LAGUNA BEACH — Expectations of a Christmas "love-in"--a Woodstock West--drew 25,000 people to Laguna Canyon 20 years ago this week. But when the love festival had became a weeklong party and guests still refused to leave, police donned riot gear, sang "Here Comes Santa Claus" and broke it up.
Even in a community known for its tolerance, the event panicked city officials and some residents who feared the surge of people descending on the small city could cause a riot. The police response: to close off Laguna Beach on Christmas Day, 1970.
"We ruined a lot of people's Christmases. They couldn't come in and visit their families because we closed this place down," said Police Chief Neil Purcell, who was then fresh out of sergeant's academy.
The crowd that gathered in the canyon that December was eclectic--longhaired youth mixed with servicemen, Vietnam veterans with Hells Angels. Some of the young people were naked; one elderly woman wore fur.
Despite the passage of time, those involved in the rock festival still have clear memories of the event. One recalled LSD tablets fluttering down from an airplane like snowflakes. Another remembers a hilltop silhouette of police in riot gear.
The drama began in early December with a rumor that thousands of youth would soon wind their way to Laguna Beach. It ended Dec. 28 when an abandoned campsite was bulldozed and set ablaze by police.
Between the rumor and the blaze, an estimated 25,000 people were drawn to Laguna, almost tripling the city's population and setting city officials' nerves on edge. Music and marijuana filled the canyon air, seven babies were born and two people died.
The key players in The Happening have since found a way to categorize the experience. Then-City Manager Larry Rose calls it the consummate challenge of his career. Police Chief Purcell says it was a turning point in Laguna's history. For participant Beth Leeds, it was simply the best Christmas of her life.
"There was a huge star we called the Star of Bethlehem. It hung over and none of us could sleep it was so bright," says Leeds, a Laguna Beach resident who helped organize the event. "This was like the young people celebrating Christmas the way they wanted to, in spite of the fact that every single step along the way there were policemen or city officials telling them they couldn't do it."
If the festival was a dreamy celebration of Christ's birth to Leeds, it was something less benign from the city manager's point of view. Rose received word in early December that posters had materialized on the East Coast inviting people to a Christmas love-in on Laguna's Main Beach.
"In a matter of days we began to get the impression that the whole world was coming to Laguna Beach," Rose said. Worried about crowd control and the potential for riots, he turned to Kenneth Huck, then the police chief, for help. "I said: 'What are we going to do? We've got to get prepared. We've got to do something.' "
Word of the festival hit the underground press. Rock stations passed it on. Calls to the city multiplied. Where is Laguna? callers wondered. Does the Greyhound bus stop there?
"It began to build," Rose said. "There was clear evidence we were going to get thousands of people there."
Just 16 months before, 400,000 young people had flooded a White Lake, N.Y., farm for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Laguna began to brace itself, fearing that a "Woodstock West" was about to materialize.
Surrounding communities were called for help. Local police started working 12-hour shifts. The city brought in an armored tank.
"I think we began to prepare ourselves in a military sense, actually," Rose said. "We were preparing to defend the business district."
The city got its first big break when a narcotics officer infiltrated a group of locals, convincing them that the canyon would be a better place for a rock festival than Main Beach, Rose said. Now they had a game plan: funnel the youth into the canyon and seal off the city.
"By that time, I had gotten extremely desperate," Rose said. "We were approaching Christmas. They were showing up."
Purcell remembers Christmas Day 1970 vividly. A "command post" for 450 officers had been set up at Laguna Beach High School. From Dec. 20 to Christmas Eve, police had been working 20-hour shifts, Purcell said. On Christmas Day, they stopped going home at all.
Some city officials still thought The Happening might fizzle, Purcell said. But when Christmas dawned, all doubt evaporated. Youth by the thousands began to stream into the canyon--in cars, in converted school buses and on motorcycles. Some came on foot; at least one arrived on horseback.
"All of a sudden, it's like they came out of nowhere," Purcell said. "They were here."
At one point, police say, 500 cars an hour were rolling into the city en route to the canyon clearing known as Sycamore Flats. "By about noon Christmas Day, we had approximately 25,000 young people in town, attempting to get there, or on the site," Purcell said.