Drugs, Dolls and Johnny Depp: The Viper Room’s demolition is the end of a Hollywood era

The Viper Room in April 2020  (Rich Fury/Getty Images)
The Viper Room in April 2020 (Rich Fury/Getty Images)

Today, the Sunset Strip is a shadow of its former self. In the Sixties, the infamous two-mile stretch of Sunset Boulevard was the heart of Los Angeles’ emerging counterculture, a place where world-famous actors Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda joined young hippies in riots against a 10pm curfew. Fast-forward to the Eighties and bands like Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen and Mötley Crüe were staying up long past their bedtimes as the area transformed into the whisky-soaked home of hair metal. These days the counterculture is long gone and the bulldozers are circling. In February, the iconic former home of Tower Records, which went bankrupt in 2006, was torn down to make way for a new branch of skatewear brand Supreme. Last month, it was announced that The Viper Room, the rock’n’roll dive once owned by Johnny Depp, will soon be demolished and replaced with a 12-storey glass high-rise. “Just what the Strip needs!” jokes Steve Cohn, Depp’s former construction manager and a Viper Room regular in the Nineties. “There’s so much crap like that. It’s so sad.”

When it opened, on 14 August 1993, The Viper Room was the hottest ticket in town. Despite the cave-like venue’s miniscule capacity of just 250, the stellar bill on that first night featured Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Evan Dando of the Lemonheads and Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan. A who’s who of Hollywood watched from the crowd, with directors Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch and Tim Burton rubbing shoulders with stars like Dennis Hopper, Christina Applegate and Patricia Arquette. The building had been converted from a grocery shop into a music venue in 1947 by mobster Mickey Cohen, a fact proudly noted by a zoot-suited Depp. “I really love the idea of clubs from the Twenties, Thirties and Forties,” he told the LA Times on its opening night. “Like long slinky dresses, gin fizzes and witty banter?” one party-goer asked. “No wit, I don’t want any wit here,” Depp zinged back. What he did hope to create, he said, was a club where celebrities “won’t feel like they’re on display”.

Johnny Depp wearing a Viper Room beanie in January 2002 (PA)
Johnny Depp wearing a Viper Room beanie in January 2002 (PA)

He got his wish, and the deliberately dark and dingy Viper Room quickly became the city’s hippest hang-out for film and music A-listers. It wasn’t long, however, before tragedy struck. On 30 October 1993, less than three months after it opened, rising star River Phoenix arrived at the club with siblings Leaf (now known as Joaquin) and Rain to play a set with the band P, whose members included Phoenix’s friends Flea and John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. During the show Phoenix told a friend he feared he’d overdosed, having taken the combination of heroin and cocaine known as a speedball. Moments later the young actor was convulsing in fits on the pavement outside. He died in the early hours of the morning. In the wake of the incident, the club was shut for a week, and out of respect for Phoenix, the venue closed on the anniversary of his death every year until Depp sold his interest in the club in 2004. “For years, every Halloween the whole sidewalk would be full of candles and flowers,” remembers Cohn. “Probably still, but in those days you couldn’t even walk on the sidewalk there, it was so packed.”

Phoenix’s death did little to hurt the club’s reputation. It was becoming known for excess. At Kate Moss’s 21st birthday party at the club in January 1995, former Neighbours star Jason Donovan had to be stretchered out after suffering his own cocaine-induced seizure. At the time, Depp and Michael Hutchence of INXS were onstage playing Van Morrison’s “Gloria”. “The pair were halfway through the song, belting out the chorus, when I realised I was about to go,” Donovan wrote in 2007 memoir Between The Lines. “My heart was racing, my vision was blurring and I was becoming disorientated. I tried to steady myself but my legs buckled under me and I fell to the floor.” After discharging himself from hospital, Donovan apologised to Depp and Moss for spoiling their party. “We’re just pleased that you are OK,” Donovan remembers Depp telling him. “Now take some advice from me, go to your room, get some sleep and for God’s sake take it easy in future.”

Depp’s presence attracted some of the biggest bands in the world. “It was a dive of a place, but it had the best sound system anywhere on the Strip and because Johnny owned it he got a lot of amazing people,” recalls Cohn, who says a personal highlight was an unannounced jam session with Hutchence, The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. Over the years, Hole, Iggy Pop, Slash, The Strokes, Johnny Cash and Keanu Reeves’s band Dogstar all squeezed themselves onto the tiny stage. “The best acts that ever came through LA played there,” says Cohn. “Even if the night before they were playing at the Hollywood Bowl.”

In December 1995, Oasis were in the middle of touring second album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? and had just played to thousands of fans at the nearby Universal Amphitheatre when Depp talked them into an impromptu follow-up at The Viper Room. “Depp told his people, and someone told [local radio station] KROQ, who announced it at about 3pm yesterday afternoon,” reported MTV News at the time. “In fact, it was announced much to the band’s surprise. To tell you the truth, they forgot that they’d promised – but after a few phone calls the whole matter was straightened out, and the band showed up at the club in time to play their short but stunning set at 12.15am.” The Gallaghers played to a crowd featuring an unlikely selection of Britpop fans. “At one point there were more than 1,000 people in line to get into the tiny club,” wrote MTV. “A line that included members of Offspring, Korn, as well as Scott Weiland from Stone Temple Pilots.”

That same year choreographer Robin Antin put together a modern burlesque troupe called The Pussycat Dolls. They landed a Thursday night residency at The Viper Room which continued from 1995 until 2001. Over the years the provocative dancers performed with mainstream stars like Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani and Scarlett Johansson and became so popular that Interscope label boss Jimmy Iovine suggested turning them into a pop group. They went on to become one of the biggest selling girl groups of all time, with some 55 million records sold. “The performances they did there when they were starting out were pretty outrageous and awesome,” recalls Cohn. “Pretty much anything and everything went in that place.”

Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler leaving The Viper Room in April 2002 (David Klein/Getty Images)
Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler leaving The Viper Room in April 2002 (David Klein/Getty Images)

The club’s popularity – and celebrity appeal – continued well into the 21st century. In 2004, the same year Depp sold his stake, Spider-Man actor Tobey Maguire approached The Viper Room’s co-owner Darin Feinstein about hosting a high-stakes poker game in the basement. Feinstein hired former competitive skier Molly Bloom to run the games, and they attracted a host of high-end movie star players, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Bloom’s outlandish tale was adapted into a movie in its own right, Aaron Sorkin’s 2017 drama Molly’s Game.

In theory, at least, The Viper Room will re-emerge from the rubble. Silver Creek Development, which bought the property four years ago, says that their towering new building will include a modern, revamped Viper Room alongside the inevitable hotel, restaurants and 26 condos. Designs show the prospective venue’s clean glass foyer, while plans promise that “memorabilia from the original Viper will be featured throughout”.

For many in Los Angeles, however, something important will be lost when the historic building is torn down in 2023. A common jibe against the city is that it has no sense of history, but it’s impossible to cultivate one when much-loved venues are torn down to make room for yet another high-rise. Adrian Scott Fine of the Los Angeles Conservancy says city planners often overlook the cultural significance of such buildings. “They’re not even talking about these places, or even thinking about them as being potentially historic because they do see them as being so new,” Fine told LAist. “So we need to change that because we’re going to lose a lot of places before we even start understanding how they fit into a larger context.”

The new developers promise their building will offer an “unparalleled level of luxury”. Meanwhile the debauched antics that once made The Viper Room so infamous now seem consigned to another time.