Hollywood Vampires: The Birth of Midnight Movies on L.A.'s Sunset Strip, Part 2

Once upon a time...on the Sunset Strip. The Hollywood of the Seventies emerged from the counterculture explosion on Sunset Boulevard.
Tim Concannon

Hollywood Vampires: The Birth of Midnight Movies on L.A.'s Sunset Strip is a three-part series of essays by Tim Concannon.


1969 on the Sunset Strip was a period of dislocation, dissipation and dissolution from which the Hollywood of the Seventies emerged. A movie theatre adjoining Santa Monica Boulevard, where the Underground Cinema 12 film festival held sold-out midnight shows attended by thousands of Freaks, is an overlooked catalyst of L.A.'s underground scene, alongside Pandora's Box, the club recreated in Riot On the Sunset Strip (1967) and which was the focus of the November 1966 Sunset Strip disturbances.

Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time...in Hollywood—which is woven around the Manson family murders in 1969, though it isn't focused on them—is situated in the same unsettling hinterland between film stardom and savage violence that Peter Bogdanovich's Targets touches on as well. Other films dealing with L.A. in this period include The Trip (1967) and The Mayor of Sunset Strip (2003), George Hickenlooper's documentary study of deejay Rodney Bingenheimer.

The car dealerships and strip malls along Sunset Boulevard that Boris Karloff's chauffeur-driven car passes on the way to his personal appearance at a drive-in were already in steady decline by the time Peter Bogdanovich was making Targets in 1967. Las Vegas had progressively drawn musical artists away from L.A. clubs on the Strip that had been frequented by Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in the Thirties and Forties, and owned by people like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the Fifties. Club owners were replacing the likes of Sinatra and Bobby Vinton by the mid-Sixties with Beebop Jazz and folk rock ensembles such as the Lovin' Spoonful, the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, and Frank Zappa and his Mothers of Invention.

In his autobiography, Zappa recalls how one night at the Action—one of three mob-owned clubs on the Sunset Strip where you needed to play in order to be spotted by recording industry types—a very drunk John Wayne, with his bodyguards and entourage, stumbled in one night, past Zappa who was sitting on the steps in a Victorian bathing suit and homburg hat. ("I saw you in Egypt and you were great…," slurred the Duke, "and then you blew me!") Later, Wayne insisted on smashing Zappa's hat down onto his head. ("You don't like the way I fix hats? I've been fixing hats for forty years.") 

L.A. Freaks protest outside Pandora's Box at police curfews, November 1966.

Every town must have a place
Where phony hippies meet
Psychedelic dungeons
Popping up on every street

—Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention Who Needs the Peace Corps?

In 1963, Rodney Bingenheimer was dumped—aged 16—by his celebrity-obsessed waitress mother outside the house of actor and director Connie Stevens, ostensibly to get her autograph. This began years of homelessness which led Bingenheimer, like hundreds of other kids at the time, to drift towards Sunset Boulevard and West Hollywood. Sal Mineo (best known for playing John "Plato" Crawford opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause) named Bingenheimer "The Mayor of the Sunset Strip" and the title has stuck ever since. 

By 1969, Bingenheimer had joined a small army of other dispossessed kids hanging out on the sidewalks beside miles of empty shop units and showrooms. This was despite the police crackdown three years earlier on epic levels of juvenile vagrancy. The Sunset Strip curfew disturbances had been a tracer bullet shot in the air, warning of the culture wars that were to come. Peter Fonda was led away by the L.A.P.D. in cuffs. The riots inspired a movie Riot on Sunset Strip (1967), directed by Arthur Dreifuss and starring Mimsy Farmer (who went on to appear in Dario Argento's giallo Four Flies on Grey Velvet in 1971) and Tim Rooney, among others. It also inspired numerous songs about the run-in with the cops, most famously, Stephen Still's "For What It's Worth" performed by Buffalo Springfield (usually presented as an anti-war song, but Stills insists "it was a funeral for Pandora's Box. But it looked like a revolution." The set in Riot on the Sunset Strip made to look like the spooky mod-goth interior of the minor music venue and hang-out is often said by people who frequented the real Pandora's Box to be an accurate recreation, spider's webs and all, of the club which had been the focus of the protests). The events of November 1966 are examined extensively in Domenic Priore's 2007 book Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock 'n' Roll's Last Stand in Hollywood.

Sonny & Cher at a December 1966 protest outside Pandoras's Box club on the Sunset Strip. 

There was a pecking order on the Sunset Strip in 1969. Bingenheimer and his friend, record producer and hustler Kim Fowley—behind such novelty hits of the day as "The Trip"—were at the top, along with the Doors, various Monkees, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Sonny and Cher, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young. The groupies formed their own hierarchy too, the GTOs, somewhat mirroring the mincing flamboyancy and thrift store celebrity of the Factory starlets whom Warhol surrounded himself with on the East Coast, and the trans performance troupe the Cockettes in San Francisco.

Sandy Baron's turn as deejay Kip Larkin in 1968's Targets is a kind of premonition of Bingenheimer's shtick.

Targets, 1968, Sandy Baron, Boris Karloff, Peter Bogdanovich, Geraldine Baron.

