Drugs, dancers and Johnny Depp: The demolition of The Viper Room is the end of a Hollywood era

Hoy, Sunset Strip is a shadow of its former self. In the 1960s, the infamous two-mile (three-kilometre) stretch of Sunset Boulevard was the heart of Los Angeles’ emerging counterculture, a place where world-famous actors Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda joined young hippies in rioting. against the 10 pm curfew. Then, in the eighties, bands like Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen, and Mötley Crüe were staying up way past their bedtime, when the area became the whiskey-drowned home of the hair metal. These days, the counterculture is long gone and the bulldozers have been arriving. In February, the iconic former home of Tower Records, which went bankrupt in 2006, was demolished to make way for a new branch of skatewear brand Supreme. Last month, it was announced that The Viper Room, the rock and roll den once owned by Johnny Depp, will soon be demolished and replaced by a 12-story glass skyscraper. “Just what the Strip needs!” jokes Steve Cohn, Depp’s former construction manager and Viper Room regular in the ’90s. “There’s so much s*** like that. It’s so sad”.

When it opened on August 14, 1993, The Viper Room was the hottest spot in town. Despite the cave-like venue’s minuscule capacity of just 250 people, the first night’s headliner featured Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Lemonheads’ Evan Dando and Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan. A who’s who of Hollywood found himself in the crowd, as directors Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch and Tim Burton rubbed shoulders with stars like Dennis Hopper, Christina Applegate and Patricia Arquette. Mobster Mickey Cohen had converted a grocery store building into a music venue in 1947, a fact Depp pointed out with pride. “I really love the idea of ​​1920s, 1930s, 1940s clubs,” he said to L.A. Times on its opening night. “Like long, clingy dresses, gin sodas, and witty small talk?” one partygoer asked. “No wit, I don’t want any wit here,” Depp replied. What he did hope to create, he said, was a club where celebrities “don’t feel like they’re on display.”

Johnny Depp wearing a Viper Room hat in January 2002


His wish came true, and the deliberately dark and dingy Viper Room quickly became the city’s hippest hangout for film and music performers. However, it was not long before tragedy struck. On October 30, 1993, less than three months after it opened, rising star River Phoenix arrived at the club with brothers Leaf (now known as Joaquin) and Rain to play with the P band, whose members included friends of Phoenix, Flea and John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. During the show, Phoenix told a friend that he feared he was overdosing, as he had taken the combination of heroin and cocaine known as speedball. Moments later, the young actor was convulsing on the pavement outside the venue. He died in the early hours of the morning. In the aftermath of the incident, the club closed for a week and, out of respect for Phoenix, the venue closed every year on the anniversary of his death until Depp sold his stake in the club in 2004. “For years, every Halloween the entire The sidewalk was full of candles and flowers,” recalls Cohn. “Probably still, but in those days you couldn’t even walk on the sidewalk there, it was so crowded.”

Phoenix’s death made little dent in the club’s reputation. He began to become famous for his excesses. At Kate Moss’s 21st birthday party at the club in January 1995, the former neighborsJason Donovan had to be carried off on a stretcher after suffering his own cocaine-induced seizure. At the time, Depp and Michael Hutchence of INXS were on stage playing Van Morrison’s “Gloria.” “The couple were halfway through the song, belting out the chorus, when I realized he was about to leave,” Donovan wrote in his 2007 memoir, Between The Lines. “My heart was racing, my vision was blurring and I was getting disoriented. I tried to steady myself, but my legs buckled under me and I fell to the ground.” After being released from the hospital, Donovan apologized to Depp and Moss for crashing their party. “We’re glad you’re okay,” Donovan remembers Depp telling him. “Now take an advice from me, go to your room, get some sleep, and for God’s sake take it easy in the future.”

Depp’s presence attracted some of the biggest bands in the world. “It was an amazing place, but it had the best sound system on the entire Strip, and because Johnny owned it, it brought a lot of amazing people together,” recalls Cohn, who says a personal highlight was an unannounced jam session with Hutchence. , Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. Over the years, Hole, Iggy Pop, Slash, The Strokes, Johnny Cash and Keanu Reeves’ band Dogstar have crammed onto the tiny stage. “The best acts that ever came to Los Angeles played there,” says Cohn. “Even if they had played the Hollywood Bowl the night before.”

In December 1995, Oasis was on tour for the second album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? and had just played to thousands of fans at the nearby Universal Amphitheatre, when Depp talked them into an impromptu follow-up at The Viper Room. “Depp told people about him, and someone told [la estación de radio local] KROQ, who announced it around 3 pm yesterday afternoon,” reported MTVNews at that moment. “In fact, it was announced to the surprise of the band. Truth be told, they forgot what they had promised, but after a few phone calls everything was settled and the band showed up at the club in time to play their short but impressive set at 12:15am. The Gallaghers played to a crowd featuring an unlikely selection of fans of the britpop. “At one point there were over 1,000 people lined up to get into the little club,” he wrote. mtv . “A row that included members of Offspring, Korn, as well as Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots.”

That same year, choreographer Robin Antin formed a modern burlesque troupe called The Pussycat Dolls. They landed a permanent slot on Thursday nights at The Viper Room, which lasted from 1995 to 2001. Over the years, the provocative dancers performed with popular stars like Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, and Scarlett Johansson and became so popular. Interscope record label boss Jimmy Iovine suggested turning them into a pop group. They became one of the best-selling girl groups of all time, with some 55 million records sold. “The shows they did there when they were starting out were pretty raucous and impressive,” recalls Cohn. “Almost everything happened in that place.”

Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler leaving The Viper Room in April 2002

(David Klein/Getty Images)

The club’s popularity, and celebrity appeal, continued well into the 21st century. In 2004, the same year Depp sold his stake, the actor of spider-man, Tobey Maguire approached The Viper Room co-owner, Darin Feinstein, to host a high-stakes poker game in the basement. Feinstein hired former competitive skier Molly Bloom to direct the games, and they attracted a host of high-profile movie stars, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Bloom’s outlandish story was adapted and made into a film in its own right, Aaron Sorkin’s 2017 drama, Molly’s Game.

In theory, at least, The Viper Room will rise from the rubble. Silver Creek Development, which bought the property four years ago, says its imposing new building will include a modern, renovated Viper Room along with the inevitable hotel, restaurants and 26 condominiums. Designs show the potential venue’s clean glass lobby, while plans promise “memorabilia of the original Viper will be on display throughout.”

For many in Los Angeles, however, something important will be lost when the historic building is torn down in 2023. A common jibe against the city is that it has no sense of history, but it’s impossible to cultivate one when much-loved places are being torn down. to make room for another skyscraper. Adrian Scott Fine of the Los Angeles Conservancy says urban planners often overlook the cultural significance of such buildings. “They’re not even talking about these places, or even thinking about them as potentially historic because they see them as something so new,” Fine said. LAist . “So we have to change that because we’re going to lose a lot of places before we start to understand how they fit into a larger context.”

The new developers promise their building will offer an “unmatched level of luxury.” Meanwhile, the libertine antics that once made The Viper Room so infamous now seem relegated to another time.

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