Perhaps not as storied as New York’s Stonewall Inn, site of a 1969 police raid and uprising that sparked the modern gay rights movement, still Laguna Beach’s Boom Boom Room is revered nearly as dearly among Orange County’s gay community.
The dance club best known for its Wednesday night drag shows is a widely-known drawing card for a ring of rainbow-flagged businesses that have prospered in its proximity.
Long-time residents suggest the Boom’s popularity among gay men and lesbians dates to the demise of the Main Street boardwalk in 1968. Crowds that used to bar hop between Dante’s Inferno and the Barefoot Bar migrated south. So did still-closeted Hollywood celebrities such as Rock Hudson and Martha Ray.
Bob Gentry, who served on the council from 1982 to 1994 and was the nation’s first gay mayor, estimated the community’s gay population at 23 percent in 1985 when the first domestic partnerships were recorded at City Hall.
Now a new threat is looming to the gay community’s most visible icon, a nearly century-old hotel with beachfront rooms and Coast Highway frontage. At the leading edge is gay-pride standard bearer Fred Karger, a 27-year political consultant and 33-year Boom patron, who hopes to enlist loyal customers in a summer petition drive to halt the expected demise of the gay haven.
“I think it’s going to be a pretty big battle,” said Karger, 56, who two years ago retired here after owning a second weekend home in Laguna Beach for a decade. “I have experience in this area; I know how to put a campaign together.”
Some think Karger is tilting at windmills.
Steven Udvar Hazy, on the Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people, last October acquired Coast Inn and also purchased neighboring properties, Coast Liquor, the tiny Gay Mart, and at least one beachfront home.
In a conversation in March with Karger, Hazy told him he intended to convert the 23-room hotel to a nicer 12-room boutique hotel and restaurant. “He would rather it not be gay,” Karger said. “He didn’t commit to saving it.”
Udvar Hazy was said to be traveling and did not return phone calls to his Los Angeles office.
Patrick O’Laughlin and James Marchese, who co-owned and operated Coast Inn and the Boom Boom for five years, remain under contract as its operators. Owners of neighboring businesses think redevelopment plans may surface as early as Oct. 1. So far, no new plans have been submitted to city officials. And despite its 1927 construction, architectural modifications would make it ineligible for a historic designation, said Steve Fairbanks, former chairman of the city’s Heritage Committee.
Even so, Karger’s “Save the Boom” campaign is heating up. He is circulating petitions, building alliances, tapping suppliers for funds, and researching potential strategies to woo political support and popular sentiment.
“I’m going to appeal to city leaders to help us to try to work out some sort of compromise,” Karger said. City officials should see value in preserving a link to Laguna’s reputation for tolerance, he figures. “I would hate to see that wiped off the map.”
Some think Laguna’s popularity as a gay destination is already waning, partly because of ambivalence by owners of gay establishments over flexing their economic muscle. The combination of increasing tolerance for gays and appreciating real estate is also causing demographic shifts in other traditionally gay enclaves, for example San Francisco’s Castro district, Key West, Fla., and even West Hollywood.
“I think gay Laguna has passed,” said Dwight Goldblatt, owner of Flowers Too, a florist near the Boom. “I can remember when it was packed,” he said, referring to the dance club.
After years adjacent to the Boom, two month ago John Ponce closed Jewelry by Ponce, mostly due to the dissolution of a relationship. Yet, he contends high-end motels that are out of reach to the younger gay population has curbed the Boom’s traffic. “I wish him luck trying to save it. I can’t see how any one can make it work,” said Ponce, who is relocating to Portland, Ore.
“Who are you going to save it for?” asked Joel Herzer, co-owner of Woody’s at the Beach, a nearby restaurant that welcomes gay couples. He predicts his business will suffer from the Boom’s closure. “Udvar Hazy doesn’t want it. It’s like keeping someone on life support.”
Karger is not dissuaded. He takes comfort from a similar successful battle that blocked a condo conversion of the Boat Slip, another long-time gay bar in Provincetown, Mass. A 3,500-signature petition drive sunk the plan.
He is hoping 5,000 signatures will salvage the Boom.