Miscellaneous stuff from the Venice junk drawer

Being an ex-lazy Midwesterner, at least I think I was, I was known to be a "hoarder." One that just collects stuff, for seemingly no reason. Just put it in a drawer, and deal with it later. And after a while, there always comes a time when you ultimately have to clean out the junk drawer, this time on Venice... etc. facts. Well, consider this month's column a Summer cleaning of the grab bag of eccentric Venice history.

First off, when I opened the drawer, I noticed this old email from a loyal reader. And pretty interesting, too, in fact.

This is a quotation from 1914-1916 Part 1, written by Maureen Burns, from the Free Venice Beachhead #122, February 1980. "...something called the "Groceteria" became the latest touted novelty in Venice. The Venice Vanguard described it as "the latest thing in groceries." Food items were displayed and a woman could walk around the store and choose the items she wanted, put them in a basket, and go to the cashier. Money could be saved by the owner to the benefit of the consumer. The Vanguard made the statement that "Maybe this is going to be another innovation in the commercial world that was started in the Santa Monica Bay district and copied all over the country."

I mean it sounds like this was the prototype of the modern grocery store. Is that possible? Possible? Why of course, anything's possible here in Venice. And it probably was one of the numerous groceteria's lining Windward Avenue at the time. It must have been like the photo on the wall in the back room at Café 50s, of the old-style general store, only much spiffier.

Now, I've always been interested in the carnival life and those vagabond 'carny freaks.' This item from the drawer, however, shows I always thought I was a good sucker for that kewpie-doll booth. Must be due to the Steele's Amusement & Carnival Company that was home-based in the small northern Indiana town I grew up in. It seems that every summer a small gang of local teenage boys from around town would sign-on with this carnival and head out for a summer's worth of experience. I never did, unfortunately though, but lived vicariously through their stories when they came back for school in the fall. If they did, at all.

One local Venice kid knew all about this lifestyle as well, so we'll let Kenny Kahn tell it himself, with some darkly comic moments, from his first and recently published book, "The Carny Kid: Survival of a Young Thief."

Kahn was born in Los Angeles in 1941. He spent his early childhood on the midway at Ocean Park Pier, in an amusement zone on the pier. He writes that his father, Barry, was a small-time carnival hustler who rigged pinball machines and games of chance. His mother, Faye, danced the nights away to big-band music in local nightclubs and ballrooms around the pier.

After school, he roamed the boardwalk, where he made friends and earned pocket change selling newspapers. It was a grand life for a kid, but the pier suffered from neglect after World War II, and the customers who had been the elder Kahn's lifeblood soon left.

A year later, he writes, his parents retrieved the boys for a family summer business, what carnies called the "hankie-pank" games - rigged games - at county fairs in several states. By 1952, according to his book, Kenny was earning $20 to $40 a day shortchanging customers at the dime-toss booth. He'd wax the plates to such a sheen, that it would make it virtually impossible for dimes to stick.

And those poor suckers wouldn't have a chance. Ah yes, Venice carnies. Got to love em...

Here's another oddity from the drawer. In their heyday before World War II, the Fox movie theaters stood as neon-lighted beacons over hundreds of cities big and small.

It was the era of the silver screen, before television, and movie theaters were a center of city life: places for Friday night dates, Saturday matinees for the kids, or a chance to escape everyday life into the fantasy of a western or a screwball comedy.

And the movie was only part of the experience. The Fox chain was known for the striking architecture of its theaters. The buildings' designs often blended with the styles of their communities.

In Westwood Village, the Fox theater featured a soaring tower, with ornate columns and plaster reliefs that mirrored the Art Deco style of the rest of the shopping district. In Fullerton, designers favored a Moorish look. The Fox in Riverside reflected the Spanish mission designs of nearby landmarks such as the Mission Inn.

The Fox Venice, our local part of the chain, opened in 1951 as a grand Art Deco movie house, featuring a magnificent marquee and tower with scrolling curlicues and stars in neon. The stars would flash up and down in sequence. The marquee was later immortalized in the now-gone mural on Market Street, "The Fall of Icarus" by John Wehrle. The mural was painted in 1978 on the side of the old Fern Violette building at 48 Market Street, later painted over by a group sponsored by Robert Graham. [More on Fern later...]

It was a proper monument to cinema, a glorious theatre with murals on the walls, and a beautiful domed interior ceiling. The gold-leafed decorative rim hid the purple neon lights that circled the giant oval and gave off a mystic glow over the red velvet-upholstered seats. They had a "crying room" in the back, which was enclosed with its own window and separate sound system, so mothers could attend films with their young children, but was later on used mainly for smoking dope.

Upstairs, there were couches, and windows that overlooked the marquee. The upstairs office was very authentically hippie shabby chic. From 1970 til 1978, The Single Wing Turquoise Bird Light Show also operated in that upstairs studio space.

California once was home to nearly 200 Fox theaters, but by the 1960s, the theaters were in decline. Television had battered the movie industry, leaving fewer first-run films to be shown. The downtown districts that housed many of them were fading in an era of shopping malls, and people were beginning to favor new multiplexes.

In the early 70s, the Fox Venice was showing double features for 50 cents. There were two security guards inside the auditorium, one on each side of the screen. The local gang members would flick lit cigarettes at them throughout each film. For a while, starting in the mid-70s, the Fox Venice showed daily changing double-bills of revival films. But that soon came to an end. While redecorating in 1988, asbestos was found and that wrote the death-knell of the theater operation. Scores of the theaters were demolished. Others were converted for other uses. So now ours is the Fox Swap Meet, or Discount Mall, with a very tacky fox logo overlooking the rubble underneath and within the once-beautiful theater. I've never entered it since it was converted, and never intend to do so.

