Please enjoy the live stories below. I had so much fun talking to many people about their experiences at different periods of the Coast Inn. These are interviews, thus their own words expressed to me. What is difficult to get across was the enthusiasm I experienced from each person. They are all so passionate about either working or coming to the Coast Inn. Now, I like to think it is my family who inspired so much care and heart felt stories. Other people told me how they would be working the restaurant when Grandma & Grandpa came in to eat. They usually ended with a big tip. Or sometimes Grandpa would stick money in employees pocket.
Some stories left me speechless. One was of a young teen boy who, while employed, thought he could get away with extra cash by collecting full bottles. He would stash them one at a time over days and months. Finally something was said between my father, Dick, and this young growing man. My father acknowledge he knew he was doing it and figured he would let it go until now to give him something to do to stay out of other trouble. Something like that. Meaning, the young teenager learned a valuable lesson that stuck with him the rest of his life and only encouraged deep respect for my father.
“I was born in the early nineteen thirties. Laguna’s population was around 2,000 growing to 4,000 as I grew up. We had only a few stop signs rolled out on weekends before adding a few signals on the main road through Laguna. My family linage is the Isch family who ran the grocery store and post office in the early nineteen twenties. The South Seas was a well-known hangout for many of the Marine Corps officers. About April of nineteen fifty-six, I met my husband, a pilot in the Marine Corps stationed at El Toro and living in Laguna. We stopped into the South Seas for a drink before going off to dinner. It was a well known hang out for locals and servicemen in the South Seas bar.”
1959 – 1973
“To recall L.P. Hartley’s immortal line from his novel, The Go-Between, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’
“As just-legal 21-year old bar-hopping locals, tightly focused on misspending our youth while weaving our way south on Coast Boulevard on a Friday or Saturday night, our terminal destination was the venerable Coast Inn’s South Seas Room.
“Ur Tiki décor, stupefying syrupy tropical drinks made with Bacardi 151 rum, bar-top arm wrestling contests, a renewable and seemingly unlimited supply of sorority girls, all those components made this a weekly local rite.
“In ‘that’ unsophisticated Laguna in ‘those days,’ this was ‘class.’
“It was simply characteristic of those unenlightened times, that any non-local or tourist, mistakenly walking into this Alpha-male testosterone pit, would have found themselves uncomfortably surrounded by a group of socially territorial and undeniably ‘straight’ surfers, unencumbered by today’s more tolerant attitudes, who considered the South Seas Room their exclusive ‘spot.’
“That would eventually change, but during those years, that was the way it was.”
1948 – 1956
“I was around eleven years old when I began to work for the Smith family of the Coast Inn. My best friend was Mike Smith, Karl’s first son and Pappy Smith’s first grandchild. I worked doing many of the needed tasks to keep a hotel, restaurant and two bars operating. I would even help out the maids during the busy weekends. One of my favorite tasks was helping to prepare for the May beach parties the Coast Inn hosted each year. I took pride in what I did so I was asked to do many more difficult tasks, such as getting on the roof to repair wires. Over the eight years, I found every cubbyhole in the Coast Inn’s many rooms from top to bottom. I worked for the Smith’s from nineteen forty-eight until nineteen fifty-six and hold fond memories to this day. Even as a kid and through my employment, the Coast Inn was visited by many families as far away as foreign countries to locals. During the war, the whole establishment filled up with serviceman and women eager to enjoy the evening and meet them on the beach by day.”
1950s – 1960s
“I worked for my dad as a busboy while attending high school on Park Avenue from nineteen fifty-eight to nineteen sixty-two. Two of my high school friends also worked with me, Sid Bryan being one. The tourists were great during the summer, leaving us tips that encouraged our work habits.”
1958 – 1970s
“I worked at the Coast Inn in nineteen sixty-six. Would get up extremely early in order to sweep the outside area for Pappy Smith. But I have been a frequent visitor with family and friends from as early as nineteen fifty-eight through nineteen seventy. We would enjoy the beach below as well as what the establishment had to offer.
I grew up on Main beach. I enjoyed this beach as much as I enjoyed Mountain Road beach. I like the diversity that seemed to be on Main beach, which I didn’t see such a gathering on the beach at Mountain Road or in and around the Coast Inn.
