Sunday, May 6, 2012

Historic Walking Tour: The irreplaceable Golden Bear Cafe and nightclub

ABOVE: The original Golden Bear Cafe, circa 1930s, described as a Spanish Revival-California Eclectic style architecture. (Photo: City of Huntington Beach archives.)

 The Golden Bear fits under the category of "Disappearing Huntington Beach."
ABOVE: A chamber of commerce luncheon in front of the Golden Bear Cafe on Ocean Avenue (now Pacific Coast Highway), circa 1935.  Note the steel gateway arches at Ocean and Main Street. The Golden Bear Cafe hosted many of the civic and community functions. (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives.)

   Ask a Huntington Beach local about the Golden Bear and watch them get all misty eyed.  They'll tell you stories about the musicians and comedians, about grabbing a beer and having the night of their life, and then stepping outside to ocean air and crashing waves.  It was a soulful little place that put us on the map.

   It started as chef Harry Bakre's Golden Lion Cafe in 1923 on Main Street, becoming the Golden Bear Cafe on Ocean Avenue in 1929.  By the 1960s, the Bear was "revered by musicians as one of the best-sounding rooms in the country,"  reported the Los Angeles Times (Legendary Bear to roar again, Jan. 25, 2009).   We're talking Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, B.B. King, Arlo Guthrie, and comedian Steve Martin, Robin Williams and Lenny Bruce in a venue where you could actually see and hear them, and almost touch them.

ABOVE: Musician, actor, comedian Steve Martin performed at the Golden Bear (scene from his classic, King Tut, which he performed on Saturday Night Live in 1978 and now performs to bluegrass).

   A commenter on the Orange County Memories online discussion about the Golden Bear described it as having a "vibe that only places like the Whisky a Go Go or the Troubador have...when you left after a show with your ears still ringing, you got a face full of ocean breeze.  The place was incredible.  Many people don't realize that Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Doors, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and even Lenny Bruce and Robin Williams performed there."

ABOVE: Patrons waiting outside the Golden Bear on Ocean Avenue "feel the ocean breezes". (Santa Ana Register, July 8, 1976)

The day the music died
   What happened to the Golden Bear?  The eighties.  It was the era of Dynasty, big shoulder pads and unfortunate hair.  Worse, it was an era of rampant redevelopment that replaced much of Huntington Beach's authentic 100-year-plus history with gawd-awful Mediterranean stucco. Like the Pacific City Hall building lost on Main Street, City planners suggested saving the facade while demolishing the remainder of the building. In the end, all was lost.

   Despite community protest, the Golden Bear was declared "seismically unfit" and demolished in 1986 after the owners filed for bankruptcy protection in 1985, akin to tearing down Maison Bourbon in New Orleans.

   Periodically, there are rumors of someone trying to bring back the Golden Bear nightclub.  It's hard to recreate that cool, but we wait, we hope.

  Meanwhile, we ask you to go to Historic Downtown walking guide spot #27, at the corner of Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway, strike your best King Tut pose for the camera, and honor the memory of the Golden Bear.

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