Wonderland

The sounds of America in the 1930’s and ’40’s were nearly drowned out by the din of footsteps.  Of running, of a mad escape from a quaking society and economy, from a fear in Europe that was supposedly ground into the earth in 1919.

People ran in the 1930’s:   from the miasma of the Depression that wrapped around and suffocated the good lives that they had struggled for and for which they traveled from foreign slums to the processing plant of Ellis Island. They ran in the 1940’s:  from war, from death lists, from the bloody desecrations they thought had ended with the war that had promised to end all wars.

People needed to escape.  They wanted to hide beneath the comforting shadow cast by the home front.  They needed entertainment – entertainment that was brash, garish, unsubtle.  They wanted to bask in the exotic and exciting, without being troubled by historical accuracy or possible cultural misrepresentation. They wanted to see things they could not hope to see in their frightened lives.

So it was no surprise that these decades witnessed the birth of the dance/supper club.  No more hidden 1920’s pillboxes, folding up and relocating like an army barracks after the most recent police raid – these clubs were lush and madcap, catering to the whims of a saddened population.

These havens were often built around a theme:  New Orleans, San Francisco, The Orient, The Islands.  There was one in particular:  “The 7 Seas” – located on 6904 Hollywood Blvd.  It opened the mid 1930’s, under the ownership of Ray Haller, as a ‘tiki’ bar:  decorated with native portraits, breathless tropical plants, lava rocks; with walls layered in coconut matting and fish netting and Polynesian floor shows led by Sam Koki and his band.

7seas

There was a hula comic.  A Polynesian knife dancer (who also performed the Samoan Slap Dance:  an ‘island’ theme could be very convenient).  Drinks prepared by bartenders stolen from Don The Beachcomber.  But most famously, was its ‘rain on the roof’:  a nightly tropical rainstorm – created by sprinklers and a recording of a thunderstorm – which dappled the corrugated tin roofs that sheltered the extensive bar.

7 seas

But time did pass – and cruelly so.  In the ‘50’s, young adults listened to their music in more crowded, less creative venues.  Cocktails were no longer de rigueur.  Older – though not by much – adults married.  Had children.  Created a booming generation.  Clubs like the 7 Seas were forgotten; and through the 1970’s crumbled and decayed, their decorations and trinkets crushed into the sidewalks.

However, during the following decade there was a resurgence of dance clubs.  Very few of them were pretty, or deluxe; there were no themes – save for those drawn from the music that was played, and from what the dancers wore.  At the 7 Seas, from the early to mid-‘80’s, I was one of those dancers.

I remember it very well – a great drafty room, surrounded by a ring of tables occupied by a crowd of hopefuls in the dark, eyeing the dance floor with feline curiosity.  We were dressed in our vintage best:  attractively seedy.  I recall one night I wore black leggings, black pointy boots, a black turtleneck and a black-trimmed gold lame men’s smoking jacket.  A boy much younger than I asked me to dance, and when I recounted this vignette to my friends, they breathlessly asked me what happened next.  And I was bound to say that nothing did.

I went to the 7 Seas to dance.  To dance until muscles and bones ached; to come home with smoke-stained hair.  I loved that ugly, dubious place.

For dubious it was.  I did not know that at the time it was referred to as the ‘7 Sleaze’.  Then, around 1984, it was closed down, because – rumor said – of drug dealings in the parking lot.  I didn’t believe this:  certainly the people loitering in the back were rather skeevy, but this accusation seemed rather unfair.  I didn’t even get to use my free pass, which I still keep in my wallet:

IMG_20141007_0001

Recently I read what had happened while I was dancing.

On July 1, 1981 the Wonderland Murders, or the Four on the Floor Murders (for that’s how many bodies were found, and where they were found), were committed.  The details were grotesque and depressing.  It began with a robbery perpetrated by porn star John Holmes to settle a debt to Ron Launius, cocaine kingpin of the Wonderland Gang.  He invaded the home of Eddie Nash – the owner of the 7 Seas.  Two days later Launius and 3 members of his gang were found bludgeoned to death in their home, at 8763 Wonderland Avenue in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles.  Nash had intended to have Holmes killed as well, but decided to spare him, to teach him a lesson by allegedly forcing him to partake in the murders.  Officers from the LAPD remarked that the scene was bloodier than that of the Tate-LaBianca murders.  Holmes and Nash were tried and acquitted in 1982 by a hung jury, 11-1.  Nash supposedly bribed that one juror with $50,000.

The 7 Seas, where all I wanted to do was dance, was owned and run by a criminal.  The club that began as a wonderland would end with The Wonderland.

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9 responses to “Wonderland

  1. Very enjoyable read, your info. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  2. Delicious! I love it! A gangland murder story in New Wave Los Angeles. I can almost hear Blondie’s “Rapture” and The Police’s “Roxanne” playing in the background.

    A number of the old nightclubs and casinos in California were run by “the Mob.” I remember when the owner of a casino in Lake Tahoe (okay, this was Nevada, but still, just a stone’s throw from the border) and his wife were found murdered in their mansion overlooking the lake. The local police said it was the result of a robbery, but local rumor had it that the murder had all the marks of a Mafia hit, and the Tahoe police were as corrupt as anything in old 1930s Chicago. Of course they never found the killers and the murders remain unsolved to this day.

    I never went to the Seven Seas when I visited LA in the early 80s. I was a punk rocker, so I went to The Palomino to listen to X and Black Flag (dressed from head to toe in black, of course). I’m a little sorry I didn’t get to see the place, but back then I probably would have snickered at the tiki-themed decor. I didn’t understand camp back then, and now it’s all just nostalgia. *sigh*

  3. That’s quite a story. We had a place like that, right down to the Mob. It was called the Balinese Room. and it was built out over the water in Galveston. The pier to get out to the club was long. I can’t remember exactly how long, but it was long enough for people to throw the cards, the dice and the booze into the ocean beneath while the cops were running down the pier.

    It was pretty much Pure Polynesian, too. And it was a popular place. Sinatra, the Rat Pack, every sort of jazz musician and chanteuse showed up there. Eventually, it fell into disrepair as times changed, and then it was restored. ZZ Top has a song called “Down at the Balinese,” but unfortunately, it is no more. Hurricane Ike took it out. There were a couple of pilings left, but that was it.

    Well, except for this. A son of the Maceo family, who ran the joint, ended up as head of the Galveston Beach Patrol for a while.

  4. I think the Mob owned all the really swank joints and they got handed down to progressively less swanky mobsters.

    There’s a bad movie about the case. I wonder if the soundtrack was at least awesome. New Wave Noir.

  5. I think all the swanky joints everywhere are run by mobsters, and they get handed down to less swanky mobsters as they decay.

  6. Fascinating story Aubrey and love that mixing of the historical and biographical. Also thanks for introducing me to the word “skeevy”. Not heard of that before but one that perfectly encapsulates the meaning (which I’ve just looked up).

  7. If I had a time machine this place and time would definitely be a stopover point. I’ve yet to visit Hollywood (or even California) which is regrettable. I do hear some of these old cocktail recipes are making a resurgence.

    One of our parks is rumored to have had a Speakeasy at the base of the mountain, and the original building is still there. Like you, it sparks my imagination each time I think of it.

  8. It’s sobering to think about what may be going on in the shadows, while we are oblivious to subtle dangers lurking near to us. I’m not sure why, but reading your story made me think the tropical-themed restaurant, Rainforest Cafe. The only one here in Connecticut closed suddenly last year – I wonder why…

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