The Viper Room used to be one of the hottest spots in Los Angeles for the young Hollywood elite to hang out. Founded in 1993 by Johnny Depp and former actor Sal Jenco, it was once home to the biggest stars of the era, including Quentin Tarantino, Christina Applegate and Patricia Arquette. According to the New York Post, it was even the base of the underground poker ring that was the subject of the 2017 film Molly’s Game, which Tobey Maguire reportedly created.
Per Jerk, he opened the club so that famous people “don’t feel like they’re on display.” But he also told the Los Angeles Times that he doesn’t want it to be incredibly restrictive, like most establishments like it to be. He modeled it on the clubs of the past and hoped it would serve as a place for his peers to let off steam. “I really love the idea of clubs from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s,” Depp said at the time. In a 1996 interview with Playboy, the actor said the location also doubled as his hideout. “It’s easier here. I’ll have a few beers or a glass of wine, get up and play guitar with some friends,” he said. “Every Thursday is martini night, a good time. One of the best nights for me was when Johnny Cash was playing here.”
But while The Viper Room was an iconic facility, it’s also notorious for being the scene of many deaths and scandals, including the untimely death of River Phoenix just months after the club opened to the public.
The Viper Room was marred by controversy
However, the Viper Room had humble origins, having originally been a grocery store in 1921 according to Los Angeles Magazine. Notorious mobster Mickey Cohen then bought it in 1947 to conduct his operations. The room changed its name several times until Johnny Depp and Sal Jenco turned it into The Viper Room in August 1993.
Strange things happened two months after the opening. On Halloween 1993, River Phoenix died of a drug overdose just before it. He was supposed to be performing with a band that night, but his then-girlfriend Samantha Mathis saw him fall and start having seizures, according to The Guardian. The club did not reopen for a week after the incident, and every time October 31 rolled around it was shut down on Depp’s orders, according to the Daily Mail.
The controversies didn’t stop there. The Viper Room was also where Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee was charged after a 1996 brawl with paparazzi, according to The Chicago Tribune. In 1995, Courtney Love admitted to experiencing a drug overdose right outside the club, but Depp was there to help her. “I don’t really want to judge publicly. I just want to tell you that Johnny gave me CPR in 1995 when I overdosed outside the Viper Room,” she shared with People. Despite this, the place remained a hot spot for celebrities.
The Viper Room is currently undergoing a complete renovation
Years have passed since the Viper Room’s heyday, and now it’s due for an overhaul. Deadline reports that it will be completely demolished and converted into a 12-story mixed-use building that will consist of restaurants, cafes, a rooftop bar, retail outlets, residential units and, according to the project site, West Hollywood’s first and only five-star Hotel.
Thankfully, The Viper Room’s legacy will live on. The facility will also appear to include a “redesigned Viper Room” with memorabilia from the original club, a new and improved soundstage and recording studio. Johnny Depp hasn’t said anything about how his old bar would be transformed into something else, but he did once admit that the unfortunate events that happened there had very little to do with the club he once co-owned.
When asked if he had a hard time walking by the spot where River Phoenix died, he told Playboy, “It was like that at first. I couldn’t go to the club without thinking about it. I later came to terms with the fact that it had nothing to do with the club. He was only here for a very short time. It really had nothing to do with it except that what he had ingested was bad and there’s nothing we can do now.” Depp sold his stake in the club in 2004, according to the Daily Mail. LAist reports that construction of the new and improved Viper Room complex will begin in 2023.