How one mid-city street became the gritty pinnacle of West-Coast cool.
Robin Young and friend taken by Suzan Colon, former writer at “Star Hits Magazine”
By 1984 it was the pinnacle of the trendy punk rock influence and new wave scene in Los Angeles stretching from Fairfax to La Brea. Dozens of off beat independent businesses and forward thinking boutiques dominated the Avenue and over night these old rundown stucco buildings started to house kooky, outlandish and colorful shops covered in Graffiti and the store employees were the main attraction. Back in the day, Los Angeles during the 1920’s – 1950’s, was a city once abundant with commercial buildings shaped like tamales, hot dogs, tee pee’s and doughnuts and Melrose Ave picked this tradition right back up backup and was the pinnacle of “California Crazy”.
On a once bland Melrose Ave, Olivia Newton John was one of the first to open a boutique called “Koala Blue” that sold artifacts from her native homeland of Australia. But soon pioneer designer, Betsey Johnson opened her boutique on the opposite side that sold edgy styled dresses made of out of leather and lace that quickly defined the cutting edge underground district and helped transform Melrose Avenue from a tired street lined with tailors, artisans and antique shops into a phenomenon of L.A. trendsetting.
Offbeat stores such as, “Flip”, “Poseur”, “Cowboys and Poodles”, “Let It Rock” and “Retail Slut” dominated the AVE. For the mods and rockers it was all about skinny ties, ray-bans, rockabilly fashions, motorcycle jackets and vintage cars. A selection of record stores such as “Aron’s”, “Rene’s”, “Bleeker Bob’s “and “Vinyl Fetish” sold used records, popular 12 inch singles and European imports.
The birth of the retro movement was ground zero for vintage stores like “Off The Wall” that sold vintage Neon signs, 1950s art deco furniture and Bakelite Jewelry. “Aaardvarks” became the most successful used clothing store in the country known for its racks and racks of used Levy’s jeans. One of the most imaginative emporiums located on the corner of Melrose and Martel was “Wacko/The Soap Plant” which sold novelty items, artsy T-shirts, wind up toys, and contributed to the contemporary art scene in the upstairs gallery. Little did anyone know when Billy Shire created the Wacko sign it would become a celebrated icon for weird L.A. “Tommy Tangs”, “The Border Grill” and “Caffé Luna” were the trendy eateries frequented by celebrities such as Madonna, Elvis Costello and Johnny Lydon.
Melrose was also the birthplace of “Johnny Rockets” and the “The Burger That Ate L.A.”, which was once shaped of a giant cheeseburger.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Melrose was my shopping destination as a teenager and helped define my adolescent growth growth.
Alison Martino in 1983
My entire wardrobe was filled with Parachute pants, “Flip” Tshirts, spiked wristbands and Doc Martens. I had my hair styled on Melrose and left with stripy blonde streaks teased, spiked and held up by aqua-net hairspray for my class photo in 1984. I remember seeing Madonna trying on vintage sweaters at “Comme des Garcons” during her “Lucky Star” days and Rob Lowe with Princess Stephanie at a magazine stand on Martel snatching up all the magazine covers they were on that week.
“L.A. Eyeworks” also opened in 1984 and placed the hippest pop culture sensations on their add campaigns. Grace Jones, Andy Warhol, Jon Waters, Deborah Harry and Billy Idol were just the few that showed of their latest new eye-wear by gracing the cover of their cutting edge ads.
By 1984 dozens of off beat independent businesses and forward thinking boutiques dominated the Avenue and over night these old rundown stucco buildings started to house kooky, outlandish and colorful shops covered in Graffiti and the store employees were the main attraction.
Many of these places may be gone, but their independent spirit endures. Here’s a look back…
“The Burger That Ate L.A.”
A burger joint in the shape of a giant cheeseburger and glass bricks forming Ketchup and onions. To me it was the 1980’s version of the “Brown Derby”. You can still make out the round shape that hints at its juicy past. The bun-shaped dome and glass-brick “onions” once devoured the corner of Stanley Avenue. Today it’s a Starbucks and its roof hints at a juicy past located at 7624 Melrose.
Today You can see the original round structure:
Owned by fashion visionaries Klaus Wille and designers Lisa Elliot. They designed clothes for hundreds of celebrities and movies. “Neo 80” designed clothes for The Tubes and Olivia Newton John in “Xanadu” and it was Klaus who encouraged “Koala Blue” to open next door. 7356 Melrose Ave. 1979 – 1997.
