Ince Airfield - Venice’s First Airport

This being July, it always reminds me that on July 4th, it’s Venice’s birthday. Just think, 99 years ago the city known as ‘Venice of America’ held its grand opening, drawing over 20,000 to its balmy shores, to witness yacht racing, swimming races in the lagoon, band concerts, and fireworks at the lagoon's huge 2500 seat amphitheater. Venice of America was a success.

Last March, the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks held a community meeting to name the new pocket park adjacent to the Venice Public Library. Recently I read that on May 19th, the decision was made to name the park “Venice of America Centennial Park,” in honor of our upcoming centenary. Quite nice and fitting, although its name has caused some rumblings within the local community. It seems that last February at a Town Hall meeting, Venetians had voted to name it “Peace Park.” I guess there’ll never be peace in Venice.

My personal suggestion in the naming process, based on historical precedent, was that the land now in the Venice Boulevard median be named “Venice / Thomas Ince Airfield Park.”  It only makes sense, seeing that that piece of land was originally the first airfield on the West Coast to be officially designated as an airport. Another first for Venice!

Back in 1909, Abbot Kinney invited the then-young aviation industry to Venice, knowing that it would be a constant source of publicity for his beach resort. It had been less than six years since the historic Wright brothers’ flight on December 17, 1903. The first taker was A.E. Mueller, who displayed his homemade aircraft at Venice's Midway Plaisance adjacent to the Grand Canal beside Venice's lagoon.

In 1914, the area just to the west of the Venice Tigers baseball stadium was established as an airport by Thomas Ince as a base for stunt pilots employed by the Abbot Kinney Company to entertain beach crowds, and for movie work at his nearby Inceville movie studio, located in Santa Ynez Canyon - now Sunset Blvd. and Pacific Coast Highway in the Pacific Palisades. It’s kind of funny, the thought of “establishing an airport,” when all it really was was a patch of dirt surrounding the modest sized hangar and administration building. Although the hangar did have the words ‘AVIATION’ ‘INCE’ – in huge block letters – and ‘FIELD’ painted in white on both sides of the roof, for maximum visibility from the air. Ince Field was located on a triangular plot of land at Venice Boulevard between Washington Boulevard – now Abbot Kinney Blvd. - and Washington Way.

Pioneer filmmaker Thomas H. Ince, the field’s namesake, was a giant in the early days of silent films. In 1910 he entered films as an actor at Biograph studios in New York, then joined Carl Laemmle’s Independent Motion Pictures Company as a director. He began directing shorts in 1911 and was particularly known for his Westerns, many starring cowboy star William S. Hart. After directing the 1916 film “Civilization” he focused mostly on producing and supervising. Almost instinctively, Ince hit upon the formula of carefully pre-planning his films on paper, then meticulously breaking down the shooting schedule so that several scenes could be shot simultaneously by assistant directors. This was the dawning of the assembly-line system that all studios would eventually adopt. To better facilitate his theories of filmmaking, Ince purchased 20,000 acres of seacoast land, upon which he built his studio named Inceville.

He was a partner with D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett in the Triangle Film Corporation, and in 1918, Ince set up a brand new studio in Culver City, at 9336 Washington Boulevard. Its administration building, designed in the form of an antebellum Southern mansion, has weathered nearly nine decades, being taken over by David O. Selznick in the ‘30s, by Desilu in the ‘50s, and most recently by Culver Studios, via Sony Pictures Entertainment. Ince is also known for his untimely 1924 death aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst.

By all accounts, there was a good deal more going on that weekend than the celebration of Ince’s 43rd birthday. The guest list included Charlie Chaplin, wannabe film actress  - and Hearst mistress - Marion Davies, and wannabe gossip columnist Louella Parsons. Ince and Hearst were said to be in the middle of tense business negotiations. Charlie Chaplin was said to be romantically interested in Davies - a rumor of which Hearst was painfully aware. In the aftermath of a boisterous first evening of bootleg-fueled dickering, bickering and revelry, the guest of honor took suddenly and mysteriously ill, as a result of which Hearst precipitously docked the yacht in San Diego and sent the partygoers home.

Ince died a few days later, at home in Benedict Canyon. Published reports cited “acute indigestion” as the cause of death, but rumors began circulating immediately to the effect that Ince had been the victim of foul play. The fact that the body was cremated without an autopsy and no inquest was ever held only fueled speculation about what “really” happened aboard the Oneida on November 15, 1924. Hollywood rumor of the time suggested Hearst had shot him in a dispute over actress Marion Davies.

