A far cry from the bustling and pampered beach community it’s now become, the Laguna Beach of the past was a small coastal town where hippie revolutionaries introduced the world to LSD. In a community of about 13,000 there were an estimated 3,000 flower children who inhabited its beaches and communal homes and in the Winter of 1970, they were preparing for a party that could change the world.
“Be a witness to the birth of the ‘New Age’,” the poster read, “A coming together to celebrate the birth of the one feeling in all.”
As some recall, the event appeared to have spontaneously crept up out of the hills and into Sycamore Flats in Laguna Canyon for three days of peace and music that would become the Woodstock of the West. Builders began to gather in the valley with lumber to construct the stage while church groups donated food and local utility workers electrified the place free of charge.
If the event had an organizer at all it was Curtis ‘Rainbow’ Reed, who is now living the van life in Huntington Beach. Then in his early 20s, Rainbow initially planned to unleash chaos on Main Beach, which threatened to bring thousands of transients to downtown Laguna and give the local city council a collective aneurysm.
In Laguna, Rainbow operated a headshop called Things as well as the restaurant Love Animals, Don’t Eat Them which connected him to the local artist community. At the time Laguna was home to the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, otherwise known as the ‘Hippie Mafia’ and their Mystic Arts World—an art collective which served as the group’s headquarters.
“It was never meant to be another Woodstock,” Beth Leeds told Elliot Almond of the LA Times recalling the event 19 years later, but the outrageous rumors were intentional and meant to spread the word.
With local law enforcement and city officials irritated by the fact that the counterculture was drawing more and more hippies to their town, the event which would eventually become known as “The Happening” or “The Christmas Happening” was set to be a response and ultimate transformation for the community and the world. But it was the author and artist Dion Wright who convinced Rainbow not to unleash chaos, but instead to throw, “a birthday party for Jesus.”
The invitations each contained a 300-microgram tab of Orange Sunshine, the most powerful LSD in existence.
The invitations read, “Let Sunshine Do (LSD)” and each contained a 300-microgram tab of Orange Sunshine, the most powerful LSD since Hoffman first synthesized the substance in 1950 – produced and distributed by the Brotherhood.
It was rumored that everyone from Jimi Hendrix to The Grateful Dead would be there. But the major headliner was to be Timothy Leary, who had just escaped prison San Luis Obispo and was expected to parachute in and address the crowd.
On Dec. 23, a local paper, The Register picked the story up and began to spread the fear and yuppie outrage Rainbow intended. It claimed that 100,000 “long-haired youths” would descend on the city within days.
“Local police are working on 12-hour shifts and often riding two men to a patrol car,” The report read, “All police in Laguna Beach are on tactical alert for Christmas day, and many city employees are on call.”
Neil Purcell, Leary’s arresting officer, told OC Weekly in 2012 that it was local police who arranged to have the event in the field just outside of town once it appeared that they would have to take the event seriously. He claims that police bought $10,000 and arranged for the stage to be built and ensured that electricity was provided.
The Happening would draw 15,000 to 25,000 people and over the first two days officers and hippies alike were rather cordial toward one another, with long-hairs peacefully surrendering their drugs to police who in turn allowed the party to keep going. LSD had been outlawed just four years earlier, but there was no reason to believe that there would be a shortage when it was just the substance that sparked this gathering.
On Christmas day 1970, a cargo plane proceeded to drop thousands of greeting cards, each with a hit of Orange Sunshine and the message, “May the Great Spirit watch over you as Long as the grass grows and the water flows.”
The next day, police were ordered to block the highways, but the hippies kept pouring in; hiking over the hills to reach the valley.
Despite the massive turnout, some saw the event as a failure. Not only because of a lack of organization but because it didn’t spark the nationwide revolution they might have hoped. None of the rumored artists made an appearance, and Leary had fled to Algeria with the Black Panthers to escape another arrest. But some still consider the event a success simply because of the airdrop.
“The fact that folks in the Brotherhood were able to perform the only documented psychedelic airdrop at the concert is more than impressive—and weird—enough to mitigate against all the other failures of the event,” Nicholas Schou, author of Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and its Quest to Spread Peace, Love and Acid to the World told Laguna Beach Magazine.
Still, The Happening did mark the end of an era. One in which free-love and the cave-dwelling days of Laguna Beach would give way to high-rise apartments and upper-class nuclear families.
On the morning of December 28th over 1,000 hippies remained in the hills—mostly to clean up what had been left behind. Many of the attendees were naturally environmentalists, who stuck around to make sure that The Happening had left no trace of what had happened. But the police had other ideas, sparked by a crippling fear that the fun might never end. So they dragged the remaining hippies out of town by the busload and bulldozed whatever was left of the counterculture.