What can you say about Venice Beach? To me it has always been a city divided. There is the achingly cool, eco-friendly, artistically and socially progressive Abbot Kinney Boulevard (named after the founder of Venice), with its beautiful solar paneled homes, cutting edge-restaurants and wealthy, young families. And then there is the Venice Beach in evidence on Ocean Front Walk, that long boardwalk that runs parallel to the sprawling sea. This Venice is darker and grittier, a carnival where surfers, street-people, and artistic souls play bongos in circles, or display vivid paintings for sale, or tell fortunes to tourists. You can see people clustered in groups on the balconies of run-down apartment houses, playing guitars, taking a hit from bongs and sleeping in hammocks.
My friend and I go to the Ocean Front Walk on a Saturday afternoon. We get some delicious freshly made donuts (a man with a beaded beard had offered to share some with us if we sat in his lap, but we declined) and go in search of what remains of the Gas House. At first we think it is a Pot Clinic, but we then decide on a Venice Palazzo style building that now houses Big Daddy's Pizza and other shops. It looked a lot like historical pictures of the Gas House, and had been designated by certain blogs as the correct site.
It is not until I delved further into my research that I discover that the building we photographed so studiously had not housed the Gas House. The Gas House was torn down in 1962. It is now a parking lot and a row of kiosks where bikes are rented and incense sold. I had unknowingly parked right behind it, paying $10 for the privilege to stroll amongst the spectacle. The fact that I had not found what I was looking for could not have been more perfect. The patrons and occasional residents of the Gas House were beatniks, who didn't really believe in answers, or homes or a destination. They believed in experience. And 50+ years later, the Venice boardwalk is nothing if not an experience.
A Slum by the Sea
"Venice West may be a lousy slum, but it's a fine place for artists to create." --Lawrence Lipton 1
"I'm trying to establish a new cultural center. It's only cost me a couple thousand dollars." --Attny. Al Matthews, financial backer of the Gas House 2
By the end of World War Two, the grand dream resort of Abbot Kinney had sunk into a purgatory of dilapidation and disrepair. Kinney had built the "Venice of America" at the booming turn of the century, filling his seaside village with lovely cottages, manmade canals dotted with gondolas, and a block of arcaded palazzo buildings in the style of Venice, Italy. One of the buildings built in this style in 1905 was at 1501 Ocean Front Walk. Over the years it had been a high-end drug store, a spacious bar, and a bingo parlor, and finally, a home for the homeless men who were increasingly calling the sand-swept promenade home.
Venice had always had a shady side. Like any tourist town where amusement is paramount, shifty things had been going on at 1501 Ocean Front for decades. The site had been cited for illegal gambling at least three times in 1928, 1934, and 1943. The 1928 bust had involved a dart game, played by over 85 people, that had been run by John Dobson, who lived at the nearby St. Marks Hotel.
After the war, all the amusement seemed to fully drain out of Venice. The beachfront was an area filled with pensioners, bums, and addicts, and nobody would have bet on it becoming the center of a cultural movement anytime soon. But for a group of dissatisfied, searching young men and women, the low rent and squalid glamour of Venice was just what they were looking for. By the early to mid-50s, women with smoky eyes and men wearing jeans and sandals were moving into the cheap apartment hotels that surrounded the boardwalk, living on little but money and ideals.
The "Beat Generation," inspired by the writings of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and others, had already colonized in several neighborhoods, most prominently Greenwich Village in New York City, and North Beach in San Francisco. What exactly was Beat? Critics called it a "cult of nothingness" 3 filled with drug addicts, pretentious deadbeats, and trust fund brats. They mocked its use of slang, many of which are still in use today -- pad, square, hung up, scene. Kerouac defined the Beat as "beaten down," but also seeking or filled with "beatitude." Those within the movement spoke of a disdain for material culture and sexual norms, the desire for freedom of expression, and a focus on individuality and finding one's own way. Personal exploration through jazz, eastern religion, spoken poetry and expressionistic art was popular. Beats congregated at fully integrated coffee houses and nightclubs, including San Francisco's Hungry i, where comedians like Mort Sahl performed groundbreaking sets.
