Debunking Venice's Historic Myths

I've operated a Venice history display and postcard stand along Venice's Ocean Front Walk since 1979. During this time when I've sold various versions of my ever improving history books, I've overheard hundreds of people explaining their version of Venice's history to friends and relatives. The facts they state are interesting, the beginnings of urban legends. Some, who own my book, should know better if they had bothered to read my book. Unfortunately, although most are proud to display the lavishly illustrated book on their coffee tables, I'd estimate that less than 10% have read much of the text. Others have heard friends misstate historic facts and have embellished them. Sadly, a few people get huffy and think I don't know my history when I point out their mistakes.

Recently I heard one woman claim that the reason Venice's amusement piers had closed was because of that terrible accident. My ears perked up since I hadn't heard that story. She explained that eight people had died at Pacific Ocean Park when the roller coaster cars flew off into the ocean and the park was immediately shut down. When I told her I thought she was mistaken, she claimed that she had proof. I asked to see the newspaper accounts of the accident. No, she hasn't returned with her proof, nor would I expect her soon.

Readers may wonder why I feel my version of Venice's history is correct when I grew up in Pennsylvania and never saw anything I wrote about. I'm one of the few people who decided in 1978 when I began researching Venice's past, that what others wrote about Venice wasn't accurate. I read the Santa Monica Evening Outlook newspaper straight through from 1887 to 1990; the Venice Vanguard from 1911 to 1940; and the Los Angles Times from 1891 to 1912. Sometimes I looked at other dates for collaborating evidence. I also talked to old time residents who worked for various ride operators on the amusement piers. I also own a large photo reference library which gives me some assurance that what I wrote about really did exist.

1) Venice's amusement parks ended because either they burned to the ground or they were destroyed by storms.

There were two major pier districts that did have numerous fires that often burned them to the ground. Major pier fires occurred in 1912, 1920 and 1924. Each time a pier burned, it was rebuilt even better. The reason that the amusement pier's don't exist today is that after annexation to Los Angeles, it's Parks and Recreation department was insistent in closing them down. To do it legally, they waited until each pier's tideland's lease expired. When the Venice Pier at Windward lease expired in 1946, the Kinney Company was given six weeks to vacate their profitable pier operation. Although they owned the beach where their pier was located, they had deeded the beach beyond the high tide land to the city of Venice in 1921.

Pacific Ocean Park on the old Ocean Park Pier spanned the Venice/ Santa Monica border. Los Angeles couldn't convince Santa Monica to demolish their portion of the pier district. However the pier eventually went bankrupt in 1967 when they failed to pay their rent to the city. The rides were auctioned in 1968 and the first of more than 70 arson fires didn't occur until 1970. Many people remember its two major fires in the 70's and mistakenly assume that fires or ocean storms demolished the various piers. But in truth, neither Los Angeles nor Santa Monica by that time wanted to retain the honky tonk amusement pier ambiance in their respective cities.

2) Venice looks like it does today when the developer ran out of money.

Abbot Kinney was a very wealthy real estate developer when he built Venice of America in 1905. He dug a network of canals, built a bathhouse, several commercial buildings along Windward Avenue, police and fire stations on Loreli and constructed a pier complete with pavilion, Ship Cafe and a 3000 seat auditorium. Others constructed hotels, restaurants and other businesses along Venice's streets. Over the years Venice became successful and eventually there were few empty lots.

After Venice was annexed by Los Angeles in 1925, most of its canals were filled in, its internal transportation network was abandoned, and its amusement piers were removed. As Venice became a slum by the sea in the 50's and early 60's, Los Angeles had plans to tear down all of Venice's 1600 buildings. In 1964, 550 building, mostly in the downtown business district and along the beach were demolished before several owners stopped the city in court. Sadly most of its historic structures were razed. Yes it does look like someone ran out of money, but it was once one of the most beautiful beach resorts in America.

3) Venice was annexed to Los Angeles because the treasurer stole the town's money.

Venice's city government was shocked when its City Treasurer absconded with $22,000 of city funds in 1922. Peasgood eventually gave himself up and returned the funds a week later. Besides if he didn't, the loss was covered by insurance.

Venice voters in the early 1920's preferred to be annexed to either Santa Monica or Los Angeles because its government couldn't reach consensus. The city's scattered business interests, based in the three pier districts and near city hall, competed against each other politically and financially. Obtaining enough city water to support Venice's growth was also an issue. Three annexations elections were held in 1924 and 1925 before its voters finally decided enough was enough and voted to become part of Los Angeles.

4) Venice's remaining canals still exist today because the contractor went bankrupt during the Depression.

When Venice became part of Los Angeles in 1925, there were two canal areas. The larger Venice of America canals met in a lagoon where the Venice Traffic Circle is today. Homes or bungalow courts occupied nearly all the available lots. The Strong Dickerson tract south of Venice Blvd. was sparsely settled. Maintaining the antiquated canal network was expensive, and more roads with parking were needed north of Venice Boulevard near Venice's business and pier district at Windward Avenue. Los Angeles decided to fill in the canals and assessed the property owners to pay for the change. They were filled in during the 1929 summer after a protracted two year court battle. The beginnings of the Depression, the lack of need for more roads in the remaining canal district, and not enough property owners to support an assessment saved Venice's remaining canals. While it is possible that the contractor who filled in the Venice of America canals went bankrupt during the Depression, he didn't have a contract to fill in Venice's remaining canals.

5) Venice has mysterious tunnels beneath Windward Avenue and they were used by rum runners during Prohibition.

