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Where'd All Those Darn Hot Tubs Go?

Why, Where All Pop Culture Icons End Up--in No-Longer-Hip Land

August 04, 1996|Laura Accinelli | Laura Accinelli is a staff writer for Los Angeles View

It came from the Sixties and confronted Suburbia, bubbling over with the West Coast mythos of peace, love and understanding--and rotting in the sun. In middle America, curiosity eventually got the better of suspicion, and it was co-opted. In three decades it passed from novelty to popularity to banality.

Poor old hot tub, seemingly spent icon as worn as an old redwood barrel and guilty by association with a more licentious time.

How uncool is the hot tub today? Merely mentioning the words can make Westside real estate agents shudder, robbing them--momentarily--of the power of euphemism.

"It's something associated with canyon living," sniffs Beverly Hills real estate agent Jeffrey Hyland. "Topanga Canyon."

"I used to find them in Marina del Rey," reminisces Cecilia Waeschle, another Beverly Hills broker, who warns that nowadays hot tubs can be, as she ominously puts it, "a liability."

The classic hot tub--an aboveground redwood barrel or customized wine cask--ideally sits on a deck with a view, out of sight of the neighbors. It was this organic wooden tub that pioneered getting into hot water as the pinnacle of California-style leisure, but it soon gave way to mass-produced adaptations in Gaudi-like shapes of molded acrylic. By the 1990s, manufacturers bent on suppressing certain freewheeling connotations of hot tub-dom began emphasizing health benefits. And so was the humble hot tub re-christened with a name suggestive of the illustrious soak-holes of history: Bath in England, Baden-Baden in Germany and, of course, Spa in Belgium.

"The term 'spa' is more contemporary and more accurate," insists Suzanne Stearns of the National Spa and Pool Institute. In other words, what was once sybaritic is today therapeutic, thanks to a good scrubbing by marketeers anxious to rid the tub of residual hedonism. The hot tub loosened inhibitions; the spa eases tensions. And make no mistake: In its day, "hot tub" was shorthand for "Let's get naked and party."

"It was sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll--oh, I do miss those days," sighs Barry Glick, onetime producer of redwood tubs and founder of the 10-member Wood Tank Manufacturers Assn., defunct now for eight years. "But for the sake of business, yeah, we had to clean up the image of the tub."

Yet hot tub is still reflexively invoked whenever squeaky-clean spas get into trouble. Since 1980, more than 700 people have drowned in spas and hot tubs, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Several were caused by body parts or hair being sucked into drains, including an incident in May when a 16-year-old New Jersey girl drowned in a 10-person spa during a prom-night party--news reports all called the spa a hot tub. And when police questioned Ray Combs before his suicide about a bloody bump on his head, the former host of "The New Family Feud" told them he'd banged it on the "hot tub."

Larry Davis recalls the hot tub's decline and fall all too well. His retail tub outlet, HydroSpa, outfitted many an up-market hippie. In the late 1970s, when Davis realized there was a load of money on the Westside but not a lot of space to install hot tubs, he opened a rent-by-the-hour concern--one of many once scattered as profusely across the Southern California cementscape as water bed emporiums.

Davis' first Le Hot Tub Club, in Westwood, was awash in lurid neon and fuchsia, turquoise and black. Business boomed. John Belushi stopped by during his final binge-driven days and nights in 1980. Then, in 1985, Rock Hudson died of AIDS. More than anything, says Davis, that pulled the plug on the hot tub.

"No one knew where AIDS came from and everyone was sure it came from everywhere," he says. "So people stopped wanting to have fun."

Davis, however, didn't close his Le Hot Tub Clubs. He scrupulously re-marketed. "I had to reposition myself from wild to calm, because sex was dangerous." Le Hot Tub Club became, and still is, Splash--The Relaxation Spa, painted in cleaner hues of blue and white. "The more stress there is, the better business is," says Davis, leaning against the wet bar in the $100-an-hour Japanese Garden Room, its waterfall misting.

The sexual-health alarums of the '80s threatened to kill off the hot tub as thoroughly as its partner in decadence, disco, but what they really announced was the domestication of desire. By the '90s, the hot tub-cum-spa had found a happier home within the walled domain of the bathroom. From communal bliss to private gratification, the hot tub proved remarkably adept at catching the next wave of lifestyle faddism.

"The hot tub is an icon of the 1960s and '70s in the same way that an old converted van you'd drive all around the country was," says Chuck Kleinhans, who teaches a course in popular culture at Northwestern University. "After a certain point, though, all icons wear out. The hot tub has ended up being redefined as something you can write off your taxes as a medical necessity."

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