Photo Courtesy of Klaus Willie
A theatre comedy community that could also be considered a clubhouse to many. Actors and comedians like Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens, and Jon Lovitz all got their start at the Groundlings in the early ‘80’s. This improvisational venue at 7307 Melrose is still a talent incubator today.
Staffers at Aron’s Records were the trusted proponents of the growing punk scene. The shop, at 7725 Melrose, offered a range of indie labels, imports, and a 99-cent bin that supplied many a milk crate. Aron’s relocated in 1989 and went out of business in 2006. The location is empty at present. I learned all about music and retail from the folks at Aron’s. When a customer asked a question about anything there was a solid answer and an experience to back it up. A good part of my vinyl collection came from their 99 cent bins. They filled the bins 3 or 4 times a day due to the product they sold. This is where I picked up my first copy of Pink Floyd’s, “Dark Side of the Moon including obscure indie titles and imported music.
And just east of Aron’s was another indie new-and-used record shop called, “Rene’s ALL EARS”. The photo pretty much describes the scene out front.
Photo courtesy of Vintage Los Angeles member, Michelene Insalaco
“Flip of Hollywood”
“Flip”was one of the first to make old clothing, along with the thrill of hunting for it, hip. Large selection of second-hand shirts, jackets, black jeans, cool postcards and nick-nacks and anchored the whole punk/new-wave/dance scene. The music was always blasting the latest cool stuff. They also opened a successful discount store. The enormous space that once housed the emporium at 7607 Melrose is now occupied by several boutiques.
“Poseur” was the shop for the diehard punks. Bondage pants, spiked bracelets, studded belts, and a lot of flaps and zippers could be purchased behind the twin red doors covered with, “F**K Parents”. A massive crowd of ‘punks and punkette’s always gathered out front during store hours passing out flyers and handbills. Despite its moniker, 7415 Melrose Avenue was an authentic paradise for those seeking bondage gear and the social mosh pit outside. These days the spot is a clothing store that goes by the name “Posers Hollywood”, minus the ‘u’ and ironically no relation to the original.
In 1983, singer-actress Olivia Newton-John opened this boutique at 7366 Melrose, which sold artifacts from her native Australia (KOALA was the acronym for “Korner of Australia in Los Angeles”. I remember how far away this store seemed from Aron’s records back then located on the opposite stretch of this rapidly growing Ave. There was literally nothing in-between since Melrose hadn’t exploded yet. It seemed after this store opened furniture boutiques and restaurants popped out of nowhere overnight, Sadly her venture went under a few years later, but Sandy gets props for being an early adopter of the thoroughfare.
Driving down Melrose is somewhat like entering a comic strip. William Liebowitz, founder of the Golden Apple Comics store, was a hero nonetheless in Melrose’s alternate universe of comic book artists, collectors and pop-culture junkies. Known for their rare comic books, toys, back issues, statues, t-shirts, and collectibles. The comic book store just east of La Brea must have its own secret powers. Independently owned, the operation has survived neighborhood flux since it originally opened at 7711 Melrose in 1979. It’s a mecca of Marvel and superhero prints as well as graphic novels, self-published magazines, and readings with such high-profile comic authors as director Kevin Smith, a Golden Apple regular.
This was the holy grail of vintage clothing stores on Melrose. A purveyor of used clothes, Levy’s, Hawaiian shirts, leather jackets, vintage floral dresses and recognized by its storefront mural featuring classic Hollywood Movie stars. This vintage treasure trove sat on the corner of Melrose and Curson for 38 years before closing in 2010. A sister store in Redondo Beach is still open for business.
A business Card provided by Alex Rojas:
“Cowboys and Poodles”
The throwback boutique at 7379 Melrose, better known as “cowpoo”, was designed to resemble a 1950s car wash. It also carried 1960s collectibles as Beatles-inspired boots for guys and pointy-toed snakeskin pumps for gals and a popular favorite of “GoGo’s” lead singer, Belinda Carlise. Other desirable finds included vintage ties, jewelry, sunglasses, pedal pushers, retro furniture, vintage tableware and rockabilly fashions and vintage Paco Rabanne earrings. I’ll never forget purchasing a pair of pointed pony skin pumps with a matching concho purse. Address 7379 Melrose.
One of the most imaginative emporiums located on the trendy corner of Melrose and Martel. “Wacko/The Soap Plant” sold novelty items, artsy T-shirts, wind up toys, and contributed to the contemporary art scene in the upstairs gallery and was heavily supportive of the contemporary arts scene in Los Angeles. It moved to Hollywood Boulevard in 1995. Today the is a shoe store called, “London Boots”.
