Last week I wrote about the 1960s counter-culture gang of troubadour trippers know as the Merry Pranksters and their leader, author Ken Kesey, who would have turned 75 last Friday. The Pranksters, who were made famous in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, spent much of the early 60s travelling around America in a psychedelic ex-school bus called the “Furthur,” attempting to enlighten the uninitiated to the joys of the drug LSD (which was still legal at the time).
The Acid Tests, as their staged hallucinogenic extravaganzas were called, first came to Los Angeles in February 1966, not to a concert hall or rock festival as you may imagine, but to a church.
The church still stands and is known officially as the Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society, but is more commonly referred to as “The Onion” due to its unique bulbous shape.
The building had been designed and built two years prior to hosting the Acid Test by Hungarian architect Frank Erenthal. The contoured wood beam building, with its unobstructed round interior, was designed to promote the church’s non-hierarchal structure, thereby placing everyone on the same plane, much like King Arthur’s Round Table.
Kesey had met and befriended the church’s pastor, Rev. Paul Sawyer, a year earlier in Northern California. When the Pranksters decided to motor the Furthur to L.A. to psychically heal the city after the devastating Watts Riots, Sawyer was asked if they could stage an Acid Test inside his church.
It was not that strange of a request for the UU facility, because the church, then as now, leaned heavily to the left, and was a gathering place for anti-war rallies and activist forums. (The same holds true today, where the only change is the location of the war that is being protested.)
Sawyer said it would be okay as long as LSD wasn’t passed out to the crowd. This request was ignored and acid was served as dessert following an opening meal’s main course, which was a Prankster concoction known as Pineapple Chili.
What followed was one of the wildest nights of the entire psychedelic era. The event was co-hosted by hippy hipster Wavy Gravy and Beat poet Neal Cassady, with the Grateful Dead taking advantage of the Onion’s perfect acoustics.
Kesey, who was famous for writing the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, didn’t attend the Onion’s Acid Test as he was busy hiding out from the law in Mexico at the time. He remained friends with Rev. Sawyer until his death in 2001. Rev. Sawyer passed away in July of this year at the age of 75.
This unique piece of L.A. hippie history can be found at 9550 Haskell Avenue in the San Fernando Valley community of North Hills.
September 24th, 2010 at 8:43 am
The Grateful Dead played for the A.T. at the Onion? Wow! I didn’t know that! Great post about a fascinating time in our history.
September 24th, 2010 at 11:11 am
…the doses are up, the music gets louder, the lights swirl faster…and the chaplain freaks out because he hasn’t passed the acid test…..
wonderful local history
September 24th, 2010 at 11:37 am
Actually, the Grateful Dead played 8 shows in Southern California in February and March of 1966:
2-6-66 – Northridge Unitarian Church
2-12-66 – Youth Opportunities Center, Compton (“Watts Acid Test”)
2-23-66 – unknown location
2-25-66 – Ivar Theatre
3-3-66 – A.I.A.A. Hall, Los Angeles (with the film “Psychedelic Experience”)
3-12-66 – Danish Hall, Los Angeles (“Pico Acid Test”)
3-19-66 – Carthay Studios, Los Angeles (acid test moved from UCLA at the last minute)
3-25-66 – Trouper’s Club, Los Angeles
[source: DeadBase – The Complete Guide to Grateful Dead Song Lists, by John W. Scott et. al.)
September 24th, 2010 at 12:35 pm
Very cool to know. So it looks like the Onion was their first show here, right?
September 24th, 2010 at 12:58 pm
Yes. Except for the Portland Acid Test (January 1966, Beaver Hall) all previous appearances were in the Bay Area.
September 24th, 2010 at 1:11 pm
Good stuff. Thanks for the info.
September 24th, 2010 at 4:26 pm
Great piece of history. I know a bit about this era, but I didn’t know this. Always cool to learn something new.
Hope I can return the favor (though this is kinda “Prankster 101”):
September 25th, 2010 at 5:27 am
Jason – Thanks for the info on the band and the new group. I heard “Furthur” would be playing locally soon. I need to check them out. I’m glad to see the bus is being restored. I still have to say that it was something to be “on the bus” while it was on that field playing host to a swarm of bees. It felt real to me. E.J.