Now back to Fern Violette. And another piece of junk from my drawer. I can only imagine the goings on behind the walls at the building at 48 Market Street, but I don't know anybody that really does. A quick internet search brings up only bare facts about this fashion designer's business. A couple quaint photos of high-fashion mannequins. And some off-shoot biographies.

One photo is described as such: "This gown may be circa the 60s or 70s; it cannot be dated for sure but it clearly has shades of a modified caftan look which was very popular in the late 60s and early 70s - both in evening and day wear.

This gown is especially nice for hosting dinner parties. The print is an exotic mixed paisley with silver sparkly threads throughout the pattern. The fabric is devine. I don't know what type it is, but it has the appearance of a rayon silk and it is clearly high quality and the label says to "professionally dry clean".

Whew! Quite the caftan, I'd say... And oh so timely, for the times.

It appears that the main designer for Fern Violette back then was one Jay Morley. He'd been a costume designer at Universal Studios in the mid-1950s. Some of the more famous – or infamous – films he had designed wardrobes for were: Tarantula, Revenge of the Creature, The Mole People, The Creature Walks Among Us, and The Deadly Mantis. Ha! Quite the resume. By the way, did you know his father, Jay Morley Sr., was a handsome leading man for the pioneering Lubin Film Company in Philadelphia in the mid-19-teens, who later portrayed mostly villains and was found often in serials and low-budget Westerns? He retired from the screen soon after the changeover to sound to become sheriff of Malibu, only to return in the 1950s, much heftier in girth than before. He was featured in 1950's Sunset Boulevard, as the 'Fat Man,' and was also in 1951's A Place in the Sun and The Enforcer.

But back to Little Jay, as he probably was known around the house. His designs were so successful for Fern, that she made enough money to move to Montana and open a truck stop. Quite the designer's life. And then along came filmmaker Carl Borack, producer of 1978's The Big Fix, which was partly filmed in Venice, who took over the building and turned it into offices, editing rooms, etc. Richard Dreyfuss, who starred in the movie, took one of the offices for his own production company. And that's about it for Fern's day in the sun...

Another item I recently happened upon, and you shouldn't miss it if possible, is the daily bike parade along Speedway from Westminster to Windward. It happens every morning, and night. Led by Patrick, whose job it is to deliver the bikes to the rental concession at Speedway & Windward, I asked him how he came to this routine of lashing all the 3-wheeled cycles together to form a long, undulating snake of a bike parade. "Well, after first delivering them one by one, I realized that this was much easier, and it takes a lot less time." So go catch the parade around 8:30 each morning, or just after dusk on their path home. It's a visual feast and another unique Venice experience.

Another look through my drawer and I find a timely fact that is truly wonderful. How many of you knew that Andy Devine, the rotund, raspy-voiced American character actor and comic cowboy sidekick from early 1950s TV fame, was "discovered" by Hollywood while working as a lifeguard on Venice beach? Yep, it's supposedly true. The soon-to-be-famous actor, born Andrew Vabre Devine, October 7,1905 in Flagstaff, Arizona, was an able athlete as a student and actually played semi-pro football under a phony name (Jeremiah Schwartz, often erroneously presumed to be his real name. Devine used the false name in order to remain eligible for college football.) A successful athletic competitor at St. Mary & St. Benedict College, Arizona State Teacher's College, and Santa Clara University, Devine then went to Hollywood with dreams of fame, which led to his first film role in the silent film The Fighting Football Cardinals.

His sound-film career seemed at risk due to his severely raspy voice. The "voice" which had almost cost him his career, eventually became the key to Andy's success and popularity in films, stage, radio and television. Once heard, those raspy, squeaky tones were never forgotten. That voice, plus his bulky frame, led inevitably to the comedic roles for which he became well known. The "steam calliope with the broken key" was the voice he grew up with although not the one he was born with. It was the result of falling with a stick in his mouth as a child, and with it spent the next forty-five years an increasingly popular and beloved comic figure in a wide variety of films.

In 1937 he became a regular on Jack Benny's radio program, his howl of "Hiya, Buck!" becoming a national catchphrase. In the 1950s, his fame grew enormously among baby boomers with his co-starring role as Jingles Jones opposite Guy Madison's "Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok," on television and radio simultaneously. In 1955, before the Hickok series ended, Devine took over as host of the Saturday morning kid's program "Andy's Gang."

In his later years, Devine cut down his performing activities, preferring to stay on his Van Nuys ranch with his wife and children. Made a very wealthy man thanks to real estate investments, Devine abandoned moviemaking in 1970, resurfacing only to provide voices for a brace of Disney cartoon features. And still he remained active in civic and charitable affairs, even serving as honorary mayor of Van Nuys, until his death on February 18, 1977. He was survived by his wife and two sons.

According to the account of another devoted reader, Devine did not have any idea what to do with his new-found wealth back in the day, and his financial advisor had him buying up bare and poorly managed farm and ranch land all around Van Nuys. Andy said that it seemed strange to buy all of that land with no plans to farm it. He confided with his Uncle Abe that if the land and Hollywood didn't work out, he would always be happy to go back to being a lifeguard in Venice. Yes, dear Venice...

There you have it. A clean sweep of my musty junk drawer on Venice. It feels good to purge these facts, and bring them finally to light. For all to see and share. As Lance Diskin continually prevails, "Venice then, Venice now, Venice forever..."