The stoner classic takes us from Venice to Lincoln Heights, just in time for 4/20
The 1978 Cheech and Chong cult classic Up in Smoke was filmed all over Los Angeles in just over 30 days in May and June of 1977. Parts of the film were shot guerrilla-style, which is a testament to the liberating spirit of the story and the form-meets-function disposition of the film’s director, Lou Adler. “Get in and get out before they discover you’re there,” says Adler, who I spoke to by phone from his Malibu office. That being said, the production, a Paramount Picture, was fully permitted for just about all of its locations, as was proven by a cache of old files Adler generously provided.
Adler adds, “I don’t know how we did it, and we moved around. It’s not like we just stayed in one place.” They most certainly did not. Up in Smoke took the filmmakers to L.A. locations ranging from Malibu and Venice to Lincoln Heights and Tujunga.
“It shows you an L.A. you never saw before in the movies,” says Cheech Marin, who recently appeared during a ceremony at the film’s most iconic location, the Roxy Theatre, where he and Tommy Chong were presented with the key to the city of West Hollywood. Some of the neighborhoods, Marin surmises, weren’t places that had been featured in many films before Up in Smoke.
“It was like going in the back way of a nice restaurant,” Chong says of the film’s L.A. locations.
Adler, who grew up in Boyle Heights, felt that he understood Pedro, the free-wheeling, street-smart Chicano character played by Marin, as well as the places where that character would have lived and frequented. “As we went through the script, I knew where to go,” Adler says. “Though I didn’t shoot in Boyle Heights, a lot of it reminded me of Boyle Heights.”
“We knew authenticity when we saw it. That’s how we chose locations. ‘Oh, this’ll be perfect let’s do it right here,’” says Marin.
Though Adler admits he wasn’t necessarily concentrating on making L.A. a fully fledged character in the film, it’s clear from wide, high-angle images of tangling freeway interchanges, fluid silhouette shots during a Zuma sunset, and the incorporation of iconic Hollywood landmarks that the director had the city in mind. The city’s car culture was certainly an important story element, as more than a third of the film’s 85-minute running time takes place in cars. “It was an L.A. story,” Adler says. “Even though I didn’t start up and say, ‘Let’s make this about L.A.,’ it’s pretty hard not to pick up those kinds of shots, which are so unique to L.A. Yeah, I think it definitely comes across as another character.”
According to documents provided by Adler, the filmmakers originally chose a home in Montecito Heights for the home of Pedro and his family. Geographically, the location made sense due to its close proximity to a number of other locations throughout Lincoln Heights and Highland Park. However, scrawled across the top of a location contract dated April 4, 1977 in black ballpoint pen was the word “Cancelled.”
Instead, a 1,500-square-foot clapboard Victorian built in 1907 on 4th Avenue in Venice was chosen. Adler says, “It did stand out. It was unique and it’s such a cool little house. I grew up in Boyle heights so the look of the house was familiar to me.”
Though it’s an eye-catching piece of architecture, the actual location of Pedro’s house is a tough find due the lack of identifying markers other than a house address. A puzzling lapse in continuity also adds to the mystery of the location.
“I come out of the house, I get in the car, there’s [another] house in the background, and I drive off,” Marin says of the film’s opening title sequence, which sees him wiping down a dinged up 1964 Chevy Impala Super Sport Coupe, dubbed the Love Machine. “Later in the movie, we get in the car and turn it around and there’s no house in the background.”
During the title sequence, set to War’s 1975 funk hit “Low Rider,” an edit is made in the middle of the action Marin described. Could the two houses have been shot at different locations? Possibly, but not in this case. The house featured in the title sequence is seen in high-angle shot from Pedro’s backyard, which ties the locations together.
“They tore it down,” Chong says of the house across the street from Pedro’s place.
Adler also confirmed that when the crew went back to do the pickup shot of the car making the U-turn, the house across the street had been demolished.
Chong also remembers a situation at the house in which gang members who lived in the neighborhood tried to get in on production’s food line at lunch. “The DP had no brain. He said, ‘No, you [can’t] do it,’” Chong recalls. (The film had three different cinematographers according to Adler.) “The next thing you know, rocks were flying in—someone was throwing rocks. So we had to go feed everybody. And we did on the whole shoot. After we showed respect to the neighborhood then they showed respect to us,” Chong says.
