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The rise and fall of Laguna Beach, a gay California hotspot

Can a grassroots effort bring back the town’s LGBTQ vibe?

Standing on the beach steps with a verboten Zima bottle in hand, I looked up at the big white building above, thumping with music, colored lights flashing from the windows, scared and praying I could get inside.

I was 18, I was terrified, and I wanted to go into my first gay club, the Boom Boom Room in Laguna Beach, California, a seaside town that, before its rise to prominence via an MTV reality series and Bravo’s inaugural Real Housewives series, was known as a queer-friendly enclave in Orange County. It was an oasis for the LGBTQ residents of a county with the unfortunate tagline “Behind the orange curtain” due to its political conservatism.

I knew that AIDS/HIV affected the regulars inside the packed venue—as well as the city’s population—but not to what extent. I knew that, only two years before, a football player at a nearby high school had nearly beaten a gay man to death on this beach, in one of several local hate crimes aimed at gay men. And I knew that the recently procured fake driver’s license in my wallet looked nothing like me.

What I didn’t know was that, a decade later, the city that was once known as “San Francisco South” and “the Provincetown of the West” would be no more. From the late 1990s to the 2010s, through a combination of AIDS-related deaths, ’80s-era conservatism, and skyrocketing home prices, the rainbow-hued city lost its gay shine. Today only the Main Street Bar and Cabaret, a festive but small underground bar, remains from among those original venues.

This erosion isn’t unique to Laguna Beach. Queer enclaves in New York City, like Park Slope (formerly a lesbian hub) or the West Village (now more associated with celebrities, finance bros, and others who can afford its rising real estate prices), or Silver Lake in Los Angeles, aren’t as gay as they were in the ’80s and ’90s. San Francisco neighborhoods like SoMa or streets like Polk, onetime gay linchpins in a city synonymous with sexuality, are more geared toward the influx of tech dollars. Even the Castro, the world’s gay mainstay, has seen a decline in new LGBTQ residents.

But it might not have to stay that way. Now an effort by longtime queer residents and one forward-thinking city official is attempting to bring Laguna Beach’s gay past back to life.

Equidistant from Los Angeles and San Diego, Laguna Beach is an artistically bent coastal oasis in an otherwise conservative bacchanalia. The town is bookended by mountainous terrain to the east and jewel-blue waters to the west. The famed Pacific Coast Highway runs straight through it. And its approximately 23,000 residents live in multimillion-dollar hill- and cliffside homes or in a smattering of apartment buildings and cottages near the town’s main artery.

It is, by all appearances, an idyllic California town, the type of place people from elsewhere conjure up when they think “Southern California.” The town also has long been overwhelmingly white—84.2 percent caucasian, according to Statistical Atlas. Diversity and acceptance outside of artistic communities, while hard fought, has never been in Laguna Beach’s DNA.

From the 1920s onward, ever since the film industry took hold roughly 60 miles north in Hollywood, Laguna has also played host to fringe members of the artistic, movie, hippie, and drug communities.

”The atmosphere was always extremely [accepting]” of those communities, former Mayor Bob Gentry says.

As the 1960s approached, so did a few establishments catering to the town’s growing queer community, including a bar along Main Beach (today most noteworthy as the banana-stand location in Arrested Development) called Dante’s.

After the city redesigned the area along Main Beach to turn it into a public promenade, the gay establishments—and crowd—moved south to a two-block stretch along PCH between Calliope and Cress streets. Gay-owned and gay-friendly joints like Fleur de Lys (now called Main Street Bar and Cabaret), the Boom Boom Room (a multitiered nightclub with saltwater fishtanks and go-go boys), and the Little Shrimp (a piano bar-slash-restaurant with a lounge singer) opened.

“I loved the Little Shrimp’s piano singer. His name was Rudy Delamour,” says longtime Orange County resident Jeff Brumett. “He looked like a real-life Madame the puppet.”