The Hungry i was founded by a 6'7" bear of a man who called himself Eric "Big Daddy" Nord. Since the early '50s, this charming original hipster, who used a giant tricycle for transportation and wore a sea captain hat cocked on his head, had run the Beat scene in North Beach. Always starting a new club, promoting a new scene, or giving readings of his own poetry or Ovid on stage, he had been dubbed by journalist Herb Caen as "The King of North Beach." Caen was the same man who coined the term "beatnik" in 1958, combining sputnik and the "beat generation" to describe Nord and his friends. In many ways, the invention of the caricature of the bearded, bongo loving, black turtle neck wearing "beatnik" signaled the beginning of the end for the Beat way of life.
According to Mort Sahl: "The Beat Generation thrives on the fact that it is uncommon. Once they become common they are no longer Beat. Success will spoil the Beat Generation because they can't cope with it." 4
By the end of 1958, Eric Nord was feeling the heat. He had been hounded ruthlessly by the police in San Francisco and, after a conviction for endangering a minor, he decided to split. He arrived in Venice where liberal, renegade attorney Al Matthews was itching to start an artistic showcase. He leased the former Bingo Parlor at 1501 Ocean Walk and brought on Nord as the official greeter/manager. Named the Gas House, it immediately became the scene for Venice's beatnik community, which was growing at a breakneck speed, on account of the writer (and father of James Lipton, host of "Inside the Actors Studio") Lawrence Lipton's 1959 book, "The Holy Barbarians." Lipton's tome was multifaceted -- part history of SoCal Beat culture, part tourist guide, and part How-To guide with a glossary of slang and pictures of real-live Beats. In it, the 61-year-old Lipton stated about this predominantly youthful movement:
Our barbarians come bearded and sandaled, and they speak and write in a language that is not the language of conventional usage. This is not, as it was at the turn of the century, the expatriates in flight from New England gentility and bluenose censorship. It is not the anti-Babbitt caper of the twenties. Nor the politically oriented alienation of the thirties. The present generation has taken note of all these and passed on beyond them to a total rejection to the whole society, and that, in present-day America, means the business civilization. The alienation of the hipsters from the squares is now complete.
Of course, since all Beats seemed to know each other, Lipton was brought on as "director of entertainment" at the Gas House. Today we might see the Gas House as almost an avant garde community center. According to Al Matthews: "The premises are being used for the free expression of talented artists in the peaceful pursuit of happiness." 5 Happiness entailed a jukebox, poetry readings, jazz shows, and conceptual art experiences, space where artists could drink coffee and cider, paint, share work, play the piano, sleep and eat food, bought with money from a tip jar that chef/poet John Thomas called "trash fish." According to a profile on this "drafty hive" in the L.A. Times:
Large expressionistic paintings made up one wall, more paintings, sculpture and work benches along another, a sort of do-it-yourself kitchen dominated by can openers, and a balcony where the beatniks used to have their pads (they moved to a hotel). In a place of honor near the entrance was a gay, painted bath tub and in the work area beatniks were making good their offer to paint garbage cans for all comers. 6
The Gas House and other nearby scenes like Venice West were soon flooded with the semi-famous and the semi-starving. Tourists, their curiosity sparked by Lipton's book, also began appearing in Venice in droves, hoping to spot a real-live beatnik. But trouble came almost immediately to this supposed Utopia. The staid squares who made up the rest of Venice's population were not happy with the attention or the noise produced by the Gas House. The stage was quickly set for a Square/Hipster explosion.
Thou Shalt Not Bug Thy Neighbor
"The world just can't stand the sound of bongo drums. Think of the good that could be brought with bongo drums pounding out a message of peace. But, people are afraid of bongos. The sound of bongos would be better than the beep-beep-beep of inter-stellar hardware." --Eric Nord 7
"The beat people just about drove us crazy! And if you think sleeping with earplugs is fun, try it sometime" --Mrs. Robert Swan 8
Although Nord insisted that the first house rule of the Gas House was "Thou shalt not bug thy neighbor," his neighbors, many of them elderly, were immediately quite bugged. Surrounding residents told of all-night parties, drinking, drug use, couples hooking up on the beach, and interracial interaction. Police, alerted by frustrated neighbors and already wary of the Beats and "artists" in general, were soon a near-constant presence at the Gas House. To try and combat what they saw as harassment, the Gas House applied for an entertainment license in the summer of 1959. As it stood, simply having one person standing on stage and speaking constituted a "show" that could be broken up by the police. An entertainment license would fix all that.
