Anyone for Tennis?

Ah, tennis, the sport of kings. Widely believed to have started in ancient Egypt, early Christian Monks imported the game from the Moors to Europe in the 12th century, and began playing a crude handball against their monastery walls or over a rope strung across a courtyard. During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries it became very popular, particularly in France, becoming the highly fashionable sport of kings and noblemen. Early French players would begin a game by shouting “tenez” which meant something to the effect of “take this,” or “Play!” as one player would serve to the other.

The game's popularity dwindled almost to zero during the 1700s, but in 1850, Charles Goodyear invented a vulcanization process for rubber. At that time, Victorian prosperity in England prompted a significant revival; the game of Lawn Tennis began to emerge, when players began to experiment with using the bouncier rubber balls outdoors on a flat grass surface. Soon Lawn Tennis courts became commonplace in the rolling estates of the wealthy, becoming the chosen sport of the well-to-do.

The term Lawn Tennis was coined by Arthur Balfour, a British Statesman and it didn't take long before lawn surfaces were replaced with various turf derivatives and eventually clay and concrete. Within a very short time Lawn Tennis began to replace croquet as the premiere summer sport. In 1874, Major Walter C. Wingfield patented in London the equipment and rules for a game fairly similar to modern tennis. In the same year, the first courts appeared in the United States. And so this sporting craze had begun.

I always find it intriguing how one little idea leads to another. And when that includes Venice history, I’m usually flummoxed at certain aspects of our unique and incredible history.

Take for example, the notion of playing tennis in this grand city. Where today can one go and play a match or two? I always was aware of the existence of the Venice Country Club, knowing its old location at Westminster and Pacific, my old tromping grounds, but I never knew what happened to the courts that were there. But upon further research, it seems that this one-square-block has quite a history. More so than one would expect.

It seems that as far back as 1898 – seven years before our town of Venice of America was founded – Abbot Kinney, along with his partner Francis Ryan, decided to parlay their sand-dunes and swampy land track into a new 40 acre Ocean Park race track and golf links, located near their Casino Country Club at the southern end of their Ocean Park property.

OK – it’s time to go back in history a bit. On June 23, 1891, Kinney and his partner acquired a controlling interest in the Ocean Park Casino (actually a restaurant and tennis club). Several months later they decided to purchase the surrounding tract of land for $175,000 from Captain Hutchinson, a British Army officer. The man had acquired the beachfront property in the late 1870's when he foreclosed on a series of loans made to the Machado family on parts of their La Ballona Rancho.

The plot of land extended 1-1/2 miles south from what is now Pico Boulevard to Mildred Avenue in Venice, for the most part extending inland only 1000 feet, but curving eastward to a depth of half a mile along the southern end. The northern third located in Santa Monica had development potential, while the remainder in county territory was wetlands consisting of sand dunes and marsh.

This community was then named Ocean Park in May 1895. The community grew slowly until there were nearly 150 cottages by spring 1898. That year proved to be a boom year as several new business buildings and forty beach cottages were constructed.

And so it was that the first Casino Country Club came into existence on this barren hilltop plot of land. With a racetrack extending out below it - for what? Dogs, bicycles? Obviously not automobiles… Maybe jogging – I doubt so… probably horse racing, and a “Country Club,” to offer all the immenities that the proper Country Clubs of that time should offer, it becoming quite the rage.

The first Country Club in America had opened just a few years earlier. In 1882, a member of one of Boston Massachusetts’s wealthiest families, J. Murray Forbes, organized a group of his friends to acquire a rolling expanse of land in Brookline, only four miles from the center of Boston. Brookline attracted well-to-do families who could afford to get away from the city for the summer. After the Civil War, many of these families turned their summer retreats into year-round suburban residences. They renovated a farmhouse into an elegant clubhouse with dining, card and billiard rooms, and accommodations for those who wished to sleep over.

They built a track for horse racing, grass tennis courts, a bowling alley, polo fields and a course for the newest sport, golf, in a pastoral setting. They organized a variety of activities - from skeet shooting to afternoon concerts - and then invited prospective members to join them in their pastoral paradise - after, of course, paying an initiation fee and membership dues of $50 a year (the equivalent of about $1,000 today).

The country club also offered exclusivity. Although wealth was necessary, it did not guarantee membership, for not all families were welcome. One had to be invited to join. This allowed the elite to exclude people whose social, ethnic, religious, or racial background made them unacceptable companions on the golf course or in the dining room.

And so it must have been for the elite of the new city of Ocean Park and Santa Monica. Quite the hoi polloi. But it seemed that these were the folks that Abbot Kinney was counting on to make his new “renaissance city on the golden shore” a reality.

To accomplish his ideal, the Ocean Park racetrack was laid out and planted with 10,000 eucalyptus trees by Kinney, and his “pleasure district” advanced yet another step. The partners ordered the laying of 500 feet of broad walk in Ocean Park. The clubhouse was designed to be part of the racetrack property, and bowling alleys, billiard rooms, tennis courts and golf links were promised for a July 1, 1900 opening.

