Viper Room, The Famous Hollywood Club Founded By Johnny Depp

The Viper Room was one of LA’s craziest nightclubs in the 1990s. The location, which was established by Johnny Depp, attracted a slew of superstars – as well as a slew of scandals.

Certain nightclubs’ names bring to mind vivid images of abundance and debauchery. The Viper Room was one of the clubs in 1990s Los Angeles.

It all began in 1993, when Johnny Depp teamed up with a former co-star from 21 Jump Street to open a new rock venue. The Viper Room immediately became a hotspot for celebrities to see and be seen, thanks to its ideal position on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.

It wasn’t as fancy as some of the other locations in town, but that was part of its appeal. The Viper Room was supposedly named after “a bunch of pot-smoking musicians who called themselves Vipers,” in line with its seedy vibe.

However, a dark underbelly of drugs, killings, and disappearances lurked beneath the surface of this cherished theater. River Phoenix, a rising star who died of a heroin overdose on the pavement outside the club, was the most well-known victim. Phoenix’s death, however, was far from the only terrible occurrence linked to the iconic venue.

Here’s a look at The Viper Room’s tumultuous past.

The Viper Room’s Beginnings

The Viper Room’s storied address, 8852 Sunset Boulevard, has a surprising amount of history behind it.

It was built in 1921 and is one of the oldest structures on the Sunset Strip. It used to be the location of a modest grocery store. For the next 20 years, this shop would be there.

Sunset Boulevard, on the other hand, was fast transforming by the 1940s. What had once been a dusty, unpaved road was now known as “The Sunset Strip.” Food, drink, and gambling establishments sprung up, and celebrities began to come to the neighborhood.

As a result, the food shop closed and the Cotton Club opened, in line with the times (not associated with the Harlem club by the same name).

But, as nightclubs are known to do, the Cotton Club name didn’t stick around for long. The venue’s name — as well as its subject — changed regularly. The Greenwich Village Inn was its previous name. Then there was a time when it was a strip joint named Last Call.

Duff Mckagan, Steve Jones and Iggy Pop performing with Neurotic Outsiders on September 26, 1995

By the 1950s, the structure had been repurposed into The Melody Room, a cabaret. It was recognized for nearly two decades as a gathering place for a wide range of performers, as well as a gangster hangout.

However, in the 1970s, it was renamed Filthy McNasty’s before becoming The Central, a club known for its “jam band” nights, which featured John Entwistle of The Who and C.C. DeVille before entering Poison.

However, in 1993, Johnny Depp opened The Viper Room with his former 21 Jump Street co-star Sal Jenco. As a result, a new rock club, celebrity hangout, and scandal hotbed was born.

How The Viper Room Became Los Angeles’ Hottest Club

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed at the club’s opening night on August 14, 1993, at Depp’s request. This was the first of many nights that would feature Hollywood A-listers, rock ‘n’ roll bands, and even Depp hosting late-night get-togethers for his celebrity buddies.

It was not uncommon to see future Oscar winner Charlize Theron partying with Keanu Reeves, whose alternative rock band Dogstar was making waves at the time.

Future Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz and future Married… With Children actor Christina Applegate worked behind the bar, serving beverages to clients.

The club became a hot stop for celebrities

“They must have lost so much money doing the theme nights,” Duritz later reflected, “but they were such fantastic… They transformed the entire facility into the interior of an airliner one night. They used foil to cover all of the walls one night. They just approached their club with such affection.”

Years before he became Hollywood royalty, even Leonardo DiCaprio was photographed hobnobbing with the city’s greatest stars when he was barely old enough to drink.

Nancy Sinatra, Frank Sinatra’s daughter, praised the venue, saying, “I can’t think of a cooler spot to play in L.A. than The Viper Room.” My father would want to play an after-hours show there if he was still performing.”

Burlesque dancers would also perform at the club, along with rock singers, musicians, and A-list actors, and would frequently put on a tempting show.

Keanu Reeves arrives at the Viper Room where he is to perform with his band “Dogstar” on May 21, 1997

The Viper Room seemed to be the best nightlife spot in town for years. While the club’s “golden days” lasted well into the 1990s, tragedy struck on October 30, 1993, and time appeared to stand still.

River Phoenix’s Tragic Death

River Phoenix had all the makings of a superstar. With appearances in films like Stand By Me and My Own Private Idaho, the rising 23-year-old actor had developed a fanbase. But he was also afflicted by drug addiction.

He arrived at The Viper Room with his fiancée Samantha Mathis and his siblings Rain and Leaf (now known as Joaquin) Phoenix on the night of October 30, 1993. River would be dead in a matter of hours, unfortunately.

Mathis only revealed that her partner had been “high” on the night in question.

River Phoenix

She also stated that this “high” was unlike anything she’d ever experienced before, and that things quickly went bad.

“I knew something was wrong that night, something I didn’t comprehend,” she explained. I didn’t see anyone doing drugs, but he seemed to be high in a way that made me feel uneasy .”

Mathis saw a bouncer shove Phoenix outside the club with another man after a trip to the bathroom. She initially mistook the two men for fighters until she saw Phoenix fall to the ground — and convulse just outside the nightclub.

Mathis dashed back inside to gather her boyfriend’s siblings, who immediately dialed 911. River, on the other hand, had “flatlined” before rescue arrived. At 1:51 a.m., he was formally pronounced dead.

Phoenix died from a cocaine and heroin overdose, according to an autopsy report. In addition, residues of Valium, marijuana, and ephedrine were discovered in his system.

“I knew he was high that night,” Mathis later remembered, “but the heroin that killed him didn’t happen until he was in The Viper Room.”

The Viper Room’s Legacy in the Wake of Tragedy

The death of Phoenix shone a gloomy light on The Viper Room. But that wasn’t the only tragic tale connected to the notorious nightclub. Jason Donovan, an Australian actor, had a coke-induced seizure there in 1995. (Fortunately, he made it out alive.) In 1997, Michael Hutchence, an Australian rock musician, played his final gig at the club just days before committing suicide.

Depp seemed to be dogged by tragedies and conflicts all the way into 2000, when he was sued by his business partner Anthony Fox. Fox accused Depp of fraud and mismanagement of cash at the nightclub in his lawsuit. It appeared as if the two were on the verge of a major legal war.

Fox Disappeared without a trace

However, Fox mysteriously vanished in December 2001, just before Fox and Depp were about to appear in court. His abandoned truck was discovered in Santa Clara, California, in January 2002.

Fox has never been seen or heard from again, and his body has never been discovered. Depp surrendered control of the club a few years after his disappearance. He transferred his ownership of The Viper Room to Fox’s daughter.

Since Depp’s departure, the club’s ownership has changed hands multiple times. And there have been concerns about the nightclub closing since developers bought the property in 2018.

However, The Viper Room has remained a Sunset Strip monument – a piece of music history with a tumultuous background.

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