The Sunset Strip has been a stirring nighttime party for nearly a century
The Sunset Strip is a road, not a track. It’s almost always crowded. There are no bold curves and the pavement is only average. It is a 1.7 mile piece of Sunset Boulevard in what is now the city of West Hollywood. And for nearly a century, it has been a continuous and moving nocturnal party.
This story originally appeared in Volume 10 of Road & Track.
“I always thought it was funny when someone pulled up with a really cool Chevelle next to someone who spent all their money on a Countach,” recalls Riki Rachtman, whose adventures rock ‘ n’ roll include owning big clubs in the 80s and 90s and hosting MTV Headbangers Ball. “People would still say, ‘Wow, cool Chevelle.’” There were Chevelles cruising in blue-collar Van Nuys and Countachs trawling Beverly Hills, but the Strip had — and still has — both.
Sunset Boulevard begins in downtown Los Angeles and runs approximately 22 miles west to the Pacific Ocean. The Strip was the stretch of unincorporated land between the city of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. As it was not under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles and Beverly Hills Police, it was patrolled (lightly) by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and known as the County Strip.
The County Strip wasn’t totally lawless, but it was, well, tolerant. In the 1920s, Prohibition was enforced in Los Angeles, and Beverly Hills was mansions and movie stars. Meanwhile, the Strip was on the pre-freeway route to the studios. The land there was cheap, a good place to establish surreptitious drinking joints. And underground casinos. And brothels. And homes where we indulged in alternative lifestyles.
When Prohibition ended, the nightclubs along the Strip attracted major artists and star audiences like James Cagney and a hundred others whose names have faded. Ciro’s opened in 1940 with big-name entertainers, a movie-star audience, and a parking lot full of Cadillacs, Lincolns, and exotic imports. The Sunset Strip was never a cruise; it is about arriving.
The Strip roared in the 1950s, but artists were drawn to Las Vegas and television. The heyday of the nightclub faded, though Clark Gable arrived in his 300SL to catch a show, Lana Turner was in her usual cabin at Ciro’s, and Bobby Darin had a house over the street.
Then came rock’n’roll. Clubs that had been jacket and tie were reborn in the 1960s on a wave of rock. The Whiskey a Go Go opened in 1964 and the Doors established themselves as a house band for a time. Legendarily, in 1969, Jim Morrison drove his 1967 Shelby GT500 into a telephone pole in Sunset and then ran into the Whiskey. The car has not been seen since.
Cars have never been the focus of the Sunset Strip. They are the mood. Singer Sam Cooke’s 1963 Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta Lusso was idling at the Motel Hacienda when it was shot in December 1964. The Ferrari later became the property of Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. “As soon as rock stars made money,” Rachtman recalls,
“The first thing they bought was a nice car. It was fun to watch Nikki Sixx from Mötley Crüe switch from a Corvette to a Testarossa.
Across new wave, hair bands, grunge and a dozen other genres, the Sunset Strip is still where careers and culture are born. Today, matte pink Teslas charge into the parking lot between the Roxy Theater and Rainbow Bar & Grill as Lamborghinis and muscle machines rumble. Maybe there’s a comedian living in his car outside the Comedy Store – which used to be Ciro’s – like Jay Leno would have in his 1955 Buick. The cars are all different and all the locations have changed, but the Sunset Strip is still the same.