So it seems that the entire Ocean Park Country Club extended over what was soon to become the original canal district of the soon to be Venice. Why, my residence on Rialto Avenue might have been the 8th hole of the golf course, or even the third turn of the racetrack. I only wish there were some photographic evidence to substantiate all this wild sporting life back then.

However, based on the infamous coin toss in late January, 1904 when Kinney decided the southern half of Ocean Park would be his, and his vision of Venice-of-America could prosper, this recreational area soon took a back seat, as one G.I. Goucher secured the contract for the dredging of the canals on the land where the Ocean Park racetrack had been constructed.

Who knew that was once considered just barren seaside property had such a noble and athletic history, even before the great city of Venice emerged. And as a country club, to boot! For four whole years of existence.

Under Kinney’s direction, the Ocean Park Country Club became the Venice Country Club, because on November 1904, the Venice Country Club on Westminster Avenue hosted a masquerade ball to bring visitors to the site of Venice-of-America. Although dancing and refreshments seemed to be the main draw to the advertised event, the sale of real estate was most likely the real reason for the dance. It was Kinney’s first promotional event in and for his new town. Plans were announced for the grand opening of the city, with a yacht regatta, a lawn tennis tournament, and a swimming championship, all featured during the opening weekend. Abbot Kinney’s long-time dream of a Venice on the western shore of the United States was indeed becoming a reality.

On Saturday, July 1, 1905, the South Coast Yacht Club was inaugurated with a two-mile race starting at the Kinney Pier. At the same time, a three-day tennis tournament began at the Venice Country Club. Both Abbot and his 18-year-old son Thornton took part in the men’s singles division.

Knowing the topography of the early Venice Country Club, it’s hard to imagine there was room enough for 2 full tennis courts, as they appear in less then a handful of early photographs. Were they wooden courts? Or were they the popular lawn tennis courts of the time? It seems unlikely, because of the dramatic hillside that sprawled eastward from the clubhouse.

No, it appears they were concrete courts, which were becoming quite abundant at the time. It seems that May Godfray Sutton, the first American woman to win two singles titles at Wimbledon, had moved with her family at age six in 1892 from England to a ranch outside of Pasadena. There her father built a concrete tennis court, the starting point for herself and three of her four sisters to become outstanding players.

The saying in Southern California at the time was “It takes a Sutton to beat a Sutton” because four of them - May, Violet, Florence, Ethel - dominated the sport for almost a generation through 1915.

May, a husky 5-foot 4-inch, 140-pound highly competitive right-hander with a powerful topspin forehand, was the best known of them, with her U.S. title in 1904 over defending Bessie Moore, and her two Wimbledon titles over Dorothea Douglass, in 1905 and 1907.

She shocked English crowds at first by rolling up her sleeves to bare her elbows, and then wearing a shorter skirt than most, showing ankles. Oh my God! But these advances in tennis fashion became the commonplace for all succeeding generations. Quite the pioneer.

May had her best days before U.S. rankings for women were established in 1913. She won many tournaments at the Venice Country Club courts in later years, as well. But her groundstrokes were formidable enough when she made a comeback in 1921 to earn her the No. 4 ranking at age 35. She entered the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1956, and died October 4, 1975, in Santa Monica.

But let’s get back to the Country Club. It seems that old Abbot Kinney was quite a sports enthusiast throughout his lifetime. It’s known that he swam in the ocean every morning up to the time of his death, but is it also known that he we was an avid tennis player, once becoming the California men’s singles champion? This comes as a surprise to me.

Of little surprise was that Kinney would want his Country Club to avail itself of the latest in sporting facilities. Laid out along the western edge of the club was the popular croquette course, with the clubhouse perched in the central part of the property, and the dual tennis courts on the eastern side of the one-block site. Just imagine back in the day, packed wooden bleachers surrounding the courts with nattily attired men and women, gazing through the chicken wire fencing encompassing the playing area. While inside, two female players volleyed as best they could, the women wearing long flowing tennis gowns and accompanying floral bonnets. Quite the scene, and quite the sport.

The clubhouse itself was often set aside for all sorts of other occasions as well. In 1907, approximately 100 people joined the newly organized Venice Literary Club, who met every Monday at the Country Clubhouse.

In 1914, the Venice Military Academy was founded by Colonel William Strover of the U.S. Army, to provide a constructive environment for area youth. The boys were housed at the country club, which offered a series of wide-open spaces – the tennis courts – where they could exercise and be drilled in marching. Strong bones and well-developed muscles were two of the goals of the institution. They were fed healthy meals and a lot of discipline during the hot summer months of that year.

Some of the 6 to 15-year-old boys came from Venice’s working-class families, while others were born of wealthy Santa Monica families. All of the young “soldiers” were provided with a handsome military-style uniform and a shiny new weapon, which they cared for and proudly displayed. Unfortunately, the institution only existed for one summer because it was not a financial success.

And that’s where the story of the Venice Country Club ends. It makes sense now that the northern boundary of the area is called Club House Avenue, but no other mention of the country club appears anywhere else I could find. At some point in time, the courts were ripped up, the clubhouse torn down, and the plot was seeded over with grass. The congeries of what once was and what came next became just that, a jumble or a disorderly collection of once forgotten memories.