There’s also West Beach, a beach along the coast popular with primarily gay male beachgoers soaking up UV rays and cat-calling the occasional Adonis passerby. And at nearby Mountain Road Beach, come nightfall, guys would hook up with each other on the sand after meeting at a famous bench at the top of the beach’s 100-plus stairs.

“If you were partying at night, at either the Boom Boom Room or the Little Shrimp, and you wanted to meet someone for fun, you’d say ‘Meet me at the bench,’” says Larry Ricci, founder of Club Q, a group aimed at reigniting the town’s queer scene, who moved to Laguna Beach in 1971, when he was 19.

He adds: “That’s all you needed to say. It was understood that you’d meet at the bench and then hook up. I never participated, but it got pretty active at the beach.”

Years later, people who succumbed to AIDS had their ashes scattered at the top of the stairs and near the bench “because that’s where they partied and played,” says Ricci.

During the height of its popularity among the LGBTQ crowd, the city elected one of the country’s first openly gay elected officials, Bob Gentry, a former associate dean of students at University of California at Irvine, who served as mayor and councilman from 1982 to 1996.

Gentry’s openness about his sexuality helped bring awareness and unexpected allies into the LGBT fold.

“The most supportive community that I had throughout my career were straight senior citizens,” said Gentry. “They would tell me, ‘We support you because you are so honest. We know you’re not going to lie to us—you’re honest about your personal life.’”

He also bore witness to the height of the AIDS/HIV crisis, which hit Laguna Beach at a per capita rate comparable to San Francisco or Manhattan and wiped out much of the gay male population—including Gentry’s longtime partner, Gary Burdick, in 1989.

According to a 1989 article in the Los Angeles Times, “Burdick had been ailing since last fall but the University of California officially denied Gentry’s request for time off to care for his mate—a benefit the university allows for the care of ailing husbands, wives, children and in-laws.”

In a move that upset both conservatives and some of the more fearful sections of the gay community, Gentry, never one to mince words or hide from the truth, went public with his partner’s death.

But even though Gentry’s story drew some support from straight constituents, it failed to shift the city as a whole. Instead of rallying around the community, some city officials chose to shield tourists and potential homeowners from the crisis. “The conservative population felt more emboldened and took over the city council and culture of the city,” explains Gentry.

By the time the 1990s hit, gay acceptance seemed up nationwide. The political pendulum had shifted to the left with the presidential election of Bill Clinton, putting an end to 12 years of Republican dominance. Gay programming aired on major television networks. And, yep, Ellen was gay. But Laguna Beach’s gay oasis status continued to erode—fast.

In addition to a conservative visitors bureau and city council trying to quash the city’s gay reputation, desert cities like Palm Springs and Cathedral City did something Laguna Beach wouldn’t do: They openly courted LGBTQ residents.

“At one Southern California gay pride parade in the mid-’80s, my car was directly behind a car from Cathedral City, which was filled with heterosexual male and female city council people,” Gentry recalls. “‘Why are you guys here?’ I asked. And they told me, ‘We see the future of our city embracing the gay community, and we see that Laguna Beach won’t hold onto it.’”

Many queer people moved from Laguna Beach into the warmer inland desert towns. Homeowners who purchased their Laguna Beach homes on the cheap in the 1960s and 1970s were able to sell them for upward of $1,000,000.

While older gay residents were heading east to snap up one of many midcentury abodes, gay businesses in Laguna Beach, like the Little Shrimp, and intellectually inclined businesses, such as Fahrenheit 451 Books, closed. (The Little Shrimp reopened as Woody’s, a gay-owned eatery and bar that shuttered in 2007. The property’s current iteration, Avila’s El Ranchito Mexican Restaurant, was most recently seen in an episode of the aforementioned Housewives franchise.)

Mass grief from queer residents who had to bury friends and lovers also pushed a lot of residents to make the move east, changing the small town’s demographics.

The first and last Pride festival in town was in 1994; the city council withdrew support for another one in 1995. It would be nearly two decades until the city hosted another Pride weekend.

