Prohibition in the Palisades

Painting of Doc Law’s speakeasy by Palisadian Hugo Ballin
Photo courtesy of UCLA Library

The constitutional amendment banning most alcohol in the United States was ratified 100 years ago in January 1919. Pacific Palisades was founded shortly thereafter with a strong tendency toward temperance, but Palisadians who wanted a tipple during those years did not have to travel far.

In fact, in August 1921, just across a dirt road from one of the founding Methodist tent camps in Rustic Canyon was the original gathering of The Uplifters, a well-to-do group of fun-loving businessmen who bought the neighboring tract as a retreat.

The Uplifters clubhouse on dedication day, 1923
Photo courtesy of Santa Monica Public Library

The Uplifters had been founded in 1913 by members of the Los Angeles Athletic Club with the stated creed: “To uplift art and promote good fellowship.” At many social gatherings—and especially at their annual weeklong Hi Jinks—fellowship included ample rounds of drinking.

Among the satirical plays that they wrote and staged at these events was one titled “Discovery of Man’s Vital Nourishments: Beer, Wine, Whiskey, and Hooch.”

The onset of Prohibition led the group to purchase the acreage in Rustic Canyon for solitude and safety from the prying eyes of the police. They built a clubhouse on what is now Latimer Road in the wooded thicket, and soon members added their own cabins nearby.

A swimming pool and polo grounds also served the need for outdoor recreation. But the club existed primarily for merriment, and, according to Betty Young in her book “Rustic Canyon and the Story of the Uplifters,” the bootleggers were kept busy.

Thelma Todd’s Inn, early 1930s
Photo courtesy of Santa Monica Public Library

The group continued to flourish through the repeal of Prohibition in 1934, though it faded out after World War II. In 1953 the clubhouse was donated to the city, where it still serves as the Rustic Canyon Recreation Center.

The Uplifters was a private society, but the general Palisadian public also had access to constitutionally prohibited beverages; all they had to do was go to the “pharmacy” of Burton C. Law at 109 West Channel Road.

A former movie actor who played in 40 silent films, “Doc” Law founded the drugstore in 1923 as a classic soda fountain, which also sold remedies.

For those who knew the password, alcoholic elixirs and bourbon-laced mint juleps were available in the back room. Among the regular tipplers was Will Rogers, who knew Doc Law from their days in the movies.

Palisadian painter Hugo Ballin, whose home and studio still stand on Almoloya Drive, knew the place well enough to craft a flamboyant oil painting of Doc Law’s back porch, filled with revelers. The place was remodeled after Repeal, but to this day it remains a bar known as SHOREbar.

A darker story comes from the Castellammare business block—the white, tile-roofed Mediterranean structure on Pacific Coast Highway just north of Sunset Boulevard.

Originally built in 1927 as a community center, by 1932 it was a restaurant owned by Roland West and former actress Thelma Todd, who shared an apartment on the top floor.

Douglas Thompson reports in “The Dark Heart of Hollywood” that Todd was a close friend of gangster Lucky Luciano, and that the second floor of the block was a speakeasy called Joya’s, where “a select group of the Hollywood crowd could gamble privately.”

Todd and West had a falling out in late 1935, and she moved up the hill into a house on Posetano Road while they continued the business. But she suddenly died, asphyxiated by car exhaust, in her garage that December 14, a case that has never been satisfactorily solved.

The building, recently renovated, is today an office block called Vibe Surfside.

So while the urge for temperance has always been strong in the Palisades, the urge to imbibe has also been present.