Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Topanga Mermaid

If you're going south through Topanga, along Topanga Canyon Boulevard, just before the road to the elementary school is the former site of a plant nursery. At the driveway to the property is a huge, rambling and thorny rosebush, remarkably vigorous, with large single yellow flowers.

Like many old and species roses, it blooms only periodically throughout the year, in spring and early summer, and then perhaps again a flush of bloom in the fall.

The other day while commuting to work, I noticed it is in its fall bloom. I am not certain, but I believe that this is a specimen of the famed rose "Mermaid," beloved of English gardeners like Graham Stuart Thomas and Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West.

There's another Mermaid that makes her home in Topanga. In a quiet neighborhood, a house with an amazing history has become a welcoming gathering place for community events. Built in 1930 as a country club for a real estate development, it has been a brothel and casino, a school for boys, an American Legion Hall, and a gay nightclub.

The Topanga Historical Society has published a fantastic book - now out of print, but they're working on the new edition - that details the community's history and its tradition of bohemian lifestyles.

In the 1970's, the structure became the Mermaid Tavern, named after Shakespeare's Mermaid, and became a place for music, art, and legendary partying. Beatnik artist Wallace Berman exhibited there in 1973. Joni Mitchell sings about the Mermaid Tavern in her song "Carey,"
"Come on down to the Mermaid Cafe and I will
Buy you a bottle of wine
And we'll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down"

In 1989 the building was bought by someone who fell in love with it, who began a painstaking - and often heartbreaking - restoration. You can read about it at the owner's website - take heed, all who dream of restoring an historic building. But there is a happy ending. Today the Mermaid is a beautiful event and location venue, the owner often donating the space to local community fundraisers, celebrations, and memorial gatherings.

I'm relatively new to Topanga and Los Angeles. I was still in school when Topanga Canyon was the Mecca of hippie culture, when musicians like Neil Young built their studios among the oaks, and Charles Manson and his followers acted upon their dark impulses. As in many communities, the traces of the past fade and disappear over time - or knowledge and memory of them fade.

Also visible along Topanga Canyon Boulevard, but hidden so you have to look for it, is a trace of the past. Just north of the vintage shop Hidden Treasures, on the hillside among a tangle of shrubs, is an old wooden sign.

You can just see it when you come around the bend, or when you're pausing for our new traffic light to change.

A mermaid - with a lusty appetite for a hefty tankard of drink. She flips her tail in celebration. You can just imagine her, swimming topless in the Mermaid's pool while the music plays and the marijuana smoke rises.

Is this the old sign from the Mermaid Tavern? I don't know, but I suspect so. After all, how many mermaids do you suppose a place like Topanga might have?

Did any of you hang out in Topanga Canyon, at the Mermaid Tavern? If so, please share your stories.


JCK said...

I'd love to know, too. That book sounds really like a gem. I hope they do reprint it.

For some reason, I thought Charles Manson & crew were in the Hollywood Hills, not Topanga?

KathyR said...

She does look like a drunken fishy hussy, doesn't she?

We looked at a couple of houses in Topanga, but kept going over into Calabasas. TMotH drives the canyon every weekday. I drive it once a week or so. It is a beautiful drive. My favorite canyon road/drive by far.

JCK: The Tate murders were in Benedict Canyon. Near Hollywood. The Manson group did live in Topanga for a while, but their most famous residence is the Spahn Ranch in the Santa Susana Mountains near Chatsworth.

womaninawindow said...

Huh, nope. In our neck of the woods there are no big names with pop culture legacies (if you can call Manson's that) but Neil Young is from an area awfully close to here. Not sure when he left but I suspect before he frequented our drinking holes. (Emphasis on the word HOLES!)

exTopangan said...

My family lived across Callon Drive in the '70's when the Tavern operated. That time was doubtlessly when the most noble use was made of that interesting building, at least up till then. Mickey Nadel and his family ran a classy, classy, artistic venue on Sunday evenings. The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo were performance artists there, to drop a name.

I'm happy to see it restored. It looks like they've done a spectacular job... but, I'm sorry. I don't remember that sign as being associated with the Mermaid Tavern. Maybe it was, or can be now.

Anonymous said...

My Aunt and Uncle owned this property in the late 1960 's and operated a very successful Gay bar. That became an important part of " Gay History of Los Angeles".

Leesa said...


I am from Hollywood, but my Dad lived right across from the Mermaid Tavern and we used to visit him on weekends. When I was a little girl of 8/9 years, I learned how to swim in the Mermaid's pool. It used to be a 70's Hippie hangout and I remember everyone went nude at the pool.
I also remember Oingo Boingo's shows there, before they became a music group, the performed skits at the Mermaid. . Dressing up in costumes..
I can remember the gorilla one, because it used to scare me. And the one with the mice. My Dad was good friends with the owners. I spent so much time there as a kid. My dad moved to another part of Topanga, but remained in touch with them for awhile. Bruce and Ann, if I remember correctly. I remember their sons Ben and Will? I used to ride the donkey there named Tequila. They had a few dogs... and it was a really fun place. I think about it sometimes.. what fun childhood memories... Especially the the swing in the back that went over the side of a small cliff/hiĺl. . It was sooo much fun to swing on that!!!
If anyone from there sees this, feel free to contact me! Islandgirl4ever2@gmail.como


Leesa said...

I kind of grew up on weekends in that house... I remember Oingo Boingo performonances.. we (kids) used to sit in the front row on the floor and I used to get scared when they gorilla's would come in.. it was such a trippy show.. I wish I remembered it more clearly!