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Owner of Sunset Strip landmarks Whisky a Go Go and Rainbow Bar & Grill dies at 93

Mario Maglieri, who died Thursday at 93, stands outside the Whisky a Go Go during its 35th anniversary celebration in 1999. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

There have been others to claim the title of unofficial scion of the Sunset Strip, but Mario Maglieri, who died Thursday at age 93, lorded over that realm the longest and witnessed the rise and evolution of the storied West Hollywood live-music hub.

A singular figure who owned two of the most enduring clubs in the neighborhood, the Whisky a Go Go and the Rainbow Bar & Grill, Maglieri fed musicians including Led Zeppelin, Cypress Hill, Guns N’ Roses, Motorhead and hundreds more and helped just as many land onstage. When the Rainbow opened in 1972, Elton John played the launch party.

Maglieri’s death was announced on the Rainbow’s Facebook page.

“Dear Rainbow friends and family, it is with great sadness to announce the passing of our beloved Mario Maglieri. Owner and founder of The Rainbow Bar and Grill and The Whisky a Go Go. He passed this morning while surrounded by loved ones. We will announce services shortly. We ask that you please allow the family time to grieve. Thank you for your understanding.”

Mario Mikael Maglieri was born on Feb. 7, 1924, in Sepino, Italy, and immigrated to the United States with his family when he was a toddler. Before moving to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, Maglieri operated clubs and restaurants in Chicago, and relocated at the behest of his Chicago friend Elmer Valentine.

Along with another former Chicagoan, Lou Adler, the trio staked a claim along a few Sunset Boulevard blocks formerly known as a hub for gambling and burlesque.

In addition to helping run the Whisky, Maglieri ran the Roxy after Adler, Valentine, David Geffen and others invested in the business. He, Valentine, Adler and others opened the Rainbow, which became the de facto green room for musicians readying their sets at the Whisky and the Roxy.

“I think that the Whisky is really what started the Sunset Strip,” said Andrew Sandoval, writer, record producer and longtime Sunset Strip chronicler. “Even though the Byrds debuted at [nightclub] Ciro’s in 1965, the Whisky was already going in 1964 and the ‘a-go-go’ part of the strip was really born there.”

Sandoval described the Whisky as “the first real club” catering to the ’60s generation.

At the Whisky’s peak, its stage supported acts including Buffalo Springfield, Jimi Hendrix, the Mothers of Invention, the Doors and Van Morrison’s band Them. As artists performed, go-go dancers shimmied above for all to see.

In the 1970s, as the hippie scene wound down and the Troubadour a few blocks south became the center of the singer-songwriter movement, punk rockers began invading the Strip with bands such as the Germs, X, Black Flag and Minutemen.

In the ’80s, the Whisky helped drive the nascent metal movement that propelled bands including Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crue. When grunge killed that scene, bands including Soundgarden, Mudhoney and the Melvins landed at the Whisky. Maglieri’s son, Mikael, continues to own and run the club. Through it all, Maglieri witnessed rock ’n’ roll excess and inspiration firsthand — though he said he’d never so much as smoked a joint himself. John Belushi ate his last meal at the Rainbow before overdosing at the Chateau Marmont. A Times profile from 1993 described Maglieri talking world politics with John Lennon outside the Roxy and buying Janis Joplin one of her last bottles of Southern Comfort. He chided Jim Morrison of the Doors for his drug use.

Asked in another Times interview about the earliest rocker regulars at the Rainbow, Maglieri cited Led Zeppelin in the 1970s. “Every time they were in town, they’d party in the middle booth. And them guys know how to party!”

The rowdiest? “Oh, Guns N' Roses! I had to put them out I don’t know how many times! They’d get rowdy and throw bread at people. They’re good guys, but they get out of hand.”

A music fan his entire life, Maglieri didn’t play favorites when it came to genre — though he said Sid Vicious and other nihilist punks annoyed him. Asked what his favorite era for music was, he replied: “Every year. I love rock ’n’ roll. Even the guys coming up, they get an E for effort.”

Maglieri is survived by his wife of more than 70 years, Scarlett; his son Mikael and grandchildren Mikael, Cheryl and Gina. A public memorial will be held at the Rainbow Bar & Grill at 1 p.m. on May 28.

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