By Sam Schatz
I moved to Venice when I was 17 years old from freezing cold Pennsylvania. It was the weather, the ocean, and the bohemian lifestyle that made me fall in love with this little part of Los Angeles. Back in the early 70’s Venice was the bohemian nexus of Southern California, much like the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco was to Northern California.
During those days, many small California bungalows were for rent. These small homes were originally built as beach homes for people who lived inland. Most of these bungalows were laid out in a plot or two of land in a rectangle grid like configuration, two rows of 3 or more bungalows from street side towards the back of the lot in a row with a strip of grass lawn separating the two rows of bungalows. Due to the proximity of each bungalow, neighbors would get to know one another well. The rent was $85 to $95 per month. I remember a single family home on Millwood Ave. and Palms Blvd. selling for $16,000 to $18,000. A larger corner house sold for $28,0000. Those were the days.
I lived on California Avenue about a block from West Washington Blvd. (now known as Abbot Kinney Ave.) with my sister, Amy, in 1973. I ended up living in Venice for the next 25 or more years. The local public library was at the corner of California and Electric Ave. Also, at this time, the “Babe Brandelis Brig” bar was owned and run by the ex-boxer Babe, and his wife Betty. I knew the Brandelis’ pretty well. Obviously, Abbot Kinney has changed a lot.
Generally, Venice was home for artists, hippies and a good contingent of the gay and lesbian community. Everyone commingled and got along pretty well. In the early seventies, there were drugs, bikers and gang activity. However, all of these elements were what made this area exotic and alluring.
A very interesting area was the canals. The homes there now are 3 story modern designs that cost millions for someone to own. The canals have been dredged, manicured and detailed. In the old days, bungalows dominated the canal area since the canals were filled with sediment and were mildly odiferous from lack of maintenance. Every year, there was a large multi-block “block party” known as “The Canal Festival.” Everyone opened their homes for the long weekend party. There were bands and dancing. Artists would display their pieces as people would gather to party, people- watch, and enjoy. I’ll never forget someone made a lot of real grain alcohol at 150 plus proof. That was a first for me. Another first for me was when my friend and I asked this beautiful peacock feather and other elaborate accessories decked transsexual if we could use his restroom. The transsexual owner of the home was leaving and told us, “No problem, go in the door and down the hall.” My friend and I were from a conservative town and had never been exposed to gay people. As we approached the bathroom door, we stopped and glanced into a bedroom to our left. There was a large orgy in progress and the participants beckoned us to join upon noticing our arrival. We kind of freaked out and fled from the house and into the afternoon. As I lived, interacted, and made many friends over the years of different races and in the gay world, my homophobia dissipated.
Six months after arriving in Venice, I met Rosa, a wonderfully wild Italian gypsy dancer. Some of you old timers may remember her. We fell for each other and I rented a great large studio apartment right on Ocean Front Walk near Clubhouse. I built a platform bed above the front door. There was a large radius window at the head of the bed. I painted over the window and left an oval porthole unpainted so that we could peer out upon the ocean and people.
Rosa was an amazing dancer and all the people at the beach loved her. There was a group of conga drum players that would gather at the pagodas and pound their tribal beats all afternoon. Rosa made friends with the group and would dance. Sometimes, some of her exotic friends would join in the dancing. Rosa was not into wearing a lot of clothes and she definitely didn’t wear underwear. Eventually, as Rosa danced on the Venice Boardwalk, many people would stop and watch her dance. A hat would be passed around, and it was because of Rosa’s dancing that the era of the Venice beach performance art was born.
Historically, the beach area had its share of physical and political changes. When I arrived in Venice, the old “POP” Pacific Ocean Park pier was mostly burnt down. The pier was located where Ocean Park Blvd. meets the beach and a bit south. Every weekend more of pier was burner. The dog town boys would surf there and after a few years, I got to know them personally, and especially Bobby Biniac. It was due to my association with the Dog Town Boys that I was allowed to surf at the old pier. To surf at the burnt pier was dangerous because there were burned out posts sticking out all over the place. Eventually they cleaned up the debris and pulled all the posts out.
Around 1974, a section of the Venice Beach, from the Windward breakwater to the next breakwater south of Rose Ave., became known was the “Nude Beach,” a mecca for nudists, straight, gay and lesbian beach goers. This was a wonderful summer with lots of afternoon sunshine, good body surfing waves, and great camaraderie amongst a diverse group of people.
The area of sand covering this part of the beach is very wide from the water to the walkway. This area was relatively remote, so it was perfect for nudist activity. If my memory serves me correctly, I believe the nude beach may have carried on into the summer of 1975. The demise of the nude beach started with the voyeurs. The voyeurs, mostly fully clothed men, would perch and leer at the women. Then some of the nudists got very comfortable with their state of undress and walked to the liquor stores naked! Obviously this was not good. The police and lifeguards had to be commended though. Through this “nude beach” period, the police were very professional and ignored the nudity while still protecting the public. At times, the waves would get so big, some of the nudists, including Rosa, had to be rescued by the county lifeguards. However, like all good things, the nudist beach came to an end as the city council decreed that the nude beach was not legal.
Nonetheless, the 70s were good times in Venice.