The Real Licorice Pizza Was an Incredible SoCal Record Store Chain
Former employees explain what made the store Paul Thomas Anderson named his latest film after so special.
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film Licorice Pizza is a charming, dizzying trip back to the '70s in California's San Fernando Valley, where a combination of suburban boredom, youth, and love makes everything feel possible. The film follows the relationship between 15-year-old child actor and hustling entrepreneur Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and 20-something Alana Kane (Alana Haim) who have a chance encounter that eventually leads them to become business partners and always find their way back to each other, even when their friendship strains.
Licorice Pizza is full of coming-of-age enchantment, and it has a whimsical title to match. Although, nothing in the film explains why it's called Licorice Pizza. Sure, the title card is written in a retro, electric blue font and it has a far out quality to it, but there's never any indication as to what it means. (No, not one slice of pizza nor piece of licorice is eaten over the course of the film.)
The title isn't random at all, though—and the story behind it is just as magical as Anderson's film. In actuality, Licorice Pizza was a record store chain around SoCal in the '70s and '80s. While the store itself never makes an appearance in the movie or gets an explicit mention, Anderson has said he remembers it from his childhood fondly and felt it created a "catch-all for the feeling of the film" and was the right aesthetic—and he couldn't bear naming it Soggy Bottom, the original working title of the movie and the name of the waterbed company that Gary and Alana launch, which, fair.
Licorice Pizza was founded by James Greenwood in 1969 with a store in Long Beach, and the chain had 34 locations open around LA by the time it was sold in 1985 and eventually rebranded as the national chain Musicland (and later Sam Goody). But in its heyday, the record store was an integral part of the SoCal music scene and gave fans in the area their own music haven.
For Donna Tolmas, working at Licorice Pizza was like a dream. She was only 16 when she began as a sales associate in the Canoga Park store in 1984, and she found herself immersed in an older, new crowd who introduced her to punk and glam. "I remember I would call the store from school and somebody would pretend to be my mom and let me leave," Tolmas says. "I would go down to the health office and go, 'Do you want to talk to my mom? She said I can leave. I'm not feeling good.'" From there, she'd go to Pizza—like so many other employees opted to do on their days off.
"It was a great vibe, and it was a total hangout," says Kurt Peterson, who worked as a sales associate and later a singles buyer at Norwalk and then Bellflower between '79-'87. Before he got a job there, Peterson says in high school he and his friends always wound up partying at Pizza. "We might go to the movies or something else, but at some point we'd end up at Pizza. We'd look around, maybe buy something, but at lot of the times we didn't even buy anything. We'd just go there and, if it's a Friday or Saturday night, the employees were drinking cold beers," says Peterson. "We'd hang out and talk music and argue who was better."
It's no surprise employees and patrons alike spent their free time pursuing the aisles and hanging out at Pizza: The space was the embodiment of all-things cool, the kind of space people who are convinced they were born in the wrong generation fantasize about. According Peterson, the interior was always covered in wood and burlap, and had promotional posters lining the walls and record-filled crates inspired by Peaches Record Crates. He says there were couches that invited guests to kick back and listen to whatever was on the speakers—that is, if there wasn't a turntable war going on among the staff—and, of course, licorice was always in a candy dish on the checkout counter. Should you have walked into a Pizza in the '70s, former sales associate Harvey Jordan, who worked at Canoga Park and later Encino from '75-'78, says you could count on hearing Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Genesis, and, later, Bruce Springsteen in the store.
As chill as the experience of the store itself was, the reality of LA meant that show business is in everybody's backyard—which is very much a theme of Licorice Pizza. Donna Tolmas says Brady Bunch star Robbie Rist was a frequent customer when she worked at Canoga Park, and the staff had a long-running gag about him coming in. She says, because he played Cousin Oliver on the sitcom, who was known as "a jinx," the staff put "Watch out, he's a jinx" on the monitors whenever the teenage actor came in.
In-store signings were also common, and employees always reaped the benefits of being at the center of the LA scene. If it wasn't former co-workers who went on to work in the industry getting their friends concert tickets, it was labels themselves and Licorice Pizza corporate. Harvey Jordan says not only was he invited to meet Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who was billed as "this new band" at the time, at one point Pizza owner James Greenwood treated everyone on staff to tickets to Paul McCartney at The Forum.
The store's infectious enthusiasm for music also trickled down to local artists. "Licorice Pizza was willing to sell CDs from relatively unknown artists, especially female artists," says musician Kat Jensen, who grew up going to the store in West Covina where she able to sell her group Love Toyz's music. "The whole thing about them was that they weren't just a record store or retailer. They were a vibe, a way of life for artists to come in, hang out, and get connected."
Record stores are often a music lover's favorite place in their hometown, but, clearly, Licorice Pizza was more than just a record store for a lot of people. (Take it from the 600+ member Facebook group of former staffers and patrons who stay connected and share memories online to this day.) It was a community space with a sense of magic that was able to do everything from fostering a love for vinyl in people—like Jordan, who says working there was like being surrounded by "gold" and now has a collection of 4,000 records—to immersing them in new scenes, like Tolmas who discovered a love for new genres. And above all, it helped music fans find each other and a sense of community. Pizza was like family, says Peterson. In fact, his fondest memory of working there was when the staff stayed behind after the shop closed early on Christmas Eve to celebrate together, and every year, they inevitably ended up coming home with him to his own family's holiday party to continue the good tidings.
By the time Pizza was transitioning into Musicland in '87, Peterson says he and his coworkers decided they wanted nothing to do with the store if it was going to be stripped of what made it great—like its value of personalization that allowed employees to offer recommendations and staff to play obscure artists, and the relaxed, freewheeling atmosphere that made guests never want to leave. "We were there at six in the morning to start the changeover, and nobody wanted to do it, so we left," Peterson remembers. "They were going to just streamline the hell out of us. We just went in and said, I quit, I quit, I quit, I quit, walked out, and went to Winchell's and had some donuts." Licorice Pizza was of a time and place, but its memories would play on for SoCal music fans, like all of the records they collected there.
Anderson's film feels as though it exists in the moment Licorice Pizza devotees still romanticize—nothing corporate, everything groovy, and, ultimately, sweet. Although it may feel like a bit of a cop out for the movie to be named after the place that so many loved and not even feature it, there's no denying that you can imagine Gary and Alana and their crew sifting through LPs, arguing over what should play at their Soggy Bottom storefront. You can picture them checking out at the register (Alana being a flirt, chewing on a piece of licorice) and hopping back in Gary's car where they put on one of the new cassettes they just purchased before driving off into LA traffic, as so many Pizza customers really did.