After the Smith family sold the bar to Sidney Bryant in the mid-1970s, the new atmosphere quickly attracted large gay crowds from around Southern California. Lines formed down the street. Celebrities such as Hudson, Lynde, Bette Midler and Martha Raye dropped in.
Then came AIDS, which thinned the ranks of the regulars.
"There was a freeness and lack of inhibition there," recalled Jeannie Mallarian, a former Boom Boom waitress. "I quit counting the AIDS victims after 192. I went to a lot of funerals. I quit crying after a while."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 15, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Boom Boom Room: A story in Saturday's California section about the closure of the Boom Boom Room in Laguna Beach identified one of the former bar owners as Steve Marchese. His name is James Marchese.
The community carried on. Robert Gentry became the nation's first openly gay mayor, eventually serving three terms between 1982 and 1994. Now splitting his time between Hawaii and Rancho Mirage, Gentry, 67, sees a far more affluent city where gay influence is waning.
"We have seen a change, one that started with the AIDS pandemic," he said. "There are people who want to see less gay people here. I haven't seen the city take a stand on domestic partnerships. Ten years ago we would have been the first to stand up for it. We would have sent representatives to Sacramento."
The potential demise of the Boom Boom Room, he said, is another step in the decline of gay life in the city.
"The Boom is a taproot to the gay community in Southern California," Gentry said. "It has a great deal of symbolism, a great deal of history and is an icon for the city because Laguna Beach would not be where it is today if it weren't for the gay community."
Gentry said he expected the exodus of gays to Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City and the suburbs to continue.
"These other cities will reach out and pick up the slack," he said. "There are tons of people from Laguna in Palm Springs now. I am saddened by the change, but I understand it."
Joel Herzel, owner of Woody's at the Beach, a smaller, more upscale gay bar and restaurant in town, said the city would regret losing the Boom Boom Room.
"I don't want Laguna to become like Newport. I don't want it to lose its charm," he said. "People look at the bar and say, 'It's only a bar,' but it's a place that people want; it is part of their lives. It's our past and our future. Assimilation is a great thing, but there is something to be said about knowing who you are."
Fred Karger, 56, who has lived in the city for 10 years, has assembled volunteers, collected more than 4,000 signatures on a petition, talked to the new owner and put together a website (www.savetheboom.com) dedicated to keeping the bar open.
"This is the gayest place in Orange County," he said. "I remember the first time I came here. I fell in love with the place. The Boom Boom Room was in this magical town full of upbeat, attractive, interesting people."
Karger said city officials should help save the Boom Boom Room. "They could use their bully pulpit," he said.
Mayor Steve Dicterow said he would be happy to speak to the new owner, but that's about it. "I do see the Boom Boom Room as important, but I'm fearful of city involvement because I believe in property rights," he said.
Regulars at the bar disagree about what it all means. Some see the scheduled closure as the end of an era; others view it as another storm to weather.
"Laguna Beach doesn't need another bed-and-breakfast or magnificent restaurant," said Bob Wilson, 69, an ex-merchant marine officer who has been a patron since 1978. "I have traveled the world, and you hear about this place in Amsterdam, Hong Kong -- wherever you go. For me, after so many years, it's home. And now, something you could count on is gone."
Al Roberts disagreed. "I don't think gays need the protection Laguna offered years ago," he said. "I think it would be great if it stayed, but I wouldn't pressure the property owner. For some people the bar is their life, but it's not mine."
Late into the night, as sea breezes bathed the sweaty club, the drag queens began wrapping up their act. "We only have six more shows left and then we are done here!" one shouted.
The exuberant women with their dollar bills, the bare-chested barmen, the vamping transvestites, the occasional straight guy trolling for the occasional straight girl -- they all quieted a bit as the reality sank in.
Happy Laguna, it seemed, would soon be less gay.