The local business community mobilizes against the Cuckoo’s Nest

As 1980 rolled around, all was not well in “the land of salad bars and condos”—at least for the local businesses surrounding the Cuckoo’s Nest.  (“Where the L.A. Rock is,” Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1979.) The presence of the punks at the Cuckoo’s Nest and its immediate environs drew the ire of a number of local business people, and these local businesses decided to take collective action against the Cuckoo’s Nest by pressuring the City to exercise its regulatory and police powers.  As a group, these local business owners consistently reported to upper-level City bureaucrats a wide range of nuisances attributable to the Cuckoo’s Nest’s punk patrons and petitioned the City to take enforcement action against the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Considered in context, the local business owners’ “activism” was part of the larger movement of property owners (especially homeowners) to defend their piece of suburbia against outsiders.  Although the connections—if any—cannot be explored here, it is worth noting that at the same time these local business owners were rallying against the Cuckoo’s Nest, other local citizens were organizing against the construction of John Wayne Airport, not too far from the Cuckoo’s Nest.  In large part, the opposition to John Wayne Airport was articulated as a fight against the incursion of “noise” into the tranquil suburban environment.  The City-citizenry campaign against the Cuckoo’s Nest can also be seen as organized opposition to “noise,” both in the sense of the punk music itself as well as the social disruption it caused in a self-imagined harmonious suburban enclave.

The opening salvo in what would become a total war against punk was fired by “a group of citizens” on March 31, 1980 in the form of a petition to the City of Costa Mesa City Attorney’s Office.  Citing the “ever increasing problem” of the Cuckoo’s Nest, the “citizens”—a collection of local business owners—presented the City Attorney’s Office with a straightforward demand:  “We wish to initiate a motion to close that establishment [the Cuckoo’s Nest] as a public nuisance.”  The petition recited the litany of alleged harm inflicted by the punks upon local businesses: property damage; broken beer bottles; vandalism; theft; graffiti; broken windows; public urination and defecation; and rampant drug use.  The proprietors sought to attack Orange County punk by way of the City bureaucracy.

The City Attorney’s Office did not act particularly swiftly, indicating that it was not yet aware of or convinced of the threat posed by punk.  At first, the City Attorney’s Office took a measured approach—it invited representatives of the Cuckoo’s Nest and the local business owners to a meeting to discuss the business owners’ concerns.  In mid-May 1980, the officers of the McDuck Corporation (Jerry Roach and Peter Williams) attended a meeting with the leaders of the business owners’ petition (Ruth Smalley and William Modic), which was mediated by the City Attorney, Thomas C. Wood.  Smalley and Modic conveyed their concerns to Roach and Williams.  Roach and Williams took a conciliatory approach:  they expressed a “willingness to work with the property owners and the City” to solve “the problem that has existed [at the Cuckoo’s Nest],” according to the City Attorney.  As described in Wood’s summary of the meeting, Roach and Williams agreed to suspend their Sunday night punk shows; hire additional security guards; paint over graffiti; and take greater steps to clean up the debris left by patrons.  In light of the Cuckoo’s Nest’s cooperation and promises to remedy the business owners’ grievances, the City Attorney ended the meeting believing that the City would not have to take any action against the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Nevertheless, the City Attorney threateningly reminded Roach and Williams that “[t]he City will be monitoring the activities at the Cuckoo’s Nest.”  To complete the threat, the City attorney also told Smalley and Modic (with a carbon copy to Roach and Williams) that “[i]f the disturbances do continue, the City will have to take further action to eliminate them.”

Although things may have quieted down for a few weeks or months following the May 1980 meeting with the City Attorney, the City Attorney had learned, by August 18, 1980, of “continuing disturbances occurring in the neighborhood of the Cuckoo’s Nest Bar.”  Apparently, Smalley and Modic had filed additional complaints against the Cuckoo’s Nest following the May 1980 meeting.  In a somewhat aggressive letter to Jerry Roach, the City Attorney pointed to a string of minor arsons in the vicinity of the Cuckoo’s Nest.  The most notable of these disturbances was the torching of a Dodge van located on Modic’s property, which was blamed on punks (without any proof).  The City Attorney also cited instances of broken beer bottles on properties neighboring the Cuckoo’s Nest, and other litter in the neighborhood.  Slightly irritated with the evidence of renewed “disturbances,” the City Attorney requested that Roach explain the steps the Cuckoo’s Nest had taken to carry out the remedial measures it had promised to take in the May 1980 meeting.  In closing, the City Attorney demanded to know “[w]hat ‘punk-rock’ events have you booked in the last couple of months and what events of this kind do you have scheduled for the future?”  Despite its later claims to the contrary, it was clear that the City’s enforcement focus was specifically directed towards punk rock, not the Cuckoo’s Nest in general.

