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Venice Turns 100 by Paul M. J. Suchecki July 4, 2005
 
Windward Avenue Yesterday
photo courtesy of Cow's End, Venice
   
Windward Today
photo by Paul M. J. Suchecki
 
               
 

In February and March of ’05 disastrous storms vented their fury on the California coast leaving devastation in their wake. One man’s dream lay in ruins, his auditorium now driftwood on the beach. But Abbot Kinney was unrelenting. He pushed the grand opening back from May until July and hired more than a thousand workers to slave around the clock to rebuild his pier, auditorium and pavilion. Kinney got permission to erect a breakwater to protect his investment. On Windward Avenue framers barely kept ahead of bricklayers erecting walls. It soon became evident that the hotels would not be ready in time, so a vast tent city was thrown together nearby to accommodate expected guests.

Scaffolding was temporarily removed and replaced by patriotic bunting. On July 4 th 1905, fifty years before Disneyland California’s first theme park, Venice of America opened to the public. Yacht racing, concerts, swim races, and fireworks highlighted the many events that impressed the 40,000 spectators. Although some attractions were still unfinished Venice of America was an instant success.

Electric trolley cars from Los Angeles and Santa Monica ran frequently. Visitors marveled at Abbot Kinney’s network of canals, the oVenetian style business center and the enticing pier with its immense auditorium and Ship Cafe.

Tourists got around the resort by miniature steam railroad or gondolas. They could take a camel ride if they preferred. An electric tram that looked like a sofa on wheels whisked people up and down the boardwalk. An orchestra serenaded guests at a 2500-seat amphitheater next to a swimming lagoon with room for five thousand.

 
           
                                         

Founding Father

Venice’s founder, Abbot Kinney was born in 1850 in New Jersey. A world traveler and partner in his brother’s prosperous tobacco company he suffered from asthma and insomnia. While visiting Southern California for the first time, he felt asleep across a billiard table and pronounced himself cured. He had found where he wanted to settle.

He married and by 1886 built a home in Santa Monica where he invested his money wisely. In 1891 Kinney and a partner bought the controlling interest in the Ocean Park Casino, vaudeville theater and restaurant, and purchased a mile and half thousand foot swath of beach extending south of Santa Monica. There they built a beach resort called Ocean Park. His partner’s death and the uncooperative involvement of other investors including Alexander Fraser, lead Kinney to dissolve the partnership. On a coin toss he won the right to choose the property he’d keep. To his partners’ surprise, Kinney picked the undeveloped marshlands toward the south. There he would recreate Venice, Italy on the shores of the Pacific.

Venice was to be a showcase of the "City Beautiful Movement," centered in Boston that planned communities with ample public spaces separating residential neighborhoods from commercial zones. The city’s center was modeled after Venice, Italy's Plaza San Marco, which featured enclosed walkways with colonnades. A network of canals was excavated first by animals and humans, then by steam shovels.

Growth

Roller-skating proved popular in Venice from the start. A skating rink was built that featured a resident roller hockey team. A huge dance hall with space for 800 couples was added to Kinney’s Pier, as was the Venice Aquarium, which became the official marine biology station for the University of Southern California.

Abbot Kinney - photo by Paul M. J. Suchecki  

New attractions kept the visitors coming. A scenic railroad ride next to the pier surrounded viewers with mountainous terrain as they rode through a tunnel. The pier was widened and Kinney added a carousel, Japanese Tea House and restaurant. Other new rides included a Ferris wheel and a boat ride that shot rapids in a winding canal past murals of exotic scenes. An airplane ride glided around 114-foot towers. On the Virginia reel passengers rode in tubs that rotated freely on a sinuous down hill track that ended with a high-speed drop into a darkened tunnel. Guests could bowl, visit a tunnel of love or tour Hades. An ostrich farm and zoological garden joined the amusement park. A 350-passenger boat offered tours of Santa Monica Bay from the pier’s end. Attractions kept being added and updated throughout the pier’s forty-one year life.

