Episode #2: Welcome to the Jungle (Part 1), Ft. Laurie Jacobson

"Do you know where you are? You're in the jungle, baby!" In this episode, we’re going to take you back…all the way back to the origin of the Sunset Strip and answer Axl's eternal question. The Sunset Strip was the center of gravity for rock n' roll for thirty years, but how did it evolve and what made it the place where countless musicians came to live the dream?


"When Axl's singing his heart out at the Whisky, the ghost of Jim Morrison is watching from the balcony." --Laurie Jacobson

"Do you know where you are? You're in the jungle, baby!" In this episode, we’re going to take you back…all the way back to the origin of the Sunset Strip and answer Axl's eternal question. The Sunset Strip was the center of gravity for rock n' roll for thirty years, but how did it evolve and what made it the place where countless musicians came to live the dream?” We are literally going back in time to the jungle, before it was a jungle, to understand how Guns N’ Roses was part of a continuum of artists and performers that defined this mile-and-a-half road that connected Beverly Hills to Hollywood through the “township of Sherman."

 

Starting in the 1920s, Beverly Hills became a refuge for liberal, flamboyant and bacchanalian Hollywood elite who were continually hounded by the LAPD and harassed by the press for their eccentric ways. The township of Sherman later called Beverly Hills, remained outside of the jurisdiction of the LAPD and allowed this community of artists to live without fear and intrusions. Orange groves were replaced with sprawling mansions and gardens and industry folks settled in. They created their own police force, the Beverly Hills Police Department, and, more importantly, developed a throughway that would connect them to Hollywood. That road became known as the Sunset Strip and soon spawned eateries, gas stations, nightclubs, and bordellos.

The Sunset Strip became a showcase for the elite and aspiring stars of Hollywood from the 1930s until the early 1960’s when it lost its shine to the brighter lights of Las Vegas and its venues went dark.

Just a few years later, the electrification of rock n' roll resurrected dormant clubs on the Sunset Strip, revitalizing the area in the process and shifting the center of gravity of music from New York to Los Angeles. Thousands of aspiring musicians flocked to the Sunset Strip to pursue their dream and record companies relocated to Hollywood.

This was the golden era of labels like Asylum Records and Warner Music and musicians and bands like The Byrds, Joni Mitchell, The Byrds, The Doors, and later Van Halen.

Author and historian Laurie Jacobson is our guest for Part One and narrates this rich history of the Sunset Strip from the early 1900s to 1965.  Domenic Priore joins us for Part Two of this episode, author of Riot on the Sunset Strip, will take us from the counterculture movement and civil rights clashes in the 1960s through the fiercely territorial L.A. music scene in the 1980s where classic rock, hair metal, punk and new wave clashed. 

Episode Highlights:

1:40 Learn about the three scandals that the Hollywood elite escaped from to a more protected area West of Hollywood.

4:30 How the commute from Beverly Hills to Hollywood became the Sunset Strip.

6:03 Hear how the underworld of the West Coast Jewish mobs starting moving in on the action happening on the Sunset Strip.

7:36 Learn about the first clubs on the strip, like the Mocambo and the Trocadero became the place to be seen in Hollywood and a showcase for major stars like Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra.

12:54 Laurie describes the servicemen coming through the Strip for "special treatment" before being shipped off to World War II. 

14:32 The two threats that signaled the death knell for the most glamorous age that Hollywood has ever known on the Sunset Strip.

17:45 See how the glamourous Hollywood Sunset Strip scene gets replaced by beatniks, Hare Krishnas and activists in the 1960s.

20:17 Learn what led to the riots on the Sunset Strip in 1966

23:32 What is Filthy McNasty's?

25:03 "You know when Axl's singing his heart out at the Whisky, the ghost of Jim Morrison is watching from the balcony."

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Transcript

SPEAKERS, Jason Porath, Laurie Jacobson

Jason Porath  00:01

Give us the origin of the Sunset Strip.

 

Laurie Jacobson  00:04

It's a street like no other. The ghosts of the past are in every corner. They were walking in the footsteps of history.