On September 19, 1980, Williams, on behalf of the Cuckoo’s Nest, responded to the City Attorney’s August 1980 letter.  Williams denied that Cuckoo’s Nest patrons had anything to do with the torching of the Dodge van on Modic’s property.  Williams also pointed out that the other arsons were attributable to a disgruntled Zubie’s customer who was denied entry to the Cuckoo’s Nest because he was drunk.  As for the broken and discarded beer bottles, Williams reminded the City Attorney that the Cuckoo’s Nest did not serve beer in bottles, although Zubie’s and a nearby liquor store did.  Williams blamed the newly sprayed graffiti on “Chicano youths,” which, besides evidencing racism, is very revealing, as this assumed that Orange County punk was a white youth phenomenon (to some degree this was a correct assumption in the Orange County context, but by no means completely).  Lastly, Williams tried to paint a picture of self-management and self-control:  Roach personally supervised all punk rock shows, the Cuckoo’s Nest assigned ten bouncers to each show, and employed two armed security guards.  Williams represented the Cuckoo’s Nest as a responsible business that could manage its own clientele.

The “problems” continued to fester for the remainder of 1980 and into early 1981.  According to John Zubietta’s attorney, as of mid-February 1981, “[t]he walls of all buildings on the property [Zubietta’s property, which included the Cuckoo’s Nest and Zubie’s] that face the parking lot have been covered with graffiti, swastikas, four-letter words and other punk rock sayings.”  Punks loitered in the parking lot, and ventured into Zubie’s to wreak havoc, including ripping out an entire toilet and smashing the bathroom mirror.  Punks pissed and shit in the parking lot.  Beer bottles littered the parking lot shared by Zubie’s and the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Punks vandalized Zubie’s customers’ cars.  In fact, a February 10, 1981 police memorandum refers to “hundreds of victims contacting Costa Mesa Police Department to report tire slashing/vehicle damage” around the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Zubie’s customers—some of whom had been beaten up by punks—were so afraid of the punks that they stopped going to Zubie’s.  (Of course, Zubietta’s attorney completely ignores the fact that Zubie’s “urban cowboy” patrons often attacked the punks and provoked physical confrontations).  In the minds of Zubietta and the other local business owners, the Cuckoo’s Nest’s punk audience was causing suburban blight.

By early 1981, Sergeant Wilson of the Costa Mesa Police Department, who concluded an informal survey among local businesses, opined that “[t]hey overwhelmingly desire the Cuckoo’s Nest to cease doing business or stop catering to punk rock clientele.”  In fact, Sgt. Wilson “did not contact even one neighboring businessperson that said anything good about the Cuckoo’s Nest.”  The Cuckoo’s Nest’s landlord John Zubietta was particularly spiteful:  “I lose business because of those punk rockers . . . . I want them out more than anybody does.”

Sgt. Wilson’s report emphasizes that the business opposition was not to the Cuckoo’s Nest itself, but rather the punks that assembled there, a problem that could be eliminated by not holding punk shows.  In short, from the perspective of the business opposition, the Cuckoo’s Nest was not a punk institution; punk could be separated from the Cuckoo’s Nest.  But, as we will see, the Cuckoo’s Nest refused to stop booking punk shows, probably in large part because of the commercial value of punk to the Cuckoo’s Nest, but also because Jerry Roach seemed to invite and relish the minor celebrity he achieved as a result of the sensationalistic local media coverage of the Cuckoo’s Nest saga and punk in general.  As a result of Roach’s refusal to abandon punk, the City could only neutralize the punk threat by directly attacking its host—the Cuckoo’s Nest.  In the final months of its existence, the Cuckoo’s Nest became a proxy for Orange County punk rock, as the City’s attack on the Cuckoo’s Nest was simultaneously an attack on Orange County punk.

As of February 17, 1981, just before the City would commence legal proceedings to revoke the Cuckoo’s Nest’s live entertainment permit, Zubietta instructed his attorney to explore the legal options for terminating the Cuckoo’s Nest’s lease.  In the end, the death blow to the Cuckoo’s Nest didn’t come from Zubietta; instead, it came from the City Council, responding to the pressures of local business owners and the police.  The local proprietors were the force that spurred the City bureaucracy, the police, and then ultimately the City Council to suppress Orange County punk at the Cuckoo’s Nest.

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