By Marty Liboff
When I tell people I grew up here on the Ocean Front they sometimes ask, “Wasn’t there a rock ‘n’ roll club down here where The Doors and Janis Joplin played?” I tell them, “Sure, right over there on the north border of Venice on a huge pier.” They always look at me like I’m nuts since there is no sign of a giant pier to be seen! The pier was demolished in 1975. On the south side of the pier in Venice, sometimes called the Lick pier, was the Aragon Ballroom. It was at number 1 Navy Street in Venice. Lawrence Welk and his big band played there on TV for ten years. He played light pop hits with his “Champagne Music Orchestra”. In 1961 he moved his “wundaful” TV show to Hollywood.
The pier was called Pacific Ocean Park, or P.O.P. They had tried boosting attendance with that new wild music called rock ‘n’ roll. In the early 1960s Wink Martindale had a TV show from the pier called the P.O.P. Dance Party. It was like Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, except it was filmed in the Sea Circus Arena around pools of water where seals and porpoises performed during the day. The show had guest singers like Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Johnny Mathis, Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. I went one evening dreaming I might dance with Annette. I had a crush on Annette since I was five years old after watching her grow up on TV on the Mickey Mouse Club show. It turned out that only selected dancers were even allowed to get on the dance area. Instead of dancing cheek to cheek with lovely Annette, I was crushed in a crowd of teenagers all trying to get close and get their pimpled faces on TV. Wink has an autobiography out called “Winking at Life”, where he talks fondly of his time at P.O.P.
In a dance hall in Pacific Ocean Park, singers like Richie Valens and The Beach Boys played. The pier hosted a successful Teen Age Fair with rock music. The English rock band Herman’s Hermits filmed their silly movie “Hold On!” on the pier in 1966. P.O.P. became a favorite place for rock bands to film their music videos. For awhile the P.O.P. Dance Party moved into the Aragon Ballroom to tape the TV show; then they also moved to Hollyweird. In 1965 Dick Dale the king of surf guitar took over at the Aragon Ballroom. The times were a changing, and surf music gave way to psychedelic bands. The Beatles ruled. Even The Beach Boys began experimenting with new kinds of music.
In 1967 the Aragon Ballroom in Venice was transformed into one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll clubs of all time! Back in New York there was a very successful rock club called the Cheetah Club. Jimi Hendrix and all the famous bands played there. They opened another Cheetah Club in Chicago and figured that one on the west coast in L.A. would do great. They revamped the old Aragon Ballroom with extra stages and psychedelic lights. Inside was a cool but over-priced hippie or “mod” clothing store with posters and other fun stuff. The old Aragon sign in front was replaced by a new large sign with the word Cheetah and with a drawing of a cheetah above it.
Most of the great bands of the day played at the Cheetah Club in Venice. Bands played at the clubs back east and came to California to the Fillmore in San Francisco and to our Cheetah Club. Of course our own Venice band The Doors were there. I never went there for The Doors since I used to see them hanging around Venice and I couldn’t imagine that those bums would ever amount to anything! How wrong I was! I guess I was also jealous that all the cute girls had a crush on Jim. What did he have that I didn’t? Only good looks, talent, money and fame! They say that Jim Morrison started his falling into the crowd stunt there. It wasn’t a stunt that first time. He was so stoned and drunk that he actually did fall into the crowd that night!
Unfortunately I rarely went to the Cheetah Club since I was a very poor local kid and I was still listening to Mozart and Elvis. It was $2 to $4 to get in back then. A small fortune for me! Me and a buddy would sometimes try and sneak in between sets while people were hanging around by the doors. We would try and walk in backwards or hang around a side door and sneak in. A couple of times they had a free concert, usually with the house band Nazz that later became Alice Cooper. At the time I thought they were just crazy, a bit scary and very noisy. I got to see a few of the best bands ever but I didn’t appreciate any of it yet. The dark dance hall with flashing crazy lights and loud weird music was quite different from listening to Elvis, Andy Williams and Mario Lanza on my scratched old record albums. There were strobe lights and colored lights flashing and strange people dressed in funny clothes. Some of the walls had strange art and mirrors. I thought this new rock music was a ridiculous and stupid fad! My musical likes soon changed after we began puffing those funny cigarettes and I suddenly understood and loved this new rock ‘n’ roll! Rock ‘n’ roll was the meaning of life and existence! Life WAS rock ‘n’ roll… How dumb I had been!
1967 was called the “Summer of Love”. Psychedelic drugs hit like an atomic bomb in our society, transforming rock music overnight. Suddenly the psychedelic generation exploded on the scene with acid, pot, mescaline, ‘shrooms and every new drug, and free love, long hair and Afros, flashy colorful clothing, medallions and beads, sunglasses at night, short skirts, and everyone “walking in the clouds”. Movies and TV picked up the new styles and soon even the cops were wearing longer hair and long sideburns! Police departments finally began making rules against long hair after cops all began looking like the Beatles! Timothy Leary was the LSD guru saying to the youth, “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. The horrible war in Vietnam sparked and united young people against war and much of the old ways. Young people marched to the call “Make love not war!” If ever there was a generation gap in our history, this was the biggest!
