Two outside circumstances led to the club'sdemise. One was a riot that broke out in 1986 at the Ocean Pacific Pro Surfing Championships, during which youths torched six squad cars and injured several uniformed officers. The HB police—never a jovial lot—really had it in for kids after that, and the kids attracted to Sam's were weird-looking enough to catch their ire. The other was redevelopment, which also hastened the closing of the much-lamented Golden Bear. The city's master plan for downtown was a developer's dream, but it left no room for anyone else's.
"The day that they shut us down was the same day they approved the redevelopment," Lanni said. "There was no way they could have a Safari Sam's in the middle of that mall they created, with our weirdoes running around with leather jackets, green hair, spikes everywhere, tattoos everywhere. We had freethinking people, not good little consumers."
There was another factor in Sam's closing: in the shift from restaurant to nightclub, libertarian Sam never bothered to get an entertainment permit. Maybe someday the ACLU will address this peculiarity of law, where speech that's otherwise protected by the First Amendment becomes utterly unprotected when it's sung. In the meantime, municipalities tend to notice when you don't ask their permission to entertain.
One September night in 1986, police officers came into the club and announced that any further entertainment would result in criminal prosecution, have a nice night. A month and a half later, hundreds of club supporters packed a City Council meeting, urging the councilmen to reconsider their denial of the needed permit. Parents spoke about what a wholesome place Sam's was and what it had meant to their kids. Others talked about the little club's crucial place in Orange County's creative community, how it was the realperforming arts center where local artists could develop. Some talked about freedom and democracy.
In contrast to these views depicting Sam's as a beach-hut Kennedy Center was the police recommendation to the city. Signed by then-Police Chief Earle Robitaille, it asserted the club was a locus of "vandalism, fights, prostitution, drug use, litter and numerous drunk subjects," concluding, "Safari Sam's type of entertainment has attracted an unruly type of clientele . . . it is believed that the owners of Safari Sam's, Mr. Saverio Lanni and Mr. Gil Fuhrer, have displayed poor moral character and the type of entertainment as proposed would be detrimental to the public welfare."
This was a mysterious document to those of us who had been to the club dozens of times without ever once seeing any of the crimes it alleged. There was no record of arrests or convictions to back it up. As for the "type of entertainment," was it the Beckett play that bugged them? The polka, poetry, punk, country, comedy, jazz, blues, funk, folk and chamber music?
Short of jousting in the streets, where is it a police department's role to determine what's acceptable for the rest of us?
Huntington Beach, evidently: Sam's permit was denied.
Meanwhile the corporate-sponsored, revenue-producing OP surf competition—where the riot had started when drunk guys forcibly stripped bikini contest participants and the littering was done with flaming cop cars—got the green light to continue. Lanni, Fuhrer and a couple of hundred friends held a New Orleans-style funeral march for the club, culminating in Lanni burning a copy of the Bill of Rights at a fire pit on the beach.
Part of the local music scene migrated to Long Beach, where Steve Zepeda was booking Bogarts and other rooms. There's little doubt, though, that the closing of Sam's and other original-music venues stunted the now-celebrated OC scene for years.
Nine months before the shut-down, I interviewed Lanni for the Register. He was brimming with the potential of the American Dream, but with a caution: "I think America is a place where we're basically allowed to reach our goals, but at the same time the system puts such a weight on the individual that the values and desires they had when they were young get lost in the struggle to accomplish them. By the time most people reach their mid-30s, they no longer have those values anymore. They're just struggling to survive."
* * *
Lanni lost it for a while after the club closed down. "I couldn't even function," he said. "We got kicked out of our apartment because we couldn't pay the rent. I lived in my VW van for a couple of months. I finally decided I had to snap out of it."
He managed several OC bands, one of them the heavy-touring National People's Gang. He tried to open a "performing arts center" in Santa Ana; city officials politely but firmly turned him down. Then he met his wife, Cathie, and decided he'd better make some money. He took over managing his family's supermarket in Fontana.
"I was Mr. Whipple for 10 years. If you've ever sold toilet paper and meat, it's not fun. I want to sell beer and music," he said. Fontana was spirit-sapping. "There was such a barrier between some of the customers and me, where there was no getting past their perception of the people who run stores. There was so much theft and attitude every day, it was hard to face. When my parents finally decided to sell it, I felt like I was being set free."
* * *
So now he's put his savings into a vacantstrip club in a run-down section of Sunset known as "Hooker Alley." His wife's quit her job to be the club's marketing director. Why?
"Outside of my life with Cathie and our two children, owning a club was the happiest time of my life," he said. "As far as my work and what I want to accomplish in life, it's this. I'm not an artist, but I've always hungered to express myself. This is my bliss, my way of being creative."
With the original Safari Sam's, he said, "Gil was easily 60 percent of that club. It's going to be very interesting trying to do this without him. [Fuhrer lives in Philadelphia now. He's maintained an archive of the original Sam's accessible via the safari-sams.com website.] Gil was the driving force behind our most off-kilter nights, the one who brought in the drama, poetry and opera. This time, I'm going to take the Gil role, while Steve and Patrick are gonna have to fit it into the scheduling puzzle."
Steve Zepeda and Patrick Llewellyn are the principal bookers for the venue. Llewellyn's been active on the LA scene for the past several years, while Zepeda booked alternative shows in Long Beach for decades, until a couple of years ago, when he burned out on dealing with club owners with no appreciation for music. "I'd decided I was never going to do this again unless there was really an opportunity where the music came first, so here I am," he said.
Given their druthers, the place would be an endless stream of cutting-edge puppet shows, gypsy acrobats, lecturers and full-on musical mayhem. Don't be too surprised, though, if the latest incarnation of Blue Oyster Cult also rolls through.
"I initially figured I needed seven sellouts a month to be able to do what we want the rest of the time. The way the costs have piled up, and with a $100,000 nut every month, we're going to need more like 10 or 11, which is hard to do," Lanni admitted. "One thing I swear we're not going to be, though, is one more of these hamster-wheel, band-in, band-out, band-in, band-out clubs. When people leave here, I want them to feel that they've been through something special.
"I feel like we're in the Dark Ages. Americans go to work, consume and watch TV. Rousseau said, 'Man is born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains.' Now we're in prison practically. Everybody's working more, making less, living less, being less free and there's less sense of community. What are we getting out of it?"
LA was decidedly more fun 30 or 40 years ago, when you could pop down to the Troubadour to hear Captain Beefheart at full fury, or see a double bill of Pentangle and Richard Pryor, or catch the Firesign Theatre with Big Joe Williams at the Ash Grove, or Love and Spirit at the Whisky, while a Volkswagen dealer hired skywriting planes to fly over the town spelling out "Jack Poet loves you" just because he felt like it, and everyone felt the days and nights were full of possibility.
Maybe dreams come true and in a few years Hooker Alley will have the same cachet as the Sunset Strip or Silver Lake. If dreams don't come true, what's the good of being awake?
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.