Tales From the Viper Room: Johnny Depp’s Cursed Club

In the ‘90s, if you were a somebody, you were going to West Hollywood’s Viper Room on Sunset Strip. The owners were famous (Johnny Depp and Sal Jenco, of 21 Jump Street), the clubgoers were celebrities, and even the bartenders were in popular bands (Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows).

Johnny Depp / The Viper Room / River Phoenix / Rita Fiora.
Source: Getty Images

But what goes up, must come down. Ever since Halloween night in 1993, when River Phoenix overdosed at the club, the Viper Room has been a breeding ground for dark and dirty behavior. With incident after incident, the club soon came to feel as though it was cursed.

Here are some wild tales from the Viper Room…

The Pussycat Dolls Performed a Weekly Burlesque Show

In the mid- ‘90s, the Pussycat Dolls were a resident act at the club. The group’s founder, Robin Antin was a dancer who, at the time, was living in Christina Applegate’s house. She created the group’s first routine in Applegate’s home studio in 1995, debuting the act at the Viper Room that year.

The Pussycat Dolls pose for the press before performing at the club.
Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images

In the audience was Johnny Depp, who was so impressed that he signed the group on for a weekly residency. It was also in honor of the bar’s strip club-roots (more on the club’s history later). The burlesque show became so popular that Gwen Stefani and Carmen Electra volunteered for guest spots. Jimmy Iovine eventually signed them to Interscope Records.

When Jason Donovan Was Carried Out on a Stretcher

At a 1995 birthday party for then 21-year-old Kate Moss, Australian soap actor-turned-singer Jason Donovan experienced a night to remember (or forget). Johnny Depp threw the party, as he was Moss’ boyfriend at the time.

A picture of Jason Donovan.
Photo by Patrick Ford/Redferns/Getty Images

Donovan was on the guest list, but throughout the night, he kept returning to his hotel room to do, um…lines. He eventually collapsed and went into a seizure at the club and had to be wheeled out on a stretcher. He later described the incident in his memoir, Between the Lines: My Story Uncut. “I knew the symptoms all too well, for it was not the first time this had happened to me…”

Michael Hutchence Had His Back

After falling to the floor, he knew “that someone had pulled the plug on the music and was calling for an ambulance.” He recalled a crowd circling around him, and Michael Hutchence (of INXS) was standing over him, “trying to empty my trouser pockets.”

Bernard Fowler, Michael Hutchence, and Stevie Salas perform at The Viper Room.
Photo by Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Apparently, he was trying to get rid of any drugs that Donovan might still have had on him. “It wouldn’t be cool if anything was found on you by the medics,” Hutchence whispered to him. “The next memory I have is of being carried out of the club by paramedics on a stretcher.” Donovan also remembered Depp telling him to “take it easy in the future.”

Tommy Lee vs. the Paparazzi

The Viper Room may have been the place to be, but it wasn’t hard for the place to get bad press. Of course, the paparazzi knew the club very well, and on September 29, 1996, a certain photographer got to know Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee particularly well.

Andrew McMahon of Jack's Mannequin with Tommy Lee at the Viper Room.
Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage for BWR Public Relations/Getty Images

Lee and his then-babe Pamela Lee had a bit of an altercation involving paparazzi outside the Viper Room. Witnesses reported that a tabloid photographer bore the brunt of it after Lee threw him to the ground, injuring the man’s hip. It was all caught on tape, but Lee reportedly settled the lawsuit.

Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz Was a Bartender

It was in 1993 when Counting Crows made their debut with August and Everything After. With it, they soared to fame and became one of the top-selling bands. Despite all that, Adam Duritz, the lead singer, still stuck around at the Viper Room as an employee.

A photo of Adam Duritz performing on stage.
Photo by Steve Eichner/WireImage/Getty Images

Why? To keep it real, apparently. He told USA Today that he tended bar between 1995 and 1996, after he became a rock star. “The only people I knew in LA were the people who worked at the Viper Room, so that’s where I would hang out. It was fun,” he said.