“Because you can’t deny Chicanos food,” Marin adds. “I mean, come on, please.”
Nearby Pedro’s house is the of corner of Washington Boulevard and Strongs Drive, which was used in a sequence of Pedro and Man driving around town trying to “score a lid.”
It’s established early in the film that Pedro and Man are kindred spirits, but they come from completely different socioeconomic groups: Pedro from a working-class background and Man from an upper-class family.
“In the case of [Man’s] background of being from a very wealthy home, Pasadena and the mansions seemed to be perfect,” Adler says.
The home chosen for Man’s family was a built in 1913 in Pasadena. At the time of filming it was owned by B-movie actress, Dovie Beams, who appeared in only a few films including The Kentucky Fried Movie and the 1969 biker film Wild Wheels, that also starred radio DJ Casey Kasem. Beams was also known as a former mistress of infamous Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos.
The house, which sits on 4.7 acres and encompasses multiple addresses on Oakland Avenue and the cross street of Woodland Road was also seen in television shows from the ‘70s like Charlie’s Angels, Dallas, and The Incredible Hulk. Today, however, the sprawling mansion barely resembles the home that appeared in Up in Smoke or television shows of the era. In 1988, the house sustained severe fire damage and was completely rebuilt in 1991. It was purchased in 1997 for $4.3 million and in 2006 was listed for a staggering $52 million. According to Zillow, the 31,000 square foot house—complete with a Grecian-style pool, man-made lake and waterfall, topiary garden, and subterranean garage—was on and off the market until 2011.
1288 S. Oakland Ave., Pasadena
In some cases, Adler says, it was the intention of the filmmakers to take Pedro and Man out of their natural habitats of the inner city and old-money Pasadena.
The pair first meet when Man’s 1967 VW Beetle, complete with a Rolls Royce grill attached to the hood, breaks down on the side of the road In Malibu.
It turned out Malibu locals didn’t realize a film was being shot in their neighborhood.
“We got a couple of calls saying, ‘Hey, there’s a stalled car on PCH. Wanna come and tow it?’” Marin says with a laugh.
The scene, shot on PCH along Broad Beach at a turnout opposite Looshen Road, involved stunts including the Love Machine making an illegal U-turn on PCH and a cop car being rear-ended.
“Everything at that point was, ‘What fit?’ It’s not, ‘Let’s make this location fit,’” Adler says. “I am familiar with PCH. I’ve been there a very long time and I had [been there awhile] at that time, so I knew, pretty much, what location was right.”
Other driving shots in Malibu included a section of PCH just east of Malibu Canyon Road where smoke was billowing out of the Love Machine as Pedro and Man toked an enormous joint made of dog shit and digested weed—a product of Man’s Labrador having eaten his stash of Maui Waui.
Behind the wheel and completely stoned, Pedro asks Man if he’s driving OK. The medium shot focused on Pedro and Man inside the car cuts to a wide shot to reveal that the car is actually pulled over on the side of the road. Adler recalls that off to the side of the shot, the Malibu Colony Coffee Shop—an iconic 1958 diner that was designed with a circular layout—was still in business. It closed down in 1988 to make way for a new strip mall: Malibu Colony Plaza.
Up in Smoke also made use of the now-closed Malibu Courthouse located in the city’s civic center.
PCH & Looshen Rd.; PCH & Zuma Beach; PCH & Malibu Canyon Rd.; 23755 Malibu Rd.; 23525 Civic Center Way, Malibu
After a long day of driving around L.A., unsuccessfully searching for some grass, Man and Pedro wind up at the house of Pedro’s cousin, Strawberry (Tom Skerritt). The Vietnam vet, who got the nickname because of a strawberry-shaped birthmark on his neck, is a little “weird,” according to Pedro, and has flashbacks to the war.
The A-frame home built in 1906, complete with a stone turret on the ground level, was last up for sale in 2012.
