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

TToday, the Sunset Strip is a shadow of its former self. In the 1960s, the infamous two-mile Sunset Boulevard was the heart of Los Angeles’ burgeoning counterculture, a place where world-famous actors Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda met with young hippies banded together against a 10pm curfew. Fast forward to the ’80s and bands like Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen and Motley Crüe stayed up well past their bedtime as the area transformed into the whiskey-soaked home of hair metal. Nowadays, the counterculture is long gone and the bulldozers are circling. In February, the iconic former home of Tower Records, which went bankrupt in 2006, was demolished to make way for a new outlet for skatewear brand Supreme. It was announced last month that The Viper Room, the rock ‘n’ roll hangout once owned by Johnny Depp, would soon be demolished and replaced with a 12-story glass tower. “Just what the Strip needs!” jokes Steve Cohn, Depp’s former construction manager and regular at the Viper Room in the ’90s. “There’s so much crap like this out there. It is so sad.”

When it opened on August 14, 1993, The Viper Room was the hottest ticket in town. Despite the cavernous venue’s tiny capacity of just 250 people, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Evan Dando of the Lemonheads and Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan were the standout billing on that first night. A who’s who of Hollywood watched from the crowd, with directors Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch and Tim Burton and stars like Dennis Hopper, Christina Applegate and Patricia Arquette. The building had been converted from a grocery store into a music venue by mobster Mickey Cohen in 1947, a fact proudly noted by Depp in the zoot suit. “I love the idea of ​​clubs from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s,” he told the LA times on its opening night. “Like long, huggable dresses, gin fizzes and witty banter?” asked a party-goer. “No joke, no joke here,” Depp replied. He hoped to create a club where celebrities “don’t feel like they’re being flaunted,” he said.

Johnny Depp wore a Viper Room cap in January 2002


His wish was granted, and the intentionally dark and dingy Viper Room quickly became the city’s hottest hangout for movie and music stars. However, it wasn’t long before tragedy struck. On October 30, 1993, less than three months after it opened, rising star River Phoenix came to the club with siblings Leaf (now known as Joaquin) and Rain to play a set with the band P, which includes Phoenix ‘ Friends Flea and John Frusciante belonged to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. During the show, Phoenix told a friend he feared he had overdosed after taking the combination of heroin and cocaine known as speedball. Moments later, the young actor was in seizures outside on the sidewalk. He died in the early hours of the morning. The club was closed for a week after the incident, and out of respect for Phoenix, the venue closed each year on the anniversary of his death until Depp sold his stake in the club in 2004. “Every Halloween for years the whole sidewalk would be covered with candles and flowers,” recalls Cohn. “Probably still, but back then you couldn’t even walk on the sidewalk there, it was so crowded.”

Phoenix’s death did little damage to the club’s reputation. It was known for excess. At Kate Moss’ 21st birthday party at the club in January 1995, formerly Neighbors Star Jason Donovan was left on the stretcher after suffering his own cocaine-induced seizure. Back then, INXS’ Depp and Michael Hutchence were on stage performing Van Morrison’s “Gloria.” “The pair were halfway through the song and smashed the chorus just as I realized I was about to leave,” Donovan wrote in his 2007 memoir Between the lines. “My heart was racing, my vision was blurry and I became disoriented. I tried to steady myself but my legs buckled under me and I fell to the ground.” After being discharged from the hospital, Donovan apologized to Depp and Moss for spoiling their party. “We’re just glad you’re doing well,” Donovan recalled as Depp told him. “Now let me advise you, 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 Strip, and because Johnny owned it, it had a lot of great people,” recalls Cohn, who says a personal highlight was an unannounced jam session with Hutchence. Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones and Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. Over the years, Hole, Iggy Pop, Slash, The Strokes, Johnny Cash and Keanu Reeves’ band Dogstar have all crowded the tiny stage. “The best acts that ever came through LA played there,” says Cohn. “Even though they played at the Hollywood Bowl the night before.”

In December 1995, Oasis were in the middle of touring with their second album (What’s the story) Morning Glory? and had just played to thousands of fans at nearby Universal Amphitheater when Depp talked them into an impromptu sequel at The Viper Room. “Depp told his people, and someone told them [local radio station] KROQ who announced it around 3pm yesterday afternoon,” he reported MTV News back then. “Indeed it was announced much to the surprise of the band. Truth be told, they forgot they promised – but after a few phone calls the whole matter was settled and the band showed up at the club in time for their short but stunning set at 12:15am. The Gallaghers played to an unlikely crowd of Britpop fans. “At one point, more than 1,000 people were queuing to get into the tiny club,” he wrote MTV. “A lineage that included members of Offspring, Korn, as well as Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots.”

That same year, choreographer Robin Antin assembled a modern burlesque troupe called The Pussycat Dolls. They landed a Thursday night residency at The Viper Room, which lasted from 1995 to 2001. Over the years, the provocative dancers have performed with mainstream stars like Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, and Scarlett Johansson, and became so popular that Interscope label boss Jimmy Iovine suggested they make a pop group. With around 55 million records sold, they became one of the best-selling girl groups of all time. “The performances they gave there early in their careers were pretty outrageous and awesome,” recalls Cohn. “Pretty much anything and everything happened at this place.”

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

(David Klein/Getty Images)

The club’s popularity – and celebrity appeal – endured well into the 21st century. In 2004, the same year, Depp sold his stake, Spiderman Actor 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 officiate the games, and they attracted a host of high-end movie stars, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Bloom’s offbeat story has been adapted into its own film, the 2017 drama directed by Aaron Sorkin Molly’s game.

The Viper Room will rise from the rubble, at least in theory. Silver Creek Development, which bought the property four years ago, says its towering new building will include a modern, redesigned Viper Room alongside the inevitable hotel, restaurants and 26 condominiums. The designs showcase the potential venue’s clean glass foyer, while plans promise “memorabilia from the original Viper will be featured throughout.”

For many in Los Angeles, however, something important will be lost when the historic building is demolished in 2023. A common mockery of the city is that it has no sense of history, but it’s impossible to maintain one when popular venues have been demolished to make way for another high-rise. Adrian Scott Fine of the Los Angeles Conservancy says urban planners often overlook the cultural significance of such buildings. “They don’t even talk about these places or even consider that they might be historic because they see them as so new,” Fine said LAist. “So we need to change that because we’re going to lose a lot of places before we even understand how they fit into a larger context.”

The new developers promise that their building will offer an “unprecedented level of luxury”. Meanwhile, the extravagant antics that made The Viper Room so notorious seem to have succumbed to another era.

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/viper-room-demolition-sunset-strip-johnny-depp-b2052543.html Drugs, dolls and Johnny Depp: The demolition of the Viper Room marks the end of a Hollywood era


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