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.
"John had become one of my regular customers at JR's. He told me, 'You've got the experience to run a bar, so if you move to Laguna Beach and manage the Boom, you'll be an owner,'" said Foutch, who owned and ran a Kansas City bar called Pegasus from 1986 to 1988. "Craig and I said yes. He was very persuasive."
During the next Easter weekend, Attebury and Foutch drove from Texas to Orange County and checked out the Boom with Halderman. Within 90 days, all three were living together in Halderman's Dana Point house, preparing to make an offer for the bar. Foutch, who had gotten a job as a bartender at the Boom to get an inside view of the business's potential, reported back a thumbs up. For six months, Foutch said he and then-owner Sid Bryan negotiated without success. They came to terms on April 24, 1992, when Halderman—operating as the newly created JTC Laguna Resorts, Inc.—purchased the Boom's bar, restaurant and 23-room Coast Inn hotel complex (and some adjacent property on PCH) for $3.06 million.
After borrowing more than $200,000 from a relative and dipping into his pension and other savings, Halderman made a $700,000 down payment, according to court records. Bryan, owner of the Boom since 1979, had been eager to sell for years, and—although he had been seeking $6 million—he was delighted to finally find a buyer. (Minutes before the deal was finalized, a neighboring businessman who was disturbed by the close proximity of a gay bar offered to pay the three partners $100,000 to withdraw their offer, hoping he could eventually acquire the Boom and bulldoze it into a parking lot. They declined.)
Despite the need for substantial repairs and remodeling, the triumvirate took over with great expectations. They were touted in the Blade , a local gay publication, as out-of-town "baby boomer" saviors. "We're trying to make this a friendly place where the atmosphere is more like a community or a family than a commercial establishment," Attebury told the Blade. Nevertheless, the commerce wasn't bad. Thanks in part to an exodus from Los Angeles following the Rodney King riots, the new ownership's second weekend saw tremendous financial success, hauling in about $100,000 in a four-day period.
But the seeds of disaster were sown in the deal they cut in 1992. The specifics of the deal called for Halderman to serve as JTC Laguna Resorts' president, Foutch as secretary and Attebury as treasurer. Foutch and Attebury were to take over the Boom formally within the first two years, making Halderman a silent partner, according to court records, including Halderman's testimony in a December 1995 deposition. In that deposition, Halderman conceded the existence of an oral agreement between the partners and described the terms as calling for the younger men to assume tot loan on the business, repay Halderman his upfront money at 8 percent interest, reimburse his penalty taxes for saving and pension withdrawals, and give him one-third of the Boom's profits until death. Foutch and Attebury would manage the day-to-day operation and be entitled to one-third each of the profits. Both said they worked 70-hour-plus weeks and took greatly reduced salaries (initially $18,000 a year), choosing instead to pour most of their portion of the profits back into the business.
In the Boom's first year under their management, Foutch and Attebury said the Boom's income more than doubled from $800,000 to $1.65 million, including about $250,000 in cover charges. "The Boom was making money hand over fist. In the early days, profits were growing between 15 and 20 percent every quarter," Attebury said. Sources said the business's receipts climbed above $2 million in 1994.
Importantly, however, Halderman had declined repeated requests to put the partners' agreement in writing and sign it, Attebury now alleges in court records. It wasn't long before the dreams—and the three-way business relationship—began to unravel.
According to Foutch and Attebury, the first significant sign of trouble among the men appeared in September 1992, a year and a half after the three moved in together. Foutch and Attebury, who shared a bedroom in Halderman's house, said their privacy was invaded, the graphic details of which they promise will come out at the trial. Both moved out and took a room at the Coast Inn. The next problem, according to Foutch, was that Halderman reneged on a promise to buy him a brand-new, limited-edition $200,000 Viper sports car if the Boom's revenues doubled in the first year, a goal he says he achieved. (Halderman had previously given him a $30,000 Dodge Stealth.) By February 1994, Foutch said he noticed a number of odd business practices and discrepancies for cash receipts. According to court files, he asked Halderman for an accounting of the bar's profits and renewed his demand for a written contract. Both, he said, were refused.
"Craig and I had worked so hard for so long and had been surviving on about $14,000 take-home pay," Foutch said. "So I went to John and said, 'It's time to divvy up the profits so we can live.' Remember, on what I was making, I couldn't even afford an apartment in Laguna. He told me there were no profits and refused to show the books…I believe there was at least $750,000 in profit."