And mirroring what’s happening now in San Francisco, the cost of living rose.

“I think Laguna Beach changed because it got too expensive for the gay scene and the art scene,” says Craig Sannum, who moved to Laguna Beach in 1993.

But not everyone agrees that, even though Laguna Beach’s median home price is now $2,141,100, according to Zillow estimates, economy played a major factor in the gay flight.

“I don’t buy into the argument that land prices contributed to the fall of the gay community, because the gay community is so economically diverse,” says Gentry. “I hear from people who say that Laguna is no longer a hospitable place for the gay community.”

During his last term on the city council, Gentry says he was contacted by the city councils of West Hollywood and Cathedral City to put together an international outreach for gay tourists.

“City, beach, and desert—we were going to put that together and market it,” he says. “I pushed to get the Laguna Beach Visitors Bureau behind it, but they told me, ‘No, we don’t want any part of this—we want to be a family town.’”

This refusal to court LGBTQ visitors—and, in turn, new residents—and a dearth of affordable housing helped Laguna Beach morph into another version of Newport Beach, its tony, antiseptic, and unabashedly homogeneous neighbor city to the north.

“The town could’ve been such a shining star, economically and culturally, if it had just picked up on what it had going and not been fearful of stereotypes of the gay community,” Gentry says.

I didn’t live there, but making a trip to Laguna Beach remained essential whenever I returned home from college or during the holidays. A few turns on the dance floor (where I studied how to approach another man—and learned to handle rejection) and a few rounds of cheap vodka were obligatory at the Boom Boom Room, whose hallowed halls I could—at last—legally enter.

When the new millennium approached, Laguna Beach’s latest identity began to crystallize in the form of well-to-do, lovelorn teens, as seen in Laguna Beach, an MTV reality series that put the city’s privileged youth front and center. Neither the town’s gay community nor the wide swath of death caused by AIDS two decades prior was ever mentioned. But the message was clear: youthful, healthy, rich, heterosexual, unapologetically white. LC, Lo, Talen. That was the new Laguna Beach.

Even the school where said reality stars attended class, Laguna Beach High School, voted in 2003 to change the name of the athletics team from the “Artists,” a moniker it held since 1936, in honor of the town’s art-colony reputation, to the “Breakers.”

During the aughts, another blow happened: the Boom Boom Room, the queer nightlife mainstay and destination spot for the county, closed in 2007 after Beverly Hills billionaire Steven Udvar-Hazy, owner of Emerald Financial, bought the property and the adjoining Coast Inn. His plan, which ultimately fell through, was to turn it into a boutique luxury hotel.

After passing through several buyers, today the nightclub remains empty and the hotel rooms above are rentals. Neighborhood residents and the city’s planning commission have stalled a $25 million plan to renovate the historic property.

It’s tempting to say that mobile communication devices, with liaison-finding apps like Grindr and Scruff, helped eradicate the need for nightlife in Laguna Beach. Blaming technology for change has become de rigueur—and wrong.

“I think that people who want to hook up are going to hook up,” says Brummett. “People who want to get together socially will do it. Bars were and remain places where you can go and be seen.”

Around 2007, I stopped making my way up Pacific Coast Highway for a regular visit to Laguna Beach for a night on the town. The bars were no more. Leap of Faith, a queer cafe with unabashedly ’90s decor and Lilith Fair songstresses coming from the speakers, closed years ago. And the gay beach, while still popular on the weekends, seemed more like a destination spot for out-of-town visitors.

And rents, as seen in most California towns big and small, continued to soar.

“Rents went through the roof,” says Councilmember Toni Iseman, a three-time former mayor. “The loss in the community of the artists ties in as well and the cost of rentals.”

Iseman also notes a lack of housing, which helped remove Laguna Beach’s accessibility and its small-town vibe.

“We’re 98 percent built-out,” she says.