The new rock music was blasting with loud screaming, crashing banging drums, screeching guitars, room shaking bass, and huge speakers splintering your spinal cord. LSD broke open Pandora’s Box of the mind and opened the “doors of perception” for rock ‘n’ roll and our culture. Young people wore outrageous clothes and spoke their own groovy hippie language. Our Venice Cheetah Club suddenly became the center of the rock ‘n’ roll universe! In the ballroom there were often other famous musicians hanging around stoned and watching their fellow rockers perform. Most of these bands I had never heard of yet…
The Cheetah Club only stayed open for a year and a half, but during that time they had the biggest bands of the time. After it closed there were a few free concerts and benefits held there. The house band Nazz that became Alice Cooper seemed to be there much of the time. One unsuccessful night Nazz emptied the ballroom only after ten minutes of loud playing! However, Frank Zappa thought Nazz were different and promoted them. It is said that The Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia had a prized guitar stolen there one night. There would sometimes be two or three shows a day. The matinee show allowed any age, but for the evening shows you usually needed to be 18.
There is one scene in the 1968 movie “Psych-Out” that is shot in our Cheetah Club. The movie is supposed to be in San Francisco with a young Jack Nicholson playing a poor guitar player in a psychedelic band. His band finally gets a gig at a big hall and it is filmed in the Cheetah. Before Jack’s movie band gets up to play, The Strawberry Alarm Clock band play their song, “Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow”. You can get a little feel of the main stage, but it is only a few minutes in a long crazy movie.
There was a gigantic free concert inside and outside the Cheetah called GUAMBO, the Great Underground Arts Masked Ball & Orgy! Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention and many bands played for free. There had been previous GUAMBO shows in clubs in Hollywood also with The Mothers that were great until the cops closed them. The police said it was very dangerous because there were too many happy hippies dancing and there were half naked hippie girls waving flowers at the police! Then GUAMBO moved to the Cheetah. The 1968 GUAMBO concert at the Cheetah was called the Bastille Day Bash. Everyone was supposed to come in costumes and to bring musical instruments and their own dope! It was crazy, mad and wild with 25,000 hippies with flowers, masks, silly hats, body painting, painted bare feet and some gals in G-strings! There may have even been a man or two in G-strings! It was sponsored by the local underground newspaper, the L.A. Free Press. Unfortunately, the largest underground free newspaper, the L.A. Free Press is long gone and only our own beloved Free Venice Beachhead carries on. So support this newspaper!
In January of 1968 there was a big charity benefit in our Cheetah Club for the L.A. Free Clinic. It was called Phantasmagoria and many bands played for free for the clinic. The benefit show was an expensive $3.50 to get in so I stupidly didn’t go. They had an amazing line-up of bands like The Turtles, Buffalo Springfield, Brewer and Shipley and many others. Also at the Cheetah in January was the “KRLA Radio Promo Show” featuring The Turtles, The Byrds and The Lewis and Clarke Expedition. KRLA was one of the main rock radio shows of the time.
In 1968 there was a huge outdoor free rock concert on the south side of the pier next to the Cheetah. It was called “Brucemas” celebrating the deceased comedian Lenny Bruce’s birthday. The bands used the Cheetah Club for setting up and played music on the side of the pier overlooking the beach below. There were over 30,000 hippies and bikini girls wildly dancing and smoking pot on the sand from Navy Street to Rose Ave.! It was one of the biggest and best happenings ever in Venice!
Starting in 1959, the Ocean Park Redevelopment Project began tearing up most of beautiful old Ocean Park in a scheme to build dozens of high rises along the beach. My family was forced to move, but we got lucky and found a cheap old house to rent a couple of blocks away. In the 1960s the city of L.A. began condemning many of the amazing old Venice buildings built by Abbot Kinney. The area became blighted and the wonderful amusement park on the pier called Pacific Ocean Park lost business and closed in 1967. Nancy Sinatra filmed her music video in the closed park singing, “Who Will Buy?” She should have been singing who will buy P.O.P.?!
With P.O.P. closed and the neighborhood in a shambles it was scary there at night and soon attendance at the Cheetah Club waned. There were a few fights and some problems with drunks and drugs. In September 1968 it sadly closed. The band called Country wrote a song about it closing. After the Cheetah Club was closed, they filmed a depressing Jane Fonda movie there in 1969 called, “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” For this movie, the inside of the ballroom was restored to look more like the old Aragon Ballroom again.
For several years after that there was a yearly free rock concert on the beach at Rose Ave. in Venice. Bands would play on top of the raised cement walk that is still there and thousands of hippies would dance below in the sand. Sometimes the gals would take off their bikini tops and dance. It was fantastic! Usually they were unknown local bands, but The Doors made a surprise visit early on. It was sponsored by the peace and environmental group called Green Power and they brought free food that they gave out by the pagoda next to the raised cement walk on the beach at Rose Ave.