Speculation continues to this day. Peter Bogdanovich's 2002 film “The Cat's Meow” re-enacts this tabloid tale with all the classic trimmings: lust, envy, jealousy, greed, and a handgun. It’s fun to watch this wonderfully evocative re-creation of Roaring Twenties Hollywood, and imagine what really did happen. The more likely theory that high-living Ince died of acute indigestion - or from one of his many other overindulgences - has been ignored by the scandalmongers, to whom he was more significant for his death than for the remarkable achievements of his life.

But back to the Ince Airfield. It became the first officially designated airport on the West Coast in 1914 thanks to Ince's Trans-Pac air race. However, who ultimately won the race has been lost in time.

Abbot Kinney back then spent large sums of money for entertainment to attract people to his pier. He often hired aviators like Frank Sites to perform aerial stunts over the pier with his bi-plane. Stunt pilots and aerialists - or “barnstormers” as they became known - performed almost any trick or feat with an airplane that people could imagine. They were the most exciting daredevils of their day. And they used Ince Field as their home base.

Other barnstormers like Al Wilson, Frank Clark and Mort Bach performed regularly in the skies over Venice. Some of the most daring and elaborate aerial stunts were dreamed up in the field's hangers and motion picture cameramen were often on hand to film them.

The airport also supported a fledgling aircraft industry. Eight manufacturers, who had small factories there, like Catron & Fiske, B.H. Delay Aircraft, Crawford Aircraft and Waterman Aircraft Manufacturing, produced bi-planes and tri-planes. The airplane of choice for barnstormers was the Curtiss Jenny JN-4 “Jenny” military trainer, produced by the Curtiss Aircraft Company, and introduced in 1916. Some manufacturers obtained military contracts once the United States entered WW1 in 1917.

But that’s not all for Venice’s first in aviation history. On April 3, 1919 Venice inaugurated the first ever aerial police force in the United States by swearing in aviator Otto Meyerhoffer into the police force. The words “Venice Aero Police” were inscribed in big bold letters on the side of his 100-MPH bi-plane. The police station would call him at the airport when they needed his assistance in tracking fleeing automobile bandits into the mountains, or finding boats in distress.

So I guess it can be deduced that today’s annoying helicopter police patrols can be traced back here to Venice. Although it wasn’t until 1956 that LAPD Chief William Parker first introduced the use of helicopters – known as the Air Support Division – mainly for traffic control and then slowly began assisting patrol officers in a non-formal way. That all changed during the Watts riots of 1965, when the LAPD deployed helicopters to officially assist ground officers. Today, the ASD now averages 8,000 assisted arrests per year, while it seems like most of the time is spent buzzing around my – or your – home endlessly during the late night, incessantly on and on.

The airport was renamed Delay Field in 1920, for aerial cameraman B.H. Delay. He was instrumental in filming many exciting aerial sequences for early silent films, including 1920’s ‘Broadway Babs’ and ‘Skirts,’ a comedy the following year, among others.

It should be noted that also at this time, there were other upstart airfields sprouting up in the bean fields around Los Angeles. At the southwest corner of Wilshire and Fairfax was another dirt airstrip known as the Chaplin Airdrome, then Mercury Aviation. In 1921 it became the DeMille Field, and then finally Rogers Field. Quite the Hollywood royalty!

But all good Venice firsts must pass, and the airfield was closed in 1923. The airport's single runway was short and there was no room for expansion since it was completely surrounded by residential neighborhoods, canals, and the Pacific Red Line tracks. Besides, Santa Monica's larger Clover Field, a 15-acre landing site named for World War I pilot Lt. Greayer “Grubby” Clover, met the area's needs. And in July 1927, real estate agent William W. Mines offered 640 acres of the former Bennett Rancho, west of Inglewood, to use as an airport for the City of Los Angeles. It opened on July 25, 1928, becoming known as Mines Field. Today, it is the bustling airport complex LAX.

The land where the old Venice airport stood was subdivided later in 1923. And a part of Venice’s unique history was lost. Forever.

But wouldn’t it still be a kick to replicate the old Thos. H. Ince Aviation Field sign, featured in old photos, on its original location, illuminated brightly at night, to remind visitors of Venice’s proud history? In proud commemoration of our nearly 100 year history.

Happy birthday, Venice!