Unlike outlying cities like Aliso Viejo, Lake Forest, or Irvine—where multi-unit residential buildings sprouted up during the 2000s—Laguna Beach’s housing stock remained static, consisting primarily of single-family homes and a smattering of multi-unit buildings, built between 1920 and 1970, and a reserve of tony mansions up in the hills or cliffside near the shore.

Iseman says that as the real estate market took off in the aughts, homes were purchased and used as personal vacation spots (“We have a lot of international money who show up to buy a house and live in it for only two to three months”) or moneymakers (“As soon as something becomes available, [homeowners] don’t rent it again—they put it on Airbnb”). All of which helped eat away at the fabric of the tight-knit community.

“You can’t borrow a cup of sugar from your neighbor when you don’t have a neighbor,” Iseman says.

The effort to woo the LGBTQ community back to Laguna Beach began as an effort to serve the members of that community who still live there.

Ricci formed Club Q in June 2003, as an LGBTQ club “for the guys and gals who are still sitting around,” aimed at the community’s senior citizens. At 150 members strong, it’s one of the most popular social groups in town and hosts fundraisers, auctions, and two monthly events at the local community center.

One of Laguna Beach’s strongest voices in reigniting the queer community is Chris Tebbutt, a real estate agent with a husband and two sons. The Orange County native, who left for New York City and Boston during his 20s and 30s, was dismayed to return to a town that he once thought of as a gay-friendly space and find it much less so.

“It wasn’t the gay town I once knew,” he says. “When I got here and started digging around, I realized that there were things Laguna Beach was far behind on in terms of the gay community.”

Tebbutt says that, unlike his experience registering his children for school in Boston and New York, “the forms I had to fill out still read ‘mother and father’ and not ‘guardians.’ This was only four years ago.”

Tebbutt formed the Laguna Beach LGBTQ Heritage and Culture Alliance for leaders in education, police officers, and elected officials, who want to help Laguna get some of its gay dollars back while making sure the town is also a place where everyone feels they belong.

During a May 2017 city council meeting, Mayor Toni Iseman presided over a resolution declaring the month of June, nationally known as pride month, to be LGBTQ Heritage and Culture Month in Laguna Beach forevermore.

The alliance also helped bring the LGBTQ pride celebration back to Laguna in 2018. But instead of a Pride weekend party atmosphere a la San Francisco’s and New York City’s annual bacchanalias, this year’s pride is “more of a boutique thing where you can hike, go to a beach party, and stay at some of our hotels.”

Tebbutt’s group also puts on the Diversity and Creative Economy event, featuring more than 400 leaders from Laguna Beach and Orange County business, civic, and education sectors, who come to learn about how inclusivity is better for everybody, queer or straight.

Iseman, who has helped reignite the town’s gay reputation, says that attitudes inside city hall corridors have changed for the better.

“The previous visitor’s bureau, which was ridiculously stubborn, wouldn’t advertise in LGBT magazines,” she says.

While Iseman doesn’t accuse anyone of blatant homophobia, she says that the bureau “doesn’t do that anymore. There’s been a change.”

And while this unofficial booster campaign does help cement Laguna Beach’s reputation as a queer destination spot, it does little to help bring gay people back as permanent residents.

“That’s nice,” she says, “but it doesn’t bring people in to live in Laguna.”

I never did get inside the Boom Boom Room that night. The bouncer turned me away at the door: “Come back when you’re older or get a better ID.” I’d return a few years later, legally this time, to experience the noted nightclub, dance on its dance floors, make out with a stranger next to a fish tank, and drink one too many of everything amid fumes of Calvin Klein’s Eternity and Marlboro Lights.

But now, for the one to two times a year I make the annual return home to Dana Point, the beach town that borders Laguna to the south, I look forward to seeing the rainbow rise again.

“In the end,” says Tebbutt, “we want to help give the community some ownership in their town that they used to feel welcome in.”

Brock Keeling is the editor of Curbed San Francisco.

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