Origins and predecessors of the Cuckoo’s Nest: the long road from playhouse, to LSD-biker bar, to the Nest

The Cuckoo’s Nest, founded in 1976, was a music venue tucked away in a commercial-industrial area in the City of Costa Mesa, situated in the heart of Orange County, California.  It took its name from the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Located at 1714 Placentia Avenue, the Cuckoo’s Nest sat on a larger parcel of land owned by local businessman John Zubietta.  Besides being the Cuckoo’s Nest’s landlord, Zubietta also owned Zubie’s (1712 Placentia Avenue), a restaurant which was the Cuckoo’s Nest’s immediate neighbor.  Zubie’s attracted the local “urban cowboys,” adherents to a late-70s/early-80s fad where suburban white men donned Western wear and appropriated the conservative culture of the blue-collar cowboy.  The Cuckoo’s Nest, on the other hand, eventually drew in punks from Orange County and even the greater Los Angeles County area.

These conflicting cultural elements violently intersected at the parking lot shared between the Cuckoo’s Nest and Zubie’s, a blacktop No Man’s Land in the culture war between the punks and the urban cowboys.  Despite the canonical history of punk, which pits “hippies” (or their next-generation descendants) as punks’ arch-enemies, in Orange County, at least, punk’s most direct threat—or commonly attacked target—was the urban cowboys and the cultural conservatism it represented.  Street fights between the Cuckoo’s Nest punks and Zubie’s urban cowboys were not an uncommon occurrence.  In fact, these violent confrontations with the urban cowboys became a defining experience of Orange County punk.  This punk-cowboy conflict was documented in the Vandals’ “Urban Struggle,” a song parodying the urban cowboys at Zubie’s.  The song, written from the perspective of an urban cowboy who “couldn’t make it as a punker,” recounts how the cowboys “start fights with them punks at the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but learn that “[t]hose damn punks are crazy though / and meaner than a bull at a rodeo.”  The punks fought for territory of their own and to antagonize their enemies; the urban cowboys fought to rid Orange County of punk itself, which was not necessarily seen as a degenerate cultural phenomenon from Los Angeles but a homegrown, internal contagion infecting droves of Orange County youth, threatening to tear apart the suburban utopia protected by the Orange Curtain.

But already we are jumping too far ahead in this story.  Back to the early history of the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Before the Cuckoo’s Nest arrived in 1976, 1714 Placentia Avenue was occupied by Finnegan’s Rainbow, a seedy bar apparently named after a 1968 film with a similar name.  Costa Mesa police records show a large number of arrests at Finnegan’s Rainbow.  According to at least one City record, Finnegan’s Rainbow was known as a biker bar where LSD was frequently sold.  Another account describes Finnegan’s Rainbow as a “psychedelic parlor” which functioned as a “a hangout for disgruntled bikers.” (“Where the L.A. Rock Is,” Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1979.) Prior to Finnegan’s Rainbow, 1714 Placentia Avenue functioned as a small playhouse, originally as The Player’s Showcase (circa 1958) and then as the Gaslight theater (circa 1963).

The Cuckoo’s Nest was a for-profit enterprise, a business.  Lest there not be any misconceptions, the Cuckoo’s Nest was not an underground do-it-yourself punk space.  The Cuckoo’s Nest was actually owned by an entity called the McDuck Corporation, which incorporated with the State of California on January 1, 1978.  Gerald “Jerry” Roach, in his early-mid thirties, was the general financial officer and secretary of the McDuck Corporation; Los Angeles-based attorney Peter M. Williams was the president.  Roach had some experience managing entertainment venues; in 1970-1971, he ran the Bacchus Club, a Newport Beach night club, followed by a travel stint in Europe and a foray into real estate.  Immediately prior to the Cuckoo’s Nest, Roach owned and operated the Casablanca, a club in Anaheim which burned down in late 1980.  Concurrent with the Cuckoo’s Nest, Roach also owned a venue called Radio City in Anaheim, which was more known for heavy metal and hard rock.

Roach would become the public face of the Cuckoo’s Nest, a role he seemed to relish.  An enterprising businessman not lacking in self-confidence, Roach was notable as a nightclub owner for his willingness to take risks and his penchant for identifying emerging trends in music.  Roach also would become a particularly outspoken defender of the venue during the City’s campaign to shut down the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Ultimately, over time, Roach would develop a genuine sympathy and respect for punk, a fellow-traveler who was guilty by association.  However, Roach’s commitment to punk began and ended with its commercial value to his business.

The Cuckoo’s Nest’s genesis in Costa Mesa began with the City bureaucracy.  A business license, tax license, and permits had to be obtained. In early January 1978, the Cuckoo’s Nest applied for a “public dance” permit from the City of Costa Mesa.  Such a permit would allow the Cuckoo’s Nest to hold “live entertainment.”  On March 6, 1978, the City Council granted the Cuckoo’s Nest’s request for a permit “to hold live entertainment and public dancing.”  There was an important condition on the Cuckoo’s Nest’s “live entertainment and public dancing” permit:  the operation of the Cuckoo’s Nest could not be “detrimental to the health, safety, peace, morals, comfort, and general welfare of persons residing or working in the neighborhood . . . , or be detrimental or injurious to property and improvements in the neighborhood or to the general welfare of [the] city.”  If the Cuckoo’s Nest violated this provision, the City could revoke the live-entertainment permit.  It is this “health and safety” clause of the Cuckoo’s Nest’s live entertainment permit that was the focal point of the City-citizenry coalition’s attack against the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Ultimately, the “health and safety” provision provided the alliance of City bureaucracy, police, and local business owners the legal basis to suppress punk at the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Physically, the Cuckoo’s Nest was not the most grand of venues, a barn-like structure built in about 1958.  One Los Angeles Times journalist described it:  “By any standards the Cuckoo’s Nest is no structural beauty.  It is an old, barn-shaped building, woefully peeling and pitted, looking like a World War II pillbox—after  bombardment.” (“Embattled Punk-Rock Club Still Open–Barely,” Los Angeles Times, December 4, 1981.) Its most memorable external feature was probably its marquee, which prominently featured two “Cuckoo’s Nest” broadsides that intersected at ninety-degree angles, and were outlined by a rainbow (most likely a vestige of its predecessor) and a row of bright bulbs.  One contemporary observer described the Cuckoo’s Nest as “a fairly nondescript building that has few seats, a marginal sound system and pinball and cigarette machines that are invariably out of order.” (“Cuckoo’s Nest – ‘the’ new music spot,” The Register, February 22, 1981.)  The stage was located in a corner, and was flanked by a peculiar skyscape that seemed wholly out of place, perhaps another relic of the acid-dropping days of Finnegan’s Rainbow.  But, it was this rather drab and strange décor and these shortcomings that formed “the allure of the Cuckoo’s Nest” and served as a fitting backdrop for the aggressive, nihilistic punks that would soon take the stage and the dance floor.

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