John Frusciante Played an Awful Set on the Fateful Halloween Night

John Frusciante, the guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was a regular at the Viper Room. It was in 1993, on the fateful Halloween night that River Phoenix took his last breath (and we’ll get to that soon), that Frusciante played a simply disastrous set at the club. He and Phoenix reportedly went on a days-long binge together leading up to that night.

A dated portrait of Anthony Kiedis and John Frusciante.
Photo by Michel Linssen/Redferns/Getty Images

His bandmate Flea was cheering him on from the sidelines, but Frusciante got through one song before throwing up and leaving the stage. He came back to the Viper Room to perform in January 1997, but it was yet another disaster.

River Phoenix’s Death Only Pushed Him Deeper

He only got worse after Phoenix’s tragic death at the club. At the height of his addiction problems, Frusciante could barely sing. By then, he was at his absolute worst. His upper teeth had fallen out, his legs and arms were covered in cigarette burns and his fingernails were all bloodied.

An exterior shot of the Viper Room after River Phoenix’s death.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

He was merely 28 years old and had become a rock’n’roll cliché. A year later, he entered rehab and rejoined The Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s a good thing he did, because together they created their career-defining album Californication.

The Viper Room Was a Poker Ring for A-Listers

During the ’90s and early ’00s, the club was the place to be for celebrity poker players to hang out and gamble with the high rollers. The Viper Room hosted one of Hollywood’s highest-rolling games of all time. The buy-in? $50,000. And that was a “modest” amount.

An exterior shot of The Viper Room.
Photo by Barry King/WireImage/Getty Images

Molly Bloom, a waitress-turned-poker star, spilled the beans during an interview on 20/20. Bloom said she hosted illegal poker games on the regular – games that saw Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire.

What Molly’s Game Came From

She eventually wrote a book about her experience at the Viper Room, and a movie was also made, called Molly’s Game. According to Bloom, Maguire made her “bark like a seal who wants a fish” if she wanted to get a tip.

Molly Bloom speaks during an interview.
Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Other celebrities included Alex Rodriguez, Matt Damon, and the Olsen twins, who reportedly brought a billionaire with them to the game. Throughout her years there, players would both win and lose in the six-figure range. Bloom herself was pulling in $4 million a year by 2008.

The Mob and the FBI Caught Up With Her

Who was the sorest loser? Bloom revealed that Maguire was, but he was also one of her most frequent customers. She also said that he used DiCaprio to attract bigger players. Eventually, Bloom started taking a percentage from every poker pot, which became a big no-no.

A closeup on a poker table game.
Photo by Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star/Getty Images

With that, she entered the territory of organized crime. And that’s when things spiraled out of control. Mobsters soon attacked Bloom after she refused to make space for them in her business. Soon enough, the FBI was after her. They raided one of her games and froze her assets. Bloom pled guilty to illegal gambling and got 12-months’ probation.

One of the Co-Owners Has Been Missing Since 2001

In 2001, Depp found himself in a multi-million-dollar lawsuit launched by his business partner, Anthony Fox, who accused Depp (and four other partners) of conspiring to defraud the Viper Room for millions. In 1999, Depp’s and Fox’s relationship went sour.

A photo of Johnny Depp at The Viper Room.
Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc/Getty Images

Fox accused Depp of “shady accounting and fraud,” cheating him out of millions of dollars. Strangely enough, a mere number of days before Fox was supposed to testify in late 2001, he went missing. He, his .38 caliber revolver, and his pickup truck vanished.

Amber Heard Tried to Prove That Depp Was Involved

On January 6, 2002, his truck was located, having been abandoned in Santa Clara, California, 330 miles from Fox’s Ventura home. Speculation about his disappearance ran wild. People started calling murder. Without a body and the lack of evidence, the case remains cold.

An image of Amber Heard outside of a courthouse.
Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

Later on, Amber Heard, Depp’s ex-wife, was hoping to fine some evidence of Depp’s involvement in Fox’s disappearance. She reportedly asked a private investigator to look into it after the two split. Depp was never accused of being involved in the incident.