 

Jason Porath  00:14

Welcome back to the First 50 Gigs, Guns N' Roses and the Making of Appetite for Destruction. Before we take you forward from 1983, we need to take you back, all the way back to jungle baby, before it was a jungle and answer Axl's eternal question: "Do you know where you are?" So for GNR fans, we thought it was important to provide a history of this legendary strip of nightclubs where GNR played their first 50 gigs, dominated the scene, got discovered and made history. And we're going to do that in two parts. Laurie Jacobson is here today to take us from 1900 to the 1960s when the Sunset Strip was a  showcase for Hollywood stars and starlets. And in part two, Dominic Priore, author of "Riot on the Sunset Strip," will take us from 1965 to 1985 when the Strip was all about Rock n' Roll. Laurie, welcome to the show. Thank you for being here.

 

Laurie Jacobson  00:49

My extreme pleasure.

 

Jason Porath  00:51

You know, a lot of people have an association of the Sunset Strip, as strip joints and drug dens and alleys with homeless; that there's this kind of seedy underbelly. And on top of that underbelly was this renaissance of rock and roll music, and people who know Guns N' Roses videos, they have an idea of how the Sunset Strip was back then and how they depicted it, but it wasn't always like that. So we'd like you to give us some background. Give us the origin of the Sunset Strip?

 

01:19

Absolutely. Well, I had this wonderful uncle, my Uncle Harry, who moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles in 1915. And he said, driving down the strip in the late teens, with the overwhelming aroma of orange blossoms was just like nothing else. And of course, as we know, years later, the smell became quite different on the Strip. But in the earliest days, it was really farmland. What happened to change that were three Hollywood scandals in the very early 20s: The death of Wallace Reed who lived on the Sunset Strip, the Fatty Arbuckle rape scandal, which never happened, and the murder of a very prominent director named William Desmond Taylor. At that time, the celebrities lived in close to Downtown LA, West Adams and that whole area, and they were invaded by the police, by the press. The police wanted the next big one. And their privacy went out the window. Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks lived in this area, far across town. They lived in an old hunting lodge that they were fixing up, and the area was called Beverly Hills. And it was really not highly populated. Nor was it more beautiful than any other area. The difference was that it didn't belong to the City of Los Angeles. They had their own mayor, they had their own Chamber of Commerce of which Doug Fairbanks was the head, and they had their own police force, which for a ticket to your next film or a few bucks,  your DUI went unnoticed and you got escorted quietly home. Celebrities began to move in droves to Beverly Hills, for that reason; it was a private enclave, and they were protected there, but they still had to go to work in Hollywood, and the only way to get there was across "the strip." Now, this was another unincorporated area not attached to the city of Los Angeles and it was called the Township of Sherman.

 

Laurie Jacobson  04:30

Once Beverly Hills took off as a celebrity neighborhood, people became aware that now celebrities and directors and producers and anyone associated really with Hollywood were driving the Strip every day. This Sunset Strip became the singular route for celebrities to commute to the studios in Hollywood, therefore Businesses that wanted to attract the attention of the celebrities began springing up on the Strip. Certainly, eateries were the first to join there. But then, hey, there was the ride home after a long day at work. And so entertainment became popular and drinks. By the mid-20s, real estate development began in the Sunset Plaza area and up above. So now people are moving to just above the strip. The crowds that it attracts, are a more liberal crowd. Certainly, the celebrities were more freewheeling than your normal Mom and Pop. And some of them were gay. And so gay clubs sprung up, or places where the gay community could go and not be bothered.  And the more money these places began to make, the more the underworld began to be interested in. There was illegal gambling. And with the underworld, you know, this they loved being elbow to elbow with the celebrities. And the celebrities were quite fascinated with Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen, who came a little later and Johnny Rosselli. It was a really interesting time.

 

Jason Porath  06:40

If you were in New York at this time, and you were frequenting the kind of places that you're talking about, you would get to know who the family mobs were that were kind of running things in those neighborhoods. So just like New York, was their ethnic mobs, the Italian mobs, the Jewish mobs that also kind of ran that underworld?

