Features & Columns

Back to the Chateau

New documentary lays out the legend of Los Gatos' counterculture haven the Chateau Liberté
SONNING IN THE MOUNTAINS: The Sons of Champlin perform at the Chateau during its heyday. The '60s Fillmore favorites played regularly at the Los Gatos venue. Photo courtesy of William McKay

Driving north up the Pacific Coast Highway, I'm incredibly high. Don't worry—at two-and-a-half years sober, I'm not under the influence of any substances. Instead, it's the thrill of chasing a story drenched in history, myth and the best kind of anarchy.

It's the same highway traversed by hippie mystics and dharma bums, the one Hunter S. Thompson cruised up and down on his beastly Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle during late nights of insomnia. The asphalt Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters traveled in their notorious psychedelic bus, dispensing alternate realities to unsuspecting normies with beatnik wisdom and LSD-laced Kool Aid.

The significance of driving past Kesey's old La Honda compound about a mile from my destination in San Mateo County is not lost on me. It's appropriate because of where I'm headed—a beautiful, airy house quietly nestled atop one of the largest peaks in that particular area of the Santa Cruz Mountains—and what I'll see when I get there.

It's the home of William McKay, a local amatuer filmmaker and fellow vision seeker. He's invited me to a private showing of his latest project, a self-financed documentary called The Chateau Liberté, about another hidden gem tucked away in the same mountains.

The history of Los Gatos' Chateau Liberté 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 off Old Santa Cruz Road—a nearby street is still called Call of the Wild Road to this day. For over a century, the Chateau changed names with every owner, but it was finally christened Chateau Liberté in 1971 by then owner Jim Richardson.

That was also the era to which its place in modern history is inextricably linked—in the '60s and '70s, 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.

Los Gatos had a remarkable history of sheltering outsider thought in the 20th century—from John Steinbeck, who escaped his home in Salinas to write the proto-counterculture masterwork The Grapes of Wrath there, to Neal Cassady, who lived there and entertained Jack Kerouac with other Beats and hippies, sometimes for days on end. But the true story of the Chateau Liberté is less well-known, existing somewhere between notoriety and mystery. "I've had a lot of people tell me they're glad I made this," McKay says. "I've heard thousands—not hundreds, thousands—of stories, [everything] from people who went there to see a rodeo before it was a hippie hangout to 'My boyfriend got stabbed there by a Hells Angel and we never went back.'"

A Secret History

The recorded history of the Chateau Liberté property dates back to somewhere between 1850 and 1865. Because there is so little documentation on the area, many of the dates from the New Museum Los Gatos (NUMU), current owner George Rabe and other archivists vary slightly. What is known is that it was a Wells Fargo stagecoach stop for passengers between San Jose and Santa Cruz on the route from San Francisco to Monterey. However, Wells Fargo soon abandoned it, and rerouted their lines along safer paths.

"Nearly deserted, the place became a hide-away for outlaws and a place of ill-repute," McKay says in the film.

By the turn of the 20th Century, railways were the popular means of travel and the lines built traversing the Santa Cruz Mountains gave the Chateau a second life. According to Rabe, between 1900 and 1910 it was known as the Anchorage. Back then, cabins could be rented for the sum of one dollar per week.

"At one point there were 11 structures here on the property," explains Rabe, saying he has diaries and ledgers from Anchorage guests which are read in McKay's film.

A Santa Cruz Sentinel article from August 21,1938 claims that sometime between 1910 and 1918 it was known as the Valley of the Moon. Around 1918, it was bought by new owners, the French family of Ferdinand and Julia Boussy who christened it Le Chateau Boussy—the first time the "chateau" name would be used. Unfortunately, Julia soon died of influenza.

Ferdinand continued to operate the restaurant and resort until 1945. Rabe's collection contains old menus advertising "French dinners" ranging anywhere from $1.50 to $3—which are also shown in the film—along with photos of patrons enjoying the scenic nature. Of course, no French dinner is complete without wine, and during the Prohibition era Le Chateau Boussy quickly became known as a speakeasy, boasting a bar and extensive wine cellar. There were even card tables in the attic that could be hidden in case of a police raid.

"There's still two ancient bottle dumps here from the early 1900s," Rabe tells me.

It wasn't until Pearl Regis and her husband leased the property in 1967 and changed the name to Chateau Regis that the seed of the music venue it would become was planted. They kept the restaurant and cabins, and added a corral where patrons could ride horses or kick back and watch a rodeo with a cold beer.

