Past, Present, Future Collide In Laguna Beach

From the jump, Laguna Beach has been a melting pot of indigenous culture, the pioneering spirit and creative eccentricity.

Why Laguna Beach? What is it about this idyllic beachfront hamlet–an enclave of a mere 22,000 people sandwiched amongst the masses of greater Southern California–that seems to have such a gravitational pull on creators and creatives? The Coast Film and Music Festival is the latest manifestation of the mystic spirit found in Laguna’s rolling canyons and emerald coves, but it’s hardly the first.

To understand Laguna’s deep roots in arts, culture and the humanities, and why it seems to have had such an oversized influence over the generations, one must first peel back the current veneer of posh Orange County boutiques, sprawling coastal mansions and the omnipresent Range Rover. In its heart, Laguna Beach has always had a deep soul.

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Laguna’s Original People

Looking back to look forward, it was the Indigenous Kizh/Gabrieleño peoples, sometimes referred to as the Tongva, that called Laguna home when the Spanish first arrived in the mid 1500s. Descendants of the original Shoshonean nation who inhabited the Los Angeles Basin to the north all the way to Aliso Creek to the south, the sprawling Channel Islands to the west and the occasionally snow covered peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains to the east, their ancestors date back as far as 12,000 BC.

It was in 1542 that Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was first greeted by the original locals at the island of Santa Catalina (he didn’t actually set foot on the now-popular tourist destination). Situated about 30 miles off the coast of the California mainland, the next day the Spaniards arrived at the Baya de los Fumos (dubbed the “Bay of Smokes” because of all the smoke from the various cooking fires in the area). It’s widely believed the Spanish had landed at San Pedro Bay.

Cabrillo’s tepid arrival was a harbinger of darker times to come for the Kizh/Gabrieleño. By the 1770s, Spanish missionaries and settlers began to arrive en masse. The land grab was on. 

The robust population of Indigenous people has been estimated to be over 5,000 living in more than 100 known villages and settlements at the time. Under the mission system, the Kizh/Gabrieleño suffered forced relocation, enslavement and decimation by Old World diseases. In 1776, the nearby San Juan Capistrano mission was established by Junipero Serra, who despite protests, was canonized in 2015.  

Originally named Lagona – a derivative of the Spanish word for “lagoon” – because of the area’s multitude of coves and lagoons, the small outpost was ceded to Mexico as part of the Mexican land grant in 1837. The city was officially founded in 1887 as Lagonas and later renamed Laguna Beach in 1904.

Early Art Days

It’s about this time when an English artist named Norman St. Clair landed in Laguna. It’s believed he arrived sometime between 1899 and 1902. Soon joined by renowned landscape artist Granville Redmond, the two were at the forefront of the area blossoming into a vibrant community of artists. More painters soon joined them and Laguna quickly became an epicenter for the California Impressionist movement.

Establishing its place as a bonafide destination for artists, the first Festival of Arts took place in Laguna Beach in 1932, the same year the Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles. One of the oldest art festivals in the U.S. today, for over 90 years now, from early July through the end of August, the Festival of Arts has showcased the works of iconic artists, as well as hosted art demonstrations, live music performances and meet-and-greets with the artists.

Establishing its place as a bonafide destination for artists, the first Festival of Arts took place in Laguna Beach in 1932, the same year the Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles.

This early amalgamation of Indigenous roots, infused with a Spanish and Mexican pioneering spirit and a dose of pastoral English sensibilities, have blended to become something uniquely and quintessentially Laguna. There’s simply no other place like it.  

Off-the-beaten path beach town halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, early on the town adopted bohemian sensibilities and an acceptance (or at least tolerance) for eccentricity. At no point was this more obvious than during the heady 1960s.

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The Age Of Aquarius Arrives

There are two big cultural drivers during the Age of Aquarius. The first is the Sawdust Festival, which kicked off in 1965. A youthful movement seeking freedom of expression, it was as much of an art show as it was a gathering of an artistic tribe.

“The Sawdust was a child of the times,” says Mike Heintz, a Laguna-based silversmith. “It was much more than a place for artists to show and sell their artwork. It was happening; a beautiful, colorful collage of people creating a unique environment where nothing of its kind had existed.”

Around this same time the Mystic Arts World opens in Laguna and ostensibly becomes ground zero for Southern California psychedelia. A group of surfers, smugglers, hippies and cosmic warriors known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love settle into the canyons of Laguna, using the Mystic Arts World as a front for distributing some of the most potent LSD of the era, known as Orange Sunshine. Perhaps ahead of its time in some regards, located on Pacific Coast Highway, the Mystic Arts World also offered yoga classes, art, clothing, jewelry, health food, books and a meditation room.

It was happening; a beautiful, colorful collage of people creating a unique environment where nothing of its kind had existed.” - Mike Heintz, on the Sawdust Festival

Attracting the attention of Harvard professor Dr. Timothy Leary, the goal of the Brotherhood was to turn everyone on to the wonders of acid and expand the collective consciousness of the world. Turning to drug smuggling to fund their psychedelic operations (originally they weren’t in the acid game to make money but they had to pay for it somehow), over the second half of the ‘60s things got weird. Leary was arrested, safe houses were raided, and a lot of folks went on the lam. 

