No one needs to tell a native Angeleno that car culture is rooted deep in Los Angeles. As immortalized in George Lucas’s American Graffiti, cruising is forever enmeshed with youth culture and music. Inspired by the cruisin’ oldies of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons—and Bob Gaudio's red "Caddy" convertible—in Jersey Boys (onstage at the Ahmanson May 16 – June 24, 2017), we take a look back at the top five cruising boulevards of Los Angeles.
Whittier Blvd, East L.A.
According to "Barrio Boychik" Shmuel Gonzales, Whittier Boulevard has a long-standing car culture that began when the Ford Motor Company established their first Los Angeles plant nearby at 7th St and Santa Fe in 1912. By the 1940s, pachucos and zoot suiters were “paving” the way for modern cruise culture in Boyle Heights. In the 1950s, the Los Angeles riverbed beneath the Sixth Street Bridge became a popular meeting spot for drag racing (the famous Grease race scene takes place here). Young enthusiasts spent time and money fixing up their cars to show off and race. Perhaps the most popular car mod to this day, the lowrider would eventually grow to become a symbol of Latino culture itself. Side note: Demian Bichir, El Pachuco in our 2017 production of Zoot Suit, stars in Lowriders, which opened this month.
Van Nuys Blvd, San Fernando Valley
At the further edges of Los Angeles, the rise of rock and roll and disposable income amongst teens helped spur cruise culture in the San Fernando Valley along Van Nuys Boulevard from the 1950s – 1970s. L.A. native and photographer Rick McCloskey recalls in the recently released book Los Angeles in the 1970s:
Cruise night was every Wednesday on Van Nuys Boulevard from the early 1950s through the 1970s. Gasoline was mighty cheap, new and old cars were surprisingly inexpensive as well. The San Fernando Valley was home to, what seemed like at the time, a million teenagers, and just about all of them spent many a wonderful evening endlessly cruising from one end of Van Nuys Boulevard to the other, and then back again.
Popular stops along the way were Bob’s Big Boy, June Ellen’s Donuts, A&W Root Beer, as well as many lesser known spots. ‘The Boulevard’ was where you went to see and be seen, and to meet new friends, show off your ride, grab a milkshake or a ‘Double Burger,’ and just have an all-around great time.
Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood
The glitz and glamour of a possible star sighting provided some of the allure for cruising Hollywood Boulevard in the 1950s and 60s—one can’t miss the towering Capitol Records building in the skyline. Nearby, L.A.'s growing counterculture made Sunset Boulevard—and more specifically, the Sunset Strip—its homebase as rock clubs like the Whisky a Go Go and Pandora’s Box opened up.
Crenshaw Blvd, South L.A.
Crenshaw Boulevard cruising culture began in the 1960s due in part to its celebrated nightlife featuring the era's musical luminaries. According to KCET Departures, acts from Nat King Cole, The Temptations, and Marvin Gaye to Parliament and the Gap Band were known to perform at the legendary Memory Lane Supper Club and Mavericks Flat, which was dubbed the “Apollo of the West.” During the 1980s and 90s, the emerging rap scene was inseparable from car culture, as immortalized on screen in Spike Lee's Boyz N the Hood.
Colorado Blvd, San Gabriel Valley
On the other end of Los Angeles, Rose Parade floats weren’t the only vehicles cruising down Colorado Boulevard in the San Gabriel Valley. Drive-ins, rock and roll, and muscle cars define this stretch, which even gets a shout-out in the Beach Boys's "Little Old Lady From Pasadena."
As recorded at the Pasadena History Museum, Dori Pendergrass describes a typical night out in 1956:
Cruising Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena at night became a favorite thing to do with my girlfriends. I was the only one in my clique who had a car. Sometimes we stopped at the new restaurant McDonalds. It sported 'Golden Arches,' and a sign at the curb that gave a daily count of burgers sold. More often, though, we chose the drive-in restaurant Bob’s Big Boy. A pony-tailed carhop wearing a perky outfit and roller skates, took our order. We listened to our favorite music from the restaurant’s speakers, such as Bo Diddley, 'Tutti Frutti,' 'Hand Clappin'' and '[Hello] Mary Lou.' There was also a new singer, Elvis Presley. His just released songs were 'Love Me Tender,' 'Don't Be Cruel,' and 'Hound Dog.' We ate, gossiped, giggled and sang.