Venice used to be great and it is pretty cool now but when Jim Morrison and I lived there together it was a rat flavored garbage dump featuring expired truck tires, headless Barbie dolls and aged condoms floating in the half dehydrated canals.
This, in exhausted neighborhoods too played out to even support drug dealers. That was 50 years ago and now it’s LA beach-chic but there is little to differentiate it now from the adjacent communities except perhaps for the high concentration of good looking roller-skaters who jiggle along the strand when the weather is good—which is generally always.
A hundred years ago the beaches from San Diego to Malibu were simply mad for amusement parks which sprouted from the piers with their houses-of-mirrors, freak shows, games of chance and thrill rides. It seemed like every town with pier and a pool laid claim to have the biggest of whatever it featured. Venice was right in the midst of this and really did outdo its neighbors because in this case they came by their hyperbole legitimately. It was the Disneyland of its day. Venice had six miles of canals with gondolas that had come along with their gondoliers from the real Venice.
The developers built three piers including one 1,200 footer along with a 2,800 seat auditorium, a ship-shaped restaurant and a gargantuan dance hall. There was a heated salt-water pool called The Plunge and a vibrant business street arcade with Venetian architecture. A half sized steam train chugged around the town taking revelers to and from their rented cottages or tent villages.
There were six other piers within a few miles of Venice but none as grand as this complex with its spectacular rides like the Dragon Slide down which you were hurled in a spiral bamboo chute with only a gunnysack between you and a life-altering splinter. You could ride an ostrich, shoot real bullets at targets or lose your lunch on one of the three roller coasters.
There were beauty contests of all sorts, even for 3-year old girls (nothing new here). There were animal acts, magic shows and dancing all night long. Hundreds of thousands of visitors came in the summer to Venice to frolic, cavort and gambol about.
The Plunge manager and movie stuntman Jack Cox liked to manifest his penchant for the spectacular by donning what he called his chicken-suit, soaking it in kerosene and, using a stage pistol’s flame, light himself on fire as he leaped from the high dive into the pool.
Ever the showman and always willing to up his game, Jack’s decided to leap from a low flyng airplane, in flames, into the ocean. This was a fellow truly dedicated to his craft. People cheered mightily but they never did recover his body. Jack’s ability to calculate all the risks was seriously deficient but the pilot wasn’t going to joining Mensa anytime soon.
The world’s fairs in Chicago, San Diego and San Francisco demonstrated John and Jane Q. Public’s lust for colossal waterside amusements and it was these fairs that spurred the success of the more permanent playgrounds which popped up at the beaches wherever there was enough sand and a trolley system to get people to it.
By the Depression these parks began to decline until they looked much like old ladies on bus benches with their teeth floating loose and their stockings rolled down to their ankles. In a sad turn of events the founders of the amusement park at Venice petitioned to be annexed by the City of Los Angeles and then later the LA City Council decided that these piers were an unsightly blight and failed to renew the lease; so the grand piers in Venice were closed. These parks were a big deal for people before AC and TV. Back then people used to go outside to have conversations and to cool off. Imagine that.
I can feel the city father’s pain at the sight of the frolicking unwashed masses stomping on the beaches and peeing in the ocean. Those damn poor—just everywhere! The City of Los Angeles forced the closure of the amusement park at Venice because it drew the wrong element and “cluttered” the environment. But just a few years later oil was discovered in Venice and the LA city fathers readjusted their views on what constituted urban blight when 450 oil wells popped up on the water’s edge.
As the amusement parks were boarded up they became far more interesting to the local kids than when they had been open. We used to break into the abandoned aquarium in Hermosa Beach in the 50s. I had an unmemorable visit there when it was operating but there was something about the illegal entry that transformed it into a magical place. It was positively engineered for adventuresome kids. The bored fish had abandoned the unconvincingly decorated tanks but there was plenty of splendid stuff to pillage. We found an emporium of things we thought we could sell but were dismayed to discover that ancient fire extinguishers were hard to fence. I was about eleven when I got caught coming out of the aquarium by the cops who made such a big deal out of it. I had to report to the police station with my mother where the sergeant attempted to terrorize me with threats of doing hard time in the big house. The sweaty constable even stuck me in a jail for a few minutes to ‘give me taste.’ A talented artist had been a previous occupant and he had frescoed pencil sketches on the walls and ceiling of such shocking obscenity and weirdness that the memory of the artistry still thrills me sixty years on. Jail was much more fun than the aquarium.
Back in the day, a summer day, the sweltering hordes would pile aboard the Red Line trolley to go out to the beach. Keep in mind that Los Angeles and the main centers of population were dozens of miles inland and this transit system was cheap and reliable. Standard Oil, GM and Firestone thought that folks should ride the less efficient but vastly more profitable (for them) busses and cars so they conspired to exterminate these electric streetcars. They bought the entire trolley system and the land under it and shut it down. When the conspirators were dragged into court and found guilty they were fined a total of $7.00, yes seven U.S. dollars. They were given a stern warning to stop what they were doing but by then the rails were gone. They split the fine three ways no doubt. Now the estimated cost to just acquire the right of way of this long gone system would be at least a half a trillion with another half tril to build it.
The beach denizens peopling The Strand haven’t changed much in the last few decades. A tan muscleman in a pink thong plays an unplugged electric guitar cruising by on rollerblades. A guy hammers nails up his nose as he jitterbugs on broken glass pleading for spare change (who carries change?). A woman wearing homemade clothes made of tinfoil sells expired wall calendars and barks about aliens. You know, a day at the beach.
Now there is a terrific uptick in homelessness encampments along the beach where scrounging stuff has reached high art status. Humm, maybe this would be a good time to unload some antique fire extinguishers.
“Pssst, hey, meet me out back; I have some fire extinguishers with your name on them.”