What Were the 1966 Sunset Strip Riots Really Like? Eyewitnesses Look Back

Teenage protestors demonstrate outside Pandora's Box on the Sunset Strip on Nov. 26, 1966.
Teenage protestors demonstrate outside Pandora's Box on the Sunset Strip on Nov. 26, 1966.
Herald-Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

Los Angeles, home of the square and land of the freaks, was seriously infected with an outbreak of insurgent rock & roll genius in the 1960s. Our roster of big beat ne’er-do-wells — Love, The Chambers Brothers, Electric Prunes, The Seeds, Canned Heat, The Standells, The Byrds, The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Mothers of Invention — remains unrivaled, and their influence on the peace and dignity of this fair city, naturally, stirred up a mess of trouble.

It all climaxed on Nov. 12, 1966, outside teen hangout Pandora’s Box, with the infamous "Riot on the Sunset Strip." The riot itself was a long-simmering eruption triggered by weeks of harassment of teenage freaks by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, which had begun to aggressively enforce the 10 p.m. curfew after a ceaseless tide of complaints from Sunset Boulevard business owners annoyed by the sidewalk-clogging congregation of youths.

Essentially a sociocultural hissy fit, the protest has gained an infamy that certainly merits a commemoration — and this Saturday night, it will get one. The 50th-anniversary blowout at the Echoplex will feature sets from Johnny Echols’ Love Revisited, East L.A.’s The Premiers, brilliant Motown siren Brenda Holloway, bangin’ garage gals The Pandoras and an additional bevy of psych-garage acolytes.

What Were the 1966 Sunset Strip Riots Really Like? Eyewitnesses Look Back (3)
Courtesy Spaceland Presents

While this rates as an appropriately live-wire shindig, the bill mystifyingly omits such key, and still very capable, Strip innovators as The Standells, Yellow Payges, The Sloths and The May Wines — the cats who were right there in the middle of it.

“The curfew enforcement was just a tool because all these long-haired kids were out ’til 2 a.m.,” says Michael Rummans, a founding member of Pandora’s Box staples The Sloths. “Walking down the street, sitting on bus benches, just hanging out. The merchants said it was bad for business, we were scaring customers away, and they influenced the Sheriff’s Department to start cracking down.”

But it wasn’t quite that us freaks–versus–them squares simple. Wolfman Jack, the influential rock & roll radio DJ, had an office two blocks from Pandora’s Box. “People were overdosing in front of our offices practically every day,” he wrote in his 1995 autobiography. “You’d walk up the steps and stumble over somebody drooling all over his own love beads, too stoned to recall what pills he’d gotten goofed up on. ... The pressure was on to demolish the club because the hippies were a lot crazier than the beatniks who used to hang out there a few years earlier. They smoked dope in public, flashed bare boobies at people driving down Sunset, balled each other right on the sidewalk. ... Pandora’s Box had the Establishment pissed off in several different directions.”

Confrontations with the LASD became routine. Rummans was arrested for curfew violations seven times that year and saw the whole affair play out. “I’d already been busted a couple of times, so after they began to crack down I was really, physically, trying to dodge ’em. I went into the Sea Witch one night to get away, and they came in there, started checking IDs, and arrested me on the spot, pulled me out of the club. And LAPD was in on it; they began doing the same thing at Canter’s, because they knew kids were in there late at night.”

The kids were following an understandable and completely irresistible impulse. Local bands were simultaneously forging three entirely new musical styles: psychedelic, garage and country rock. History was being made, and with the bonus prospect of getting high or getting laid, who the hell would miss any of that? But once the fuzz began to lower the boom, the mood darkened.

“There was a lot of grumbling on the sidewalks, talk of Nazi cops and uncool store owners wanting to kill our scene,” May Wines singer Tommy McLaughlin says. “I remember after our set at Pandora’s Box on Nov. 6, going out and seeing a bigger than normal crowd of freaks and short-haired Valley dudes. One dude told me, ‘Shit’s goin’ tonight, I’d split if I were you, man.’ But nothing much happened. A few solo rebels attempted to start some shit, but it was a failure by all accounts.

“Next Saturday it was a new and improved rebellion,” McLaughlin continues. ”Fliers had been distributed, radio stations were informed, and ‘the word’ was out on the street. And the one thousand came: frat party boys, Marines on leave, pre-hippies and stoned high schoolers, plus cameos by Peter Fonda, Sonny and Cher and even Gilligan, Bob Denver. As we headed up Crescent Heights, we could see the battle lines being drawn up ahead. Two squad cars roared past us — the pigs were shutting it down, man.”

The episode was lively but scarcely a creditable riot. Kids stalked around with corny protest placards ("We're Your Children! Don't Destroy Us," "Ban the Billyclub"), blocked traffic, broke a few windows. Sonny and Cher pleaded for calm outside Pandora’s Box. That was about it.

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“They weren’t even riots. I know some people have claimed they set a bus on fire, but that never happened,” Rummans says. “I was there. What they did was set off a fire extinguisher inside a bus, one of those dry extinguishers, so the bus filled up with all this white powder. There were really no passengers on it. Then some kids gathered around and just rocked the bus for a little while.”

Sporadic disruptions flared up for the next few weeks, but that was pretty much the end of it.

“The Man won,” Rummans says. “They got the kids out and razed Pandora’s Box. Sent in a bulldozer, made sure it’d never come back. And, as it happens historically in any civilization, there are always bad actors, on the fringes, who had been kept at bay by the order of things. But all the ensuing chaos allowed them to come in and coopt the whole thing. That’s when you got Manson and all the hard drugs. All of a sudden, it was IV-drug use; people were mainlining heroin and chicks started turning tricks for drug money.

“It was probably inevitable. It sure didn’t help. Before all the drugs and violence, the vibe was really one of innocence and naiveté. It was a very bad transition.”

The 50th Anniversary of the Sunset Strip Demonstration concert takes place Saturday, Nov. 12, at the Echoplex.


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