In 1949, the L.A. Recreation & Parks Commission requested the condemnation and acquisition of the old Venice Country Club property, stating the desirability of the land for park and recreational purposes. Efforts of the city’s Bureau of Right of Way & Land to acquire the property through negotiations with the owners (who were they?) were unsuccessful.

I moved to Venice in the summer of 1974, staying in an apartment on Westminster, practically catty-corner from the park. Exactly one week before I arrived, the long-awaited Westminster Senior Citizens Center was dedicated on the 2.2 acre property. Construction had begun in late November of 1973 on the one-story bungalow, which today still features a large auditorium-style room for parties, dances or card playing, a kitchenette, restrooms and a director’s office. The senior residents of Venice, “anyone over 50 years old,” looked forward to having their own place to gather and exchange ideas, and taking part in programs including drama groups, dances, choruses, card games, and flower arranging classes. The facility also offered seniors the opportunity to strike up new friendships.

Like maybe with the illicit drug dealers, alcoholics and prostitutes that soon were using the property as their hang-out. The place became known as Hooker Hill, and you wouldn’t want to go there at night. Unless you were looking to score.

That is until Daryl Barnett showed up. A local Venetian and dog lover par excellance, she knew this dog-friendly town was sorely lacking in a common place where dogs could freely roam. Of course there was the wide open beaches, but on February 14, 1996, the LAPD started their crack-down on all dogs using the beach. Daryl’s dog Imp was not so happy… she was used to going to her beloved beach everyday, Tickets were cited, and therefore Daryl was not happy.

So she attended a Board of Commissioners meeting for Recreation and Parks to talk about dog parks and that’s where she met Mary Braunwarth, who took the reins for Recreation and Parks and helped move through city regulations quickly to make the dog park happen in under 2 years. Councilmember Ruth Galanter also helped make some city funds available, and they also received a donation from a local resident, as well as services donated by the contractor and architect. Daryl organized the local residents and attended city meetings on their behalf. She also helped found the organization FREEPLAY, to establish off-leash dog parks and beach areas, so that our four-pawed friends could live a normal life.

It reminds me of the Bob Dylan line, “If dogs run free, why can’t we?” Which then reminds me of a curious aside in Venice dog history. In the winter of 1914, posters appeared around town stating “Watch your dog! The Igorottes are coming. A Tribe of Dog Eating Savages – Strange, Curious, Sensational!” whetted the public’s appetite. It’s true, a head-hunting tribe of 22 brown-skinned Philippine Igorotte “semi-cannibals” had set up camp on the Kinney Pier. In their village of straw huts, they demonstrated their skills at weaving and making blow-gun weapons. The public flocked to their opening performance, expecting them to enact in strange rituals and eat their delicacy, dog meat.

Rumors, that the tribe actually ate dogs, was confirmed when the chief of the Igorottes appeared before the city’s Trustees at their weekly meeting. He was resplendent in peace paint and bore a communication burned into a piece of tanned dog hide. The message read“Me Chief Chy-anne of Igorottes. No man catch dogs in Venice. Me take job. Man say Venice pay one dollar, two dollar every dog. Me catch dog for nothing, you give me dog.” After he gave his presentation, he stood with his arms folded across his chest. Mayor Gerety was not versed in Philippine protocol but he bowed and looked over the “document.” He declared that he thought the Chief might make a very good dogcatcher. However, the Trustees were concerned that he would gather dogs regardless if they had a tag or not. As they discussed the matter, Trustee Pinkerton warned the chief, “Better not catch my dog and eat it.” The mayor promised to take the matter under advisement, whereupon the primitive man bowed low, and with the dignity becoming the chief of a nation of warriors, strode from the room.

Needless to say, he did not get the position.

But back to recent times. After much political meandering, as often these kinds of great ideas take, it was a proud day on August 8, 1998 when the Westminster Off-leash Dog Park officially opened to the public. According to Daryl, it unofficially became the new town square, with more than 1500 dogs, and their owners, visiting it per week when it first opened. This made for a much safer neighborhood – no more druggies to deal with at the park– and it helped neighbors to get to know each other better.

The old grass hill, all .8 acres of it, was replaced by wood chips and seating, after almost a barrel full of broken glass bits were uncovered from the site and removed. And since the next nearest dog park was at Barrington and Sunset, this new location attracted dogs and people from as far away as Pacific Palisades and Malibu. Today, people still come from far away to let their dogs enjoy the great atmosphere at the park.

Who knew that 10 years ago, there were 4000 registered dogs in Venice alone, with over 100,000 on the Westside? With the current influx of more and more dog-owners to Venice, the quest for an off-leash beach area continues. FREEPLAY has gained ground into opening up a section of Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey for just this purpose. For more information, visit their website at

And so it seems both honorable and inescapable that the lowly tennis ball has emerged as the common thread between Venice’s first posh recreational activity and today’s much-needed retreat zone for our urban canine pals. Go fetch, Fido!

Or to slightly revise that 1968 single by Cream,
“Anyone for tennis… balls,
Wouldn’t that be nice.”