Writer Joe Donnelly explores how the crumbling, surfer’s mecca of Venice in the 1970s gave rise to the legendary Z-Boys and skateboarding as we know it.
Writer Joe Donnelly’s essay ‘Venice Bohemia: From Abbot Kinney To The Z-Boys’ explores how the crumbling, surfer’s mecca of Venice in the 1970s gave rise to the legendary Z-Boys and skateboarding as we know it.
It appears in ‘Los Angeles in the 1970s: Weird Scenes Inside The Gold Mine’, a collection of essays and short stories that attempts to fill a gap in the literature about culture during one of the City of Angels’ most vibrant decades. It also includes the ‘Cruising Van Nuys’ photo essay by Rick McCloskey, featured here.
As major events go, this one may not rank up there with Alaskan statehood, the advent of NASA, or even that April fifteenth day when twenty-three thousand plus fans packed Seals Stadium to see the erstwhile Brooklyn Dodgers take on the erstwhile New York
Giants in the first major league baseball game played on the West Coast. Even so, it was not without consequence when, in 1958, Skip Engblom’s mom finally gave into the boy’s badgering and moved the family to Ennis Place, behind Venice Circle.
Those were good times in the good ol’ US of A. The Cold War was still cold enough, and at the midpoint of the American Century we were happily turning away from Old World entanglements while embracing everything new! Los Angeles, of course, was the capital of the new. By 1958, the city’s can-do spirit was fueled by aerospace- and defense-industry prosperity, Hollywood’s rising entertainment hegemony, and a suburban development boom. It all added up to a uniquely sun-and-fun-flavored Space Age optimism perhaps best captured in the local proliferation of whimsical Googie architecture and design.
Skipper Boy, as Engblom would be called for years to come, saw many things sprout from the seeds of the mid-century’s seemingly limitless possibilities. The aforementioned Dodgers came to town. Downtown Los Angeles grew skyscrapers on Bunker Hill. Freeways were starting to connect the vast region. CalTech and Jet Propulsion Laboratories were rocketing toward space. UCLA, Otis Arts Institute, Chouinard (cum-CalArts), and the Ferus Gallery were already setting loose on the world artists such as Billy Al Bengston, Ed Ruscha, Ed Moses, Noah Purifoy, and John Baldisseri who would define a muscular, new west avant-garde.
It was a heady time, and while Engblom saw a lot, nothing moved him quite like what he saw that day when he kept pedaling his bike past the old farmer’s market, where his mother worked, until he finally reached the place where the cement met the sand. There, at the end of the road, Santa Monica Boulevard, the terminus of old Route 66, he found a little stand from which he could rent an inflatable raft and venture into the ocean. Bobbing around in the breakers, he saw a guy stand up on a surfboard and ride a wave.
“I completely flipped out,” Engblom recalled. “It was probably the defining moment of my existence. I knew it was all I ever wanted to do. I needed to do that more than anything.”
That need is what propelled Engblom and his family to Venice Beach where, years later, he, Craig Stecyk, and Jeff Ho would join forces to capture a little cultural lightning in a bottle known as the Zephyr Skate Team. The Z-boys were what was left over after the sweet dreams of Abbot Kinney and Kennedy’s Camelot died violent deaths side by side at the end of the road. And the kids skated like they knew it, sparking a sea of change in youth culture that established them as the last gasp of bohemian Venice and, perhaps, its enduring legacy.
First, though, let’s go back to 1958, when Skipper Boy arrived in Venice.
At the time, the Venice West Cafe and Gas House coffee shop scenes were in full swing. Lawrence Lipton, the controversial scenester/impresario/journalist/screenwriter and Beat-poet-wannabe, had just published The Holy Barbarians. The book, though sometimes derided as the work of a cultural climber, is as responsible as anything for codifying the public image of the hopped-up, beret-wearing, bearded Beatnik weirdo. Though Lipton never quite earned the respect as a poet he strived for, he had his consolations. For one, his son, James Lipton, the erstwhile procurer of Parisian prostitutes, would grow up to be the oddly charismatic and slyly hilarious host of Inside The Actors Studio. And Lawrence himself did land a role as the “King of the Beatniks” in the 1960 B-movie The Hypnotic Eye.