Alexander Fraser, Kinney's old partner, was so impressed by Kinney’s success that less than a mile up the coast, he opened his own tourist magnet in 1911, Fraser’s Million Dollar Amusement Pier. It claimed to be the world’s largest with a spacious dance hall, two carousels, the crooked fun house, Grand Electric Railroad, the Starland Vaudeville Theater, Breaker's Restaurant, a heated indoor salt-water plunge and a Panama Canal exhibit.

 
Venice Gondola - photo courtesy Venice Public Library  

Venice’s first bathing beauty contest took place in 1912. During the teens, the town supported a professional baseball franchise and hosted a Grand Prix automobile race attended by 75,000. Ince Field became the first officially designated airport on the west coast in 1914 and was the jumping off point for aerial stunt shows over the beach.

Charlie Chaplain had given birth to the tramp character in ”Kid Auto Races,” shot in Venice. In 1915 he moved into the Penthouse of the newly opened Waldorf Hotel on the boardwalk where some say he lived for five years. The “Doge of Venice” was truly Abbot Kinney. The tobacco magnate lived in the city he founded until his death in 1920 of lung cancer. By then Venice's population had reached 10,385. A few days before Christmas and a month after Kinney’s death, his amusement pier burned to the ground. Venice began a long decline.

   

Decline

The most obvious sign of deterioration was the erosion of the beach itself. The Kinney Pier breakwater had robbed South Venice Beach of its sand supply, exacerbated by a breakwater that Santa Monica erected in 1933 to build a yacht harbor. It took years to correct the problem with sand excavated for the Hyperion Water treatment plant down the coast in El Segundo.

1920 was also the beginning of prohibition. Canadian whiskey was smuggled into Venice from high-powered motorboats that tied up beneath the pier in the wee hours. Tony Cornero, who ultimately built Las Vegas’ Stardust hotel, ran the operation. Tunnels had been constructed from the hotels on Windward Avenue to the beach, since walking along the boardwalk in a bathing suit was considered indecent and prohibited by law. These passages took on a different character after sunset providing a ready supply of liquor to the speakeasies in the hotel basements. Newspapers recounted gun battles between rumrunners and police near the Ocean Park Pier, but most drinking was ignored by bought off cops. In his hard-boiled novels, Raymond Chandler’s used “ Bay City” as a pseudonym for a corrupt town that spanned the coast from Venice to Santa Monica.

In 1922 Venice’s city treasurer, James Peasegood absconded with $22,000 in city funds about a quarter of a million in today's dollars. . Although he ultimately returned the loot, his action was a symptom of a city that had become ungovernable. Without Kinney’s guiding hand, the city was split into factions that stalemated over the simplest issues such as providing residents with enough fresh water. In the fall of 1925 citizens had had it and voted to join the City of Los Angeles.

 
1920's Male Beauty Contest - photo courtesy Venice Public Library

Los Angeles had never been fond of Venice’s loose ways. Upon annexation, the larger city’s Blue Laws took effect. Sunday dancing and games of chance were banned. Pier business suffered. The director of the city’s planning commission declared that no new piers would be built and pulling the rug from a million dollar project,as he laid the groundwork for closing the piers that existed. LA helped itself to Venice’s new fire engine, replacing it with an older model. Venice’s municipal surplus was appropriated like a dowry to build Los Angeles a new city hall downtown. In 1926, Pacific Electric’s Red Cars from Los Angeles were diverted from the heart of Venice to a route that favored Santa Monica.

The twenty-year-old canal network was expensive to maintain and did not always flush as intended. As auto traffic grew, more roads were needed. Los Angeles decided to fill in the

canals over the objection of the locals. After a two-year court battle half the canals and the swimming lagoon were filled in during the summer of 1929. The beginning of the Depression saved Venice’s remaining canals. As the automobile grew in importance, limited road access to Venice took an economic toll.

