By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
And in the midst of all this was Reid. "He was a genius," says Kelley. "He just did what he did, and people would just give him money."
After coming up with his brainstorm, Reid printed up posters and literature proclaiming a Christmas festival in Laguna to celebrate Christ's birthday and "the Dawning of a New Age." He sent the notices to health-food stores around the country and to police stations-the idea being to drum up talk and excitement and even paranoia. Alternative radio stations and underground papers picked up the story; from there, it seeped into the mainstream media and was carried around the country.
Not all of Reid's friends thought he could pull it off. One of these friendly critics was underground folk hero John Gayle, who along with several other Orange Countians had formed the Brotherhood of Love, a commune in Laguna Canyon that eventually became one of Southern California's premier drug-smuggling organizations.
"[Gayle] was, like, this rock & roll folk-hero dope dealer, and he supported artists and bands and everything," Kelley says. "You'd go to a party, and there he'd be with all these beautiful young girls. They were, like, these spiritual, hippie gangsters. Anyway, I can remember Johnny telling me four days before the thing started that it would never happen.
"But Curtis would just smile. That's all he would do-just smile."
We are joined by Kelley's friend John Chaney, an artist who lives in a tiny apartment upstairs. They reminisce about some of the characters who came to town for the Christmas Happening.
"You remember the Skipper?" Chaney asks, moving his long blond-gray hair back with his hand. "That guy who would skip everywhere, and when he came to a pole or a tree, he'd spin around it?"
"Yeah, and Crazy Horse: he was this guy who juggled and ate fire."
"And there was Star, all dressed up like a wizard."
"I remember this one guy who just mysteriously showed up," Kelley says. "He said he was Jesus, and he was living out there in the canyon, sleeping on the ground, but his clothes were always spotless."
For a moment, the memories take them, and they fall silent. There is only the muted rush of traffic from the street and the rustle of a poster on the wall, stirred by the breeze.
"Yeah, it was just a great party," Kelley says finally. He looks across at Chaney, who briefly gives back the glance and then turns away. "A great party," Kelley says. Then the smile slides off his face. "The party that ended it all."
In early December, the Flower Children started drifting into Laguna Beach, hitching or driving or somehow just showing up. The town began slowly filling.
"It was strange," one resident remembers. "We were used to seeing hippies around town, sitting on a bench playing a guitar or just lying there on the beach. But then it seemed like there were more and more. You'd drive downtown, and there'd be some on this corner and that corner. And then the next day, you'd drive downtown, and it would be the same groups, but they had grown. It was like cells dividing."
People camped out in the canyon, where there was a lot of open land. Soon even Orange County's local media caught on. On Dec. 23, the Register ran its first story about the Christmas Happening, its paranoia apparent:
"A hippie-sponsored Christmas day 'Come Together'-originally termed by local police as a 'little organized' gathering-may turn out to be a rock music concert attended by as many as 100,000 youths.
"For the past several weeks, local long-haired youths have been organizing the 'Come Together,' which has been well-publicized in underground newspapers across the United States and by word-of-mouth. . . .
"Local police are working on 12-hour shifts and often riding two men to a patrol car. All police in Laguna Beach are on tactical alert for Christmas day, and many city employees are on call.
"Police here have also notified all state law-enforcement agencies of the event, and rumor has it that other local police departments are ready to stand by."
Out in the canyon, work on a large wooden stage was already under way at Sycamore Flats, an undulating field of waist-high grass and brush in a natural bowl of the coastal hills, just north of where the San Joaquin Hills toll road now crosses Laguna Canyon Road. (The land is now owned by the city as a natural area.)
How the festival came to be located there is a bizarre little story in itself. Elizabeth Leeds was 27 at the time, had long lived in Laguna, and was former part owner of a local health-food restaurant called Millabee Treats. She was also friends with Reid and had helped him get out the message about the Christmas Happening. (At one point, she says, she hid the entire press run of 10,000 posters advertising the event because organizers had been told the police planned to seize them.)
"There was so much energy," Leeds remembers. "It was just very high, the highest ever. But it wasn't very organized. Lots of people thought the festival was just somehow going to happen there in the streets of the town. Nobody really planned for it. Curtis thought it was just going to happen all over.