The upscale crowd that gathered at Costa Mesa's Aire Global Cuisine on April 16 for the Newport Beach Film Festival Director's Dinner were well-prepared to mingle, network and, most of all, take advantage of the restaurant's generous open bar. What they probably weren't prepared for was the onscreen unveiling of Orange County's secret history as the nation's onetime epicenter for LSD.
But for 10 minutes, diners got an exclusive glimpse of their county's trippy past when director William A. Kirkley presented a trailer for his upcoming documentary Orange Sunshine, the true story of Orange County's Brotherhood of Eternal Love, also known as the Hippie Mafia. The movie depicts the unbelievable rise and fall of Timothy Leary's legendary cult—which started as a group of Laguna Beach surfers and quickly became the world's largest acid, hash and marijuana distribution network.
The group's headquarters, a Laguna Beach head shop called Mystic Arts World, mysteriously burned down in 1970, and two years later, law enforcement indicted several dozen members of the group. Those who weren't arrested fled overseas. The story of the Brotherhood is one of the strangest chapters of American counter-cultural history, yet 40 years after its inception during the so-called Summer of Love, it's one that remains little-understood and, outside the confines of Laguna Canyon, all but unknown.
That fact isn't completely coincidental. Many people associated with the Brotherhood continue to live underground, believing they could end up in jail if authorities learn their true identities. Several members of the group lived under assumed names until the mid-1990s, when they were finally tracked down and arrested. Meanwhile, other people who weren't really in the Brotherhood have made a career out of hyping a self-proclaimed connection.
As one former member—who spoke on the condition of anonymity—told me, “If you remember it, you weren't there.”
Fortunately, enough people who were really there and who do remember what happened are now helping Kirkley tell the tale. The film's title comes from the name of the orange-colored acid tabs the Brotherhood printed up by the thousand in Laguna Canyon and then distributed to Grateful Dead shows and communes around the country in their effort to fuel the nation's psychedelic revolution, which they hoped would eventually lead to a nationwide spiritual awakening.
Kirkley, 28, grew up in Newport Beach before moving to New York, where he filmed his first documentary, Excavating Taylor Mead, a lost-and-found profile of Andy Warhol's first superstar, whom Kirkley met at a restaurant in New York's Lower East Side and originally mistook for a homeless person. The movie debuted at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival as a nominee for best documentary; it then screened in London, Italy, Philadelphia and Boston.
After finishing that film, Kirkley returned to California and began searching for a new project. His father-in-law, a former Laguna Beach resident who had peripheral involvement with the Brotherhood, told him about this crazy band of surfer hippies in Laguna Canyon who once tried to sell enough acid to buy an island where Timothy Leary would reign as a demigod. Then—shameless self-promotion alert—Kirkley read my Weekly feature story about the Brotherhood (“Lords of Acid,” July 8, 2005), and he was hooked.
“I couldn't believe that OC had this kind of hidden past, this secret history you would never expect in such a conservative place,” Kirkley says.
How Kirkley came to be the first filmmaker to explore the story of the Brotherhood is a story almost as surprising as that of the Brotherhood itself. As a child of divorced parents in Newport Beach, Kirkley rebelled against what he saw as the meaningless conformity of Orange County. He shaved his head, leaving only an anarchist-style spiked Mohawk. He skipped classes to skateboard around town. The first time he ran away from home was during his freshman year in high school.
“A girl I knew had a car,” Kirkley recalls. “I told her I was going to Seattle and asked if she wanted to go with me. We drove all the way up there and spent the last of our money at Denny's for a meal. Then we fell asleep in our car and were woken up by a police officer.” The cop put Kirkley back on a bus to Orange County. But he ran away again two years later, when he was 16 years old. He hitchhiked his way to San Francisco and fell in with a group of fellow runaways.
“It didn't last long,” Kirkley says. “I realized it was just a bunch of frat boys who shaved their heads into Mohawks because they didn't get a Range Rover for their birthday. One day, I was sitting around, smoking pot with all these people, and I just see all these kids becoming the future bums of America, the future homeless. I had way too much to do with my life. I had always known I wanted to be a filmmaker, and if I stayed in that scene, I would never reach that goal.”
After a year in the Bay Area, Kirkley moved to the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park. He hung out in coffee shops and told local bands he was a music-video director, did a few shoots for free, signed up with an agent, and began working on a film script. “It was a hitman-genre script, a romantic dark comedy called Cigarettes for Breakfast,” Kirkley says. “I started going to parties and meeting all these people and being introduced as the next big writer.” The agent landed a $50,000 option deal but told Kirkley to wait for something better—nothing ever came of the project.
But Kirkley's music-video ambitions did bear fruit. He directed a video for a band called the Flys, who performed on the Tonight Show and MTV. He later filmed their nationwide tour. Kirkley's second video, for an Orange County band called Hinged, gave him his first experience in production. At about that time, Kirkley met his future wife, Emmy Hoxter, and they moved to New York together.
There, Kirkley happened upon Taylor Mead, the former Warhol superstar. Kirkley spent several months begging Mead to let him follow him around with a camera. Mead rebuffed Kirkley repeatedly, but he finally gave up and, in January 2001, agreed to be filmed. Kirkley spent the next four years documenting Mead's life on film.
Meanwhile, Emmy's father, Don, who had spent time in Laguna Canyon in the 1960s, regaled Kirkley with tales of the Brotherhood and urged him to consider making a documentary about the group. “I told [Kirkley] that not only are a lot of us getting older now and some are already dead, but there is also a critical mass happening with the Brotherhood,” Don says. “People have always been pushing me to tell this story because it's never been told.”
After reading “Lords of Acid,” Kirkley says he realized his father-in-law's stories about Laguna Beach's hidden past could make a great movie. He began researching the Brotherhood. He tracked down rare archival footage. He convinced one of the artists who ran with the group to share posters and other mementos as visual aids in the film. He also interviewed numerous veterans of the group, many of whom were profiled in “Lords of Acid” but were initially reluctant to appear on camera.
You can find Kirkley's trailer on YouTube by typing in the words “Orange Sunshine” and “Kirkley.” Among the ex-Brotherhood figures featured in the trailer are “Thumper,” an Orange County businessman who ran away from home at age 14 to live with his sister in a Laguna Canyon house. Thumper went on surfing trips with John Gale, one of the Brotherhood's legendary leaders, and later became a major drug dealer in his own right. Kirkley also interviewed Robert “Stubby” Tierney, a major Brotherhood smuggler who did a stint in federal prison, then changed his name and became a television and music-video producer before losing everything. A born-again Christian, Tierney now lives in a senior center in Newport Beach.
(Full disclosure: Also appearing is yours truly as a supposed “expert” on the Brotherhood. Besides the story I wrote two years ago, I'm also working on a book about the group and am sharing information from my reporting with Kirkley. Once the film gets made, I will get a writing credit.)
Helping Kirkley are several colleagues from the commercial-production company where he works. He's currently meeting with potential distributors. One prominent OC-based surfwear manufacturer expressed interest in the film but backed off after realizing the movie's hallucino-centric content violated the company's anti-drug policy. “We have all these great people in place,” Kirkley says. “Everyone really believes in the project, and we just have to get somebody to help make it.”
Anyone interested in learning more aboutOrange Sunshine, including folks who were in Laguna Canyon back in those days, can e-mail William A. Kirkley at email@example.com.
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).