In 2004, Depp signed over his share of the club to Fox’s daughter, Amanda, who then sold it in 2008.

Opening Night With Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers

Johnny Depp and his actor friend Sal Jenko gave their guests a memorable opening night, with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers ushering in a new era of ownership. Photographers were surrounding the place as false rumors spread of Madonna showing up.

A photo of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers performing at The Viper Room.
Source: YouTube

The invitation-only bash was in support of a great cause, too (they raised $14,000 for the Starlight Foundation, which works with seriously ill children). Famous faces in the crowd on opening night included Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton, Christina Applegate, Julianne Phillips and Patricia Arquette. But the good vibes didn’t last very long. Just a few weeks after the Viper Room’s opening, tragedy hit.

The Days Leading Up to That Night

On Halloween night 1993, River Phoenix overdosed on cocaine and morphine. He was only 23. The days leading up to his death were something of a drug-capade, with Phoenix and John Frusciante doing nothing but drugs for several days straight.

A dated image of River Phoenix at The Viper Room.
Photo by Robin Platzer/Getty Images

According to Bob Forrest, Phoenix’s close friend who was also at the Viper Room that night, the guys would regularly “smoke crack” and shoot “directly into a vein” before shooting heroin “to get a grip and come down.” The heroin helped them “carry on a conversation for a few minutes” before starting the cycle again.

“I Think I’m OD’ing”

On that Halloween night, Phoenix was “unusually wasted.” The killer cocktail included a speedball (heroin and cocaine dissolved into a drink) which he chased down with Valium. As his skin started to turn gray, he told Forrest, “I don’t feel so good. I think I’m OD’ing.”

A picture of Phoenix the night of his death.
Source: Pinterest

Phoenix then collapsed outside of the Viper Room in front of his two siblings, Joaquin and Rain Phoenix, and his girlfriend, actor Samantha Mathis. His sister Rain sat on his chest in an attempt to stop his convulsing. He then died in the hospital.

In Front of His Girlfriend, Brother, and Sister

Mathis said she thought they were only at the club to drop off Phoenix’s little brother and sister. But when they got there, he told her, “Oh, there are some people playing music tonight in the club who want me to play with them – that’s OK, right?”

A dated image of River Phoenix and Rain Phoenix.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

“I knew something was wrong that night,” Mathis later admitted, “something I didn’t understand.” She said she didn’t see anyone doing drugs, but Phoenix’s high made her “feel uncomfortable.” But she knew he wanted to stay and figured it wouldn’t be long. “Forty-five minutes later, he was dead.”

He Was Slowly Slipping Away

Phoenix and Mathis met when they were both 19, and they co-starred in The Thing Called Love, Phoenix’s last completed film. After he died, several people who knew the famously clean-living, environment-promoting actor remember him slipping into the drug rabbit hole over the years.

An exterior shot of The Viper Room.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Without a father figure in his life, Phoenix filled his life with big brother-type role models. Michael Stipe, Dermot Mulroney and Dan Aykroyd were some who proved influential in his life. Aykroyd, who lost his best friend, John Belushi, to an overdose a decade earlier, urged Phoenix to stay away from drugs.

He Helped Others Kick Their Habits

Phoenix’s mother moved the family to Florida when they grew more successful. It was her way to keep them away from the shadier LA lifestyle. But Phoenix felt that his role was to save people and the planet.

A dated picture of Joaquin Phoenix.
Photo by Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Getty Images

Ironically, when he started hanging out with different kinds of creative people in LA, he tried to help them kick their heroin habits. “But when he needed help, they didn’t help him. In fact, in some cases, it was the opposite,” Mathis revealed. For most of their relationship, Mathis said Pheonix was sober.

Not Until the Viper Room

“I knew he was high that night, but the heroin that killed him didn’t happen until he was in the Viper Room.” That night at the Viper Room, Mathis just knew something was terribly wrong. When she realized they were going to be there for a while, she went to the bathroom.

