Tough times at Orange County's flagship gay nightclub

Three tanned, pumped-up male go-go dancers sporting nothing but G-strings and black boots stepped through a maze of cocktail glasses as they paraded around the bar top, gyrating their stuff to the heavy thump of disco. Beneath them swirled a festive crowd of about 140 gay men, nine lesbians, two straight couples and a twentysomething TV star who was halfheartedly trying to remain anonymous. Swaying to the beat and sipping drinks, most patrons focused on the dancers, talked animatedly to friends, or watched one of the 18 screens playing music videos. Downstairs, in a darker section of the bar, another throng of assorted gay men—in varying degrees of sobriety and dress—chatted, posed, shot pool or danced. Every few minutes, shrieks of contagious laughter burst through the drone of dozens of simultaneous conversations. Although Orange County is ground zero for the country's most notorious anti-homosexual crusaders, on this Saturday evening in April, gay nightlife was—as it has been almost every weekend—unrepentantly thriving inside Laguna Beach's historic Boom Boom Room.

But after three decades as a world-renowned flagship bar for Southern California's gay community and a one-time hangout for Rock Hudson and other celebrities, the Boom's days—or, more appropriately, its nights—could be numbered. Two high-stakes interconnected legal battles involving undercover government agents and allegations of fraud, perjury, lewd conduct, pornography and double-crossing threaten to shut the Boom down permanently. "It's a hellacious fight," said one bar employee who asked that his name not be printed. "People have been going into the boom, partying and not realizing the all-out war that's going on behind the scenes. When it's all said and done, there may not be a Boom or anything else there. It's that vicious."

Eric Lampel, an attorney involved in the Boom litigation, summed up the situation in stark terms: "It is going to be an ugly bloodbath."

Gay bars can be a magnet for controversy, even in supposedly liberal seaside towns like Laguna Beach, where art is a primary export and, according to local estimates, gay men and women account for a whopping 20 to 30 percent of the almost 24,000 residents. Much to the chagrin of the town's homophobes and chamber of commerce, Laguna has earned an international reputation as a gay mecca—a picturesque place to vacation or live in relative peace. The bond between gas and Laguna traces back to the rise of Hollywood in the 1920s. As the movie industry began to blossom, the quaint town with breathtaking ocean views became a favorite filming location. The first wave of gays arrived as members of those early film crews. In 1927, the Boom Boom Room—then called the South Seas—opened its doors and, with only a jukebox as entertainment, became a primary attraction for servicemen.

Unwelcomed or even beaten to death in other places, gays spread the word during the 1950s and '60s about the town's openness, a climate that also attracted artists, beatniks, hippies and Hare Krishnas from around the country. As unlikely as it may seem in today's environment, until the early 1970s, there were two prominent gay bars—Dante's and the Barefoot—in the heart of Laguna on Main Beach, between the lifeguard tower and the Hotel Laguna. After the town's council razed the properties, the hub of gay nightlife shifted about a mile and a half south to where it is today: a seven-block area on Pacific Coast Highway anchored by the Boom, Viktor Viktoria (known for 31 years as the Little Shrimp), Main Street, Mark's and Shame on the Moon. Until the late 1970s, the Boom's clientele was straight and gay, with the latter dominating the lower bar late at night. Around 1979 it became exclusively the gay spot it is today and earned the name the Boom Boom Room after a new, bass-heavy sound system was installed to carry the disco beat.

It hasn't all been a party, however. Besides fighting the devastation of AIDS, local gays and the businesses that cater to them have, over the years, endured intense occasional harassment, ranging from anti-gay literature campaigns to savage physical attacks by hormone-raged high schoolers. In 1993, a carload of teenagers drove around the bars shouting anti-gay epithets. Minutes later, an unsuspecting man who had been walking on the beach below the Boom was found nearly dead, his face unrecognizable from being kicked and bashed against the beach's jagged rocks. And two years before, a 37-year-old gay man was ambushed, beaten and shot by three men who evaded arrest.

But the battles that threaten to close the Boom and leave local gays without their most active nightspot have almost nothing to do with anyone outside the gay community.

Like thousands before him and since, blue-eyed and charismatic John William Halderman fell in love with Orange County's coast and the Boom the first time he visited as a Navy serviceman in 1956. Decades later—in 1991—while living in Dallas, Halderman, then 58, met Tim Foutch, a handsome 31-year-old bartender at JR's, a popular bar in the heart of the city's gay district, and Foutch's then-lover, Craig Attebury, a gregarious 27-year-old from Oklahoma. The three hit it off, and within weeks of meeting, Halderman—a New York native with experience in commercial furniture sales—asked Foutch and Attebury if they were interested in moving with him to California and become partners in a bar he hoped to purchase.

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