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First Person:

Remembering Mom, honoring the Boom

April 24, 2009|By John Keitel

The first time I visited Laguna Beach was during spring break freshman year. It was 1983, and I had come west from Chicago for college. I was with my very straight, very “SoCal” roommate and best friend from Pasadena, and we were on our way to visit his high school girlfriend at her parents’ beach house.

The moment we swung off the 405 onto Laguna Canyon Road in his yellow pickup, I knew I was somewhere special. It was still a two-lane road back then that skirted strawberry fields and ponds close enough to touch, and the record winter rains of that January had given way to emerald hills that swayed in the late March breeze. As I looked out at the Pacific from their living room perched on the bluff above West Street beach, I had no idea just how important to me this place would become.

Four-hundred miles away in Palo Alto, the news that year of Robert Gentry’s election in Laguna Beach as one of the country’s first openly gay elected officials seeped into my fraternity boy consciousness and gave me a sense of hope and possibility that I hadn’t realized I lacked.

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When I returned to pursue my master’s at USC film school in 1988, Laguna became my weekend destination of choice, and its gay heart — the Boom — the iconic bar of my youth.

Like so many others, I found love, friendship and acceptance among the sandy, tattered pool tables and rambling open-air rooms. I even met one of my first boyfriends there and with him made my first feature film. The name we chose for our production company was Boom Pictures.

My relationship with Laguna took an unexpected turn in 1991 when my mother followed me from Chicago to Leisure World in Laguna Hills. The youngest of seven children, I had come to California to chart my own course, so at first I was reluctant to embrace what I viewed as my mom’s encroachment. But nearing 70, she had been diagnosed with an emphysema-like disease, and she could no longer take the brutal winters or humid summers.

Over the next decade, my reluctance melted, and Laguna came to mean so much more to me than I could have ever imagined on that day I first encountered it.

Surrounded by the familiarity of my youth, it became my refuge from L.A., and a place I could still be my mom’s baby as her breath grew shorter. Heading out for a Saturday night, I can still hear her asking, “Where you going, honey, the Boom?” Even she was in on it.

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