Besides the police, the Beats' main opponent in obtaining the license was the Venice Civic Union, a group of concerned Venice property owners led by President Alfred Roberts. Roberts was very peeved. He claimed Venice residents didn't "want that kind of trash in our area," and believed vehemently that the Beats and the press coverage they received were ruining the property values and way of life of Venice and surrounding beach cities. At a meeting of property owners, he preached: "We've got to get on our feet and scream and get these people out of here." 9 To skirt the "one person" law at a retaliatory meeting held at the Gas House, a recorded poem written by Lipton was played with jazz accompaniment, as around 200 Beats listened. It was called "Funky blues for all squares, creeps and cornballs." 10
A series of police commission hearings began in August of 1959. The Beats were represented by ACLU lawyer A.L. Wirrin ("bearded," according to the L.A. Times). On August 28, around 500 people, including many Gas House regulars, packed the Police Facilities Building downtown to hear testimony. Beats camped in the hall outside the hearings and displayed their artwork which "included a tree branch carved in the shape of a human being, sticks, and strings arrayed in an old trunk lid in shadow box effect, and gaily painted garbage cans." Gas House regular, Julie Meredith, sang protest songs. From the start the hearings were quite a comical circus, if one put aside the very real issue of freedom of speech vs. residents rights.
At the August 28 hearing, a man named Michael Kelly told presiding Officer Thomas Mulherin that he had been recruited by Alfred Roberts to go undercover at the Gas House. He had dressed as a beatnik and had seen what he thought was wine and beer being passed around. He confirmed it was spirits by drinking it. He also claimed to have seen nude models at the Gas House (since Nord's art often consisted of painting nude females and then pressing them against a canvas, this is not surprising). When asked how long he had stayed on this occasion, Kelly answered: "One and one half months." The audience began to laugh and he quickly corrected himself. He had only stayed fifteen minutes but had worked the "case" for one and a half months. After a recess Kelly complained a man named Irwin Smith had harassed him. Irwin said he had not harassed him, but he had certainly called him a "fink." 11
A parade of mostly elderly citizens from neighboring apartments listed their grievances, some serious and some comical. One woman, who had kept a diary of incidents, recounted a girl running from the Gas House screaming "I'm afraid," and a woman banging on Gas House doors early one morning yelling "I want my man." Other neighbors told of drunken and drugged patrons, and a drum circle that lasted from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. until it was broken up by the police. One curious visitor was disgusted when she went to investigate the Gas House "and saw a bathtub in the middle of it with a man just sitting in it. Just sitting in it!" Another lady, Mrs. Mabel Hardy, complained of the 1933 hearse that the Gas House used for transportation. "A lot of us are old and don't feel very good," Mabel explained, "and that hearse doesn't make us feel any better." 12
The Beats could be just as ridiculous. At one hearing Lipton was told that as "director of entertainment" it was his responsibility to keep "undesirables out" of his club. Lipton returned with a homemade "electronic doorman" robot named Duhab (detector of undesirable habitués). He claimed it would fetter out all "teenage werewolves, dope addicts, sex fiends, subversives, alcoholics, and homosexuals (male and female) and members of the Venice Civic Union." 13
A grim undercurrent of racism that ran under these proceedings bubbled to the surface. Mabel Hardy claimed "half the men there [at The Gas House] are colored and white beats are walking around with them arm in arm." Claims of unsanctioned racial integration and his general annoyance with the Beats led Mulherin to publicly denounce Lipton, telling him he didn't think he "knew the meaning of the word moral." Lipton and the Beats walked out in protest. Gas House attorney Al Wirrin petitioned to have Mulherin removed as head examiner, but was denied. They also presented a petition of over 2,000 Venice residents, including Stan Laurel, who supported the Gas House.
In December, 1959, Mulherin denied the Gas House an entertainment license. He stated his reasons in his report:
- Some of the so-called beatniks are of questionable moral character and are an intimate part of the café entertainment.