I saw the Coast Inn as having a crossroad of different cultures and demographics. It was not formal, but allowed visitors and locals to enjoy a laid back setting with great style. For me and my family, I liked that Laguna had long ago accepted its diverse culture with many artists becoming residence. As I remember it here in Laguna, a few early on were gay teachers, or very thick accent foreign business owners. I liked that Laguna seem very accepting of all these cultures.”
Howard Hills Bio
By Craig Lockwood
Laguna’s Howard Hills was called to Washington on April 27 to serve as senior advisor to the Office of Insular Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior.
As a young Peace Corps volunteer, the former Laguna Beach High School Class of ’70 student body president, had been assigned to Micronesia, a region of the Western Pacific nearly as large as the continental United States, with 2,000 islands and a total land mass less than one half the size of Rhode Island, where, in 1978, he drafted constitutions and legal codes in emerging Pacific island nations.
Returning to California three years later, Hills was commissioned in the U.S. Navy as a JAG (Judge Advocate General) lawyer, and served in 1982 as a strategic treaty negotiator assigned to the Executive Office of the President, and the National Security Council.
As lead legal counsel for a major treaty portfolio in the White House, he negotiated treaties of strategic alliance with the Pacific island governments he had helped to establish.
Hills is a nationally recognized scholar specializing in democratization of America’s remaining island territories. His book “Citizens Without A State” is available at Laguna Beach Books.
Between penning constitutions and authoring books, Hills testified in over 20 Congressional hearings on ratification of the Micronesian treaties, recognized as a U.S. foreign policy success story giving peace and democracy a chance in strategically critical Micronesia.
Those Micronesian treaties were set to expire in 2023.
Facing China’s expansionist efforts in the Pacific, bipartisan support has emerged in Congress and the national security community agreeing that treaty alliances Hills shaped should be extended.
Under a non-political appointment based on professional expertise, Hills will serve as an advisor to the U.S. negotiators seeking to extend the Micronesia treaties far into the future.
“Everyone remembers part of the charm of both Coast Inn bars being tropical aquarium fish tanks used for the bar counter tops. The upstairs bar, known as the Tap Room, was quiet, dark and sophisticated. But the downstairs bar, called the South Seas, with its Polynesian atmosphere invited customers to let down their hair. So after a few drinks, I thought nothing of reaching over the countertop to swipe my catch-of-the-day fish. It took a second drink to wash it down.”
“I was the South Seas bartender for years–mainly I was dependable and a hard worker. All I asked was that I bartend at the South Seas because the Tap Room upstairs was too quiet, too slow and not enough tips. But once, just once, Karl Smith did ask me to fill in for a bartender upstairs who couldn’t make it. Sure enough, not enough tips. I had a great working relationship with the Smith’s, although I found Dick to be rather quiet, just not much of a talker. My favorite highlight at the South Seas was serving drinks to celebrities such as Clint Eastwood, Tim Conway and Chad Evert.”
1960 – 1973
“I moved into my grandparents home in Laguna Beach when I was eight years old. My first two jobs were setting pins at the bowling alley and washing dishes at Benton’s on Main beach. When I turned twenty-one, I joined local contemporaries while local bar hopping from nineteen sixty until nineteen seventy-three. We visited about eight establishments. I loved to dance at the Marine Room, the White House, the Sandpiper and the South Seas while enjoying drinks there and at the Little Shrimp, Outrigger and the Hatch Cover. Last stop was Andre’s. I loved the South Seas; even my mother would join me on occasion. So my favorite dance spot was the little room off to the side of the tropical bar. We would put coins in the jukebox or often, a duo or trio of some local musicians would provide the live music. Everyone seemed to experience such fun in this Tiki-style bar that now we all have some very good memories for life.”
1965 – 1975
“I really enjoyed growing up in Laguna. My wife, Bonnie Couse, happened to be a classmate with Kelly Boyd, Sid Bryan and Carolyn Smith.
