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PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE

In Venice, a Sad End for a Seaside Mistake

May 07, 2000|Tom Moran | Tom Moran, a longtime Venice resident and the author of "Fantasy by the Sea," a history of Venice, teaches at the Rochester Institute of Technology

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — A bone-numbing chill always stalked the Venice Pavilion. With the Pacific only a few steps away across the sand, the auditorium interior was wet and sepulchral. The concrete slabs that served as seats were hard and uncomfortable, the brick walls frigid and uninviting and the acoustics abysmal. These were just some of the very good reasons that the public facility, which was demolished last week, languished for years.

Still, the building had its moments. I remember one evening when the auditorium atmosphere was red hot for a free gig by the Topanga blues group Canned Heat. The pathetic acoustics meant nothing to the overflow crowd that danced and clapped to the driving sound of Heat classics like "Goin' Up the Country" and "On the Road Again." That was a long time ago. Despite the inhospitable setting, hippies and free spirits filled the building for the Venice Free Theatre's original rock musicals, "Lightflow" and "Zorba the Freak." The house was smaller when I went to see the Free Theatre's dramatic offerings of George Bernard Shaw's "Major Barbara" and Elmer Rice's "The Adding Machine," and there was scattered attendance for productions by another group, the Venice Living Theater, and regular stagings of Shakespeare on the lawn. Even those were a long time ago.

There was more going on at the Pavilion than just music and theater. I learned how to play boccie from an old-timer named Nick on the hard-packed courts that were just outside the Pavilion doors. "They used to call me a Greek god," he bellowed. "Now, they call me a goddamn Greek!" I still smile when I recall a Pavilion bodybuilding competition and the cluster of girls in the crowd behind me that yelled, "Make him stop, make him stop!" every time a competitor rippled his muscles. Despite all its problems, a lot of very good things happened at the Pavilion over the years.

But the Pavilion was a mistake from the very beginning. It was a high-minded error, an attempt to create a stage where the Venice community, long known for its artistic bent, would welcome visitors with music and entertainment. When the building first opened nearly 40 years ago, Venice Beach was a far different place. The oceanfront was a quiet haven for senior citizens, a handful of beatniks and lots of just plain folks looking for a low-rent beach. The only crowds headed for the amusements at Pacific Ocean Park, and even that attraction was already fading. The open-air auditorium proved an immediate catastrophe. Sharp ocean winds and noise of the surf shooed away audiences most of the year, and promised professional theatrical performances collapsed under fiscal strain. A top was put over the auditorium in 1969, but while the new roof kept out beach weather, it turned the interior space into an acoustic mystery. The stage was rife with dead spots, locations where no matter how well the actor projected, many in the audience would never hear the lines.

The city, through its Department of Recreation and Parks, was reluctant to throw good money after bad, and sentiment grew to write off the entire facility. As the Pavilion languished, Venice itself changed. Roller-skaters arrived in the late 1970s, and soon there were huge numbers of skaters dancing and exhibiting their prowess beside the Pavilion. The skaters were followed by exhibitionists of every stripe, and the Venice oceanfront was soon besieged by a sea of tourists and gawkers. Graffiti stained the building's outer walls, and bike-path riders were treated to views of the mattresses and bedclothes of the homeless persons living at the Pavilion. Despite a police substation set up in the building's basement, the Pavilion was seen by many as scary and a place to be avoided.

The demolition of Venice's Pavilion was approved by the state Coastal Commission in January, and crews were soon at work tearing it apart. I have no qualms about its destruction; there is little to save from either an aesthetic or functional standpoint. The shame is not that the building is to be razed but that plans call only for sand, landscaping, some playground equipment and an outdoor sculpture. It would seem a great opportunity to once again see how a cultural center might be integrated into a beach setting, how the army of visitors to the oceanfront might be offered something more than cheap T-shirts and incense. But that would be a challenge, and very few in contemporary government have the resources or heart for such challenges. So when the rubble is cleared away, Venice's beachfront Pavilion will have become a memory and another page in the community's history of far too many municipal mistakes and grand plans gone wrong.

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