After a final business disagreement, Foutch quit, eventually hired an attorney, and eleven months later was given a $60,000 settlement after he agreed to relinquish his interest in the Boom. "I just wanted to get on with my life," Foutch said. Attebury stayed on as general manager and took a boosted salary of $4,400 a month, plus a $10,000 bonus. Halderman also agreed to operate as 50-50 partners, according to Attebury—but, once again, the terms were never officially committed to paper. "Looking back, it's clear I was absolutely nave, too trusting," said Attebury, who now lives in Palm Springs. "John got greedy. He wanted all the money, everything for himself."
By 1995, the relationship between Attebury and Halderman had grown increasingly unpleasant. According to court pleadings he later filed, Attebury claimed his partner followed him into a bathroom and leered at his groin while he was at the urinal. Other times, Attebury said, Halderman committed sexually suggestive acts in public towards him, employees and customers—including using his passkey to enter occupied hotel rooms uninvited. "Halderman would solicit others to engage in lewd conduct in public view," Attebury contended in his lawsuit. Halderman's attorney, Eugene Gratz, called the allegations laughable. "I've conducted an extensive investigation and there is no evidence of any sexual or improper conduct on John's behalf."
A former longtime Boom employee who Halderman fired, however, supported Attebury's contentions. "I had several hotel customers say to me, 'Keep that dirty old man away from me,'" said the ex-bartender, who agreed to an interview on the condition that his name not be printed.
The trouble doesn't end there. The Boom has allegedly been used illegally as a film location for gay porno. This March, amid hundreds of onlookers, an x-rated video company filmed non-sexual scenes in the bar's main room. Both Attebury and Foutch said gay-sex videos were also filmed in the hotel rooms or on the oceanfront decks. The Weekly was provided photographic evidence that sex scenes were filmed at the Boom.
Another source said he witnessed "firsthand at least four" adult film productions underway at the Boom during the last three years—allegations sure to pique the interest of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), which enforces a "morals" code contained in the state laws governing liquor-license holders. It may also interest local authorities. To shoot movies—including sex flicks—a conditional-use permit must be granted, but records show none was obtained by the Boom or Halderman, according to Lieutenant Danell Adams of the Laguna Beach Police Department. Adams said criminal prosecution for lewd or lascivious conduct is possible if scenes were shot in public, like outside on a deck.
Even without the apparent porno problem, the ABC is hot on the Boom's trail. In April 1995, according to accusations filed in court, Halderman asked Attebury to give false testimony before the ABC, which was investigating possible liquor-license violations. The license requires the Boom to serve regular meals, which undercover ABC agents discovered on multiple occasions was not being done to their satisfaction. The AVC was told that the kitchen had been closed for about three months because of various excuses, when—according to Attebury and Foutch—the actual time was closer to 18 months and done intentionally because Halderman said it drained profits.
"The way I think John looked at it was that, at worst, he would get only a slap on the wrist," Attebury said recently. "Originally, the license was supposed to be suspended for 10 days, but John got it down to five days [enforced this March]. Five days for not serving food for almost two years. I can hear him now talking about how much money he thinks he saved."
Then, on May 19, 1995, Attebury said he was asked to sign fraudulent bed-tax returns, court records show. Attebury contended he was fired and locked out of the Boom on May 31 in retaliation for not cooperating in the alleged schemes. Two months later, he filed suit in Orange County Superior Court for wrongful termination and breach of contract. Estimating that his share of the profits at that point exceeded $500,000, Attebury also accused Halderman of diverting the Boom's income for his personal use. Since then, the state's unemployment-insurance board has ruled Attebury was discharged without good cause.
When the ABC learned about the perjury allegations, it opened an investigation, and in May 1996, it issued a formal accusation against Halderman, declaring that the "continuance of such license would be contrary to public welfare and morals." Halderman disputed the perjury claim and is fighting the ABC's attempts to discipline or strip him of the liquor license. Gratz, his attorney, said the perjury allegation is "simply not true," and that he is confident the agency will soon drop its charges. ABC officials characterize the case as "very, very serious." Sources with knowledge of the inquiry say the agency hopes to force Halderman to sell the Boom in fire-sale fashion—within 90 days of a final government ruling.
Some patrons are hoping the ABC gets its wish. After Attebury and Foutch left, Halderman installed at least six ceiling-mounted video cameras throughout the bar, allowing to watch and record employees and customers. Employees said there are also cameras focused on the deck areas of the hotel with potential views inside guest rooms if the curtains are not drawn. To the concern of several local customers, Halderman extended the bars hours for a cover charge, leased office space to Sick & Twisted Tattoos, ended certain cocktail specials, and stopped the practice of bartender free-pouring drinks—a practice that usually gave customers about 1.5 ounces of liquor per drink. Instead, he purchased Posi-Pour liquor-bottle spouts that limit the amount of booze to 1.125 ounces.
"John's been gouging the customers and destroying a lot of good feelings people had in the community about the Boom," Foutch said.