Since its founding Venice had been a site of overt gambling. The most famous operator was John Harrah. This former Venice Mayor was badly in debt after the stock market crash so with his son Bill he set up a bingo parlor. They kept changing the look of the game to stay ahead of the law. The police shut it down anyway. In frustration, the Harahs fled to Reno where they founded the casino that bears their name

The twenties saw the era of gaming ships. Although gambling was illegal in California, the state’s jurisdiction only extended to a three-mile offshore limit. Operators of floating gambling casinos simply anchored at three miles plus where they provided booze, food and games of chance with subsidized water taxi service from the Venice, Santa Monica and Ocean Park piers. The biggest ship was Tony Cornero’s SS Rex, financed with the help of Bugsy Siegel and George Raft, which operated 24 hours a day hosting thousands of gamblers at once. As California Attorney General, future Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren faced down the hard guys and shuttered the ships.

In 1926 the most famous evangelist of her day, Aimee Semple McPherson, disappeared while swimming in the ocean in front of her Venice hotel. Airplanes and divers were called into the search. One lifeguard drowned trying to find her. A few days after her memorial service, she reappeared with a fantastic tale of kidnapping. After her accounts proved contradictory, charges were filed against her for corruption of public morals, manufacturing evidence, and falsifying police reports. Like a twenties Martha Stewart the public’s fascination with her only grew greater. Ultimately the District Attorney was forced to drop all charges.

A month after the stock market crashed in 1929, oil was discovered in Venice. The financially stressed community was gripped by black gold fever. 148 wells sprouted on the Venice Peninsula. Although the bonanza produced wealth for some, the quality of neighborhood life plummeted, as the area grew ugly and dangerous. Where Kinney had envisioned strains of classical music wafting through the air, the stink of petrol now invaded. An explosion destroyed one rig and the only school on the peninsula was closed to protect the children’s safety. Waste was dumped directly into the canal and the beach was turned into an oil company sewer. By the end of 1942 the wells had pumped more than forty seven million barrels, but production played out. The last working rig in Venice shut down in the 1990’s.

Low lying Venice has always had to cope with floods, in 1915, 1916, 1938 and 1983. In 1916 twenty-eight houses were swept into the sea. The March flood in 1938 was one of the worse forcing the evacuation of thousands and bringing water back to the filled in canals.

       
 
Pennisula Oil Field - photo courtesy Venice Public Library
     

World War II brought nighttime blackouts, putting an end to after dark recreation along the coast. National Guardsmen patrolled the beaches scanning for enemy ships. Southern California’s jumpiness was captured in Steven Spielberg’s “1941.” During the day, sailors and soldiers on leave enjoyed the piers dancing to James and Benny Goodman at the Ocean Park Casino. In 1944 the curfew was lifted.

Anticipating a renewal of business, the Kinney Company revamped its pier. But in 1946 its lease expired and city of LA ordered its dismantling. In the 1950’s LA chose the car over transit and killed the electric trolleys. Access to the Venice Beach had constricted.

During the 1950’s the Ocean Park and adjacent Lick Pier tried to revitalize themselves. The Lawrence Welk band was brought to the Aragon Ballroom for shows broadcast by KTLA-TV. Within a year, Welk became a national celebrity. The pier redid itself as nautical theme park and remained open until1967 when creditors seized its assets. Along the local coast, only one amusement pier was left, the Santa Monica, which has survived storms and setbacks to this day.

In the fifties a new group of residents moved into Venice attracted by cheap rents and local tolerance of their unconventional lifestyles. Writers like Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski called Venice home. The beat generation hung out at the Gas House and Venice West Café where they held poetry readings and listened to jazz or folk. LA’s heavy hand welcomed the new arrivals with vice raids, drug arrests and fire department citations for overcrowded bars and coffee houses.

In 1957, a huge construction project grew on county wetlands cutting through Avenue 58 on the Venice Peninsula, the building of Marina del Rey. By 1962 MDR was the largest pleasure boat harbor in the world, home to 6500 boats and thousands of residents in modern housing that made Venice look seedy.

