending festivals and art openings, while zealously snapping pictures. He has uploaded many of his early Sawdust photos onto his Facebook page, and generously shared some of these for this article.

Sawdust exhibitor Greg Thorne begins booth construction, 2015. | Photo: Mark Chamberlain/BC Space.

Laguna's character as an artists' colony began in the early 20th century with the influx of artists from across the country and abroad; and while the arts continued to flourish here over the decades, they took firmer root in the 1960s. In its few short years, Mystic Arts World introduced many artists, including Paul Darrow, George Herms, Andy Wing and Roger Armstrong, who went on to major recognition. The un-juried Sawdust Art Festival, exhibiting local artists and crafts people exclusively, thrived and eventually became a bigger attraction than the Festival of Arts. Sycamore Flats, still fondly remembered by many Happening attendees, was re-opened in 1989.

New residents and visitors to Laguna Beach enjoy this relatively unspoiled canyon, along with the city's many artistic offerings; yet, few know of how our natural resources were saved, or of how the artists were instrumental in protecting Laguna's identity as a colony.

Today, however, this community is increasingly appealing to the very wealthy -- a gentrification factor that is undermining the artists' ability to afford to live here. (As these artists are aging, many are moving to more affordable areas.) Local artists, supporters and even people who work for Laguna's municipality are considering what the city can do to help our artists continue to live here.

Sawdust Art Festival, 1969. | Photo: Mark Chamberlain/BC Space.
Archival image: Stephanie Langner and Michael Nelson, early Sawdust days. | Photo: Doug Miller.
Archival image: Patch Cunningham sold toe rings at the Sawdust. | Photo: Doug Miller.
Archival image: Cynthia Fung, a Sawdust kid, later worked there as publicist. | Photo: Doug Miller.
Archival image: Julie Keller and Valerie Bechtol, right, wearing Bechtol's masks at the Sawdust. | Photo: Doug Miller.
Archival image: Allen Davis' Hummingbird Feeder booth at the Sawdust. | Photo: Doug Miller.
Archival image: Joe and Sue McClure. She exhibited watercolors at the Sawdust. | Photo: Doug Miller.
Orange Sunshine LSD card at The Happening in Laguna Beach, 1970. | Photo: Mark Chamberlain/BC Space.
The exterior of Sound Spectrum in Laguna Beach, 2016. | Photo: Mark Chamberlain/BC Space.
Posters at Sound Spectrum in Laguna Beach, 2016. | Photo: Mark Chamberlain/BC Space.

Top Image: Sawdust Festival booth, 1969. | Photo: Mark Chamberlain/BC Space.

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