Strange Days In The Canyon


 

 

 

 

"There is something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. There's a man with a gun over there." - Stephen Stills


Steve Hyman, Eddie Douglas, Richard Williams, and Charles Winans
inside the Tom Mix Log Cabin, 2401 Laurel Canyon Blvd. - 1967

Ground Zero: The Tom Mix Log Cabin

We had come to California Sally and I and the gang, looking for adventure around 1967. Sally and I had gone our separate ways just before I returned from road managing the Sir Douglas Quintet on tour. I was joined there with my old friends from San Antonio, Charles Winans, Eddie Douglas, and Steve Hyman.

The log cabin belonged to Fania Pearson who hired me as the manager of the estate in exchange for free rent. The log cabin was a cavernous three-level home that featured a 2,000 square foot living room with a wide rock fireplace so large you could put big logs into it. In the basement was a regulation size single lane bowling alley and a man-made cave featuring a spiral staircase.

Photo of the Log Cabin "Sun Room" and Tree House on Laurel Canyon

Originally built in 1915 the log cabin was a tavern and later the home of Tom Mix, the famous film cowboy actor. When we moved to San Francisco the log cabin was occupied by Frank Zappa. The cabin was a frequent stopping point for rock stars who lived in the neighborhood. I managed the place for a year before splitting to San Francisco just before the Manson murders. Apparently Tex Watson had once knocked on the front door but we wouldn't let him in.

According to Barry Miles, “Franzoni’s commune ended in May 1968,” as that was when our old friend Frank Zappa moved in. He had been living up the street on Lookout Mountain Road with Gail.

Photo of the original Laurel Tavern 1903

In 1913, a guy named Mann built The Laurel Tavern, the structure boasted a 2,000+ square-foot formal dining room, guest rooms, and a bowling alley on the basement level. The Laurel Tavern, of course, would later be acquired by Tom Mix, after which it would be affectionately known as the Log Cabin. The grounds of the Laurel Tavern/Log Cabin were also laced with odd caves and tunnels.

As Michael Walker notes in Laurel Canyon, “Running up the hillside, behind the house, was a collection of man-made caves built out of stucco, with electric wiring and light bulbs inside.” According to various accounts, one secret tunnel running under what is now Laurel Canyon Boulevard connected the Log Cabin (or its guesthouse) to the Houdini estate. This claim is frequently denounced as an urban legend, The Tavern itself, as Gail Zappa would later describe it, was “huge and vault-like and cavernous.

Last known photo of the basement in Tom Mix Log Cabin after the fire

Laurel Canyon

In addition to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, the Laurel Canyon area became a mecca among musicians during this time (Arthur Lee, Neil Young, Jim Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, Carole King, The Mamas and the Papas, Dusty Springfield, Brian Wilson) due to its laid-back feel and rustic style.

What do you suppose the odds are that all of that just came together purely by chance? Another famous resident of Laurel Canyon, apparently in the 1940s, was science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein, who reportedly resided at 8775 Lookout Mountain Avenue.

Vacant lot at the corner of Lookout Mt Rd and Laurel Canyon - 2012

"During the early years of its Rock and Roll heyday, I was one of it's more eccentric personalities living in the canyon along with Frank Zappa. Ensconced in an abode dubbed the ‘Log Cabin’ – which sat right in the heart of Laurel Canyon, at the crossroads of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Lookout Mountain Avenue – I played host to many musicians who passed through the canyon in the mid- to late-1960s." - Michael Walker

Cave 1 behind the old Tom Mix Log Cabin

The Houdini Mansion

There is considerable debate over the question of whether Harry Houdini ever lived in the Laurel Canyon home known locally as the “Houdini House” (the History Channel’s Brad Meltzer’s Decoded recently aired an episode on Houdini that included a segment filmed at the site, which was unreservedly identified as the former Houdini estate; the series, however, doesn’t appear to be overly concerned with accuracy).