Weak drinks or not, the bar still maintains—to Halderman's credit—a loyal following. That following is particularly strong among the younger gay crowd and out-of-town gay tourists that are fond of the go-go dancers, special events and rousing beachfront atmosphere.
Halderman himself declined repeated requests for interviews, but through court pleadings and his attorney, it is clear he has a different version of events. Contrary to his former associates' claims of being screwed, Gratz maintained Halderman is the victim. In an interview with the Weekly, he said, "Mr. Attebury has been giving a story that in certain ways in a radical departure from the truth. You have a complaint here that is absolutely without merit."
Gratz has not been shy about his contempt for the lawsuit, writing at one point in the 3-foot-high court file, "It appears to be an action by a disgruntled discharged employee alleging the usual panoply of claims."
Rather than greediness or retaliation, Gratz said the events leading to "Craig being fired were his drunkenness, abusiveness to Mr. Halderman and other employees, and his incompetence." In court records, Halderman accuses Attebury of failing to maintain adequate cash and accounting systems, inventory, bank records, and a proper kitchen. "He simply didn't have the background or experience to handle the job," Gratz said.
Gratz portrayed Foutch and Attebury as two desperate, plotting and ungrateful youngsters anxious to flee Dallas and latch on to the happy-go-lucky, financially secure Halderman. "Poor Tim and Craig," said a Gratz, mockingly. "Being induced to devote their lives to this enterprise and being ripped-off by John. Well, that doesn't play well with me….The fact is John came to California to retire. The money was his. He was induced by them to buy the [Boom].
"John is such a nice guy. He gave these two guys free cars, jobs and a place to live," said the Laguna Beach attorney who questioned why anyone would believe he or she could rely on an oral agreement "for a multimillion-dollar leveraged buyout." Arguing that Attebury's breach of contract and fraud claims had no legal merit, Halderman asked Superior Court Judge Randall L. Wilkinson to dismiss that portion of the case.
"What they have said about me is blatantly false," said Attebury, who takes particular umbrage that a partnership agreement is now denied. "If all three of us weren't to be owners, why did John come up with the name JTC Laguna Resorts for our company? JTC stands for John, Tim and Craig."
Lampel, Attebury's attorney, confidently told the Weekly several weeks ago that he would have few problems proving his client's case at the trial. "Why would my client move across the country, work 80 hours a week for three years, manage the bar—building the business into a cash cow—and take only $18,000 a year when the bartenders can make over $40,000?" he said. "When I show all the evidence, there is no doubt a jury will be outraged and conclude Craig was deceived by someone who is really clever."
But it looks like a jury will never hear Attebury's breach of contract and fraud claims. On April 24, Wilkinson dismissed a significant portion of the case, ruling that whatever oral agreement Halderman and Attebury had is not legally enforceable. Lampel, who called the ruling "horrible," said he may seek a reconsideration or file an appeal. Gratz said the judge's move sustains his contention that no part of Attebury's case is legitimate. Attebury's charges of sexual harassment, sexual battery, hostile work environment and retaliatory termination for refusing to perform illegal acts remain in the case and appear headed for jury trial, which is scheduled to begin in October.
Regardless of the legal issues, both parties remain hostile to one another. As if to fire a warning shot if the matter ever reaches a jury, Lampel added, "There is so much more dirt as to what happened it will make people's heads spin."
Not to be outdone, the other side is just as battle-ready. "God willing," Gratz said, "I'll never have to use what I have on Tim and Craig."
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If the threat of additional unsavory allegations coming to light during the trial or the possibility of Attebury winning a substantial financial verdict—what could be a crippling amount for the boom—isn't enough, Halderman faces the pending ABC probe that could result in the bar business's death penalty: the permanent revocation of a liquor license. While outcomes are now uncertain, one thing is sure: losing the Boom Boom Room would have a dramatic impact on Orange County's gay nightlife.
"John needs to know that I am not going to go away until I get what I am entitled to," said Attebury, who teamed up again with Foutch to run Gay Mart, a clothing, card and video shop located directly across the street from the Boom. Their new business has been so successful they have opened stores in Palm Springs and San Diego, and they recently announced expansion plans for Long Beach, Las Vegas and New York City. "I don't want this to happen, but the Boom could be turned into a ghost town by this mess," he said.
"That's the insanity of Mr. Halderman's behavior," Lampel said. "He needs to clean up his act and do what's right—otherwise, he's jeopardizing so much and soiling the reputation of the gay community."
If anyone's reputation has been soiled in the fight, according to Gratz, it's Halderman's. So far, the Boom has "weathered the storm," he said, but Halderman "has had to take the abuse and misinformation disseminated about him."