A photo of Samantha Mathis at the time.
Photo by Evan Agostini/Liaison/Getty Images

When she came out of the bathroom, she saw Phoenix in a fight with some man, and a bouncer was pushing them out of the club’s side door. She followed them out to the street which is when she saw Phoenix drop to the ground.

In the Days Before Paparazzi

This was before the paparazzi was such a lucrative business, so no one took photos. It also meant that no one was really around to help. “What have you done? What are you on?” Mathis yelled at the other man who was pushed out.

A photo of Samantha Mathis, River Phoenix, and a friend at The Viper Room.
Source: Pinterest

“Leave him alone, you’re spoiling his high,” he shouted back at her. Mathis tried to get help by going back into the club, but the side door was locked shut. So, she hurried to the main door, looked for Phoenix’s siblings and told them to come help them.

Joaquin Phoenix’s Leaked 911 Call

Joaquin Phoenix’s call to the police was one that would be heard years later. The call was immediately leaked to news stations. “He’s having seizures! Get over here please, please, ’cause he’s dying, please,” 19-year-old Joaquin pleaded on the 911 call.

A dated picture of River Phoenix.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

By the time the paramedics arrived, Phoenix had already flatlined. He was then pronounced dead at the hospital. Apparently, Leonardo DiCaprio had seen him that very night, before he headed to the Viper Room. “And that might have been [a warning], because Leo never ever got into drugs,” director Rob Reiner shared.

The Viper Room Apparently Has Ghosts

Phoenix’s death on Halloween wasn’t the only thing to spook people out about the Viper Room. The place was also a popular mobster hangout. The show Ghost Adventures paid the club a visit in 2017. Take what you want from this, but the crew captured voices on tape.

A general view of the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip.
Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images/Getty Images

The crew then played these “voices” to Rita Fiora, who was running the club’s ticket booth for nearly a decade. Fiora was convinced it was River Phoenix’s voice. He was saying, “I get confused.” Fiora also admitted that she would have regular conversations with a ghost through text messages.

The Bottom Bar Has an “Aura” to It

“I’ve had my hair yanked, a hand on my leg. Oh yeah, they’re grabby, the guy ghosts,” Fiora told the crew. But it was a “chick ghost” who was texting her from a dead number. “I’d talk out loud to her, and she’d text me a response. She was mad that I couldn’t see her.”

Rita Fiora speaks during an interview.
Source: YouTube

Tommy Black, a Viper Room bartender for 16 years, said that the bottom bar has a “different aura” than the top bar – it’s darker, “more negative.” He also said that he felt a constant pressure on his chest when working the bar down there. Oh, and he would see glasses fly off the bar for no reason.

Slipknot’s Corey Taylor Smashed a Viper Room Window

Slipknot was recording in LA and the band spent a night on the Sunset Strip. After getting kicked out of the Rainbow Bar & Grill for throwing shot glasses at patrons, front man Corey Taylor hit the Viper Room. He was very obviously “hammered.”

A photo of Corey Taylor performing at The Viper Room.
Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Then, his friend dared him to smash his foot through the window of the Viper Room. Wearing shorts, he accepted the dare, and the window shattered to pieces. A cop was sitting in his cruiser across the street and saw the whole thing.

The Cops Were Cool About It

After kicking the window in, he turned around and saw a cop car sitting at a red light. “I didn’t even try to run; I just walked over and put my hands on the hood. They were very cool about it.” The cop “politely” handcuffed Taylor on the curb right outside the Viper Room.

An image of Corey Taylor performing on stage.
Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

“People are coming out and laughing at me. I just start spitting at them and cursing them. The cops throw me in the back of the cop car, and I just passed out in the back seat.” To avoid charges, he had to pay $500 in damages to the Viper Room’s owners.

Mark McGrath Proposed to His Wife There

Vice TV created a series called Dark Side of the ‘90s, hosted by Mark McGrath (of Sugar Ray). The second episode was on The Viper Room, and it was something of a personal subject for McGrath, who met and proposed to his wife in the club.