When Venice was constructed in 1905, the business district utilities were placed underground in two tunnels running beneath the alleys on either side of Windward Avenue. The two tunnels originated at the heating plant and powerhouse located on Windward near the lagoon (current site of the B of A building near the traffic circle). In addition, some hotels along Ocean Front Walk constructed tunnels beneath the promenade to the beach because an ordinance forbid bathing suits on the boardwalk. The St. Marks Hotel at the corner of Windward was one. During Prohibition in the 20's, rum runners would unload their booze from boats beneath the pier and sneak them into the St. Mark's tunnel. I assume they could then access the utility tunnel directly behind the hotel, but it is a mystery how they transported the booze to speakeasies on the other side of the street. There is no evidence of linked tunnels beneath Windward Avenue, although they may have followed the tunnel to the powerhouse, then transferred to the other tunnel.

6) People were killed when roller coaster cars and P.O.P.'s bubble tram cars plunged into the sea.

There were numerous ride accidents during the era of Venice's amusement piers. Nearly all occurred on its 14 roller coasters. Most of the coaster accidents involved people who stood up and fell out of cars or in one case, a rider whose head was smashed in by a protruding post.

One kid was hurled to his death on the Ocean Park Pier when he, on a dare, rode the car unseated just by hanging on to the handle bar. He lost his grip on a turn and landed on the pier below. Once the cars on a train became uncoupled, and the ones left behind at the bottom were hit by the front car when it didn't make it over the next hill and rolled back down. The riders were hurled backwards into the car just behind. Passengers were injuries but not killed.

It is very difficult for a roller coaster to jump the tracks. The turns are banked and an underwheel prevents the cars from rising off the tracks during periods of negative gravity. The rumored accident is supposed to be on P.O.P.'s Sea Serpent whose north side is along the edge of the pier and the water below. Photos show that the cars bank counter-clockwise on its fastest turns. This means that if the train jumped the track while in the turn, it would sail off over the pier and not the water, and land on the roof of building just seaward of it.

It is mechanically possible that a bubble car at P.O.P. could fall off since they work just like gondolas at ski resorts. The car is suspended by a wheeled mechanism that is latched to the main cable as it leaves the station. I recall an incident on a Vermont ski lift where the latch didn't hold and the car rolled down and hit the one below. The impact knocked it off the cable and it fell 40 feet. Since that isn't going to happen on a level skyway ride, I guess its passengers will need to bounce up and down to get the cable gyrating. They would probably be evicted from the park before they caused a car to fall off.

If a reader doubts my research and can show me a newspaper article describing a ride accident that I'm not aware of, I'll write a correction in a future column.

7) The alley behind the buildings on Ocean Front Walk was named Speedway because automobiles and motorcycles used it as a race track.

Since Trolleyway (now Pacific Avenue) was unpaved and used exclusively by the Pacific Electric trolley cars, the only suitable but narrow north - south roadway near the beach was called Speedway. Both its narrowness and the frequency of traffic coming the other way made it unsuitable for racing. However, most teenagers and adults raced there cars along Washington Boulevard (now Abbot Kinney Blvd.) There were numerous accidents along a dangerous curve where it approached the intersection of Compton Blvd. (now Lincoln Blvd.)

8) A famous celebrity once lived where I live in Venice.

I've been hearing these stories since I moved to Venice. Some of them are true and others are only myths. I'll list the property, the celebrity and a statement. Sometimes the original structure has been replaced by a newer one. If you don't think I'm right, send me proof; Xerox of a telephone directory, property deed, etc. Hearsay doesn't count. Although I know of famous people who lived in buildings that have since been demolished, I only list existing buildings.

  • 11 Anchorage - Francis X. Bushman - CONFIRMED

    This stone structure was built in 1922 by the silent screen star. Nicknamed "The Castle," it was frequently visited by his friend Rudolph Valentino.

  • 20 Park Avenue - Lawrence Lipton - CONFIRMED

    The author of the Holy Barbarians lived in this walk street home in the late 50's to early 60's. He often entertained Venice's beat poets here.

  • 16 Park Avenue - Abbot Kinney - CONFIRMED

    Venice's founder moved his family to this house in Venice in 1905. His wife and children lived there until she died in 1914. His son Sherwood lived there in the 20's.

  • 36 Park Avenue - Hellen Kinney - CONFIRMED

    Abbot Kinney's youngest daughter bought this home in the late 1920's.

  • 16 Thornton - Isadora Duncan - NO

    Many residents claim that this 1913 apartment building was owned by the famous dancer. She lived in San Francisco and owned no Venice property.

  • 517 Ocean Front Walk - Charlie Chaplin - NO

    The current owner named the commercial courtyard the Charlie Chaplin Courtyard under the mistaken belief that it was built by the silent movie star. The Sea Spray Apartments were built in 1922 as exclusive apartments.

  • 14 Westminster - Jim Morrison - NO

    The famous rock star, leader of the "Doors" did live in Venice in the late 50's, but not in this building. Friends of his lived in the building, now named "The Morrison," and Jim often partied on the roof. For a time Morrison lived in a nearby hotel (possibly the Haley Hotel on Market), and in 1959 he is alleged to have lived in a cottage on the Venice canals. I've been given several canal addresses and can't confirm if any were his residence.

  • 15 Thirtieth St. - Kinney family - NO

    This large home currently serves as a bed and breakfast inn. It was built by the Wilson family whose daughter married Sherwood Kinney, Abbot's son. Thus the two families are in-laws and one can understand the mistake.
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