By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Keith Srakocio/AP|
Sometime in the pre-dawn dark of February 24, Tommy Chong and his wife, Shelby, were awakened by determined knocking on the door of their Pacific Palisades home. When their visitors announced themselves as police, the Chongs assumed the cops were chasing some neighborhood prowler. The couple quickly surmised otherwise after Tommy opened the door and more than a dozen members of the Drug Enforcement Agency poured in with guns drawn. Although the feds, accompanied by some Los Angeles Police Department cops, would reportedly find a pound of marijuana, the real objects of their search were bongs made by the Chong Glass company, a plant located in Gardena, 24 miles away.
That winter Monday would be a busy day for Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Justice Department, which, in the middle of its highly self-publicized war on terrorism, found itself with enough time and badges to raid 55 individuals and head-shop businesses under an obscure statute banning the sale of drug paraphernalia. No one at the Palisades house was arrested that day, but two months later the government would charge Tommy Chong with one count of conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia. Suddenly, at the age of 65, Tommy Chong, who had never been arrested in his life, faced a felony conviction and jail time. Stranger still, Tommy Chong was not the owner of Chong Glass and its Nice Dreams line of smoking pipes.
The biggest irony, of course, is that Chong had become famous, with partner Cheech Marin, during the 1970s as half of the stoner comedy team Cheech and Chong, which began as a live club act in Chong’s native Canada and became immensely popular through American tours and record albums. Elliptical, dope-referenced films like Up in Smokeand Nice Dreams later established the pair’s movies as the counterculture’s answer to the Roadfilms of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. While Cheech was always the frenetic and voluble East L.A. vato, Tommy’s “Man” character was almost incoherently mellow; the shared quest of both characters, however, was a Homeric search for the next bud — and to escape the clutches of the Keystone Narcs who invariably pursued them.
But today Chong begins the third month of a nine-month stretch at Kern County’s Taft Correctional Institute, which, in the 1990s, became one of the first federal prisons to be privatized. (Taft is “owned” by the Wackenhut Corrections Corp., a name that seems to belong in a Cheech-and-Chong film.) Tommy has a janitorial job at the fenceless minimum-security facility.
“He felt like Moses going into prison,” says daughter Precious Chong, “but the reality sank in and made him sad. He’s got a good outlook, though — it’s like a spiritual retreat for him, and he goes on walks.”
The 30-something Precious is an actress, who, on the morning of the raid, was shopping for a tape recorder so she could study Irish dialect for a role in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa.
“I called my parents’ place from Best Buy,” she recalls, “and a voice said, ‘Chong residence.’ I really thought it was one of my brother’s friends. And I said, ‘Is my mom there?’ and the voice said, ‘She can’t talk to you now — she’ll call you back.’”
“They always come when it’s dark, to scare you,” says Shelby. “They came running in with guns and vests — it was funny. When they wouldn’t let me leave the house, I said, ‘Excuse me, I need my Starbucks!’”
The Chongs are a tight-knit family whose various members have appeared in Tommy’s films and whose five children have been exposed to the arts, the entertainment industry and travel abroad. Tommy and Shelby have been together nearly 35 years and during the last nine have hit the road together as a comedy act in their own right. Shelby spoke to me by phone from Kansas City, where she had just finished her first night as a solo act. Precious, too, had recently finished a West Hollywood run of her own solo act, The Porcelain Penelope Show, much of which dealt with her father’s travails.
“He really misses my mom,” Precious says. “They go out to movies every night or salsa dance. Now he doesn’t have that routine.”
Chong Glass was the idea of Tommy’s 29-year-old son, Paris, who describes himself as an entrepreneur who plans on becoming a lawyer someday.
“In ’99 I’d just come back from Canada and was living with my parents,” he says. “A lot of glass blowers were approaching my family to use their names to start a company. I thought, Why not do this myself?, and so I started Nice Dreams with one glass blower working out of an apartment, and my father investing the money.”
Paris soon discovered the world of glass blowing to be an insular, self-conscious culture whose artisans are concentrated in the Pacific Northwest. The son wanted his company to produce high-end pipes that would be collectible works of art instead of the mass-produced crack pipes found in most head shops. He began hiring experienced craftspeople at $25 to $30 per hour, but ended up keeping only a handful and having them train local laborers to do the same work. Eventually he employed 25 Pyrex-glass blowers who produced about 100 pipes a day in Chong Glass’ 7,500-square-foot shop near the Harbor Freeway.