Advertisement for WACKO coming soon
Photo courtesy of Joel Fletcher http://www.joelfletcher.com
“Genesis Hair Salon”
If you wanted a mohawk or a shaved head with purple stripes, you trusted the razor of Atila Sikora, at 5255 Melrose. Atila was one of the first to give local punks and scensters a mohawk or a shaved head with purple stripes. Although Genesis is a thing of the past, Sikora continues to attend to the locks of clients in the neighborhood. Good to know some things don’t change!
He may have danced with himself, but Billy Idol wasn’t alone when he patronized one of the first stores to specialize in British-inspired Bondage and Gothic clothing and one of the first to introduce combat styles to the masses. It opened in 1983 at 7517 Melrose; Cyndi Lauper, Axl Rose, and Nina Hagen bought their kilts here, too. Taime Downe from FASTER PUSSCAT worked the cash register and would hand you a flyer to see their band. I also remember “The Slut” having a fishbowl on the counter with one small fishe named Black Salad.
Calender flyer courtesy of Vintage Los Angeles member, Michelene Insalaco
An erotic specialty store for men and women of all sexual persuasions. If you needed a few “gadgets” or “gag gifts” shall we say to enhance your, “bedroom antics” then this was your destination. Shopping at Drakes on Melrose Ave made shopping for sex toys almost seem mainstream and the staff never made you feel embarrassed.
One of the first that sold industrial-style furnishings and stationery items made out of plastic and chrome. Most of their products were black, white or red. At the time, “hi tech” was a fairly new trendy phrase. Their buyers epitomized this sleek fashion. 7560 Melrose
the independent record store where one could find, obscure indie titles, colored vinyl, popular 12 inch singles and European imports. They hung all their rare LP’s in plastic sleeves all over the walls . This is where I’d pick up my “Bauhaus” and “Siouxie and the Banshees” LPs. There was also a case full of spike-and-studed jewlery and a selection of rock-star posters.
Tommy Tang’s introduced Thai food to the masses on Melrose Ave. It was trendy and chic without being too pretentious, and very popular with locals and celebrity clientele and brilliantly run by a master promoter who did wonders with his cuisine.
One of Betsey Johnsons’s first boutique’s in Los Angeles was on Melrose Ave. appropriately next door to a store called “Off the Wall”. Her clothes were astonishingly cool. Lots of leopard prints, hot pink and satin dresses complemented our over teased, spiked hairstyles. I purchased a white lace prom dress here. It as very “White Wedding”. Today her edgy ‘80’s fashions go for mega bucks on Ebay.
“War Babies”, “Parachute” and “Let It Rock”
These store had a good selection of accessories as well, particularly belts, bags and colorful socks including hand-painted overalls and crocheted sweaters. It was sandwiched between other unique independent fashion boutiques such as “Let it Rock”, “Melons”, Parachute”,Twist”, “Lip Service” and Vertigo”. “Twist” boutique had glittering black and silver letters twitching Chubby Checkerlike, from side to side and designed to be seen from a moving automobile. Inside they sold current fashions.
Parachute advertisement 1983:
Photo:Christopher J Cutler
Neon stores fronts can be scene in the 1986 movie, LESS THAN ZERO…
“Flashfeet” was the place to purchase shoes called ‘creepers’. Many memories of many fun pairs to choose from those cinder block shelves.
Nucleus Nuance” was a super club and hangout open for lunch and dinner. At night they featured live music & dancing to live jazz to a Colorful clientele. Once located at 7267 Melrose Ave (Open in the 1960s – Closed in 1993)
Photo Credit: Dennis Keely / 1982
Gai Gherardi and Barbara McReynolds revolutionized eyeglass designs by carrying limited edition frames. They also showcased the hippest pop culture sensations on their advertisement campaigns. Grace Jones, Andy Warhol, Jon Waters, and Deborah Harry were just the few that showed off their latest new eye wear by gracing the cover of their ads. I used to plaster them all over my room. Today it is one of one of the avenue’s oldest establishments. And they are STILL IN BUSINESS!!
People Magazine 1982
Advertisement for The Burger The Ate L.A.
Paul Reubens, as Pee-wee Herman, poses with a stuffed chimpanzee at OFF THE WALL on LA’s trendy Melrose Avenue.
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The above article originally appeared in Los Angeles Magazine.