I knew the South Seas bar very well. My buddies and I would bar hop several times a week from nineteen sixty-five to nineteen seventy-five. Besides the South Seas, we would visit the Hatch Cover as well as the Marine Room on weekends. I remember my favorite drink at the South Seas, besides beer, was a drink called 151, which was a rum drink. In nineteen sixty-seven, Rick Wells and I bartended at the South Seas and I loved it. I ended up being their bartender by night while working as the lifeguard by day on Mountain Road.”
1958 – 1962 / 1978 – 1992
“I moved with my mom and siblings up on Top of the World and joined all the kids in school down Park Ave. When I was in high school, I decided to spend my extra time making money. Like many, I picked the Coast Inn as my first place of employment. My schoolmate, Kelly, was working for his dad, Bob Boyd, who had leased the restaurant. So both of us worked as busboys and dishwashers for our high school years, nineteen fifty-eight to nineteen sixty-two. During the summers, the town and the Coast Inn would fill with tourists who were happy and had lots of money for tips and that made us as employees happy too.
I was aware of the gay community in Laguna Beach but did not see any gay customers while I worked at the restaurant up to nineteen sixty-two. I did see gay customers both before and after I bought the Coast Inn in nineteen seventy-eight. I would say the South Seas seemed to be seeing a number of local gays joining the straight crowd, thus creating a line outside the entrance of the bar on weekends. I began to notice this change a couple years before I purchased in nineteen seventy-eight.
Sixteen years after working my first-ever job at the Coast Inn, I decided to buy the Coast Inn when Dick and Karl Smith announced their retirement. Dick carried the note for me and ten years later, nineteen eighty-eight, we celebrated the final pay-off. Dick and his wife, Pat, continued to eat dinners weekly at my restaurant while being available to mentor me. Please see a letter I wrote last April for the Historical Registry Report.”
Letter written by Sid Bryan May of 2014:
“When I bought the Coast Inn in 1978 things were changing. The Tap Room upstairs and the restaurant did a very good business lunch during the week for local business people. On the weekends the South Seas bar had a large gay crowd. Charlie the cook had people come from all over for his breakfasts and lunches. The crowd was mixed until 1984 or so. The dance floor in the South Seas bar got more and more popular with lines for a block down the street waiting to get in. There was always a large group of straight locals, but by 1984 or so all of the Coast Inn was predominantly gay.”
Below are professional pictures of the servicemen era.
By Lynn Mitchell Haines | Coastline Pilot | July 23, 2010
“Thank you Cindy Frazier for your column about the Coast Inn (“Canyon to Cove: Finding history in a bar,” July 9). It was such fun to read the recollections from people.
The Coast Inn and I have quite a history together. I could write reams, but I’ll try to be brief and add my family story to the history. I’ll call it Ode to Ruthe.
In the ninteen fifties, Laguna was the playground of the Marines. El Toro was an active base with a steady flow of soldiers on leave or coming back from Korea. The base did not have enough housing, and many Marines were given a subsidy to help cover rent. Many of them moved to Laguna, and my dad was among them.
My mom came on the scene in the early ninteen fifties with a carload of girlfriends, all from Kansas and looking for fun. They quickly found an apartment and secretarial jobs. They all hung out at Mountain Road Beach. The Coast Inn and the South Seas was the preferred night spot.
One night my mother did a favor for a friend and took her shift as cocktail waitress at the South Seas. She made so much in tips that she quickly left the office job and became a cocktail waitress. Working nights, days spent at the beach, my mom was officially a beach bum. A tradition that continues to this day with many people in town.
So my mom worked at the South Seas all through the early ninteen fifties. It was a popular spot with Marines and the town’s young people. I can’t be the only one in town who remembers Phil Interlandi’s great comics based on Easter Week and the beach/party scene at the time. I have some great glamour girl type photos of my mother and her friends at the beach and draped over the bumpers of their cars parked in front of the Coast Inn. Pictures taken to send to troops who were far away.
And yes, Rock Hudson did go into the South Seas in the ’50s. My mother carded him! Her friends said, “Ruthe, don’t you know who that is?” My mother replied that she didn’t care who he was, that she needed to see some ID! But at the time Hudson was so deep in the closet and it was so dark, I wonder if he even knew where he was.”