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Is It Doom for Laguna's Boom Boom Room?

The landmark gay bar is sold, triggering rumors about its fate as well as a celebrity connection.

November 08, 2005|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

The sale of one of Orange County's first gay bars to a Beverly Hills billionaire has sparked concern in Laguna Beach over the fate of a business that for decades has been the signature gathering spot for the town's gay community.

The real estate deal has also prompted a flurry of rumors, published and otherwise, that a pair of Hollywood celebrities, Brad Pitt and George Clooney, are involved in the deal.

Despite denials from both actors and no firm word on the future of the Boom Boom Room, the uncertainty of it all has brought a sense of melancholy -- and some curiosity -- to Laguna.

"It has a lot of history, and it has a great deal of meaning for the gay community in Laguna Beach and in Southern California," said Bob Gentry, the county's first openly gay politician, who was both a mayor and councilman in Laguna Beach from 1982 to 1994. "It's an important milestone."

The Boom Boom Room was a serviceman's bar when it opened as the South Seas in 1927. In the late '60s or early '70s, after the bar had become a haven for Laguna's burgeoning gay community, it was renamed the Boom Boom Room. The dance club became a premiere fixture on the county's gay scene, including weekly drag shows and sightings of celebrities such as Rock Hudson.

On Oct. 11, the Boom Boom Room and the adjacent 24-room Coast Inn were sold to Emerald Financial LLC for nearly $13 million, said Scott Hook, a senior investment associate with Marcus & Millichap's Newport Beach office, who represented the sellers. The current occupants' lease runs through April, he said.

Emerald Financial is owned by Steven Udvar-Hazy, an airplane lease mogul worth an estimated $2.4 billion and ranked 258th on Forbes' list of wealthiest people. A representative for Udvar-Hazy would say only that the inn and club's lease status was unchanged.

But Laguna Beach residents have been abuzz with published and online rumors that Udvar-Hazy is a partner with Clooney and Pitt, and that the trio plan to turn the inn into a tony boutique hotel in the style of Miami's South Beach.

A gossip column on E! Entertainment's website in August first reported that the actors were involved, and the report was picked up by a handful of newspapers across the country. The Orange County Business Journal reported Oct. 31 that the actors were investors in the deal, but it cited no sources.

An employee at the Boom Boom Room said it had been getting dozens of calls each day asking about the fate of the tavern. "It's very up in the air," she said. "We're still kicking."

One person posting online to a message board exclaimed, "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO ! ! ! ! ! ... For the love of God, why would George Clooney do this to me???? Why? Oh, the humanity of it all. What will I do for my Wed night drag queen fix?"

Publicists for Clooney and Pitt, and Udvar-Hazy's Realtor, deny that the actors have any involvement, to the chagrin of some who had hoped to see the stars and the A-listers who would surely follow.

"I'm so disappointed. I couldn't wait for the ribbon-cutting," said Councilwoman Toni Iseman, who has lived in the seaside village for 35 years.

Aside from noting that Udvar-Hazy is meeting with an architect this week, Joe Smith of Monarch Beach Realty declined to comment on what his client planned to do with the property.

"Obviously, people are trying to enrich the property," he said. But "the Coastal Commission and the city of Laguna Beach are probably two of the more stringent agencies you can find anywhere in California."

Bill LaPointe, publisher of the Orange County and Long Beach Blade, which covers gay issues, said the possibility of the Boom Boom Room closing is symbolic of Laguna Beach's evolution as a tourist mecca.

For many, particularly old-timers who remember when passersby would harass them on Pacific Coast Highway and police would send undercover officers into their bars, the Boom Boom Room will always remain a pivotal place in their memory.

"You knew you were at least safe in numbers. You knew no one in that bar was going to harm you psychologically or physically, because you were all there with like interest," Gentry said.

"You were all there as oppressed gay people trying to have a good time, and we were and we did."

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