"When we owned the Chateau, it was mostly hippies and local mountain people. It was the best time of my life," Regis told NUMU in 2017. "[Doobie Brothers singer and guitarist Tommy Johnston] would stay after hours with us drinking and having a good time, and play songs on the piano that would later become songs for the Doobie Brothers."

Raising Hell in the Hills

"It was like a slice out of the wild west," Hot Tuna founding member and guitar player Jorma Kaukonen tells me of the Chateau. "The craziest stuff went on, and nothing was out of bounds."

Kaukonen was lead guitarist for the Jefferson Airplane, and along with Airplane bassist Jack Casady, he formed Hot Tuna in 1969. They were regulars at the Chateau, where their all-night performances became the stuff of legend.

"The party was always going on there," remembers Kaukonen. "It was a hangout more than anything else. The denizens of the Chateau—whether they be hippies, bikers or mountain folk—they would've been there anyway. They loved it because we were playing in their living room."

Hot Tuna spent three nights recording their second live album, 1971's First Pull Up Then Pull Down, at the Chateau, which is noted in the liner notes simply as "deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains."

While Kaukonen doesn't quite remember those nights ("I suspect there was a lot of alcohol involved," he says with a laugh), he does recall why they chose the Chateau.

"The sound sucked, but we loved it! The ceiling was so low you could touch it. But the free spiritedness of the venue transcended the recording," he says. McKay says that for the longest time the only documentation of Hot Tuna's recording was the album with its single picture in the artwork.

"I was like, 'Come on! They recorded an album there. Somebody has to have a different recording or photographs.' But for years and years there was nothing," he says.

Then, out of the blue, he was contacted by someone who had 17 polaroids from those nights. But there was a catch.

"He says, 'I fucked up, I shot them with my flash on, and you can't see Whizzo's lights,'" McKay recalls. Whizzo, or Captain Whizzo, was a Chateau fixture whose real name was Michael J. Elzea. With his long hair, bushy beard and tiny circle glasses, Elzea showed up at the Chateau sometime between 1969 and 1970 and rented one of the cabins next to the main building. By then he had already made a name for himself in the New York rock scene creating spectacular oil, water and dye light shows. He continued his craft at the Chateau, enhancing the live music with trippy, one-of-a-kind visuals.

"He was a really likeable guy," Kaukonen says. "He was a master of jamming the lightshow with whichever band he was working with. In a way, he was like another member of the band."

Elzea was also an impressive illustrator who drew intricately detailed comics wrapped in his famous sense of humor, reminiscent of The Far Side's Gary Larson. He created multiple Liberté show posters and also worked for High Times magazine. Many of his never-before-seen drawings are featured in the film thanks to Elzea's family, who sent the original art to McKay to be photographed.

"They said, 'We're really excited you're doing this, we think Whizzo deserves more notoriety,'" McKay says, recalling they were also a little hesitant to send the originals. "I told them I would guard them with my life and I spent a long, long time shooting every single one."

When he got the 17 Polaroids of the Hot Tuna performances, he didn't feel right putting them in the film as they were, so he painstakingly created backgrounds to give them vibrance in Elzea's style. "I literally spent at least a weekend just on those 17 photos," says McKay.

Frank Andrick was the lyricist for Timbercreek—a cult-favorite 1970s country-rock band from Boulder Creek—and later DJ'd for stations KSJO in San Jose and KQAK in San Francisco. Before becoming a diehard Chateau Rat, his first experiences there were two of the three nights Hot Tuna recorded.

"Timbercreek grew up at the Chateau," Andrick remembers of the band's frequent gigs, which often included three-night stints of their own. "It created an instantaneous, workable anarchy."

Even when the police did travel along the dirt road into the heart of Chateau territory, they were always outnumbered—and often encountered a different kind of law enforcement. Andrick recalls one weekend when the police went up to arrest someone and were met by members of the motorcycle gangs.

"And [the bikers] just said, 'No,'" he says with a laugh.

The officers said they would come back with a warrant, but the bikers responded that the suspect in question would "turn themselves in on Monday." After some back and forth, the police left without their man—who did turn himself in that Monday.

"They threw a benefit for him that night [at the Chateau], and he was out on Tuesday," Andrick says. "It wasn't just a gig. It was a community."