Barbarians brought unwanted attention to the Beats and artists who lived and worked on the cheap in the “Appalachia by the Sea,” (as Venice and the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica had come to be known.) Before long, lurkers and opportunists, some less savory than others, had overtaken the scene, instigating a campaign by more civic-minded (or property-values-minded) citizens to stamp out the latest outbreak of Venetian bohemianism.
The Beat era, though, may have been the closest Abbot Kinney’s dream of Venice By The Sea as a catalyst for an American cultural renaissance ever came to fruition. Though Venice By The Sea would take a turn for the tacky, at first Kinney had more high-minded literary and intellectual aspirations for his burg.
Kinney’s long and winding journey west is a Bunyan-sized tale itself, but to make a long story short, the sickly and insomniac scion of a powerful New Jersey family who made millions in tobacco found a place he could get a good night’s sleep and breathe a little easier near the marshy lands around what is now the border of Santa Monica and Venice. He founded Ocean Park with partner Francis G. Ryan in the late 1880s. When Ryan died, his widow married Thomas Dudley who became Kinney’s new partner in coastal real estate speculation. The two didn’t get along, and Kinney turned his sights toward the swamps south of Ocean Park.
Here, Kinney started digging out his dream, literally—canals, colonnaded architecture, highbrow cultural events at the Venice Assembly modeled on the Chautauqua programs in upstate New York. He even imported gondoliers from Italy. Kinney’s vision made Venice, even if it never quite became what he envisioned. How earnest he was about it all, or how much of it was a hustle to reel Midwesterners in from the cold, wasn’t entirely clear when Venice of America opened up in 1905.
Regardless, what Kinney wrought was staggering in scale and mind-blowing in detail. From Windward Avenue to the bathhouse to the canals to the swimming lagoon, the Midway Plaisance, the miniature railroad, the Ship Hotel, the Venice Pier, and, yes, the beach itself—even the skeptics, who’d taken to calling the project Kinney’s Folly, were impressed.
But almost from the start, Kinney’s lofty ideals, sincere or not, competed with the lowbrow and sometimes illicit underbelly of the area’s main draw—the handful of amusement piers that sprouted in the sand and jutted out into the sea along this short stretch of coast, each trying to outdo the other in a turf war of attractions.
After a fire in 1908, Kinney rebuilt his amusement pier in 1913 to compete with Alexander Fraser’s new “Million Dollar” Pier and the Pickering Pier, both in Ocean Park. Sunset Pier (at what is now North Venice Boulevard) opened on July 4, 1921, tripling the values of beachfront lots. The Lick Pier, adjacent to Fraser’s pier on the Venice side of the sand off Navy Street, opened that following September. Mere sun, surf, and sand apparently weren’t enough, and soon the landscape was blotted by flying circuses, aerials, multiple rollercoasters, racing derbies, speedboats, carousels, games of chance, theaters, dance halls, and, inevitably, brothels.
The piers drew hundreds of thousands of tourists every weekend. Complicit in Venice and Ocean Park’s turn toward the tawdry were the city of Los Angeles’s Victorian-era restrictions on public dancing. To get their kicks, denizens of the big city flocked to the Wild West seaside where folks could pursue the ancient rites free from persecution.
A major problem with the piers, though, was that they were always catching on fire. Abbot Kinney’s Venice Pier burned first in 1908, and again just a month after he died on November 14, 1920. The Frasier Pier (aka Ocean Park Pier) burned in 1912 and 1915. The Pickering and Lick Piers burned in 1924. Each time a pier burned, it grew more expensive and unwieldy to rebuild. Most were in disuse by the 1940s.