“The interior was very big,” Adler says of the house located on the corner of Pasadena Avenue and East Avenue 38 in Highland Park. “The kitchen was a little small,” he remembers, “but the living room was really a good size to put cameras in. It just felt right.”
The craftsmen-style homes of the surrounding neighborhood also struck Adler as the embodiment of California architecture.
Strawberry’s house might go completely unnoticed today as one of the film’s central locations due to a muted green paint job disguising dark wooden slats. Shrubberies and a wrought iron fence enclose what was, in 1977, a bare and unkempt front lawn.
If you venture over to Strawberry’s place, check out Pepe’s Food Store on Figueroa. After Strawberry leaps off his 1949 Harley-Davidson Hydra Glide during one of his Vietnam “trips,” the bike, with Pedro in the sidecar, crashes into the back of the convenience store.
Also used for driving shots of the Harley were East Avenue 38 and the corner of East Avenue 40 and Carlota Boulevard.
3730 Pasadena Ave.; 3870 N. Figueroa St., Highland Park
Tijuana and the Border
When Pedro’s cousin calls Immigration on himself so that the family can get a free ride to a wedding in Tijuana, Pedro and Man are also picked up and subsequently deported—a plot element that still hits home 40 years later. They then have to find a way to get back across the border from Tijuana.
What ensues is a bit of confusion in which Pedro and Man believe they are smuggling a van of upholstery back to the Beverly Hills shop of Pedro’s Uncle Chuey. Instead, they go to the wrong address and, unbeknownst to them, are given a van constructed completely out of weed.
Marin, Chong, Adler, and a few crew members went down to Tijuana in order to grab a few quick shots across the street from the historic Hotel Nelson at the intersection of Calle Primera and Avenida Revolución.
“We were in Tijuana for about an hour-and-a-half,” Adler says, “and it was a guerrilla shoot; no permits or anything. The most we shot there was Cheech on the telephone, which kept slipping down.”
“We stuck that phone on the wall, and there’s nothing around it,” Marin says, laughing.
Upon watching the film, you’ll notice that Marin is always leaning up against the prop payphone, trying to keep in pressed against the wall, while talking to his Uncle Chuey.
For the colorful exterior of the mistaken upholstery shop, the film’s art director, Leon Ericksen, repurposed the front of a Santa Monica warehouse in an industrial area just off Centinela Avenue and Olympic Boulevard.
According to production memos sent to both Mexican and American officials, it appears that the border crossing location was the most difficult to secure. The documents describe the scene that would be shot, the dialogue that would be spoken, and also note that the movie would not portray border agents in a negative light.
In one memo dated April 1, 1977, sent to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, it’s suggested that the production was not having luck with the Tijuana border. The letter suggests, instead, using an agricultural station in Winterhaven, California, near Yuma, Arizona.
“If you’ve seen one desert you’ve seen ‘em all,” Chong says.
“We were out in the middle of the desert; there was nothing around. It could’ve been anywhere,” Marin adds.
The production flew about 40 cast and crew to Yuma and sent three picture cars, including the “Grass Van”, to the location. Google street view shows that the agricultural station on I-80 appears no different than it did 40 years ago.
1815 Stanford St., Santa Monica; 3510 I-8, Winterhaven, CA (approx. address)
In the late ‘70s, a section of the 210 Freeway running through Sun Valley and Tujunga was ideal for filming, as it was not yet completed. One of the hand-drawn location maps in the production files details the active and inactive portions of the road and illustrates how the freeway ended just past La Tuna Canyon Road.
When Up in Smoke shot at the La Tuna Canyon Road exit, the popular television show CHiPs had already been utilizing the 210 and continued to use the stretch of freeway over the next few years.
The scene in question involved the weed van driving down a road while being followed by Sergeant Stedenko (Stacy Keach) and his team of bumbling narcs. The van then drives onto the freeway and picks up hitchhikers Jade (Zane Buzby) and Debbie (Anne Wharton).