- The Gas House has been a public nuisance.
- Because of physical aspects of the property, it has been refused a certificate of occupancy by the Department of Building and Safety.
- Issuance of an entertainment license would increase the problems of the police department. 14
Wirrin was not surprised. "During Mulherin's hearings we feared that he would be prejudiced. His report demonstrates that our fears were well grounded."
The Last Conga
"Gas House gang, here's hoping your final blast is a gas. Save me a brick when they tear it down to make room for concrete and steel. I'm for constant change like late and much jazz." --Telegram from Eric Nord, September 3, 1962 15
The Gas House was allowed to rebrand itself as an art gallery and learning center. Classes were taught by Beats, including the Israeli artist Mary Sunshine and Lipton himself. Although things calmed down considerably, tensions simmered, and the Beats continued to infuriate the squares with "scenes" that sounded suspiciously like shows. The weekend of July 4, 1960, the Gas House hosted a plethora of what most people would call "shows." These included a "Gilbert and Sullivan presentation, one act plays by Tennessee Williams and other hip writers, a dance poetry showing, art auction, poetry reading etc." "These squares don't dig culture," Nord told a reporter in 1960. Stanley Roberts' wife continued to scoff: "Why with their uniforms of sloppy clothes, beards and dirt, they're the worst conformists of all." 16
The police still had Nord and the Beats in its sights. In 1961, he was convicted of staging a poetry and jazz show without an entertainment license. Nord countered, saying the goings on were simply part of a creative art workshop. He was placed on one year of probation. By January, 1962, Nord had had enough and took off for other adventures, which he hoped would include "some pottery work, a little gardening, work with textiles and a little weaving." 17 The writer William Garret became manager of The Gas House, moving his wife and two children in.
But the city was not done with the Gas House. In August, 1962, the L.A. City Board of Building and Safety Commissioners determined the 57-year old building was structurally unsound. It was condemned. Curiously, the Gas House and other known Beat haunts, including the St. Marks Hotel, had been the first deemed beyond repair during a survey that was part of a contested "urban renewal program." One critic stated: "It's apparent that the city is determined to get rid of the Gas House and the St. Mark's first in its urban renewal program at the beach." 18
September 3, 1962, the night the Gas House officially closed, Beats played bongos and did the conga around a tall statue of a Beat...playing the bongos. Four days later, the building fell to wrecking balls as Venice citizens, including Lawrence Lipton, looked on. So who won the battle for the boardwalk's soul? Perhaps that answer is best summed up by another onlooker that day. "I wish they could find all the money I lost in there," the woman sighed, remembering when 1501 Ocean Front had been a gambling parlor. 19
No matter the year, the Venice boardwalk will never be "square."
1 "Beatniks vs. Venice" Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1959
2 "Beatniks bang bongos in basement" Los Angeles Times, August 29, 1959
3 "Good-by to the beatniks!" Los Angeles Times, September 28, 1958
5 "Wine, nude models liven up beatnik capital" Los Angeles Times, August 28, 1959
6 "A beatnik asks 'whats all the fuss'" Los Angeles Times, September 27, 1959
7 "Wine, nude models liven up beatnik capital" Los Angeles Times, August 28, 1959
8 "Beatniks bang bongos in basement" Los Angeles Times, August 29, 1959
9 "Venice 'beatniks' battle 'neatniks'" Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1959
10 "Beatniks and Venice square off in fight" Los Angeles Times, 1959
11 "Wine, nude models liven up beatnik capital" Los Angeles Times, August 28, 1959
13 John Arthur Maynard, "Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California" Rutgers University Press, 1993
14 "Denial of Gas House permit seen" Los Angeles Times, December 27, 1959
15 "Gas House passes on with bongo beat" Los Angeles Times, September 3, 1962
16 "Beach beats plan 'cool' 4th" Los Angeles Times, 1960
17 "Big Daddy to close Venice's Gas House" Los Angeles Times, January 28, 1962
18 "Venice Gas house under" Los Angeles Times, April 18, 1962
19 "Veniec beatnik have falls to" Los Angeles Times, September 7, 1962