Arts & Culture

The Viper Room Turns 25 Years Old

Hard to believe the Viper Room is turning 25 this year. When Johnny Depp launched the club in 1993 it automatically became one of the hottest places on the Sunset strip. But as red hot as the club was (and still is), few people realized just how historic that building at 8852 Sunset really was.  Dating back to 1921, it’s one of the oldest buildings on the strip. And it didn’t start out as a club.

For its first 20 or so years, it was actually a small grocery store that served the neighborhood residents working down the hill in a small industrial village called Sherman.  By the 1940s however, Sunset Boulevard had began transforming from a dusty and unpaved commuter route, into “Sunset Strip,” where celebrities enjoyed eating, drinking and gambling. And so the grocery store closed down and was replaced in the mid 1940s as a nightclub called the Cotton Club, not associated with the famous New York City club located in Harlem.  In the late 1940s it became the Greenwich Village Inn, then the Rue Angel, then the Last Call in 1950.   Perhaps forecasting the rock’n roll debauchery that would ultimately find its way to the Viper Room, back in the 1940s and 50s the building was also home to lots of wild behavior from striptease dancers to drug dealing.

From 1951 to 1969 the building finally gained a degree of respectability as the Melody Room, run by a pair of brothers named Pete and Billy Snyder. For 18 years, this became a classic cabaret haunt on the Strip, featuring a diverse lineup of performers (along with a wide array of gangsters who hung out here).

The Melody Room in the 1960s. Photo Courtesy of Vintage Los Angeles.

Like many other places on the Strip, the Melody Room evolved along with the changing cultural times. In 1973, a few years after the Melody Room closed, a rock and roll club called Filthy McNasty’s opened on this site, it lasted seven years, and then the Central opened here. As Los Angeles magazine documented in 2014, “During the 1980s you could easily catch a set by Rickie Lee Jones or bump into John Belushi at The Central. In 1981, The Who’s John Entwistle participated in an open jam night there on Tuesdays. Mitch Mitchell (of the Jimi Hendrix Experience), Buddy Miles, Les Dudek, Carlos Castenada, Jr., C.C. DeVille (before he was in Poison) Pearl (Janis Joplin’s back-up singer) and Ray Gange (the Clash’s roadie and star of “Rude Boy”) would sit in or be seen drinking at the bar. The Central had a stage that was four feet high, nice monitors, and a great PA system.”

And then came the Viper Room. Tragically, the year the club opened, 23-year-old actor River Phoenix collapsed in toxic shock from a drug overdose right in front of the club and died shortly after at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. But that event did not prevent the club from almost immediately becoming one of the hottest in the city, let alone the Strip. At Johnny Depp’s request, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed on club’s opening night.  And from that moment on, the place was a magnet for both well-established artists and up and comers.  Many production companies have used the Viper Room as a film and television locations and despite the high turnover rate of clubs and restaurants in Los Angeles, the Viper Room remains a must visit venue for both tourists and locals alike.

The Viper Room
Sunset Strip

The Viper Room

8852 Sunset Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069

Chris Epting
About Chris Epting
Chris Epting is the author of 30 travel/history books, including James Dean Died Here (Santa Monica Press), Roadside Baseball (McGraw Hill), Hello It's Me, Dispatches From a Pop Culture Junkie (Santa Monica Press) and many others. He is also an award-winning travel writer and has contributed articles for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, Westways and Travel + Lesiure magazine, among other publications. In addition, Chris is a veteran music journalist and recently co-wrote Def Leppard's Phil Collen's memoir, Adrenalized, and the John Oates Memoir Change of Seasons. Originally from New York, Chris now lives in Huntington Beach, California with his wife and their two children.

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