The history of the Chateau Liberté in the Santa Cruz Mountains is both fabled and secret. Before white settlers ever came to the area, Ohlone natives lived on the land, making use of its two natural springs. Later, Jack London is rumored to have written his 1903 breakout novel Call of the Wild in one of the now destroyed cabins on the 72-acre property—a nearby street is still called Call of the Wild Road to this day. But its place in modern history is inextricably linked to the 1960s and ’70s, when it was not only a premier rock venue, but also a hot spot for Bay Area hippies, freaks and bikers.
The Hells Angels were often the unofficial security for shows that would go all night, featuring bands like the Doobie Brothers, Hot Tuna, Papa John Creach, Bob Weir’s Kingfish and local acts such as Snail, Timbercreek, Oganookie and countless more. Janis Joplin unsuccessfully tried to purchase the property. Jerry Garcia and Moby Grape’s Alexander Lee “Skip” Spence both lived there at different times. There are endless stories involving the two pools on the property, one of which had the infamous, rolling-paper ZigZag man logo painted on the bottom. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll flowed freely, and anyone who ever went seems to have a story to tell about it.
Many of those stories have been chronicled in the documentary The Chateau Liberté, which premieres July 10 at the Rio Theatre. It’s the work of local filmmaker William McKay, whose passion for this project has stretched over more than a decade.
“The beautiful part about this Chateau story is there are hundreds of accounts that all say the same thing,” says McKay. “It was a fucking rowdy place!”
In 2009, McKay began actively researching the Chateau, but its history was poorly documented. A couple years later, it was mentioned in the 2012 documentary The Doobie Brothers: Let The Music Play by director and producer Barry Ehrmann. But the reference was just a minute-and-a-half blip at the beginning of the film where the band talked about shooting their debut album’s cover on the Chateau porch.
“It was actually a very cool place for a band to start,” Doobie Brothers singer and guitarist Tom Johnston says in Let The Music Play. “You were accepted no matter what, so it was good from the morale standpoint.”
McKay reached out to Ehrmann and said someone should make a documentary about the Liberté. However, Ehrmann wasn’t up for takin’ it to the streets.
“He said, ‘No man, it’s nothing but a local story,’” McKay says, adding Ehrmann did give him some polaroid scans of the Doobies playing there. “Well, I’ve proved him wrong.”
“At the beginning it almost felt like this place didn’t exist,” says producer Ryan Zweng, who is also McKay’s godson, of the Chateau.
Zweng helped McKay gather any material they could find, often cross-referencing sources like Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and Gypsy Joker To A Hells Angel, the memoir by ex-Santa Cruz Hells Angels Chapter President Phil Cross, who is also featured in The Chateau Liberté. He also assisted McKay in creating a Facebook group where anyone with pictures or rainbow faded memories could share.
“This whole thing is really a miracle of Facebook,” says Zweng. “It turned into a deluge of material.”
By 2017, they had enough material to ramp up production of the documentary. McKay says it wasn’t a question of if he should make the film, but how.
“Here I was in the middle of a divorce, bankruptcy and the bank taking my house,” he explains. “And I’m making a movie for free.”
That year was also when archivist and historian Amy Long became involved in the project. At that time she was the curator for the New Museum Los Gatos (NUMU).
“I always wanted to find the story that someone didn’t know,” says Long. “I saw something on social media [about the Chateau] and once I started digging I realized, ‘We have to tell this story.’”
After connecting over the Chateau’s strange and sordid tale, Long and McKay teamed up with its current property owner, George Rabe, for a “Reunion of the Rats”—the affectionate, self-given name of people who lived at or frequented the Liberté—event at the NUMU on Aug. 3, 2017.
Rabe has done a lot of work to restore the property, and now its history is finally being immortalized in film. The untold stories captured by McKay range from funny to bizarre to tragic, but they all distill the essence of a time and place that was one of a kind.
“It was a passion project for everyone in the film,” McKay says. “Everyone wanted this story to be told as a time capsule of what West Coast American culture was like, and that’s what we got here.”
‘The Chateau Liberté’ will premiere on Saturday, July 10 at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave. in Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20; email [email protected] for advance tickets. Remaining tickets, if any, will be available day of show at the Rio.