Hit Me Like a Twister

McKay's first experience with the place the Doobie Brothers sang about getting back to in the song "Chateau" was in 1979, at the age of 18. By that time, three years had passed since it was in business as a club, and it had become more of a squat for anyone feral enough to reject "the system."

McKay recalls that his boss at the Highway 9 gas station he worked for asked if he wanted to go to a party on the weekend. As they approached, he could hear the music cranking before the buildings were visible. Once there, his boss ditched him, leaving McKay to wander around the deteriorating property. And like it often did at the Chateau, something completely unexpected happened.

"A beautiful 20-something-year-old woman came up to me and invited me to spend the night with her," he says. "I thought, 'Oh cool, I got a place,' because I was just going to sleep on the floor. Later that night, she leads me out to an old, rusted-out Ford LTD covered with pine needles that clearly hadn't been driven in years. She climbed in the back seat, and that's where we spent the night together. That's the kind of place that it was."

McKay doesn't remember when he stopped going to the Chateau, or his last night there. It seems people just stopped showing up—maybe because by then the main building on the property was falling apart from generations of use, with little upkeep.

But like so many who went, it left an imprint on McKay he wouldn't forget.

"My whole life I've had memories of that place. It was such a unique place in such a beautiful spot," he explains. "I always kept thinking about it."

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, with Johnston calling it "a pretty rowdy place."

"It was actually a very cool place for a band to start," 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."

Rat Packing

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 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 history, Long and McKay teamed up with its current property owner George Rabe—who has archived Chateau history for 25 years—for two big events. The first was on August 3, 2017 at the NUMU for the "Reunion of the Rats," the affectionate self-given nickname of those who lived at or frequented the Liberté.

People came from all over the country to reunite and reminisce; it was more a class reunion than a museum exhibit opening, according to Long. McKay took the opportunity to set up a camera in one of the side rooms to interview some of the most notorious Rats for his documentary—like Trudi Vonahnen DeLeon, one of the Chateau's beloved bartenders, who freehand-painted the ZigZag man pool.

"I was also the lifeguard," Vonahnen DeLeon says. "I mostly painted the ZigZag man so I could look out the bar window and see if the water was clean or needed chlorine from too many kids in the pool or whatever."

Trudi Vonahnen DeLeon's father, Paul Vonahnen, was another infamous character at the Chateau, already retired from his engineering job at IBM by the time it became the Liberté. The Vonahnens moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1949, so Trudi grew up going to the Chateau.

"The thing about the Chateau is that it catered to everyone," she explains. "Everybody just seemed to get along."

The second event was a fundraiser on March 15, 2018, at Los Gatos' Mountain Charlie Ranch, where McKay showed a 20-minute preview which can still be found on YouTube. Once again, a larger-than-expected audience showed up.

But it wasn't until the 2020 shutdown that McKay was finally able to sit with his project and fine-tune the details.

"Because of Covid, my day job slowed down, and that gave me the extra hours I needed to finish the final cut," he says.

The end result is a powerful tribute to the Chateau Liberté, its historical significance and the people that made it such a one-of-a-kind place. McKay lovingly narrates the film, which includes never-before-seen pictures, show flyers and audience recordings of legendary acts performing there.

Don't Let Me Go Down Slow

My journey that started a month before in La Honda ends on the other side of the Santa Cruz Mountains at the actual Chateau Liberté, where Rabe now lives full-time.

He frequented the Chateau beginning in 1974, when he was 19 years old. In 1996, he decided to stop letting it live rent free in his memory and purchased the property. Between 2000 and 2001, he and his contractor rebuilt and restored the Chateau—and the ZigZag man pool—to their former glory.

"All the restoration of the lumber was done here on the property," Rabe tells me, pointing out the saw marks in the deck boards. "We dropped six redwood trees and built the decks, doors, everything."

The cabins are long gone, lost to time and fires, and so is the massive stone chimney, collapsed by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Rabe couldn't restore it because by the time of purchase, all the stones had been stolen.

But what remains at the Chateau is a sense of wonder and magic you can feel in the cool mountain air. Its spirit has ebbed and flowed for decades, drawing outlaws, adventurers, free spirits and artists. It's only appropriate that today the Chateau experiences its own liberté, free to rest under the care of someone who appreciates its history, as it once again finds new life—this time in film. The untold stories captured by McKay range from funny to bizarre to tragic, and taken together they reveal that the real-life story of the Chateau is every bit as wild as the legend that surrounds it.

"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."

'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.