 

Laurie Jacobson  07:02

Mobsters that I'm thinking of were mostly Jewish: Mickey Cohn, of course, and Bugsy Siegel, left the Jewish mafia in New York and came out to LA.

 

Jason Porath  07:19

As we move into the 30s, and maybe into the 40s, I would imagine that some of the venues became a showcase where people could be seen by all of these important Hollywood producers and stars that are commuting from Beverly Hills.

 

Laurie Jacobson  07:36

Studios would send their up-and-coming starlets with a studio date on their arm and they would be photographed going into Ciro's in the evening. And, they would walk through the club, walk right out the back door, get into the studio limo and go home, so that they could get up at four o'clock in the morning and go to work the next day. But it was a major place to be seen. Now, if it wasn't happening there, the night you were there, you could walk down the street to the Mocambo or the Trocadero, which were almost right next door to one another and see what was going on there. They all had a different theme. The Trocadero had a French theme. The Mocambo was was wild with a live aviary in the center. Not only were celebrities going to all of these places, but since they were walking, all the tourists wanted to walk down the street and see Judy Garland and Powell Jolson, Sinatra, whoever might be walking to the next club. So it was a really, really exciting 1.7 miles. That's the whole length of the Sunset Strip. So it was really, very easy to spot a celebrity while you're simply out for a stroll.

 

Jason Porath  09:13

And I would say that tradition continued into the into the mid-80s. A lot of the people that we've interviewed for this project, talk about they were 16 or 17, and maybe they were 20. And the idea was to get into the bars and to be a part of the scene. But they also describe this vibrant scene outside of the clubs. And that was really the place to be, was the scene outside of the clubs. That tradition that you're describing carried forward.

 

Laurie Jacobson  09:41

Yes, yes, absolutely. Now, so people are coming to the strip; they're drinking, maybe they don't want to drive home. So, hotels start springing up. Certainly, brothels started springing up, that was another thing. Stumble out of Ciro's, and you could go right next door to a favorite hang out of, say, Errol Flynn's or Barrymore's. Barrymore lived at a small house for a while across the street from Ciro's, which later became a restaurant that used his name, which later became the House of Blues. That's, the other thing, everything on the strip was something. A lot of people think, "Oh, a brand new club with a brand new name." It was a club before that, and it was a club before that.

 

Jason Porath  09:44

So what were the big clubs at that time? You mentioned Ciro's. What were the other ones?

 

Laurie Jacobson  10:36

Well, the three biggies were Ciro's, the Mocambo and the Trocadero. Gosh, you could stop in there after hours and Judy Garland would be just singing her lungs out because those people were in the audience and they had a couple of drinks. And you know, hey, there were no cell phones. There were no cameras, there was no paparazzi. It's true, what went on in these places after hours was a great show as well.

 

Jason Porath  11:33

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Jason Porath 11:47

You mentioned there were some brothels that cropped up and there was things could have easily gotten out of hand with all the drinking and there was probably some lawlessness and you talked about this kind of mob underground. So how did the Township of Sherman deal with lawlessness at that time?

 

Laurie Jacobson  11:53

I think they probably made a lot of money under the table. You know, once again, it was a sheriff's office. It wasn't the LAPD. They were easily bought. I'm sure. They only really had to put their foot down when there was like the occasional shootout.

 

Jason Porath  12:17

Yeah, so it sounds like even though the Township of Sherman where the Sunset Strip was located, even though it was in Los Angeles, it was really still like a wild west outpost,

 

Laurie Jacobson  12:27

There was a very famous shootout at Crescent Heights and sunset. They were aiming for Mickey Cohn, but they missed him. I think they winged a bodyguard and they shot some poor women in the ass, a reporter. So some great stories.

 

Jason Porath  12:46

That's crazy. You were saying that it kind of started to come to an end, when World War Two arrived.

