Why were Cheech & Chong arrested at their Tampa show 50 years ago?

Police and the comedy duo have different versions of what happened at Curtis Hixon Hall.
Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin, better known as Cheech & Chong, were arrested in Tampa in August 1973 and charged with disorderly conduct.
Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin, better known as Cheech & Chong, were arrested in Tampa in August 1973 and charged with disorderly conduct. [ Times (1973) ]
Published Aug. 22, 2023

TAMPA — Without permission, the stoner comedy duo known as Cheech & Chong made a Tampa police officer part of their act at Curtis Hixon Hall on the evening of Aug. 25, 1973.

They did so again later that night, but from behind bars.

It’s been 50 years since Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong were arrested in Tampa for disorderly conduct. Since then, they have found comedy in retelling the story.

They did so as a duo for a 2008 YouTube video, and Chong repeated it as a solo act for another video in 2022, with each chuckling at the memory.

While the thousands in attendance laughed through the live show in 1973, neither the police nor the venue’s management found it funny. Or at least they wouldn’t admit to it publicly at the time.

“Tampa was very conservative and blue collar back then,” said Robert Martinez, the show’s promoter. “It was 1973 but in Tampa it was 1953.”

The Cheech & Chong comedy duo performed in Tampa in August 1973. They were arrested when they made a Tampa police officer part of the show.
The Cheech & Chong comedy duo performed in Tampa in August 1973. They were arrested when they made a Tampa police officer part of the show. [ Times (1973) ]

In 1973, Cheech & Chong were still five years from breaking into Hollywood with their “Up in Smoke” comedy movie, but they were near the peak of their stage show fame.

When Martinez, 28 at that time, heard that they were planning a tour that would swing through Florida, he reached out to the duo’s management to book a Tampa stop.

“I promoted shows in Tampa for Steppenwolf, the Steve Miller Band, Country Joe McDonald, the James Gang” and others, he said. “Cheech & Chong were my first comedy show. They had never appeared in Florida, had a really big following and their albums always were top of the charts.”

Their first two comedy albums, “Cheech & Chong” and “Big Bambu,” were each nominated for a Grammy.

Earlier in the same month as their Tampa show, they released a third, “Los Chocinos,” which is Spanish for pigs, a derogatory term for the police.

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Martinez booked the show for downtown’s Curtis Hixon Hall because it offered better amenities than other venues, he said. Located on Ashley Drive, the since-razed hall could hold up to 8,000. Martinez does not recall how many were at the comedy show.

But Curtis Hixon Hall was also owned by the city, which required a $5,000 performance bond that could be forfeited if anything went wrong. And police were known for being intolerant to what they considered to be obscene at the hall. During her show there in 1969, Janis Joplin was arrested for vulgar and indecent language.

Martinez was aware that Cheech & Chong would push the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in Tampa at the time, but said he was not ready for how far they went.

“I knew they did stoner jokes,” he said, “but they did some material that wasn’t on the album.”

It’s unclear what joke got them into trouble at the Saturday show.

“I didn’t even see it,” Martinez said. “I was backstage at the time, so cannot verify what happened.”

According to the Tampa Tribune coverage of their arrest, the police complaint reported that the comedians “used obscenities and made gestures of masturbation.” Chong remembered it differently.

“We never insulted or hurt anybody,” he said in 2022. “We did a bit called ‘The Dogs’ where Cheech and I crawled around on all fours … and sniffed each other’s butts. Well, that was OK.”

What was not OK, apparently, was when Marin pretended to urinate on a police officer working security.

“The cop, he did not like being part of the act,” Chong said. “And so, they decided to arrest us” after the show.

But the police, according to Marin and Chong, argued over who could take them to the station.

“They had our albums” Marin said in 2008. “They wanted us to sign the album.”

Meantime, he added with a laugh, their management hid the “dope.”

At the station, “Marin livened up the central booking section by hanging on the mesh fence enclosing the area,” the Tampa Tribune reported.

But he also pestered an officer with cat calls and repeated requests for “pink toilet tissue,” Marin said in 2008.

That officer then pulled Marin from the cell and said, “Come with me,” according to Chong in 2008. With a laugh, Chong then added that, thinking he was going to prison, a scared Marin told the officer, “My dad is a cop.” But he was just taken to another cell to separate them.

They were released hours later when each posted a $502 bail bond.

Right after the show, Martinez said, he was lectured by the hall’s management. “Mr. Wilson, who was the manager and a big man, pointed his finger at me and said that there is going to be a stack of letters on his desk on Monday morning from irate parents and he was docking my $5,000.”

In both YouTube videos, Chong called their arrest a scam meant to enrich the city of Tampa with $5,000.

Was it?

“No,” Martinez said. “Four days later, they gave me the money back” when the hall’s employees told the city that he should not be punished for something he had no control over.

Marin and Chong skipped their court appearance and forfeited bail. Chong said in the 2008 video that their manager later had their record expunged.

“So now we can get a civil service job,” Marin said in the same video.

Referencing his 2003 federal conviction for conspiracy to distribute drug paraphernalia, Chong replied, “Well, he can, I can’t. I’m a felon.”