SALT LAKE CITY — On a summer evening in the late 1960s, Bryan Gray says he saw Johnny Cash driving like a madman around the parking lot at Lagoon amusement park.
It wasn’t even Cash’s vehicle, remembers Gray — the musician had found an unlocked car with the keys still in it.
“And he had actually bashed two or three cars,” Gray told the Deseret News. “I’m not sure he even knew what he was doing.”
Gray was just a teenager back then, working as a staff writer for the Deseret News. He’d shown up at the Farmington amusement park to interview Cash, who was there to perform at Lagoon’s concert venue, the Patio Gardens. It was only 10 minutes before show time, and Gray suspected that Cash was “stoned out of his mind.”
“There’s no way he’s going to be able to perform,” Gray remembers telling someone in Cash’s camp.
Their response? “Just you wait.”
As Cash got onstage minutes later, Gray said, the singer tried jumping over a set of chairs. Missing badly, he tumbled to the ground. Then Cash got up, slung his guitar over his shoulder and told the crowd, “Hi, my name is Johnny Cash.”
The one-man wrecking crew had arrived, with no trace of the pre-show destruction that was so abundant just moments before.
“But there were a lot of things like that (back then),” Gray said.
A who’s who (including the Who)
Lagoon’s Patio Gardens was fertile ground for moments like these. The lounge-style concert venue, which opened in 1954, hosted practically every big name in jazz, big band, pop and rock during the ’50s and ’60s — and many of those acts returned to Lagoon year after year until Patio Gardens became a roller rink in 1969. (The space later became the Lagoon attractions Dracula’s Castle and Game Time Arcade.)
Perhaps its end was fitting: The Patio Gardens seems like a place that could have only existed when it did — an era when a fan’s biggest musical idol was literally within arm’s reach.
Among the Patio Gardens’ repeat performers: Dave Brubeck (1955, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1962), Count Basie (1954, 1956, 1958, 1965), Duke Ellington (1955, 1956, 1960), Louis Armstrong (1955, 1957, 1959, 1960, 1963, 1964, 1966), the Everly Brothers (1958-1966, 1968), Johnny Cash (1959-1968), Ella Fitzgerald (1960-1962), Ray Charles (1963, 1966), the Beach Boys (1963-1966, 1968) and the Doors (1967, 1968).
Then there were the one-offs: the Rolling Stones (1966), the Who (1967), Jefferson Airplane (1968), Janis Joplin (1968) and Jimi Hendrix (1968), among many others.
Gray, who now lives in Farmington, visited the Deseret News offices to share his memories of past Patio Gardens concerts. Gray reviewed a number of these shows for the Deseret News during the 1960s. And boy, there were some doozies. His stories, and those from others who visited the Patio Gardens back then, paint a portrait of an undoubtedly memorable time and place.
Some of those details seem crystal clear. Others are hazier — existing only in the minds of those who drove to Lagoon on those summer nights more than 50 years ago. When it comes to the Patio Gardens, there isn't much else left but the memories.
What do people remember? What do they misremember?
‘A sea of stunned faces’
When the Doors visited Lagoon in 1968, Gray was there. His review of the show, titled “Doors Offend Lagoon Fans,” is a wealth of noteworthy anecdotes.
According to his review, Doors frontman Jim Morrison was unusually surly that night, yelling, “What’s the matter — are you all dead out there?” to “a sea of stunned faces.” Among the review’s other details, Morrison “indulged in indecent motions … and at one point, even writhed in agony on the floor of the stage” while throwing his mic at fans in the front row.
The review did add, however, “Morrison perked up only once when a long-haired and bearded fan presented him with a string of beads.”
So hey, it wasn’t a total loss.
“They weren’t as big as the Rolling Stones, and they didn’t draw as well as Herman’s Hermits or the Beach Boys,” Gray recalled. “You knew they were edgy, but they didn’t have a real history of bad behavior onstage.”
That soon changed, however: In 1969, Morrison was charged with indecent exposure during a Doors concert in Florida.
When performing at the Patio Gardens, the performers would play two shows in an evening — one around 7 p.m., the other around 10 p.m.
“People would shout out things to the band, especially in the 10 o'clock shows,” Gray said. “I think they were more subdued at the earlier one — it was younger people and young couples in love.”
Within arm’s reach
Beyond spontaneous car rides and “indecent motions,” the performer-audience dynamic was usually less scandalous. Gray said that in between their early- and late-evening performances, the musicians would often check out Lagoon’s attractions. Fans could shake a performer’s hand if they ended up on the same ride.
Brian C. Record photographed various Patio Gardens shows during the late ’60s. He was a photographer at the University of Utah’s student newspaper, the Daily Utah Chronicle, at the time, and even photographed Janis Joplin in 1968 for the entirety of her Lagoon visit — on rides, backstage, onstage, etc. He also photographed Jimi Hendrix during his band’s Lagoon show in August of ’68. These photos were later published in Record’s book, “Utah Circa 1968.”
Looking at Record’s photographs, one can see young fans standing just feet away from Hendrix. One of these Hendrix photographs now sits framed on a wall in Record’s home in Las Vegas.
“Nowadays you go to a concert and there’s a big separation,” Record said. “And the people, if they wanted to, they were sitting right in front of the stage, and they could jump up on the stage in theory. I didn’t see anybody do that, but nowadays, you couldn’t do that if you wanted to.
“I think that most of the people that went to the concerts were already listening to them on the radio, and when they went to the concerts, it wasn’t too much of a shock,” Record added. “On the other hand, the audience was enthralled with the performers. Everybody was comfortable and happy, and smiling and relaxing.”
