ABOUT: In 1978 the raw, crude and catchy sounds of Huntington Beach's The Crowd and Fullerton's Agent Orange rudely awakened the dormant Orange County music scene. Punk rock had arrived. This punk rock music scene soon spawned a thriving alternative music scene."Its sound preserved some of punk's willful abrasiveness and refusal to bend to arena-rock norms," wrote Mike Boehm about alternative< music in an article for the Los Angeles Times.
In the years that followed, alternative and punk music venues sprouted up all over Orange County. While some had their charm, none had any real vision for cohesion or a sense of community. "Then there was Safari Sam's, one of the most encouraging places I've ever been," wrote Jim Washburn in an article for the Orange County Register. "Owner Sam Lanni and his partner, Gil Fuhrer, gave an embracing home to everything from punk to poetry, Texas blues, R&B street singers, experimental opera and Samuel Beckett plays," continued Washburn, "always putting art and their fellow man above money."
The musicians, artists, patrons, and local media knew Safari Sam's was different from other venues. "I expected not to like it and I ended up loving it," said musician Jonathan Richman. "One of the things I liked so much about it is it had the warm feeling you get from the old rock 'n' roll rooms of the '60s. It didn't resemble an '80s rock 'n' roll room, the way the audience felt in there, and that's good." "The Huntington Beach club was a niche of bohemian experimentation in a county famed for its suburban conformity," continued Boehm in his Los Angeles Times article. "For 20 months in 1985-86, the peak years of the alternative movement, Sam's imported definitive punk and alt-rock bands such as The Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Camper Beethoven and the Jesus & Mary Chain," wrote Boehm. "Local bands such as El Grupo Sexo, Swamp Zombies and National People's Gang found a nurturing home there. On nights when no band played, Sam's became a staging ground for poetry, theater and even an experimental opera." Peter Case, Dead Milkmen, The Descendents, The Fiends, Carlos Guitarlos, James Harman, The Joneses, the Meat Puppets, Mojo Nixon, Plain Wrap, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Saccharin Trust, Shattered Faith, Social Distortion, 10,000 Maniacs and TSOL were just some of the other bands that graced the tiny stage of the 102-capacity club. Henry Rollins and Jerry the Priest, among others, recited poetry during the successful weekly "Poetry Night" that began in March of 1985. "Poetry Night" combined poetry, music and other performances. A few months later, Safari Sam's joined forces with C.P. Welch of Huntington Beach's Atomic Records to present a series of events featuring thematically linked music and poetry. "Poetry Night' was the heart and soul of Safari Sam's," said Fuhrer. "It was where the truly experimental, eclectic and downright strange took place. It was where the truly magical moments happened, where anyone brave enough could indeed find their voice."
"It was when we began doing plays, and when some of the most edgy, experimental bands played," continued Fuhrer. Safari Sam's presented several plays, including "Case of the Crushed Petunias" by Tennessee Williams and "Endgame" by Samuel Beckett, which opened for a spoken word performance by Henry Rollins. "It was one of the best performances of 'Endgame' I've ever seen," said director and Orange Coast College drama instructor Alex Golson. Safari Sam's had become a wildly popular original music venue and performing arts center. This tiny club had a huge impact on the Orange County art and music scene.
Safari Sam's opened as a restaurant in downtown Huntington Beach on September 1, 1984. Several weeks later, owners Lanni and Fuhrer decided to put in a stage and experiment with live music and other performances. November 30, 1984, Safari Sam's presented its first live music performance at the all-ages venue. Within the next few months, shows were selling out. Randy Lewis of the Los Angeles Times soon took an interest. On March 1, 1985 he wrote, "Some of the most popular and adventurous acts from Orange County and Los Angeles are currently being booked at Safari Sam's in Huntington Beach. Safari Sam's is offering a varied fare of local music, poetry and miscellaneous performance." In the eighteen months that followed, Safari Sam's was booking top local and touring bands, while serving as a launching pad for struggling local artists. "Safari Sam's rapidly gained a reputation as a club that treated musicians and fans fairly and subsequently attracted more prestigious and popular groups," wrote Lewis in a later Los Angeles Times article. "Those guys are great," musician James Harman once said about Lanni and Fuhrer. "They call me up and get genuinely excited about us playing their club. It's so rare to find a club owner who really cares about the music." Because of Lanni and Fuhrer's supportive spirits, unselfish ways and shared vision for diversity and selfexpression, Safari Sam's had become a legend in its own time."Naturally, it couldn't last," wrote Boehm in an article for the Los Angeles Times. "Nonconformist youth culture didn't jibe with the city's plan for downtown redevelopment." "Safari Sam's - one of the most adventurous, well-run and respected original music clubs in the country - was denied an entertainment permit by city officials," wrote Lewis in an article for the Los Angeles Times. The permit expired on September 7, 1986, two years almost to the day of its opening. Safari Sam's could not operate without an entertainment permit, so the club went dark.
Lanni and Fuhrer had planned to lock the doors permanently until they became aware of the public outcry of support for Safari Sam's by the community and local media. Such support for a nightclub was previously unprecedented in Orange County. On September 11, 1986 "nearly 150 people marched, chanted and sang outside the Huntington Beach City Council chambers... seeking to persuade the council to reinstate live entertainment at Safari Sam's nightclub," wrote Lewis in an article for the Los Angeles Times. It was a peaceful demonstration of musicians, fans and even some parents, all of whom police described as "very well behaved." Finally, on November 23, 1986, approximately 100 mourners gathered for a mock funeral procession to pay their last respects to Safari Sam's. The mourners walked a half-mile from the club to a fire ring alongside four pallbearers, who carried a coffin made of cardboard and spray-painted black. The mourners then ceremoniously burned the coffin, which contained photos and other memorabilia. Safari Sam's run had ended, but the evidence of support continued throughout the years. "I don't think the county's culture," wrote Washburn about Safari Sam's in a 1995 article for the Orange County Register, "the real culture, not that pre-masticated glop trucked into our bigger concert halls, has yet recovered the sense of community that was growing there."
-- Jennifer Burnett
5214 W. Sunset Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90027