California Happening: An evening will show images captured by local photographer during California’s colorful, fun hippie concerts


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In the way lives in a small town intersect, a random listen to a local radio show is now resulting in an educational evening of music history being celebrated in Laguna Beach today, Friday, May 3.

Patti Compton, founder of the Music History Hall Foundation, was airing her music history show Play Something Sweet on KXFM when Jan Nichols listened in. He appreciated her perspective about music shaping society, especially in the late 1960s and dropped off a book at the studio. It was the culmination of a years-long project, compiling the many images he took while attending concerts in Southern California during that time frame. It wasn’t Woodstock, but it was a reflection of the times, and he compiled it for his daughter and a few close friends. He didn’t realize the interest it would generate.

“For me, as a music historian, these images are a primary source material,” said Compton. “They’re a first-hand account (of the concerts).”

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Photo by Jan Nichols

The crowd at the Newport Pop Festival at the Orange County Fairgrounds was wearing the latest styles when they attended the 1968 concert

Nichols attended the Newport Pop Festival at the fairgrounds. He was at concerts in Northridge. He was Altamont.

He had moved to California – “the land of milk and honey,” he said – after graduating from college in Arizona in the late 1960s.

“I was a brand-new teacher, and new to LA and enamored by it and everything connected to it,” he said. “Music has always been a big part of my life, so I went to the concerts.”

And while the music was a central component, decades later Nichols is now able to see a larger perspective.

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Photo by Jenni Nichols

Patti Compton, executive director of the Music History Hall Foundation stands with photographer Jan Nichols, holding his book “Love, Peace and Happiness,” which captured the music scene from 1968-1971

“I did not realize at the time, but these were not just music festivals – they were anti-war rallies and the start of the environmental movement,” he said. As an employed teacher, he’d attend the weekend events capturing the carefree moments.

“These kids were dressed up at the concerts and were excited to have me shoot pictures. They saw me over and over, so there was a trust level. I guess I was an observer, but I wasn’t looked upon as an observer.” He was young and poor, and shooting selected pictures of the concerts – where he’d been and what he saw. He used a beat-up Olympus camera and shot slides – using mostly Ektachrome because he liked the warmth of that film.

“It’s not like today. Back then you constantly had to think ‘How many pictures did I have left?’ ‘How many rolls of film?’” he recalled. “I shot slides as it was way cheaper than shooting print and everybody had slide projectors.”

Instead of focusing on the musicians, Nichols captured the attendees. He liked documenting the fashions and styles that are now so associated with the era – from 1968-1971.

“It was very easy to get up close and shoot close pictures. None of this was cropped or anything,” he said. “I loved to see the play of the people around and see what they were doing at that moment.”

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Photo by Jan Nichols

The Rolling Stones concert at Altamont was supposed to be a big, free celebration, with crowds walking in from the highway. The event turned tragic when a woman was stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels security team.

His memories of Altamont in December 1969 remain strong.

“It was just like in Woodstock, with cars parking and we were walking along the highway to get in – it was a free concert. Just as it was getting dark, we realized things were not good,” he said as the Rolling Stones stopped playing for a bit then returned to the stage. Although the crowd was not yet aware someone had been killed at the site, Nichols left later in the night.

Compton is thrilled to coordinate the public showing of the historical photo collection, which is being dubbed California Happening.

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“The music was very important to the scene. Music is always intertwined with the culture,” she said. This is a lesson she stresses when teaching her course on music and cultural history. “The music was reflecting the time period and moving society forward.”

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Photo by Patti Compton

Jan Nichols is seen here at the Rivian Theater, where the California Happening show will occur today, May 3. The night includes a showing of his photographs from 1968-1971 and a discussion about the fashion of the times.

During the event there will also be a presentation of fashion during the time, coordinated by Zach McDuffie, a fashion photographer and Nichols’ neighbor.

“We’re trying to get all this in a gallery at some point,” said Compton. “But for now this is a one-time event that the Music History Hall Foundation is hosting.”

The showing of California Happening will be held 6:30-9:30 p.m. at Rivian Theater, 162 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. For tickets, which are $25 each and for more information, click here.

This story is a part of our Arts section. For more arts stories as well as our arts calendars, visit

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