Finding history on a bar stool

From Canyon To Cove

July 09, 2010|By Cindy Frazier

Like beauty, history is in the eye of the beholder. And when the beholders are viewing it from the vantage point of a bar stool, history can be a bit blurry.

Take Tuesday's testimony about when and whether the Boom Boom Room, aka the South Seas, was or became a gay bar.

Only in Laguna could this argument rise to the level of a City Council debate. The issue at hand: whether a wine bar should be required in the renovated Coast Inn. The verdict? A resounding "yes" from the Council. But not just because "Everyone likes wine," as one councilwoman quipped. It's about history, not just fun beverages. And the Boom Boom Room is a bar, shall we say, with a past.


The hearing included personal testimony from some of Laguna's gay luminaries — including former Mayor Bob Gentry, who became the country's first openly gay mayor in the 1980s, and Fred Karger, the first openly gay Republican presidential candidate — as well as longtime residents who disagreed about the history of the Boom but concurred that a bar of some persuasion had been at the location, well, forever.

Carolyn Smith, whose grandfather, John "Pappy" Smith, built the hotel in 1927, told the council that the South Seas bar was the first establishment to obtain a legal liquor license in Laguna Beach after the end of Prohibition. Smith said the bar was not identified as gay until the late 1970s.

"My father owned it until 1978, and then it became a gay place," she said. "Gays were there, but it was not predominantly gay."

Her recollections coincided with those of another former Mayor, Kelly Boyd, who is currently on the council and as a teenager worked at the hotel. Boyd, who owns the Marine Room Tavern, has apparently kept tabs on all the bars in Laguna over the years.

"The first gay bar in Laguna opened in the 1940s," Boyd recalled. "That became Dante's. Then the Little Shrimp opened. My dad leased the restaurant at the Coast Inn in the late 1950s. People's recollection of when the Boom Boom Room became fully gay is wrong. The idea that it started 50 years ago isn't true. It wasn't 'the gay bar.'"

He recalls that, in the 1970s, the owner of the South Seas began running ads all over the country touting the Boom Boom Room as "the" gay hangout. "That's when it became gay," Boyd insisted.

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