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CELEBRATE! : Orange County's First 100 Years : COMING OF AGE : HIPPIE HAVEN

May 21, 1989|ELLIOTT ALMOND | Almond is a Times staff writer

In the '60s, Laguna Beach, with about 13,000 residents, was inundated by as many as 3,000 flower children. For many residents, it was an acrimonious time. For others, it was a magical mystery tour through a new age. Beth Leeds, above, of Laguna Canyon attended the Happening:"It evolved so fast we just went along with the flow."

On a chill but clear Christmas morning 19 years ago, the scent of incense and marijuana filled the air over a lush, tree-covered Laguna Canyon landscape. As a sliver of dappled light beckoned the new day, longhaired flower children congregated near a stage in Sycamore Flats. Shortly after dawn, a young girl with an acoustic guitar walked onto the stage and began singing in a tremulous voice, joining the chirping of hundreds of birds. So commenced a three-day rock festival--from Dec. 25 to 27, 1970--that attracted about 15,000 youths armed with peace signs and flower power. The Happening, as it was called, marked the end of a colorful, though inharmonious, period in Laguna Beach's recent past.

Between 1967 and 1971, the cozy art colony became known nationally as a haven for hippies. The city, which then had only about 13,000 residents, was inundated by a roving population of hippies that reached its peak at about 3,000 in late 1969.

For many residents, it was an acrimonious time during which they saw these hirsute, oddly dressed intruders as spoiling the city's serenity. For others, it was a magical mystery tour through a new age.

The flower children trekked across America on soul-searching crusades and came to Laguna because of the mild weather and its climate of permissiveness, elements that had attracted artists since the turn of the century.

The hippies lived in caves above the city or in ramshackle homes in the canyon, slept on the beach, organized love-ins and, police contend, turned Laguna Beach into a sanctuary for drug users.

BETH LEEDS, WHO RAN A vegetarian restaurant on Coast Highway where hippies used to hang out, was among those at the Happening.

"It evolved so fast we just went along with the flow," she said recently while relaxing in her Laguna Canyon home. "We didn't know what to expect. It sort of started as an idea to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. It was never meant to be another Woodstock."

But as word got out, there were rumors that such superstars as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and George Harrison would be there, and youths expecting Woodstock West inundated Laguna Beach.

With beads and blankets, bracelets and backpacks, they arrived in beat-up VW vans and on motorcycles and bicycles, strung along Coast Highway north and south of the city, looking like a band of refugees. Police estimated at the time that cars were streaming into the area on Christmas Day at a rate of 500 per hour.

Although the big-name musicians failed to materialize, Buddy Miles and a number of local rock groups performed. People danced on the grounds, participated in sing-alongs, chanted and enjoyed free drugs and free love. For three days, Leeds says, an atmosphere of peace, love and understanding prevailed.

But not everyone was understanding.

The influx of humanity caused the City Council to order the police to put up barricades on Coast Highway and Laguna Canyon Road on Dec. 26 to stop the flow of festival-goers. For eight hours, Laguna Beach was isolated from the world. Still, the hippies kept coming, hiking over the hills when they could not get through on the main roads.

Some residents panicked, says Alex Jimenez, a Laguna detective who worked during the Happening. Fearing that the festival would continue beyond its planned three days, frantic residents rushed to stores to stock up on food, causing traffic jams downtown.

Laguna officials called upon neighboring communities to help them assemble a police force of about 400 riot-equipped officers. They even borrowed a tank from the National Guard, though it never left the Laguna Beach High School football field where it was parked. Jimenez says that the law enforcement team took over the high school, where officers slept on makeshift bunks Christmas night and through the weekend.

Not wanting to incite a riot, the police were low-key, and Jimenez, now retired and living in San Clemente, says that the youths were cooperative. When police asked them to turn over their drugs with the agreement there would be no arrests, most complied. Three drug-related deaths were reported nonetheless.

Still, the youths were orderly. When police requested that the crowd disperse after three days--the length of the organizers' permit to hold the festival on the private canyon property--most left quietly. Leeds says about 1,000 stragglers stayed behind after the weekend, many to help clean up the site.

"We wanted to leave the canyon the way we found it," says Leeds, who today is active in environmental issues when she is not waitressing at a Laguna cafe.

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