By Marty Liboff
When I tell people I grew up on the Ocean Front they always say, “You must have seen a lot changes?!” Well, I sure have … I will write some personal memories for you of old Ocean Park and Venice in coming months. I thought I’d start with old Windward Ave.
As a young man, Abbot Kinney traveled to Italy and Egypt and was captivated by the architecture. He tried to recreate these wonders in Venice and nearby Ocean Park. In 1905 he built a great amusement pier and miles of canals that started in a large bay where the Venice Circle is today. He put a small train that started at Windward and ran around the canals. There was a tram that ran along Ocean Front Walk from Windward to the Santa Monica Pier, it ran until the 70s. The Venice pier was being demolished when I was born and much of the canals were filled in, but Windward Ave. and the adjacent streets still looked like old Venice Italy when I was a kid.
One gem of Abbot’s was his grand Saint Mark’s Hotel. Most think the building with the great murals and deli is the St.Marks, but when I was young this was only the small back annex. The beautiful headed pillars and walkway that are still there in the remaining buildings, lined Windward and the surrounding streets, making a wonderful walkway protecting visitors from the rain and sun. Shops lined both sides. As a small child in the early 1950s, I loved to wander along the archways. The St.Marks had amazing winged lions above guarding Kinney’s palace. There was a drug store in front and I loved an old 5 and 10 cent store my mom would take me to for her sewing supplies that had a wonderful rack of 10 cent toys. I ventured there often when I could get my greedy hands on a dime. In 1958, Orson Welles made his movie, “Touch of Evil” and used the Windward area at night, pretending it was Tijuana Mexico!
Venice went into a decline after the city forced the closure of the pier in 1947, but was still a vibrant community. My mom used to say that when the city made them close the bingo parlors the money left the beach. In the late 1950s, Venice had a revival of sorts with artists and beatniks moving in. John and Anna Haag opened their beat hangout, the Venice West Cafe on Dudley Ave. The beatniks rented one of of the old Venice style buildings near Windward on the Ocean Front and called it the Gas House. It was real cool man, and it was like a gas, dig it? It was a communal happening of like crazy beat artists. In the front display windows I especially loved some small sculptures of people in different settings. One had a group of little men sitting at a table playing poker. It was a nice era for Venice. Rents were cheap and artists flocked here. Later the hippies slowly replaced the beatniks and another new time came.
Our city politicians hated those dirty beats and hippies. Even then they were trying to gentrify Venice. In 1962 they condemned the fabulous St.Marks and the Gas House and soon condemned many other of Abbot’s marvelous buildings. Santa Monica had already torn down most of old Ocean Park and planned dozens of high rises along the beach. L.A. also wanted to redevelop old Venice and get rid of the poor and the hippies. Much of old Venice around Windward was torn down.
One good thing that came with the Venice redevelopment was building the Venice Pavilion in the early 1960s on the beach side of Windward. It had a large covered auditorium and an outdoor stage and various athletic venues. For several years they had various shows, from my pal Joseph’s amazing electrified oud music (an Arabic lute) with sexy belly dancers, to blues and reggae shows. I even saw our own Harry Perry’s band playing there. By the 1980s the homeless called the Pavilion home and the city soon decided to demolish it.
Today Venice is very much alive, but we sadly only see a tiny fraction of Abbot Kinney’s magic kingdom or even the Venice and Ocean Park of my youth…
(For more history read; Venice Ca.’Coney Island of the Pacific’, by Jeffrey Stanton)