KIP LARKIN, DEEJAY (Sandy Baron): OK, groovy, groovy. Now, um, somebody announces me on the PA, uh, laddies and janes, papas and mamas, here's your boss dis daddy, the winner spinner with the sounds around, Kip the Hip Larkin, le-e-t's hearken Larkin…

SAMMY MICHAELS (Peter Bogdanovich): All right then, after you finish plugging your show you introduce Mr Orlok and we can get on with it. 

KIP LARKIN, DEEJAY: No plugs, not Kip the Hip, I am just gonna tell 'em what a big thrill this is for me, and that's no put-on. When I was a kid, Mr O., I musta dug your flicks four zillion times. You blew my mind. 

BYRON ORLOK (Boris Karloff): Obviously. 

Karloff, Bogdanovich, Targets (1968).

By 1969, Bingenheimer had been Davy Jones's body double in The Monkees TV show, and was a perennial counterculture hanger-on-er, cutting a swathe as "a strenuously mod Don Knotts" as one critic has put it. Fowley and Bingenheimer courted reputations for excess and monstrosity to match the rock stars and film actors whose celebrity they clung onto assiduously. Bingenheimer's English Disco became the main hangout by the early Seventies for visiting glam rock stars like Bolan and Bowie, and assorted proto L.A. Punks. This led somewhat inevitably to claims that the two men procured underage groupies, and to serious allegations of rape leveled against Fowley by Jackie Fuchs, his former protégé in the all-girl band The Runaways [sic]. 

Around the same time, Alice Cooper, John Lennon, Marc Bolan, John Belushi, Klaus Voorman and others formed their own hangout on the Strip, the Hollywood Vampires drinking club, in a loft at the Rainbow Bar and Grill. (The subsequent band Cooper formed with Johnny Depp takes its name from the fraternity.) Before Rocky Horror had hit Los Angeles, the sidewalks of West Hollywood were already littered at night with beautiful corpses, dripping in nail polish, hairspray, glitter, and sequins.


Handbill for UG12 show at The World cinema at 2159 N. High St., Columbus Ohio—also known as the Alhambra—part of the Art Cinema Guild Chain.

A vast flotsam of humanity were hanging around on the Strip, but didn't pass muster to join the "faces", the beautiful people behind the velvet rope at the English Disco. Former Mods Bowie and Bolan would have once called them "tickets". What were this velvet-clad and go-go booted army of the dispossessed to do at weekends? An enterprising film promoter, Mike Getz, saw a gap in the market. His traveling Underground Cinema 12 program originated from the Los Angeles Cinema Theatre at 1122 North Western Avenue, owned by his uncle Louis K. Sher's Art Cinema Guild.1 It became a central feature of the L.A. counterculture from around 1967, the year after the curfew protests. For many years, the line of Freaks attending the midnight shows extended several blocks down adjoining Santa Monica Boulevard. Touring his uncle's theaters from the late Sixties through the early Seventies, Getz brought the work of underground filmmakers such as Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol to wider audiences, as well as showing porn, rock concert films, Busby Berkeley musicals, W. C. Fields comedies, plus other oddities from old Hollywood like Reefer Madness and Todd Browning's circus horror classic Freaks. Getz and his uncle were formative to emerging bohemian film-going tastes in the late Sixties, and both deserve as much credit for creating midnight movies as Barenholtz , Lennon, Yoko and Jodorowsky do for turning El Topo —playing at the Elgin in New York in 1971— into the first true midnight hit.


Front page of issue #178 (Dec. 15-22, 1967) of the Los Angeles Free Press.

An unintended consequence of the symbiotic relationship between midnight movies and the underground was to inspire journalists in the counterculture to create the L.A. Free Press, the formative underground newspaper. On 7th March 1964, the Hollywood Vice Squad had busted Getz in possession of a print of Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising and charged him with lewd exhibition. The subsequent trial (Getz's conviction was overturned on appeal) was covered in the first issue of the Free Press, with articles by Seymour Stern, and Jonas Mekas relating his own prosecution for showing Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures, asserting the importance of opposing censorship and police oppression.2 By 1968, the paper carried a film review column that shared a name with Underground Cinema 12, written by Gene Youngblood, which did much to shape the counterculture's relationship with cinema. (Among Youngblood's most celebrated columns was one that embraced Kubrick's trippy science fiction opus, a review with the title"2001: A Masterpiece.") 

Louis K. Sher's Art Theatre Guild chain was not only responsible for providing a nocturnal bolt-hole for the Freaks and flotsam of L.A. of the late Sixties. It also provided the black box where one of the biggest directors of the Seventies had, as a child, absorbed the symbolism and energy of the cinema that had gone before, and which—by way of his unique sensibilities that had been formed at Saturday morning matinees at Sher's theatre in Scottsdale, Arizona—went on to shape what Hollywood was to become in the Seventies.


1. Mike Getz interviewed by Alison Kozberg, 12th June 2010, "Alternative Projections: Experimental Film in Los Angeles 1945–1980," FilmForum, Los Angeles, CA.

2. David E James, 2005, "The most typical avant-garde: history and geography of minor cinemas in Los Angeles," University of California Press, Berkeley, p.223.

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