Mark McGrath and his wife pose for a picture.
Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images

His days going to the club were before his Sugar Ray fame. He would try to sneak in, “begging the doorman to get in.” Once his band started to get famous, walking into the club as a “success story” was a thrill for him. “I’ve spent many a night there. Some I don’t remember; some I do remember.”

The History and Mystery of the Viper Room

Why was it called the Viper Room? Some say Johnny Depp named it after a Louisiana jazz club, while others believe it’s a reference to pot-smoking jazz musicians back in the 1920s and ‘30s New Orleans. They were called “vipers,” and the most famous of them was Louis Armstrong.

Michael Hutchence of INXS and guitarist Stevie Salas pose for a portrait at The Viper Room.
Photo by Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But the ‘90s Viper Room scene catered to rock and metal bands. It soon became one of those places where the audience was more famous than the performers themselves. By the mid-‘90s, bigger bands were showing up to the stage, like Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, Oasis, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Run-DMC, and Johnny Cash.

The Sunset Strip Was Born

The building at 8852 Sunset was erected way back in 1921 and it started out as a grocery store named Young’s Market. By the late ‘20s, the whole area went from a farm-to-market route to the main artery connecting Hollywood to Beverly Hills, and the neighborhood evolved into a celebrity playground.

An exterior shot of The Viper Room.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

With Golden Age directors, producers, and stars looking for fun in cafes, bars, and speakeasies, the Sunset Strip was born. Reportedly, in those days, a 1.7-mile stretch of the famed Boulevard lay just outside of LAPD jurisdiction, meaning the “kids” could play without getting into any trouble.

The Devil’s Playground Was in the Hot Seat

By 1946, the grocery store was gone, and the Cotton Club took its place – as the It spot for America’s most notorious criminals. A year later, it shut down, and was replaced by the Greenwich Village Inn, but the times they were a changin’. In the late ‘40s, LA was growing super fast during the post-WWII manufacturing boom.

A dated image of Sunset Strip.
Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Stories of West Hollywood’s decadence were reaching legislators, and soon enough the California Legislature dispatched the Subcommittee on Public Morals. This was bad news for the Strip. All eight Sunset Strip establishments were facing losing their liquor licenses due to “indecent, lewd, and lascivious entertainment.”

But the Mafia Was Running the Show

The subcommittee didn’t account for all the criminals who owned these “perverted” places. Mobsters, including Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen, firmly held their grip on their clubs, making money through prostitution, drugs, and gambling. All the while, they paid local law enforcement to turn a blind eye.

An image of dinners and dancers at a nightclub on the Sunset Strip.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

By the end of the ‘40s, the Greenwich Village Inn was replaced by the Rue Angel. But a fire on January 9, 1950 destroyed it. That September a strip club opened up in the spot called Last Call, and its “Strip-Capades” saw full-length, uninterrupted, marathons seven days per week.

From the Melody Room to Filthy McNasty’s

By 1951, it was last call for Last Call thanks to local officials succumbing to the pressure to bring the Sunset Strip’s laws into sync with the rest of the city. Then, when Mickey Cohen was indicted for tax evasion, and with Bugsy Siegel gone since 1947, the Mafia no longer had control over West Hollywood.

An image of County Sheriff officers patrolling on Sunset Strip.
Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

Up until 1969, 8852 Sunset operated as The Melody Room, setting the scene for the future Viper Room. In 1973, rock vibes began at the spot as it turned into a lounge called Filthy McNasty’s.

Setting the Stage

As Filthy McNasty’s, people like Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, Evel Knievel, and Tom Waits were showing up. Photography was eventually banned at the club, after which John Wayne and Little Richard would make appearances.

An image of John Belushi performing on stage.
Photo by Richard McCaffrey/ Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Once the ‘80s rolled around, 8852 Sunset became the Central, and famous faces like John Belushi, Rickie Lee Jones, and John Entwistle of The Who would be walking through the doors. It was only a matter of time until the Viper Room became the hub of hard music, hard drugs, and hard gambling.

The Viper Room was finally sold in 2018, along with three other properties on the Strip for $80 million.

If you’re a Johnny Depp fan, then you might have fun seeing what his dating history has been like over the years. Shall we?