Endangered Species

Photo by Tenaya HillsUnless you like ghosts and rubble, this hasn't been a good month for OC's musical legacy. Driving down the 55 one morning last week, I couldn't help but notice a pile of bulldozed debris where the legendary Crazy Horse nightclub had previously been. I was still musing on that when I got home to find the LA Times opened to an obituary of Rick Babiracki, who had owned Huntington Beach's fabled Golden Bear with his brother Chuck.

The Bear was demolished nearly two decades ago, and the Crazy Horse had long been shuttered, replaced by a newer, bigger and sadly blander mount in Irvine. They say those who don't know the past are doomed to repeat it, but there's a generation of uninitiated county concert-goers who could do worse than relive the glory days of those clubs.

The Crazy Horse was in some ways the last place you'd expect magic to occur. It opened during the late-'70s phenomenon that spawned Urban Cowboy, and Chris Gaffney recalls having to deal with management then who didn't seem to know who Willie Nelson was. The place was a steak house that took its cues from Knott's Berry Farm, with a hoked-up, ghost-town look, including stuffed Indians sitting in motorized rocking chairs. The place often ran like a machine: audiences for the 7 p.m. shows would be politely swept out of the club before 8:30 so the second show could be ushered in. Nashville stars accustomed to serving pat morsels of product at every stop found the Crazy Horse an effortless gig. Country hatemonger Charlie Daniels even had a large digital clock onstage so his fans could see they weren't getting one second more than 60 minutes out of him.

Photo courtesy Kimley Upton

But musicians who cared also found the venue could be an intimate or raucous setting as needed. Folks such as Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell could make the place seem like a confessional, while Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and other greats tore it up. One night not long after he came out of retirement, Buck Owens did a roaring show, then for his encore, he had the audience move tables and chairs to make a dance floor and continued long into the night.

The club only held 270 people yet attracted acts that performed in amphitheaters and cavernous concert halls. The Desert Rose Band played the Crazy Horse amid their run of five consecutive No. 1 country hits. Ray Charles played there and rocked the place. These bookings were due to the acts being paid well (reflected in some steep ticket prices), the circumstance of the shows being held on "off" weeknights between the acts' major gigs, and the fact that managing owner Fred Reiser and his staff were some of the nicest people in the business, which led to the Academy of County Music naming them the nation's top country-music club practically in perpetuity.

For the past five years, the building sat vacant, looking more ghost town-like by the day. Now it's gone. True to the county tradition of naming new developments after the meadows, orchards or other things they've usurped, a Crazy Horse Square is going to be built there. Yipee yi yaa.

Photo courtesy Kimley Upton
The Babiracki brothers were the third and most successful owners to run the Golden Bear as a music club. Built in the 1920s, it had spent most of its history as a restaurant or vacant. In 1963, an ex-Marine named Delbert Kauffman happened upon the building just after deciding it would be fun to open a folk-music coffeehouse. He and a partner leased the Bear and proceeded to lose money hand over fist for three years. At one point, the folk duo Ian & Sylvia—musicians!—even loaned him money to stay open. Between 1963 and 1966, Kauffman presented the Lovin' Spoonful, Buffalo Springfield's second gig, Bob Dylan (who never played in the Bear, but rather at a show Kauffman held at Long Beach's Wilson High School), Lenny Bruce and others.

After Kauffman went broke, the Bear was sold in 1964 to Greek immigrant George Nikas, who owned the Rouge et Noir coffeehouse in Seal Beach. He had a better business head and also booked more rock acts just as the music was becoming a rallying point for youth. The Bear and nearby clubs the Salty Cellar and the Syndicate 9000 attracted so many kids on weekends that PCH looked more like the Sunset Strip.

Under Nikas, the Bear hosted the Byrds, John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix, Dizzy Gillespie, the Doors and Janis Joplin. When Rick and Chuck Babiracki bought the club in 1974, they had a similarly adventurous range of acts, spanning Django Reinhardt violinist Stephane Grapelli, proto-punker Patti Smith, local punk pioneers Agent Orange, Tom Waits, B.B. King, Captain Beefheart, David Lindley, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Peter Gabriel (who ran straight from the club's stage into the ocean after his performance) and hundreds of others.

Talking with Dave Alvin recently, he recalled, "I remember being a little kid on the beach in Huntington across from the Golden Bear, and the sign said, 'Little Walter,' and my brother explained to me who Little Walter was. Since then, that little block of Orange County always had an element of massive hipness to me. Years later, I saw Muddy Waters, Patti Smith, Charles Bukowski and other people at the Bear, so it was a big, big deal to me when we finally played there in 1980."

For lots of us, it was a big, big deal just getting to see those acts play there. I've been in scores of music venues, from Leningrad to Greenwich Village to Breaux Bridge to Ocho Rios, and there probably weren't more than a handful on the planet with the musical atmosphere the Bear had. It was a funky old hole, but it was as if the bricks had soaked up every good note ever played there and challenged acts to add to that legacy.

What of human value is ever going to transpire at the Pierside Pavilion developer's wet dream that now stands in the Bear's place? You consume, pay and leave—and that's it.

"They're tearing down a church here," Chuck Babiracki declared the day they had to vacate the building. The rainy night previous, Jan. 29, 1986, Robin Trower played the last show on the Bear's stage. Rick had pleaded for another 30 days in which to give the club a proper send off, with shows, he hoped, by Lindley, B.B. King, Linda Ronstadt, Steve Martin and others who had played the club. He'd called a news conference to say, "This building and its history and what it has meant to the music business give it an inherent dignity that deserves a better fate than what it's getting." It was torn down on May 18 of that year.

Those of us in the journalism racket had cause to approach Rick a little warily. Ask him a simple question, and it would never quite get answered, lost in stream-of-consciousness manifestos, as if he'd latched onto some sort of magical pontification powder. He had a gift for overstatement, claiming after the Bear's closing he'd become the exclusive booker of the Kona Hawaii club, which was sure news to its owner. (He did promote several shows there, though.)

He may not have been the greatest businessman: the Bear's inevitable demise may have been hastened by the money drain of a second club opened in Long Beach. But there was no doubting he loved the place. As a Bear employee recently told me, "He saw the Golden Bear as his ship. At the end of a good night, he'd break out the Oouzo and raise his glass in cheer, and all was well with the world."

Just keeping a club open for 12 years in the volatile music business is a hell of an accomplishment. That the club is still missed and beloved two decades later is also a hell of an achievement. Having done that in Orange County is a near impossibility.

Those were very different times, when local officials still regarded rock as a nuisance instead of a cash cow. The same year the Bear closed, H.B. officials shut down the Safari Sam's club amid overheated claims it was a haven for sex and drugs. Club owners were also a very different breed then. Today, most venues are efficient enterprises run by faceless strata of corporate management. In the Bear's day, the owners were entrepreneurs and characters, an admixture of carny barker and musical apostle. Babiracki was one of the greatest of that sadly fading breed, so please raise a glass in cheer to him.


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