Upon re-watching the scene, you might notice something completely uncharacteristic of an L.A. freeway: it’s fairly empty. La Tuna Canyon Rd. was the second to last exit before the freeway ended just past Sunland Boulevard
210 Freeway & La Tuna Canyon Rd., Tujunga
Police, Hot Dogs, and Tacos
It was when I had just given up on trying to find the police headquarters location that Adler called to tell me about the locations files he found. Prior to that, I’d spent hours with the DVD and Google Street View trying to find this spot. The only identifying markers were what looked like an auto salvage yard across the street from the location and an old LAPD phone number, which turned out to be associated with the Hollenbeck police station in East L.A. Both clues led nowhere. The new Up in Smoke Blu-ray’s higher resolution presented another possible lead: a small sign at the auto yard that appeared to read “N. Ave. 19.” I immediately thought of Lincoln Heights Jail.
Upon receiving the files from Adler, the first thing I scoured the folders for was anything about the jail, which was decommissioned in 1965, but was still used as a popular filming location over the next few decades. There, on a copy of a filming permit, was the address I was hoping to see: 421 N. Ave. 19 – Lincoln Heights Jail. Another location contract confirmed the address of the auto wrecking yard across the street at 410 N. Ave. 19.
Lincoln Heights Jail, of course, has been featured as a location in dozens of films–L.A. Confidential and A Nightmare on Elm Street are perhaps the most notable–as well as television shows, music videos, and commercials. As of late, there’s been talk of revitalizing the shuttered jail by turning it into a mixn nIf you check out Lincoln Heights Jail, you can also swing by a number of close by Up in Smoke locations, including Strawberry’s house.
Drive one minute away to the roundabout connecting San Fernando Road and Figueroa Street and you’ll be at Confluence Park, where a fast food joint called the Key Drive-In used to stand. It’s here that a tow truck driver eats a hot dog while standing near the tailpipe of the weed van as it begins to give off smoke. Overwhelmed by a case of the munchies, he runs to the order window and buys a stack of hot dogs.
Head up Riverside drive, just a short ride from Confluence Park, and you’ll you pass under the interchange of the 5 and 2 freeways. After Pedro and Man pick up the hitchhikers in Tujunga, it’s on the 5 south to the 2 north ramp where the weed van is seen driving.
Keep going up Riverside Dr. and you’ll find the spot where a motorcycle cop pulls over the van. The officer inhales some of exhaust, and, instead of writing Pedro and Man a ticket, asks if he can have the hot dog sitting on the dashboard. (Prior to the cop pulling over the van on Riverside, it drives down Tujunga Ave. in Studio City. The original Henry’s Tacos can be seen in the distance.)
421 N. Ave. 19, Lincoln Heights; 2001 N. Figueroa, Lincoln Heights (approx. address); 3351 Riverside Dr., Los Feliz; 11401 Moorpark St., Studio City
Of all the locations in Up in Smoke, none is more legendary than the Roxy Theatre, the site the film’s climactic battle of the bands.
The opening week of the Roxy in 1973 saw performances by Neil Young and none other than Cheech and Chong. The connection, of course, between Cheech and Chong and the Roxy is Adler himself. The producer, who owns the famed Sunset Boulevard club, discovered the comedians at a hootenanny night at the Troubadour in 1970 and recorded three Cheech and Chong records prior to the opening of the Roxy.
“If I didn’t own the Roxy, I couldn’t imagine getting anything so perfect [for] a location,” says Adler. “Also, to be there as long as we wanted, whatever hours we wanted, and go inside or outside – that [was] the perfect location.”
Thinking back, Adler surmised that Up in Smoke was also the first feature film to be shot in or around the Roxy and that other than music videos or live shows—1981’s The Pee-wee Herman Show comes to mind—not many films have been shot at the club.
A year after Up in Smoke, however, director Allan Arkush filmed the Ramones at the Roxy for his 1979 Roger Corman-produced flick, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, and pulled off the same trick that Adler employed in his film: using the concert space of the Roxy and doubling the backstage area inside the larger dressing room of the nearby Whisky a Go Go.
Before arriving at the Roxy, the weed van passes by the Hollywood Bowl and the Chinese Theatre where the marquee displays the title of a brand new film called Star Wars.
9009 Sunset Blvd.; 8901 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood