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COVER STORY : Venice's Wild Ride : Quirky Community Considers Another Sea Change in Its Tumultuous Existence

October 23, 1994|THOMAS PLEASURE and ADRIAN MAHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Venice draws life from poets and performers, bodybuilders and bohemians, but the seaside community owes its existence to a coin toss.

Ninety years ago, Abbot Kinney, a tobacco tycoon and budding Los Angeles land developer, lost confidence in his Westside business partners.

In what is now south Santa Monica, the partners had developed a commercial district and pioneered the Southland's first successful amusement business--the Ocean Park Amusement Pier. But Kinney felt stymied by his associates' unwillingness to support his more grandiose plans.

So after months of bickering, Kinney and his fellow officers of the Ocean Park Development Co. sat down in January of 1904 and flipped a coin to divide their holdings. Kinney won the toss and--to the shock of his partners--chose to take control of a 1.5-mile stretch of salt marshes south of Navy Street instead of the far more valuable developed Ocean Park land.

In the coastal dunes and wetlands, Kinney saw the potential for a new Pacific city of Old World charm. Using his own money, the canny entrepreneur built Venice of America within 19 months, a resort community of canals and gondolas, of pavilions and cafes that soon rivaled Ocean Park and its pier. Wild rides and sideshows soon followed.

"Imagine," said 83-year-old Al Arnold, who has lived in the same Venice house near the oceanfront for 77 years. "When you got to the beach, you found spectacular rides--heart-stoppers--dance halls, a gigantic indoor saltwater plunge, two roller coasters, fun houses. It was a regular circus."

It was a stunning creation that transformed an idle backwater into one of the world's largest entertainment playgrounds and set the tone for a community that to this day has continued to reinvent itself. For 90 years, waves of builders, hustlers, dreamers, vaudevillians, poets and promoters have washed through the community, creating a place that has thrived on all creeds and attitudes, celebrated the sublime and worshiped the ridiculous.

As present-day Venice agonizes over plans to renovate its popular oceanfront boardwalk, those with long local histories may feel more than a small sense of deja vu. The most publicized proposal, calling for brick paving, antique lighting, designated performance areas and more, is backed by merchants and property owners concerned about competition from Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, the Universal CityWalk and Pasadena's Old Town district.

The plan has stirred strong opposition from many residents, activists and street performers concerned that commercially driven renovation might stifle the boardwalk's freewheeling spirit. They have offered an alternative plan.

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The renovation efforts can hardly be considered novel. Venice is very much the product of self-promotion. In its early years, the community constantly made and remade itself, locked in a struggle with competing attractions.

That's why, for some, the prospect of a modern day make-over sounds familiar.

"In a way, the (commercial) ghosts of the past have come back to haunt Venice and kept alive this constant struggle for definition," said Elayne Alexander, an archivist and historian at the Venice Historical Society. "Nothing's really changed."

Venice, to be sure, has not always been given to promotional campaigns. In recent decades, in fact, its appeal has been largely laissez-faire, as a quirky anything-goes outpost for the Beats in the 1950s, hippies in the 1960s and '70s and New Agers now.

But under Kinney, the making and remaking of Venice was nothing if not deliberate--and always commercially driven. Using massive amounts of daring and showmanship, he created Venice of America, a sort of precursor to Disneyland, and lured the public away from the Ocean Park Amusement Pier owned by his former partners.

Jeffrey Stanton, a local Venice historian, in his book "Venice, California--Coney Island of the Pacific," has meticulously documented the struggle that followed between Kinney and the other real estate interests seeking to develop the beachfront.

Kinney and his competitors anchored their resort communities with amusement piers and warred against each other for the attention of immigrants hungry for entertainment. Overnight, the coast from Redondo Beach to Santa Monica mushroomed into an entertainment complex, jam-packed with wharves, mind-boggling rides, international restaurants and carny concessions.

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During the highly competitive period of 1903-1920, Kinney, the Doge of Venice, reigned supreme over the growing amusement park scene. His Venice of America was the crown jewel of the oceanfront, or as one vintage postcard series of photos proclaimed, "The Capitol of Joyland."

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