For a couple of years a little dance bar called the Beach House opened on the Ocean Front near the closed Cheetah Club. I went there a few times and enjoyed some of our local talent, but they were usually nearly empty inside.
In 1970 the grand old Aragon Ballroom or Cheetah Club burned down. Some said it was arson. Others blamed hippies sleeping on the closed pier. Back then they blamed hippies for everything! From 1973 to 1975 the entire pier was demolished. Now there is no trace that one of the largest and most popular amusement piers ever existed. This sadly ended the wonderful days of the ballrooms at the beach. It is hard to believe now that all this happened right here on our Ocean Front Walk! If you listen quietly to the ocean breeze at night you can still hear the ghosts of Lawrence Welk going,“anda one, anda two” and Jim Morrison singing,“ This is the end, my friend!”
For more history read; Venice California ‘Coney Island of the Pacific’, by Jeffrey Stanton; and, Pacific Ocean Park, by Christopher Merritt and Domenic Priore.
Darlin Let’s Go Dancin
Rock ‘n’ Rollin & Romancin
Come on Rita
Wouldn’t it be neata
To dance at the Venice Cheetah?
The Cheetah Club had the greatest bands
Talented rockers with over sexed glands
On the Venice sands.
Come on & get out of bed
Let’s feed our head
And rock with The Grateful Dead.
It’s such a kick
Dancin to Jefferson Airplane & Grace Slick
While eatin ice cream on a stick.
Ain’t dancin on the floors
To The Doors.
We can get high
And dance to the sky
With Iron Butterfly.
Give all your attention
And give up all convention
To The Mothers of Invention.
Let’s smoke a bong
And sing along
While The Byrds sing a Dylan song.
It’s groovy & super duper
Dancin to Alice Cooper
Til we’re exhausted in a stupor.
Let’s smoke some tea
And go see
Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Rita and I make love
Listening to Love
Heavenly music from above.
We all enjoyed
Rockin to Pink Floyd
Everyone loved it even Sigmund Freud.
The Cheetah Club is only a memory
And long ago Rita left me
In that amazing era at Venice by the sea.
These bands rocked out the Cheetah Club: Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, Janis Joplin and Big Brother & the Holding Company, Pink Floyd, Nazz, The Seeds, The Standells, The Candymen, Iron Butterfly, The Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Chamber Brothers, SteppenWolf, Jefferson Airplane, Mandala, Infinity, Clear Light, Smokestack Lightnin’, Humble Harve, Love, The Daily Flash, The Collectors, Salvation, Hamilton Camp, The Grateful Dead, The Buffalo Springfield with Neil Young & Stephen Stills, The Byrds, Duane Allman and Hour Glass, The Hook, The Olympics, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Eastside Gang, Jose Feliciano, The Merry-Go-Round, The Box Tops, Country Joe and the Fish, Sweetwater, Alexander’s Timeless Blooz Band, Charlie Musselwhite, AB Skhy, Things to Come, The Zoo, The Pacific Gas & Electric Band, The Leaves, James Brown’s Revue, The Illinois Speed Press, Taj Mahal, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Kaleidoscope, Brenton Wood, Electric Flag, The Watts 103rd Street Band, The Boston Tea Party, Vision, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Alvin Lee and Ten Years After, The Ike & Tina Turner Revue, The Fugs, Todd Rundgren, The West Coast Branch, Captain Beefheart, Touch, The Sunshine Company, Eric Burton and The Animals, Traffic, The W.C. Fields Memorial Electric String Band, Black Pearl, The Daisy Chain(an early all girl band), The GTOs(Girls Together Only, another all gal band helped by Frank Zappa ), Lee Michaels, The Rubber Hi-Way, The Shirelles, Moby Grape, Spirit, Lollipop Shoppe, Genesis, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Chicago Transit Authority, Blue Cheer, Sam And Dave, The Mug Wumps, Yellow Balloon, New Generation, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, The Holy Model Rounders, Tim Buckley, Quicksilver, The Dirty Blues Band, The Barry Goldberg Reunion, The United States of America, Albert King, The Don Ellis Orchestra, Department, The Fraternity of Man, Tommy James and The Shondells, Dr. John the Night Tripper, Giant Sunflower, Jamie and the Jury, Gilbert and his Guitar, Joint Effect, Incredibly Delicious, The Lewis and Clarke Expedition, The Difference, The Turtles, Brewer and Shipley, The Grass Roots, The Music Machine, Richard Tappan, Hunger, Evolution with Flatt & Scruggs, The Glass Family, Houston Fearless, The Steve Miller Band, Sly & the Family Stone, and of course The Doors were there a couple of times.
Above: The Doors and Jefferson Airplane, end of Rose Ave., August 9, 1967 in front of 3,000 fans
P.O.P. in the background