 

Laurie Jacobson  12:54

You know, these clubs opened their doors to any guy in uniform. You know, there were tons of sailors and many of them got blazing drunk, couldn't hold their liquor, couldn't believe who they were seeing. Many guys got discovered that way, too. Agents, liked a good-looking guy in uniform, and, "How would you like to be in the movies?" The Hollywood Canteen, which was a club for servicemen run by celebrities, where you could go and dance with Zsa Zsa [Gabor] or Ava [Gardner] or Marlena [Dietrich), they worked there. The bartenders were, you know, Danny Kaye and Sinatra and Dino [Dean Martin] and if you were sending these guys off to war, and you knew that some of them weren't going to come back, the celebrities were extremely generous with their time, and sometimes with more than their time. But, it did change the scene. And then something happened after the war that changed the scene further. And that was the advent of television. In Hollywood, it was a big deal. Hey, you could see Frank Sinatra on TV now. You didn't have to go to Ciro's and pay their high cover and their two drink minimum. So these clubs languished and eventually closed.

 

Jason Porath  14:32

It sounds like the center of entertainment shifted to the living room. And while convenience was gained, we lost something very precious.

 

Laurie Jacobson  14:44

The clubs had another challenge as well, Las Vegas. The smaller clubs could not begin to compete with the big salaries that these huge casinos were paying their entertainment. Sinatra didn't go to the [Sunset] strip anymore. You know, he was playing the Sands making money hand over fist. These little clubs could not compete with that either. So between TV and Las Vegas, it was really the death knell for the most glamorous age that Hollywood has ever known. Now, these clubs were empty, and club owners had to come up with something to fill them. And what was happening in the early 50s folk music. So Ciro's is empty. It becomes this place called of all things, The Living Room, and you could go there and hear folk singers. The Ashgrove opened on Melrose, where the improv is today. The Beat generation was what was happening in the 50s. You know, you've got the beatniks coming to The Living Room; they don't have money, they want poetry. So it was a much quieter scene out of folk music in the 50s. There's so many groups in the 60s that were considered rock n' roll, but really came out of folk. The birds I think it's one; the Mamas and Papas, art galleries opened, coffee houses were big. Celebrities had always lived in Laurel Canyon, but now it started to take on a real music vibe, where you could wander down to the Strip and go to a coffee house and hear somebody sing. So slowly, that scene turned into rock n' roll.

 

Jason Porath  17:13

So, it's interesting because the Strip lost Hollywood celebrities and their bacchanalian lifestyle to Vegas. But the arts remained, and the shift into the 1950s and into the 1960s, music started to replace the old Hollywood acts and became somewhat of a coffee culture and somewhat of a counterculture.

 

Laurie Jacobson  17:45

So, when the people who hung out on the Strip began to change, and they were more, you know, tattered and torn, then. It was so completely different from what had been there a generation earlier, that the people who performed on the strip in the 40s and 50s were now driving the strip in the 60s to see all these weird people hanging out on the Strip: people in togas you and Hare Krishnas in long trails of people banging drums. And, you had kids starting to run away to the Strip. They heard about living the life. For a while, it was a beautiful scene. They looked weird, but they took care of each other. But, as more and more kids came to the Strip, it became seedy. Couches that were in the lobbies of hotels were being stolen. And when there are homeless kids, there are people that come to prey upon them. And so there were pimps and drug dealers. After a year or so became a pretty ugly mess.

 

Jason Porath  19:18

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Jason Porath  19:52

You touched on something that's very interesting because if you flash forward in time, 25 years, and you have the members of Guns N' Roses, Axl and Izzy came from Indiana to the Sunset Strip. And Saul Hudson, who became Slash, ran around unsupervised and kind of just left his home and Steven left his home and so, that idea of going to the Strip as a young person to make it in the arts in some way, that wasn't just some random place in time when the musicians who became Guns N' Roses actually did that, this is rooted in tradition that goes back to the 60s.

 

Laurie Jacobson  20:17

I had never seen so many people on the street in my life. Just hundreds and hundreds of kids walking the street, you know, the fashions the styles, barefoot, beaded, braless. Looking like Jesus. It was a carnival, okay, it was an absolute carnival, and people running up to your car and banging on the windows. I was scared. I was fascinated. It was a world unto itself, and I could not wait to move to Los Angeles and be part of that. That was amazing to me. It took you an hour now to drive that 1.7 miles from Crescent Heights to Doheny. And so the businesses began to complain, "People can't come to my restaurant, because they can't get down the damn street." There's nowhere to park and they're afraid of all these kids on the street. So, they called on the Township of Sherman, "You got to do something about this." So, they find this old curfew law that says everybody under 18 must be in by 10pm. And they were going to clear the streets that way.

