Laguna on Acid

The Great Hippie Christmas Invasion of 1970

Leeds remembers the generosity of the town. In the manuscript of a book she is preparing about the Christmas Happening, she writes: "Local citizens and women's groups and the churches were all donating and loaning food, blankets, firewood and anything else they could think of. Plenty of pots and pans were donated or loaned by various churches in town. The Episcopalian and Unitarian churches went all-out. Equipment and microphones, tents and decorations were also coming into the site. . . . People in motion, people with high hopes, people giving."

Gene Atherton, then a 44-year-old local doctor who had been instrumental in setting up a free clinic in Laguna Beach, went to the festival to organize medical services. A medical tent was set up along with a "bad trip" tent. Atherton recalls with a laugh that someone established a "hippie ambulance service." Local doctors and clinics loaned Atherton drugs and equipment. By the end of the Christmas Happening, Atherton says, there were two births; two deaths from accidents; one case of a rattlesnake bite; 15 cases of frostbite; and 300 bad trips, which he treated by having helpers hug the sufferers until they came down.

"The whole thing was just great," Dr. Atherton says. "It was quite a scene. There were grandmothers, and there were kids. I remember Suzy Creamcheese and Crazy Horse the sword swallower and General Hershey Bar and the Rainbow People. People were singing and taking off their clothes and dancing, and everybody was happy. I was interviewed on CBS news with all these hippies clustered around me. I enjoyed everything."

City officials were not as hopeful. More and more people crowded the canyon, drawn in part by rumors that Crosby, Stills and Nash would be playing, that Joan Baez and Dylan might show up, that George Harrison would drop in by helicopter. Tents were going up. Shelters were being improvised. Trees were being cut down for firewood (the nighttime temperature in the canyon fell into the 40s). Cars were abandoned everywhere, and traffic was tied in knots. The owners of Sycamore Flats were starting to waffle on whether they had actually given permission for their land to be used.

But mostly it was just the hordes of people. Everybody had an estimate: 15,000. 20,000. 25,000. Some-supporters and critics-still thought the crowd might eventually grow to 100,000.

The City Council was, as one of its members, Charlton Boyd, says, "totally ill-prepared and totally baffled." On top of the size of the crowd itself, there were rumors-never proved-that radicals from the SDS, the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers were agitating among the crowd, trying to stir up confrontations with the police. Some banks reportedly moved their records away for safekeeping. There was talk of declaring martial law. City Hall and the police station were boarded up, and the police set up a command post at the high school. Calls went out to other agencies, and reinforcements poured in. Helicopters landed on the high school athletic field. A local businessman who had for some reason built himself a homemade tank loaned it to the police. The City Council hired a public-relations man, dispatched Boyd on a fact-finding trip to the Christmas Happening site, and then beat a hasty retreat to its own "emergency command bunker"-the top floor of the waterfront Surf and Sand Hotel, where it passed the duration.

"On Christmas day, we were really getting totally inundated," Purcell recalls. "At 3 p.m., we shut the town down."

Police officers erected barricades and closed Laguna Canyon Road and Pacific Coast Highway in both directions. People with identification proving they lived in Laguna Beach were allowed through; traffic jams stretched for miles. Purcell went to Sycamore Flats to check things out and see if he could find somebody with whom to negotiate an end to the festival.

"The City Council . . . just figured it would all eventually go away," Purcell says. "But from what I saw out there and the people I talked with, it was apparent they didn't have any intention of leaving."

So the decision was made-by whom it's not really clear, but probably the police-to stop all supplies flowing into the festival. "Basically, you had these mostly peaceful 20,000 or so people out in the canyon doing their thing, and now they were under siege by the police," Atherton remembers.

At which point our story turns into some sort of bizarre Costa-Gravas hippie thriller. Leeds was trying to get a load of supplies into the festival but found her way blocked by police-police who were searching people. To Leeds, the whole thing resembled a war zone. Managing to talk her way through the roadblock, she arrived at Sycamore Flats to find that food and, especially, water were needed badly. She borrowed a truck and drove with friends to the restaurant she'd once owned. There, they loaded up with supplies, drove south to San Juan Capistrano and then to El Toro. Scouting around, they found an unpatrolled dirt road over the hills. They got stuck in mud, pushed themselves out, arrived at the festival, and that evening served 3,000 meals of rice, vegetables and bread.

Others were also smuggling in food. Kelley recalls scouring farmers' markets for supplies and likewise smuggling them in along back roads. Laguna Beach residents also got into the act. Some climbed down hillside trails to deliver bags of food to the besieged festival. Phyllis Sweeney, who a couple of years earlier, while working for a local real-estate office, had shown several rentals to Leary and his wife, got a call from her 15-year-old son that people at the festival needed food and water. Sweeney and her friends collected as much food as they could find-Sweeney herself spent Christmas day baking every potato she could get her hands on-and then pulled some strings and got permission to cross the police lines; a caravan rolled through to Sycamore Flats.

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