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
"I can remember that we just kinda went out there to the canyon. Everybody just showed up. And then some telephone poles and a backhoe showed up. And then some people brought lumber, and people started to build a stage. Somebody got [Southern California] Edison to hook up electricity. People were donating everything."
Neil Purcell has a somewhat different recollection. Last year, after 30 years of service, he retired as Laguna Beach's chief of police. In 1970, he was just a sergeant, albeit a famous one: as a rookie in 1968, he had arrested Timothy Leary for possession; the arrest eventually landed Leary in the state prison at San Luis Obispo. (Just three months before the Christmas Festival, Leary shimmied across a telephone line to the other side of the prison fence, and then he jumped into a getaway car arranged by the Weathermen. When he finally reached sanctuary with the Panthers in Algiers, he sent Purcell a post card.) In the fall of 1970, Purcell was in charge of four other officers on the narcotics detail.
"It was Dec. 1, and the chief called and [asked if I could] come to the station," Purcell says by phone from his Big Sky, Montana, ranch. "When I got there, he said, 'We've got rumors that there's going to be a mini-Woodstock on Main Beach and Heisler Park.'"
Like Gayle and the Brotherhood, most city officials didn't believe the event would actually take place, but Purcell's squad got busy gathering information anyway. According to Purcell, two of his officers "put on wigs and grubby clothes" and infiltrated the group planning the festival. The information that came in convinced Purcell that something big was, in fact, about to happen, and he, in turn, was finally able to convince the chief and the City Council.
"It got to the point where we almost had an open check" to get whatever was needed, he says.
The first priority seemed to be to make sure the Christmas Happening didn't happen in downtown Laguna. The land at Sycamore Flats was then owned by a private development company; Purcell said he got that company's permission to use it for the festival. Then, according to Purcell, the police bought $10,000 worth of lumber and rented two big generators and had everything transported to the site.
"That was what got everything moved out there," Purcell said. "Our undercover guys even helped build the stage."
So, it was the Laguna Beach police who got the Christmas Happening to happen at Sycamore Flats? Well, maybe.
"Naw, it was all a big scam by Curtis Reid," Kelley says. "His original idea the whole time was to have it in the canyon. Part of him thought, 'Wow, what if 100,000 people show up downtown and on Main Beach.' But another part of him thought that might not really work. So he figured a place out in the canyon would be best. But he wanted the police to believe people were heading for the city. He was trying to trick them into giving him a big spot out in the canyon. So he and Neil [Purcell] went out there, and that's how everything worked out."
In the days leading up to Christmas 1970, from all across the country, they came pouring into Laguna Beach: longhairs, Flower Children of all ages, college students, already aging hippies looking for the new Haight, families-thousands and thousands of people. They left their cars wherever they found space, jamming downtown and the shoulders of Laguna Canyon Road, and hiked into the site. By Christmas day, there were 25,000 people at the site-with more arriving every minute.
Danelle Adams was 18, had just graduated from Laguna Beach High School, and got her boyfriend to take her to the Christmas Happening. "We got there just before dark," she remembers. "There were people everywhere, and more of them were hiking in over the hills. Peace symbols were everywhere. Music was playing. I can remember walking up toward the bandstand and looking down nearby, and there was a couple making love. On the other side of us, there was a woman on a white horse-long hair, completely nude. People were passing joints around. I remember one guy walking through the crowd, and he put his hand out, and there was an array of every kind of pill. I don't remember what band was playing, but the singer was up there encouraging everybody to toke up. It was just overwhelming.
"After dark . . . it got real cold. There were no blankets and no toilets. I remember one guy taking a whizz against a tree."
With pots and pans borrowed from Millabee Treats, which her former partner had given "to the people" and which had become a sort of staging center for the Christmas Happening, Leeds was organizing a kitchen. At Sycamore Flats, she and her daughter Marielle, her son Clay and some bystanders picked a site near the stage and made fire pits lined with rocks. Someone dug a garbage pit. They borrowed a picnic table and benches from a friend. They gathered bamboo from nearby and built a shelter to house the supplies. Atop the shelter they placed a tin-foil star.