by Suzanne St. John
Suzanne St. John
Southern California in the 1960s wasn’t just a time and place; it was a state of mind. No where else in America could one find all the things happening in, around, and to you that came together in just the right way as they did in Southern California in the 60s. And I would venture to pinpoint Orange County within Southern California as the epitome of that special state of mind. My brother and sister and I certainly thought so growing up there during that wild, wonderful time.
Orange County is located on the coast of California on that last, long curve of North American coastline just before it disappears into Mexico. Bounded on the west by the Pacific Ocean, Orange County is relatively small and shallow, so what the locals unscientifically call coastal weather prevails throughout most of the county. Daily summer temperatures rarely rise out of the seventies and winter temps generally stay above sixty. The area is dotted with marinas. I remember my dad telling me in about 1965 that Newport Beach had a human population of 60,000 and a boat population of 120,000. That says a lot right there.
To the north is Los Angeles County and Hollywood, with a much wider temperature swing, literally and figuratively. The interior sections of California can get quite hot in the summer. In fact, locals joke that the temperature goes up one degree for every mile one drives inland. The July mean high temp for Newport Beach on the coast is 70, while the same for Riverside, fifty miles inland, is 96. LA County has a relatively small intersection with the coast (think Malibu and Venice Beach); most of the county reaches up and out into the more interior parts of California.
Higher inland temperatures can describe the political climate as well. In the 1960s, the riots and political unrest going on in our neighboring northern county seemed infinitely distant. South is San Diego County and Tijuana, Mexico, beyond, easy enough to reach for a night of fun and fiestas, but far enough away to not run into my parents. To the east lie Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, two huge counties reaching all the way across the state, home of both deserts and mountains, and the famous Grapevine downhill truck route, along which many a semi careened out of control with burned out brakes and praying drivers.
On most nights in Newport Beach in 1960, one could find my older sister Diane slouched comfortably on a couch at the Prison of Socrates, a beatnik coffee house where she regularly drank java and read her poetry on open mike night. Sis thinks that’s where she picked up her love of being on stage. Or maybe it was her early-sixties ballerina days at the Dorothy Jo Dance Studios in Corona Del Mar, a neighboring coastal community. Certainly Diane’s entry into the girl group frenzy of the mid-sixties fueled her love of the limelight. As a member of The French Sisters trio, she sang and performed up and down the coast of California at county fairs and tiny clubs, though she was neither kin nor sometimes even friends with the other two, often-changing girls in the group.
Photo courtesy of Tales of Baboa: Click Here
The French sisters had to go out of Orange County to sing, says Sis. They weren’t big enough to headline at the Orange County Fair, as Blood, Sweat and Tears or the Ike and Tina Turner Review did in the 60s. Mom and I had to travel to the San Mateo Fair in Northern California to see her perform. When not at the Prison of Socrates, Diane hung out at the Rendezvous Ballroom just down the street on the oceanfront, where the Righteous Brothers got their musical start in the early sixties. The Balboa Peninsula home of the Big Dog surf bands hosted such rock, roll and surf names as the Bel-Airs, the Nocturnes, Jan & Dean, and Dick Dale (King of the Surf Guitar) before it burned to the ground in 1966.
Although Diane and I didn’t surf, our brother Mike did. He towed his long board behind his bicycle down to the beach mornings and after school to ride the wild surf just like in the Beach Blanket Bingo-type movies. In fact, Diane was more like the Annette Funicello character in those movies, who sang and danced her way into Moondoggie’s heart. I imagined myself as Gidget, riding those enormous waves seemingly without effort. Living in Southern California in the 60s and watching parts of our lives unfold on the screen made us think the rest of the world was the same way. It came as quite a shock to me that kids everywhere didn’t surf and sing and roast hot dogs on the beach! Orange County is home to Huntington Beach, where world surfing championships have been held since the 1950s, and Newport Beach boasts the Wedge, the most dangerous spot to surf in America. Dick Dale and His Deltones got started in a house overlooking The Wedge, where both surfing spot and house can still be seen today. Cowabunga!
Disneyland in the 1960s was another amazing Orange County cultural phenomenon that could never be duplicated anywhere or any time. There are words that entered the English language because of Disneyland. When the theme park first opened, one had to purchase ticket books to go on rides, featuring tear-out coupons for rides and attractions lettered A through E to indicate both value and quality. The term “e-ticket ride” came to describe something of high worth or importance, and is still in use long after Disney abandoned the ticket books in favor of a one-price entrance fee. Similarly, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was the name of an early attraction featuring a huge frog and old-time jalopies that carried adventurers on a jostling, seemingly danger-filled but staged route. “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” is today a tongue-and-cheek reference to an experience that is unexpected and filled with danger or uncertainty.
At Disneyland during the 1960s, Tomorrowland could still thrill us with visions of what the future might hold, with The Rocket Ship, the sleek, futuristic-looking cars on the Autotopia, and General Electric’s House of Tomorrow. By the late seventies, Disney abandoned trying to second-guess progress. The House of Tomorrow couldn’t keep up with technology, and after the first moon landing, the Disney rocket ship was woefully inadequate. What was just a dream one day was common knowledge the next, it seemed.
Disneyland wasn’t the only important tourist attraction in Orange County, then or now. Father Junipero Serra founded Mission San Juan Capistrano, known as the Jewel of the California Missions, in 1776. Famous for its beautiful courtyard gardens and legendary Return of the Swallows on March 19th of each year, the mission is, as it was in 1960, the third most visited attraction in Orange County, behind only Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm.
Politics figured in Orange County’s 1960s persona as well. Then-President Richard M. Nixon, from Yorba Linda, California, had what the press called his Summer Whitehouse or Western Whitehouse in San Clemente, also in Orange County. He had a personal effect on us as well. President Nixon attended the wedding of his niece at our church [St. Andrew’s Presbyterian in Newport Beach], and the ministers were never the same after that. One attributed his becoming a virtual overnight blonde to revelations in the Holy Land he experienced just after Nixon’s visit. We figured he just ‘went Hollywood’ after Nixon put his church on the map, so to speak. Politics and tourist attractions came together in 1959 when then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited Disneyland. That kind of thing could never happen today. The logistics alone would be a nightmare.
Orange County in Southern California in the 1960s was a time and a place that together formed a cultural phenomenon that was unique. The geography, the physical and political climate, Beatniks, surfing, and Khrushchev in Disneyland . . . Orange County was, and is, amazing! That Orange State of Mind, a term that Orange County itself uses in promotional literature, could not have been created in just the right way anywhere else or at any other time, for us and for the county. After all, what can you say about a county that boasts the only airport in the world named after an actor, John Wayne Airport? Unless you count Ronald Reagan Airport (Virginia’s DCA), but I like to think that one was named after a politician rather than an actor. You know we elected him governor in 1967, right?
Suzanne St. John, the former Sue Herring, grew up in Newport Beach, California, in the Swingin’ Sixties. After dropping out of Newport Harbor High School in 1969 just two months shy of graduating, Sue took off in her VW, where she tuned in, turned on, and yet somehow recovered from those wonderful, wild times to become Suzanne, who is just completing her Master of Liberal Arts at the University of South Florida. She is a Florida Scholar and self-proclaimed Swingin’ Sixties in Southern California Expert.
Tags: 1960, 1960's, 1960's politics, 1960's Southern California, Beatniks, Corona Del Mar, Dick Dale, Disneyland, Khrushchev in Disneyland, Newport Beach, Nixon, Orange County, Prison of Socrates, Rendesvous Ballroom, Righteous Brothers, St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Surfing, Suzanne Herring, Suzanne St. John, The Wedge