 

By the mid-sixties Venice was in a state of decay. LA recognized a need for urban renewal but went about it the wrong way, instituting a policy where all buildings had to be upgraded to current building standards or face demolition. Five hundred and fifty historic buildings were torn down before a lawsuit halted Venice’s mass destruction. For a while locals as described the community as “where the debris meets the sea.”

In 1965 the Venice Municipal Fishing pier was built, giving many city residents a taste of nature. In 1983 the on ramp was shattered by surf. It took years of local lobbying to find enough money to repair and reopen this last Venice Pier.

When the beats moved out the hippies moved in. Rock groups like “The Doors” shared houses along the then decrepit canals. Locals were starting to complain about pot smoking panhandlers along Ocean Front walk. In April 1967, 14,000 flower children gathered for a love-in on the beach that was broken up by riot police.

Rebirth

Muscle Beach in the heart of Venice was originally located two miles north in Santa Monica where it helped create the image of bodybuilding as a sport. In the seventies it moved to Venice, where it became the home of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu, next to the basketball courts made popular in Wesley Snipes’ movie “White Men Can’t Jump.”

The invention of polyurethane skate wheels led to Venice’s comback in the seventies. Los Angeles’ mayor Tom Bradley declared Venice “The Roller Skating Capital of the World.” Entrepreneurs were soon making thousands a week from skate rentals., while others were honing their extreme strunt skills on skate boards.

 
                                               
Boardwalk Bongos photo by Paul M. J. Suchecki

The T shirt hawkers and sunglass sellers moved in next. With the crowds came street performers. Word soon spread that topless sunbathing was allowed on the beach north of Windward but the crush of tourists proved so enthusiastic that the LA’s City Council voted to ban the practice.

Between 1979-1981 Venice mural art thrived under the direction of Terry Schoonhaven and his Fine Arts Squad. Many still stand, from “Starry Night” to “The Fall of Icarus.” The murals were prominently featured in Steve Martin’s movie “LA Story.”

In 1984 both the men and women’s Olympic Marathon ran through Venice. Other coverage brought the community to a world television audience that saw the sidewalk circus of street performers, musicians, chain saw jugglers, near nudists and fortunetellers.

In the 1990’s Oakwood, the poor section of Venice, became a crack supermarket with drive up service. Venice Beach became a hangout for inner city black gangs. On hot summer Sundays thousands would gather along Ocean Front Walk with confrontations occasionally flaring. In 1993 fifty youths tore up the place. Police shut both beach and boardwalk and calm has largely reigned since.

During the last ten years, Venice has become more upscale. The long overdue renovation of the canals in 1994 prompted land values to soar. The boardwalk was renovated in 2000. The site of the old Venice oil field is now the Silver Strand filled with multi-million dollar homes. Mark Twain’s adage resonates when it comes to prime Venice Beachfront property, “ Buy Land cause they ain’t making any more of it.” Rent is now beyond the reach of many artists and bohemians who had given this place its character. Celebrities like Nicholas Cage and Julia Roberts moved in as old timers complained, “There goes the neighborhood.” Parking got worse and Sunday traffic is now impassible. Still Abbot Kinney’s dream lives on. It’s one of few places in Los Angeles where walking and bike riding are better ways to get around than driving. A glorious three-mile beach unfolds for surfers, swimmers and the Olympic distance Los Angeles Triathlon which begins with a swim around today’s pier. It has a diverse population including Hare Krishnas who still on their annual Festival of the Chariots on the boardwalk. Most importantly, a person with a modest income can still find a home half a block from a spectacular Southern California beach. The street that now bears the founders name, Abbot Kinney Blvd., is the center of Venice’s thriving arts and cultural scene. For more than twenty years, his memory has been honored each September with a festival.

Skating Seventies Style - Photo by Paul M. J. Suchecki