By Chris Epting
10:34 AM PST, November 20, 2012
The Golden Bear closed down in January 1986, though to hang around people who frequented the place, you might swear the dark, cozy, intimate musical venue once located near PCH and Main is still there. People speak of it in such loving and present terms, rifling through old memories like they happened yesterday, that it still seems very much alive. Stories of Joplin, Ronstadt, Garcia, the Ramones and on and on are all part of the lore.
The Golden Bear opened at 306 Pacific Coast Highway (just across from the pier) as a restaurant in the 1920s, designed by renowned Southern California architect Ernest Ridenour. Movie stars back then would motor down from Hollywood for dinner after a day at the beach. By the early 1960s, the space morphed into a music club. Dizzy Gillespie, the Byrds, the aforementioned Janis Joplin plus many others played the Bear during that era.
Under new ownership in the 1970s, the Golden Bear continued to grow as a seminal performance space. That's where Carole Babiracki came in to the picture. She and her husband, Rick, along with brother-in-law Chuck Babiracki, ran the Bear from the mid-1970s until the bitter end. And she misses the place deeply.
I was with her and Dan McCoy, director of the International Surfing Museum, the other day as they put the finishing touches on a splendid Bear exhibit that runs for the next month or so. McCoy brought it in for obvious reasons. "The greatest venue this city ever had," he said as he hung old posters and other artifacts from the Bear. "The city made a huge mistake getting rid of that place. Just think of what we'd have today."
Babiracki agreed. "Every time I pass the old site, I think of what might have been." And then she started reeling off the memories.
The night singer Tom Waits crashed on the floor among beer cases and pulled a Big Mac from his pocket before uttering, "You never know when you'll get hungry."
Or when actor Christopher Reeve came down to visit his pal Robin Williams, who was performing standup. How about reggae singer Peter Tosh's request for five fresh red snappers so his chef could make fish-head stew? Or Van Halen, opening for a band called Yesterday & Today, telling Babiracki, "Take our picture; we will be famous some day." So she did, and it is one of many other rare photos on display. Like the one of Peter Frampton jamming with Firefall, and Peter Gabriel performing during his first solo tour.
I interviewed Gabriel last year and asked him if it was true if he, after playing the Bear, went for an evening ocean dip after his show. I'd heard the rumors over the years. "Oh, absolutely," Gabriel chuckled wistfully in his soft-spoken British accent. "A lovely venue in a lovely town. Me and the whole band actually, just out the back door and down to the beach, right after we played. A magnificent evening. I'll never forget it. What a perfect location for a club that was."
Yes, it was. And it still remains a vivid memory for the faithful, some of whom even collect bricks from the storied building that were rescued after it was demolished. You'll see some of those bricks at the exhibit., A few have traces of blue and white paint on them, remnants, perhaps, of the mural that Robert Wyland painted on one of the Bear's outer walls. Today he is a famed marine-life muralist, but back then, he was a local patron who offered to paint some of the musical artists on one side of the building. Babiracki believes it was just his second large-scale work. He was paid with some free show tickets and an open bar tab (one of Wyland's business cards is also on display at the exhibit).
It seems fitting that the exhibit lives in a building that was once home to another local venue, Safari Sam's, so I'm sure musical ghosts are smiling inside 411 Olive Ave., where the Surfing Museum is located, as well as over at 306 Main, former site of the Bear.
Admission is just $2 for the exhibit. Why on earth would you miss this?
Young Authors Fest
Also, the Authors Festival writing and illustrating contest, "Unlock Your Imagination," closes on Saturday, Dec. 15, so go to the Children's Library desk at 7111 Talbert Ave. or to http://www.fotcl.org for an entry form and complete rules. More than 30 students from pre-K to 8th grade will win a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble, so kids, start your entry today.
And the Friends of the Children's Library is sponsoring a special sports and pop culture memorabilia sale just in time for the holidays in the library lobby from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 8. Stop by to find the perfect gift for all the adults on your holiday list.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.