A Longtime Employee of the Legendary Golden Bear Recalls the Huntington Beach Club’s Heyday

“You’ve got 15 minutes,” Coleen Hansen warned me as I opened the door to her Westside Costa Mesa alterations shop at 6:45 on a recent weeknight. “Jeopardy‘s almost on, and it’s the Tournament of Champions.” A lifelong Jeopardy fan myself, I couldn’t bear to rob anyone of the chance to find out who among the three charming finalists would wager their way to the top this year.

But I also couldn’t bear the thought of missing the chance to hear Hansen’s story. Fifteen minutes to talk about Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan and Steve Martin and bikers and bums just wouldn’t cut it. So I asked if we could watch Jeopardy together, and then talk. “That’s fine,” she said.

It was the penultimate game of the tournament, and the heat was on. Would it be the charismatic bartender Austin Rogers who was hot off a 12-game winning streak? (Hansen was partial to him.) Or would it be the dapper Buzzy Cohen? (“He’s cute,” I remarked.) Or the earnest Alan Lin? I fixed myself a post-work gin and tonic and pulled up a chair.

The two of us played along, Hansen answering accurately aloud.

Once the show was over, it was time to summon an old ghost from the history of music in Orange County: the Golden Bear club in Huntington Beach.

Hansen was a freshman at Orange Coast College when she first started her decade-long career as bookkeeper at the legendary venue-by the sea. As with many great opportunities in life, it happened quite by accident. “I heard the radio in the student center announce a new club opening,” she recalls of that day in November 1963. “It was supposed to be folk music, and we all went out to the other [folk] clubs. It turned out the advertisement date was wrong, and we went down there, and they were closed!”

The venue wouldn’t actually open until two days later (featuring exotica icon Les Baxter with a young David Crosby), but while she was there, she spoke to owners Delbert Kauffman and Jim “Ry” Ryerson. Realizing they probably needed someone to handle their marketing better, they offered Hansen a job on the spot.

According to Hansen, this false start was indicative of the lackadaisical way the club was run in the early ’60s. “When I first came in there, it was a mess,” Hansen remembers of the club’s finances. “I was hired as a forensic bookkeeper.”

In the early 1960s, folk music was in its heyday, and the Golden Bear was early in bringing the genre to OC shores. It’s often misremembered that Bob Dylan played the Bear in 1964, but the venue was much too small for Another Side of Bob Dylan-era Dylan. Instead, Wilson High in Long Beach played host to the Golden Bear presents Bob Dylan, tickets for which cost $2 to $4. Someone had to stay behind and watch the club, so Hansen didn’t get to see him that night.

By 1966, Kauffman had reportedly run the club into the ground and left to join a commune in Oregon. George Nikas then bought the business. A Greek immigrant, Nikas also owned the Rouge et Noir and the Cosmos clubs in Seal Beach. (His brother Ted ran Prison of Socrates, the legendary Greek-themed coffee shop that hosted many of the same artists as the Golden Bear.) While Kauffman and his crew were responsible for the folk years, Nikas brought in the club’s golden era of live entertainment. Under his ownership, the 300-person venue hosted Janis Joplin, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Richie Havens, and more.

“We were the first club to have Janis Joplin or any psychedelic music in Southern California,” recalls Hansen. “A lot of the owners were a little leery about it because of the drugs, but we had Janis, and it was really successful.”

After picking my jaw up off the ground over the thought of meeting someone who had met Janis Joplin, I asked Hansen what she was like. “She was so nice,” Hansen remembers. “She’d come up to the bar and wait until all the waitresses had gotten their stuff, and then she’d say, ‘Can I please have a Coke?’ We’d go, ‘Oh, you can have anything you want!'” She gestured largely, miming a hug.

“I did have a little talk with her about keeping the pot out of the [building]—we didn’t want to get busted. And she said, ‘Oh, okay, I’ll go out and do it outside.'”

Hansen then described what it was like to see one of the largest classic rock icons of all time in a small venue. “When she got onstage, it was like lighting a fire under her. All of a sudden, she just bloomed. The band was so good everybody just stopped and didn’t move and their jaws hung all the way down. She’d just grab the audience by their throat.”

From 1963 to 1974, Hansen got to witness some truly legendary moments in Orange County music history. “I got to hear all this wonderful music—unless we got somebody who you didn’t like, then you had to listen to them alllll week!” she says with a laugh.

She befriended José Feliciano and watched a young Steve Martin work on his balloon-animal routine. “I got so sick of those damn balloons. He’d be doing it offstage, in the kitchen—it drove me nuts!” she remembers with a chuckle.

By the early 1970s, the Bear, limited by its small capacity, struggled to book the caliber of acts that had made it famous. The folk craze of the early 1960s was long over, and several of the more notable acts the club hosted when they were on the brink of stardom were now too big and expensive to book again. In 1974, Nikas called it quits and sold the club to its final owners: brothers Rick and Chuck Babiracki and Rick’s wife, Carole.

Not too fond of the new ownership, Hansen quit soon after. The Babiracki era brought in acts such as the Ramones, Jerry Garcia, Tom Waits, Muddy Waters and Patti Smith. Placentia’s Agent Orange also played there. The owners even discovered a then budding artist named Wyland, the whale guy, and got him to do the large music mural on the side of the building.

Now in her 70s, Hansen leads a quieter life as a full-time seamstress and part-time thrift-store enthusiast. The Golden Bear was demolished in 1986. In a fate befitting its Huntington Beach home, a large surf shop now sits upon the hallowed ground.


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