 

Jason Porath  21:45

Good luck with that!

 

Laurie Jacobson  21:47

Yeah, that was not popular. And it led to what we call the riots on the Sunset Strip, which originated in front of Pandora's Box. And one of the things I love about the riots was that they happened over two weekends. You know, it wasn't something that broke out and lasted for days on end. It was the weekend when most of these kids weren't in school and could come down and protest this curfew law. It was an amazing scene. The kids win, but the scene quieted down somewhat after that.

 

Jason Porath  22:35

So, it sounds like the riots on Sunset Strip was this defining moment that really launched a new era on the Strip as it relates to rock n' roll. Would you characterize the riots on the Sunset Strip as a turning point or not?

 

Laurie Jacobson  22:49

1966 and the riots were absolutely a turning point. I mean, the following year, you have the Summer of Love. So there was no stopping rock n' roll.

 

Jason Porath  23:02

So, Laurie, there's also this other element I don't think we touched on. In addition to this kind of counterculture movement that was happening on the Strip, there was also the electrification of music that drove people maybe out of the Laurel Canyon type of scenes, and back into the clubs.

 

Laurie Jacobson  23:22

Yes, The Byrds going electric was a famous moment.

 

Jason Porath  23:29

And did this give rise to new clubs?

 

Laurie Jacobson  23:32

Everything on the strip was something before -- so when you say did new clubs open -- yes, but they had been clubs before that. As you move more into the 80s, you add Johnny Depp's Viper Room. In the 70s when I moved to LA, that was a place called Filthy McNasty's. The Strip was populated with some wonderful characters that can never, never be repeated. And prior to Filthy owning that club, it was a sort of like a barbershop quartet type of music place. So that's one of the things that I love about the Strip because the ghosts of the past are in every corner of every club. I was a cocktail waitress at the Comedy Store, which was Ciro's and then The Living Room and then Kaleidoscope and later The Comedy Store in the 70s. And literally, that place was haunted from the basement to the attic. We saw ghosts there all the time. And weird shit happened there all the time. And I feel that about so many other places on the Strip. You know when Axl's singing his heart out at the Whisky, the ghost of Jim Morrison is watching from the balcony! And that's what made the groups want to play those places. The Doors were the house band at the Whisky. That alone makes you want to say I played the Whiskey, too. I played the Troubadour, too. I played Gazzaries. I played London Fog. I went on stage at the Comedy Store, you know, where Richard Pryor and Robin Williams, and prior to that, where Sammy Davis performed. That's the allure, I think of, of playing these clubs that have been made famous by the prior generations. And the story continues. And that's what I love about the Strip. The story continues, and it slides into despair, and it rises again, like a phoenix. It's a street like no other. I dare you to come up with another street with this kind of history.

 

Jason Porath  26:18

So when Guns N' Roses are making their way up the Sunset Strip food chain at the time that they were rising and creating a following, they are literally riding the spirit of those who came before them.

 

Laurie Jacobson  26:35

Absolutely, they were walking in the footsteps of history.

 

Jason Porath  26:39

Laurie, this has been an amazing look back at the history of the Sunset Strip. We really appreciate your knowledge and your experience, and just the colorful characters and places that you've introduced us to today. And, we're gonna pick up your story in around 1965, probably just when the riots break out, and we're gonna learn from Domenic, how rock and roll took a place on the Strip and defined it for the next 20 to 25 years.

 

Laurie Jacobson  27:13

Wow, can't wait to hear Domenic.

 

Jason Porath  27:21

We hope you've enjoyed this episode of the First 50 Gigs, Guns N' Roses and the Making of Appetite for Destruction. To watch the video podcast, access bonus episodes and galleries, and buy show merchandise, join our growing community on Patreon and subscribe.

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