Lou Adler didn’t say much at the opening reception for the new Grammy Museum exhibit on the Roxy Theatre, the intimate rock club he co-founded 50 years ago this week. When you’re the King of the Sunset Strip you don’t have to.
Adler, 89, was easy to spot in the crowd that turned out Sunday to celebrate and see and “The Roxy: 50 and Still Kickin’” at the museum in downtown Los Angeles. In a black beanie, yellow jacket, black-and-yellow pajama-like pants, and yellow Crocs, he was impossible to miss.
Friends greeted him warmly. Strangers asked to take selfies. Through it all, Adler smiled, taking in the surroundings – the photographs of legendary stars on stage, backstage, upstairs at the On the Rox private club – that covered the walls of the museum gallery.
“He’s a man of few words and great impact,” said musician Cisco Adler, the second of Adler’s seven sons, in a film on the history of the Roxy that screens on loop on one gallery wall.
And he doesn’t miss a thing.
“He’s also a guy who at his age, still cares about the font on the napkin,” Cisco Adler continued. “And will be up all night thinking about this font or that font.”
The photographs make up the bulk of the exhibit, and 10 or more of the photographers who shot them were at the opening on Sunday, Sept. 17.
Joel Bernstein shot opening night, Sept. 20, 1973, when Neil Young kicked off the first of six shows over three days at the brand-new Roxy on the Sunset Strip. His images depict not just Young and his band in performance, but scenes backstage – guitarist Nils Lofgren in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, drinking from two bottles of tequila at the same time – and out front – Elton John stepping out of a car to greet David Geffen on the sidewalk.
Different sections show various aspects of the Roxy. The classic artists who have played the venue included images of Linda Ronstadt with her friends in Little Feat outside the club before her 1973 shows, Peter Gabriel in 1977, Prince, in a tiger-striped bikini bottom, in 1979, Levon Helm with the Muscle Shoals All-Stars in 1982, Nick Cave and the Birthday Party in 1983.
There’s also an image of Bruce Springsteen, looking impossibly young in October 1975, a rare shot – cameras were banned for the show – captured by photographer Kevin Goff, who snuck his camera in under his leather jacket.
Sections on life backstage at the Roxy show the royalty of rock and entertainment mingling. Bob Dylan invited Robert DeNiro for a photograph after a show by Renee Blakely that also included actresses Sally Kirkland and Lainie Kazan in 1976. Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood is seen laughing with Muddy Waters in 1981. Beatle George Harrison looks slightly in awe as he talks with Bob Marley in 1976.
“The Rocky Horror Show,” which Adler brought from London in 1974 to make its United States debut at the Roxy, has a wall to itself, with scenes not just of the cast but the celebrities that turned out on opening night: Adler with his pal Jack Nicholson, Mick and Bianca Jagger at a table with super-agent Sue Mengers, John Lennon and his then-girlfriend at a table with Mengers as well.
In the film, Adler, most of his seven sons, and stars such as David Foster, whose first job in Los Angeles was playing piano in “The Rocky Horror Show,” and Paul Tollett, the CEO of Goldenvoice founder whose company has booked the Roxy for the last decade, all talk about its impact on them and the music scene at large.
“Chaos,” Lou Adler replied in the film when asked what he remembered of opening night. “A lot of it was by invitation, but the invitations got out of hand. Celebrities upon celebrities.”
Getting Neil Young was a no-brainer, he added. Young’s manager, Elliott Roberts, was a Roxy investor and made that happen. On Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 20-21, Young returns to celebrate the anniversary. Now he’s Adler’s brother-in-law, Adler is married to Page Hannah, Young to Daryl Hannah.
At the end of the film, ever the man of few words, Adler is succinct as to his legacy with the Roxy.
“I was able to do and be involved with things that survive the test of time,” he said. “That’s the thing I’ll take pride in.”
After the film screened, Grammy Museum curator Jasen Emmons hosted a panel discussion that included Cisco Adler, a co-owner of the Roxy and a musician who has played there; Tollett of Goldenvoice; music journalists Steve Appleford and Allison Hagendorf, and music executive Julie Pilat.
Highlights of their conversation included:
Cisco Adler: Walking into Rage Against the Machine’s last show, or last show then, and, having grown up on that, seeing it in that small room. It was just an ‘ah ha’ moment for me of why the Roxy is so special.
Steve Appleford: A couple of times Patti Smith played there, after returning to performing in the ’90s. She was playing bigger rooms then, but there’s something about her at the Roxy, an intimacy there, and yet it still feels like a big place.
Julie Pilat: My favorite piece of band merch ever came from the Roxy. It was a My Chemical Romance show, and it showed the Roxy on the front, My Chem on the marquee, had a giant vampire coming over the back, and it just said, ‘We needed to warm up for Japan.’
How and why it endures
Paul Tollett: The owner. It starts with that. The ups and downs of owning a nightclub are tortuous. You’ve got to be strong and hang in there. The Roxy hung in there.
Adler: It’s got to be the impetus behind opening the Roxy, which was to make a place for artists and make a place for fans. It wasn’t to make a place so that he could make that his main business. His main business was taking care of the music business.
Appleford: Lou was smart enough to buy the property under the club 20 years ago. A lot of clubs didn’t have that option. So they had a landlord that wanted to do something else or raise the rent.
Pilat: It’s where we go to feel loved and accepted. To look around and say, ‘These are my people.’ That’s really unique to the Roxy.
Allison Hagendorf: Am I crazy to say that it might be energetically something even bigger? I mean, it feels like a vortex in the middle of Hollywood. That location where the streets come up and you’re on the brink of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and the whirlpool of energy that happens between the Rainbow and the parking lot. It really is something larger than life.
Backstage and On the Rox
Adler: There’s a little hole backstage, and you look out of and you can barely see. And you’re just waiting to see if people are going to come and page the Roxy for you. Once it fills up a certain amount of the hole you know you’re gonna be good for the night. And every artist I guarantee knows that little hole.
On the Rox, it’s a jewel in the crown up there. You know that if you can get up there you might rub shoulders with either the band that just played, or someone else magical. Some magical unicorn that might be up there.
Hagendorf: I’ve had amazing nights (inside On the Rox). Like there was an impromptu performance – Yungblud, Machine Gun Kelly and Travis Barker. It was mayhem, it was chaos.
Tollett: We weren’t allowed in there. Which is fine. It’s like we love that. There’s a whole different world going on above.
On playing the Roxy
Adler: It’s 100% your rite of passage. L.A.’s a tough town, and everyone in L.A. is going to show up here because they heard you’re buzzing or whatever. I’m sure it’s similar to Johnny Carson for comedians. It’s the one show that you hope you do your best.
I think outgrowing the Roxy is also such a magical moment for not only the artists, but for the Roxy. We want artists to grow out of it. Most times they’re going to come back to play it because of that moment we’re talking about in that first show.
The ongoing impact of the Roxy
Pilat: It’s the heart of L.A. It’s just such a special thing to have, in a sprawling city that is so massive, something that truly is local.
Tollett: For me, the influence is that I liked it so much I built kind of a version of it in the suburbs. The Glass House in Pomona. As kids, we thought if we ever going to build something out here like that. The corner stage, the great sound. So much of it came from the Roxy.
Adler: I think the Roxy still has that magic to this day, 50 years later. And we’re going to feel that magic in a couple of days when Neil takes the stage, 50 years to the day. That circle right there should explain the Roxy.