Poster by Earl Newman
By Pano Douvos
The Golden Age of Venice for me was the late 60’s and through most of the 70’s. The highlight was the glorious Venice Canals Festival. The free-wheeling “open house” celebration captured the spirit of that special time. It epitomized the arts ferment and the counter-culture activism. Jim Morrison and the Doors set the tone playing on the boardwalk at the Cheetah, a large hall with a dramatic 20-30 foot high wine-colored curtain.
To get the visuals, you see artistically decorated quarters, red canoes, multi-colored ducks, in brilliant sunshine and clean sea air. There’s at least four canals and maybe eight picturesque bridges. Now add a swirling band of open friendly people. That mix would be my cottage-renting friends Rick Sinatra, Osah Harmon and Danielle Greco. Mary Lou Johnson owned her house and succeeded in holding out against all buyers.
The Venice Canals Festivals were a festive time for sure, the many diverse activities difficult to encapsulate. The celebrations held in late summer I believe for 4-5 years in the late 70’s, covered a 3 or 4 day period. The original canal summer cottages had been rented, then fixed up into a bohemian low-rent haven. Chianti wine and recreational drugs flowed. Every other cottage became a mini-band stand or art gallery, that’s with ducks…(and their contributions).
I experienced Venice as a mostly a laid back, if lively place. The only riot I saw was a police riot on a July 4th holiday some 10 to 15 years ago. An out of control cop was waving his gun around. He had this black kid handcuffed and pinned down on his stomach on the boardwalk. He suddenly just hauls-off and boots the kid on the side of his head…forget that he was surrounded by a crowd of beach-goers.
I moved into inner-Venice when I joined the Venice Beyond Baroque Poetry Workshop and later wrote with the staff on the Free Venice Beachhead. The poets I met include Tom Waits and Wanda Coleman. I later became acquainted with John Doe and Exene Cervenka of the Band X. I sculpted a portrait-bust of Exene…at the Beachhead Arnold Springer was the most equal among equals. Those writing and contributing on the staff were Chuck Bloomquist, Moe Stavnezer, Olga Palo, Osan Harman and myself amongst other.
A “small village” atmosphere flavored Venice at the time. People walked, talked, made art, music and love, not war. Individualists in free-expression mode continue to congregate but the “bump-into-friends” aspect may have changed some and shifted, but the vitality remains.
Venice was being re-energized by the creative artists, musicians and poets who began to gather at John Haag’s Venice West Café. Important Beat-Poets such as Jack Hirshman and Stewart Perkoff read their work. In scattered studios artists Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price, De Wayne Valentine, Fred Eversley and Ed Gilliam were completing prime sculpture and paintings.
Hot hangouts formed at the boardwalk’s Sidewalk Café, the Earth Rose Headshop of poet Steve Richmond and at the La Fayette Café. The spacious Gas House Coffee Shop was memorable for its energetic paintings, plus the dude reclining on pillows in the decorated bath tub, serenely reading his book…(The Gas House was torn down ages ago.)
Happening spots in Golden Age Venice included live music at the Come Back Inn on West Washington, now Abbot Kinney. Across the street was the perfect home for rhythm and blues in a righteous wood floored down and dirty establishment, the Taurus Tavern. It should be a historical landmark, but it is a chichi restaurant.
A living landmark is Swami X. He was a longtime feature standing on the benches down on the boardwalk. He presided for years, offering his very clever material of a radical political and lusty-vibe kind. He peppered his delivery with the attack humor of a stand-up comic. Today he sometimes contributes, mainly poetry, to the Beachhead.
I was introduced to the aura of Venice at the Church-in-Ocean Park at a performance night. Goldie Glitters was the transvestite master of ceremonies, on stage bare to the waist with a jewel in his navel. He later was chosen Homecoming Queen at Santa Monica college.
At neighboring Synanon, a large drug-rehab center, Saturday nights were music concert nights. The music-heavy clients formed top-notch groups and rocked. The nights were always well attended. One client told me that I didn’t know life if I had never been down in “Junky Hell.”
Bill Attaway is a hard-working Venice artist currently producing large 20 foot tall ceramic sculptures, with a totem-like piece recently located near the beach west of Windward Ave. One day he allowed me to assist him by adding a small ceramic piece to a large wall mosaic he installed near Muscle Beach. He continues the Venice art heritage, as does my long-time friend Emily Winters, well noted for her large wall murals which can be seen in several prominent locations. She is an activist citizen of Venice and a stabilizing force as chairman of the Venice Arts Council.
Bravos here go to Steve Clare for his commitment to his low-cost housing efforts and also to Jim Smith for his Beachhead and political organizing efforts. Also kudos for Arnold Springer and Moe Stavnezer who forced the builder into including needed low-cost housing and inside parking in the building I live in. They’re to be commended for their long-time Venice activism.
I great picture of the people and history of Venice can be found in the book “Call Someplace Paradise” by Pat Hartman. It can be ordered at Small-World Books or through www.Xlibris.com. Hartman’s book is chock full of engrossing anecdotes of Venice and its spirited locals. I could have been one of her characters, but she failed to record my participation in the Venice Nude-Beach scene (of the early 70’s if I remember right.)
Possibly the counter-culture community changes, but Venetian Veteranos remain to fight the good fight, thus sustaining the uniqueness of Venice. A June KCET Program on beaches gave a national Number One rating to the Venice “Mardi-Gras” Boardwalk and Beach.
The Venice Canals Festivals were shut down by the powers-that-be in one big misguided change. The festival was a beautiful sharing time in a beautiful setting. A vision of a better future. We memorialize the past 100 years, but the future also needs tending.
Venetians could be catalysts for change to a cooperative, peaceful society. Women could influence their sisters to get out of the Army…then influence the testosterone tribe to say no to war. We won’t go. Conflict resolution by arbitration will stop war senselessness. Venice America can be the small-acorn start of a Venice Sunshine Festival for all the world.
This is a re-print from the July 2005 issue