Los Angeles Examiner newspaper article about the Houdini Mansion fire of 1919

When a fire burned the mansion to the ground in 1959, local reporters tried to make the story more sensational by naming it the Houdini Mansion, though Houdini had rented the guest cottage, not the mansion. Rumors of Houdini's ghost haunting the burned ruins of the mansion still persist today.

Map 2398 - Laurel Canyon Boulevard, Hollywood, California 90046

According to Dennis Hauck's Haunted Places, Houdini's mansion is located at 2400 Laurel Canyon Boulevard, near the intersection of Laurel Canyon Drive and Lookout Mountain Avenue. You've probably heard that at some point in his career, the great Harry Houdin relocated to Hollywood, purchased a lavish estate on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, and spent much of his time there.

Ruins of the Houdini Mansion, 2400 Laurel Canyon Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90046

The house had parapets, towers, an indoor theatrical stage, underground tunnels, secret passageways, basement pools and a secret deep dark cavern where Houdini kept a locked chest with all his greatest secrets. To this day no one's ever found it! The estate was destroyed in a massive fire in 1959, but Harry Houdini still haunts the site, roaming through what's left, cobblestones, and decrepit marble staircases that survived the fire. Occasionally one can see his ghost standing alone on a staircase, still haunting the ruins of his old estate. His form can also be seen wandering the garden grotto.

View of Los Angeles from Lookout Mountain - 2012

Canyon News:

It’s on the site of the legendary “Log Cabin”? where Frank Zappa presided over an entourage of famous names in rock and roll from May to September 1968. Contemporary chronicles talk about a huge living room 80 feet long. “Retired journalist John Bilby recalls at least 36 people living and partying at the Log Cabin and treehouse.”? People who visited Zappa at the time tell stories - “[You pulled] ”¦ into a driveway of an old log cabin. People are wandering in and out of an enormous.. living room. In the basement, musicians took turns bowling on a Day-Glo painted bowling alley."

Up until around 1913 or so, Laurel Canyon was mostly undeveloped and often used as a water source for the farming land of the neighboring valleys. Charles Spencer Mann and his partners began to purchase land and develop resort getaways (like the Lookout Mountain Inn which burned down in 1920), also creating a “trackless trolley” to bring people to and from the canyon. It was at about this time that the Laurel Tavern was designed by architect Robert Byrd. The property was later purchased by movie cowboy Tom Mix and eventually inhabited by Frank Zappa and his family for a short, but infamous, period of time.

A strange cast of characters congregated in the Hollywood Hills where lots of rock bands seemed to be emerging into the spotlight at the same time. Countless rumors have materialized about what was really going there. Some people interpret the song "Hotel California" to be about the excesses of the Rock and Roll lifestyle, and as Don Henley put it, "The underbelly of the American Dream." Others have put forth theories about Satanism, ritualistic child abuse, Illuminati conspiracies, and mind control. Much of the rumor mongering was linked to two mysterious houses located in the Laurel Canyon portion of the Hollywood Hills: The Houdini House and the Log Cabin. The two houses had an interesting history. According to Dave's Web there were rumors of suspicious activity in the two houses going back to the time they were built, sometime before 1920.

The Houdini House was an imposing castle-like structure built in the early 1900s. There is some dispute over whether or not the famous magician actually lived there, but that doesn't really matter. The long history of the house includes stories of murder, seances and paranormal experiences. And since its ruins and accompanying ghost stories are recognized by the tourist industry, it will forever be linked with Houdini. Harry Houdini spent a great deal of time debunking spiritualists in his life, but he also spent a significant amount of time trying to find the bridge between the living and the dead. This practice continued after his death when the departed Houdini was the focus of numerous seances.

Another structure was originally called the Laurel Tavern, but it would become better known as the Log Cabin. Frank Zappa lived in the Log Cabin and hosted a varied cast of players. Zappa even helped make some of them famous. Interestingly, despite being at the epicenter of the artistic movement that exploded in the summer of love, I don't think Frank Zappa ever thought of himself as a flower child. In fact, his artistic response to Sgt. Pepper, was less than complementary.