While the glory days of the Brotherhood were over by 1972, the cosmic spirit of adventure they left in their wake reverberates today. Heck, there’s a yoga studio or smoothie shop on every corner in Laguna and Orange County housewives are down with edible cannabis and psilocybin microdoses. Talk about a cosmic revolution.

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Summer Stories And Surf Movies

All of this sets the stage for how Laguna Beach became a hot spot for art, film, music and storytelling. In 1972, Laguna-based filmmakers Greg MacGillvray and Jim Freeman released “Five Summer Stories.” It was an instant classic. With poster art by seminal surf and psychedelic artist Rick Griffin, the film features state-of-the-art wave-riding and a breakthrough soundtrack by local band Honk. 

Tragically, Freeman died in a helicopter accident in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1976. Heartbroken by the loss, MacGillvray opted to keep the name of their original production company intact in his honor: MacGillivray Freeman Films. 

Today, as “Five Summer Stories'' celebrates its 50th birthday, MacGillvray’s list of accomplishments run deep. He’s the creator of the three-camera IMAX system. He’s filmed movies from the darkest depths of the ocean to the top of Mount Everest. And he’s been nominated for numerous Academy Awards. 

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Coast Comes To Town

In 2022, MacGillvray’s career was celebrated at the Coast Film and Music Festival with screenings of “Five Summer Stories,” a live show by Honk, and a very special talk story session with the man himself.

“Over the years, I’ve been to at least 100 notable film festivals, but I never had as warm a feeling for the operation, the guests, or the film selection as I have with the past two years of the Coast Film Festival,” MacGillvray says. “Its concentration on radical and sane activities in nature makes my heart sing.”

MacGillvray’s influence is everywhere at Coast. Both the filmmaker and the film festival are dedicated to not only sharing the magic of the natural world, but they’re also huge proponents of protecting it.

“We want to share these stories and these films because it’s vitally important to the health and well-being of our planet,” - Enich Harris, Coast co-founder

“We want to share these stories and these films because it’s vitally important to the health and well-being of our planet,” explains Coast co-founder Enich Harris. “People come to the show, they sit and watch these amazing films and it’s impactful. It moves them.”

“And it’s generation,” Harris adds. “One of the things we do that I’m most proud of is work with kids. We have environmental programs in place in the local schools that tie directly back into the films we’re screening. Admission to the festival is free for kids. We understand that each generation has a role to play and a story to tell.”

This fact has not been lost on MacGillvray. “What is most hopeful and encouraging is the way the festival attracts families, fathers, and mothers with their young kids, each exploring nature’s beauty and opportunities,” the filmmaker says.

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Paying It Forward

Putting their money where their mouth is, Harris and the crew at the Coast Film and Music Festival are deeply committed to a number of environmental movements. A proud member of 1% For the Planet, portions of their proceeds from their events go straight to environmental causes around the world.

Having worked for iconic brands like Billabong, Harris comes from a surfing background, while his partner, Ben Warner, comes from the ski world. Combining their passions, Coast also supports the Surfrider Foundation and Protect Our Winters.

Headquartered just down P.C.H. in San Clemente, the Surfrider Foundation dedicates its efforts to protecting coastlines, beaches and surf spots around the United States. Founded by surfers in Malibu in 1984, the organization is largely driven by volunteers around the country. They tackle issues ranging from plastic pollution, to climate change, to clean water.  

Protect Our Winters was founded in 2007 by pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones. Their overarching priority is to push for legislation on climate change and “turn outdoor enthusiasts into climate advocates.”

On a more local level, Harris and Warner are committed to the Laguna Canyon Foundation. The group “is dedicated to preserving, protecting, enhancing and promoting the 22,000-acre South Coast Wilderness.”

Their efforts date back to 1989 and the March to Save Laguna Canyon. Rallying the community, the group was able to push through a twenty-million-dollar bond measure in 1990, which led to the formation of the Laguna Canyon Foundation. Created to facilitate the acquisition of open space, they partnered with Orange County Parks and the City of Laguna Beach to purchase the land from the Irvine Company and ensure it remained in public hands in perpetuity.

History is fluid. It’s alive. Always evolving. The lively, colorful history of Laguna Beach is no exception. From the original Kizh/Gabrieleño people, to the early European settlers, to the 20th century art and counterculture movements and today’s modern spin on environmental radicalism, they’re all layers of paint on one big canvas. Together they’ve created one amazing, giant piece of living art with deep connections to the land and sea.

“Don't forget you’re alive,” famously said Joe Strummer, frontman for legendary punk band The Clash. “We don’t know what the next second will bring and what a fantastic thing this is … Don't forget you're alive. We're not dead, you know. This is the greatest thing.”

Key Takeaways
  • Visit the Coast Film & Music Festival to stay up-to-date on the latest news on the 2023 festival
  • Follow their Instagram page to support the ongoing mission of the festival 
  • Explore behind-the-scenes Q&A’s, stories, highlights and more by visiting the Coast Film & Music Festival Channel