Record’s photos show the performers, but not too much of the actual crowds. This part requires a little more imagination. Figures on the Patio Gardens’ official seating capacity vary, quite widely: Some of those interviewed estimate it in the low hundreds, while others say it was closer to 1,000. The Monkees Live Almanac, an online catalog of the band’s performances, says the Monkees played to a crowd of 5,000 at the Patio Gardens in 1968.
‘A Beach Boy town’
“As I’m thinking about back then, there were kind of two groups of young people — the conservative, churchgoing people, and then there was an open-minded, more liberal kind of group, too, which wasn’t so big,” Record said. “I didn’t get the impression that there were many conservative people at these kinds of concerts.”
Like the Patio Gardens’ seating capacity, details about its actual demographics also seem fuzzy. According to Gray, Salt Lake City in the 1960s “was a Beach Boy town. The Beach Boys would be much more popular than the Beatles here any time during the ’60s,” with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones gaining more ground locally toward the decade’s end.
Local filmmaker Joe Prokop profiled this era of Utah’s music history in “Lagoon: Rock and Rollercoasters,” a documentary which aired on KUED last year. According to Prokop, Salt Lake City radio stations adopted the Beach Boys early in the band’s career, becoming one of the first markets outside California where their music took hold.
During his research, Prokop learned Beach Boys member Al Jardine still talks about former Lagoon owner Robert Freed. Freed and his family sent Jardine a package of mixed nuts every Christmas.
“And they would bring those shows in and promote them — maybe even do it at a loss — to get people to come up to the park,” Prokop said of the Freeds, who helped reopen Lagoon after World War II and eventually purchased the park. “You can tell that (Robert Freed) was definitely in tune with the industry. He was definitely well liked, and I think that’s why people wanted to come back.”
The Beach Boys performed at Lagoon nearly every year between 1963 and 1973. They even recorded the song “Salt Lake City” for their 1965 album “Summer Days (And Summer Nights).” That song mentions Lagoon by name:
“All the kids dig the Lagoon now / It’s full of all kinds of girls and rides / And we’ll be flyin’ there soon now / And girl for girl / They’ve got the cutest of the Western states”
When eras collide
Though Robert Freed passed away in 1974, Lagoon’s ownership has remained in the Freed family. Robert Freed’s impact wasn’t just musical, however. An old Farmington town ordinance prohibited blacks from using Lagoon’s swimming pool and its pre-Patio Gardens ballroom, the Dance Pavilion. Freed helped overturn these ordinances and desegregate the park.
His efforts didn’t go unnoticed. The Utah Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People later awarded Freed with an honorary lifetime membership.
“With civil rights in Utah, Lagoon is ground zero for that,” said Julie Freed, Lagoon’s director of special events (and granddaughter of Robert Freed’s brother, Peter Freed). “So that is a huge reason why a lot of these awesome bands, and people like Jimi Hendrix, could actually play at the park.”
According to Julie Freed, the Freed family would often have Lagoon’s visiting black musicians stay at their house, since Davis County’s hotels wouldn’t admit them.
Such ordinances seem archaic today. In reality, it wasn’t that long ago.
“The ’60s were Mick Jagger and Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, but for many people, it was also the era of John Wayne and Richard Nixon,” Bryan Gray said. “People remember the fringes of the ’60s more than they do the general atmosphere of the ’60s. It was still a very conservative time. The youth movement was certainly progressive and rebellious, but the overall part of the ’60s wasn’t.”
‘The business just basically changed’
In many ways, the end of the Patio Gardens marked an end to a larger era, both in pop music generally and in the concert experience.
Gene Davis, a longtime state Senator in Utah’s 3rd District, emceed many of Lagoon’s concerts during the Patio Gardens’ final years, when he was a DJ at the radio station KNAK. Davis and the station worked closely with many of the major record labels that brought its artists to Lagoon. In 1967, for example, he emceed a Lagoon show featuring the Who and Herman’s Hermits. (The Who were the opening act.)
“You would think the Who was bigger, but if you look at the charts of 1966, Herman’s Hermits actually had more No. 1 hit songs than the Beatles that year,” Davis said.
These were the final years before big concert promoters consolidated the concert-booking business, Davis said. Smaller venues that had been mainstays for major touring acts, like the Patio Gardens and Lagoon’s Salt Lake City concert venue, the Terrace Ballroom, were phased out as larger concert spaces like the Salt Palace and the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center opened, allowing for bigger crowds and bigger profits.
When the Rolling Stones played Lagoon in 1966, Davis said tickets were around $2 apiece. The next time the Stones performed in Utah, at Rice Eccles Stadium in 1994, Davis said he paid more than $80 a ticket.
“The business just basically changed,” Davis said. “Concerts became big business by the time Woodstock came around.”
Davis worked in radio until 1987. A lot changed during those years “but the most exciting time … was that rock ’n’ roll era from ’64 to ’72 — before disco or anything else. It’s when you had R&B, crossover hits. It was just exciting to see. And it was an exciting time to be alive because the music was so alive.”
Final curtain19 comments on this story
It’s been 50 years since Gene Davis, Bryan Gray and others saw some of the music industry’s biggest performers at Lagoon. Jim Morrison’s onstage antics, Gray said, “didn’t really hit me as much until later” — and, perhaps, the same could be said for that whole era. Morrison died in 1971. Jimi Hendrix in 1970, and Janis Joplin a few weeks later. Like the Patio Gardens itself, many of the venue’s biggest names faced an early exit.
As they left, so, too, did many of the smaller venues that once reigned supreme in the Utah concert market and beyond.
But man, what a run.