But long before flower power, there were legends about hidden passages and secret caves linking the Houdini House and the Log Cabin. When you look at the cover of the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, some surprising connections with the Hollywood Hills emerge. The man in the white hat behind the wax figure of Paul McCartney is actor Tom Mix who owned the Log Cabin for a while and lived there briefly. Harry Houdini is not on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, but guess who is? Tony Curtis played the famous magician in the movie "Houdini." And is it really that much of a stretch to suggest that the inclusion of comedian Stan Laurel could be a veiled allusion to Laurel Canyon?

Works Cited:

The story of a remarkable time and place: Los Angeles from the dawn of the singer-songwriter era in the mid-Sixties to the peak of The Eagles' success in the late Seventies. 'Hotel California' is an epic tale of songs and sunshine, drugs and denim, genius and greed, and is the first in-depth account of the LA Canyons scene between 1967 and 1976.

Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the LA Canyons
by Barney Hoskyns
Harper Perennial, 2007

In Laurel Canyon, veteran journalist Michael Walker tells the inside story of this unprecedented gathering of some of the baby boom's leading musical lights--including Joni Mitchell; Jim Morrison; Crosby, Stills, and Nash; John Mayall; the Mamas and the Papas; Carole King; the Eagles; and Frank Zappa, to name just a few--who turned Los Angeles into the music capital of the world and forever changed the way popular music is recorded, marketed, and consumed.

Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll's Legendary Neighborhood
By Michael Walker
Faber & Faber, 2006

The very strange but nevertheless true story of the dark underbelly of a 1960s hippie utopia. Laurel Canyon in the 1960s and early 1970s was a magical place where a dizzying array of musical artists congregated to create much of the music that provided the soundtrack to those turbulent times.

Weird Scenes Inside The Canyon: Laurel Canyon, Covert Ops & The Dark Heart Of The Hippie Dream
by David McGowan
Headpress, 2014

A lavishly illustrated insider’s look at 80 years of music and culture in Laurel Canyon--a ZIP code with its own playlist. Sonny & Cher, the Doors, the Monkees, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; the Eagles, Carole King, and others cultivated their immortal sounds in this L.A.-based musical fraternity.

Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon
by by Harvey Kubernik
Sterling, 2012

Frank Zappa lived in a log cabin formerly owned by cowboy actor Tom Mix on thid lot 1966 to 1968, when he left because too any weirdos weredropping in (not including John Mayall, who lived with Zappa when he first came to the U.S.).

The L.A. Musical History Tour
by Art Fein
Faber and Faber, 1990
p. 134

Freak Out!: My Life With Frank Zappa
by Pauline Butcher
Plexus Publishing Ltd., 2014

Notes:

Driving Through Los Angeles’s Canyons article in Travel & Leisure

"When I was growing up in the 1960’s, Laurel Canyon was simply “the canyon.” It was where my brothers and I climbed steep streets on our bikes and built forts in the eucalyptus-scented hills. Sure, some of our classmates’ parents were becoming known as artists—Ed Kienholz and Carole King—but it was only later that I came to understand that the canyon was undergoing a burst of creativity that would someday be likened to San Francisco’s Haight in the 1950’s or, with some exaggeration, Paris in the 1920’s.

Continuing a mile or so up to Lookout Mountain Avenue, I glanced to my right at the ruins of a mansion where Houdini is said to have been summoned with séances by his grief-stricken wife; then I turned uphill and drove past the site of Mann’s roadhouse tavern, which not long after it was built in 1916 was bought by silent-screen star Tom Mix and, in 1968, was briefly but memorably rented by Zappa.

With an 80-foot living room, a bowling alley, and an enchanted garden, this oversize log cabin “raged as a rock-and-roll salon and Dionysian playground,” as Michael Walker, the canyon’s chronicler, sums it up in Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood, his book on the era. The scene moved on, the house burned down, but the place retains a charge: The bones of its garden, still discernible from the street, tell you that Something Happened Here."

http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/driving-through-los-angeles-canyons

updated on April 17, 2021