Kinney’s grand vision may have had some checkered incarnations, but he himself lived longer, bigger, and more imaginatively than he probably dreamed possible when he was growing up as an asthmatic, sleepless boy back in New Jersey. In that way, he is a prototypical Angeleno. Even so, he probably turned over in his grave when his increasingly overextended Venetians voted 3,130 to 2,216 for annexation to Los Angeles over Santa Monica, thereby turning Venice of America into Venice Beach, a suburb of the big city seventeen miles to the east.
Perhaps fittingly, famed Los Angeles evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson waded into the Venice Beach surf six months later and disappeared. McPherson had been lobbying against Sunday dances, and it was rumored a hit had been put out on her by business interests. A massive search turned up nothing, though a lifeguard drowned looking for McPherson. A distraught mourner committed suicide when it appeared McPherson had perished. A month after her disappearance, Venice Beach hosted a memorial and flowers filled the sea. Two days after the memorial, however, McPherson turned up outside Douglas, Arizona, telling of kidnap, torture, and escape. The tall tale didn’t quite add up and charges were filed and later dropped.
It felt like the end of an era and, even it if was all a holy con, it had been one hell of a ride.
The Depression put a damper on Venice and Ocean Park’s carnival days and the crowds started thinning. When the Ohio Oil Company struck oil in 1929, the area had a new economic imperative that littered the area with wells and clogged the waterways, all but choking the remaining vestiges of Kinney’s dream. Los Angeles filled in the canals, and master plans called for the eventual dismantling of piers and widening of beaches. Venice and environs lay fallow throughout the war and after, as the local oil boom subsided and Los Angeles’s attention went elsewhere. Property values dropped, rents were cheap, and the bohemians, artists, Beats, and bums filed into the slum by the sea.
Skip Engblom has probably been called one or all of these things at various times in his life. His pedigree is eclectic enough to fit the bill. Engblom’s father was an innovator of modern pro wrestling. He wrote characters and storylines featuring the likes of Haystacks Calhoun, the giant who wore a chain around his neck with a horseshoe dangling from it and was a frequent household guest of the Engbloms. Skip’s 1958 arrival in Venice was just in time to see the specter of Abbot Kinney rise once more from Davey Jones’s locker—this time, in the form of Pacific Ocean Park, affectionately referred to by locals as POP.
Pacific Ocean Park was a $10 million investment in both the past and a starry-eyed vision of the future. Its primary benefactors were CBS and the Los Angeles Turf Club, aka Santa Anita Park, which was founded by the charismatic “Dentist with the Golden Drill” Charles “Doc” Strub. POP rose from the charred husks of the former Ocean Park Pier (“The Playground of the West”) and its next-door neighbor, The Lick Pier, home of the famed Aragon Ballroom. It opened in July 1958, three years after Disneyland, with which it was meant to compete as a destination.
The park attempted to mix the carnival heritage of the area’s legacy piers with a family-friendly, nautical-themed modernism. You could go on a Flight To Mars, or visit Neptune’s Kingdom, take a ride on the Ocean Skyway, enjoy kitschy diversions such as the Enchanted Forest and Mystic Isles, or simply opt for amusement park stalwarts, like the rollercoasters. In retrospect, the entire enterprise feels like one final burst of damn-the-torpedoes whimsy before Los Angeles got serious. And it did just fine at first, it even outperformed the Magic Kingdom for a few years. But air conditioning, television, backyard pools, and the increasingly derelict environs surrounding POP took their toll on the attraction.
The park, in constant need of reinvestment to keep up with the powerhouse to the south, eventually reached the point of diminishing returns and closed down for good on October 6, 1967, the tail end of the Summer of Love. For the next half a dozen years or so, POP loomed forlornly over the borderland between Venice and Ocean Park, an area that artist, photographer, and cultural historian Craig Stecyk would dub Dogtown. During these years, as the sixties hardened into the early seventies, POP regularly caught fire (or was torched in acts of arson) and crumbled into the sea. Hollywood picked over its carcass, using the eerie setting for films such as The Fugitive and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? It remained a favorite set for cop shows until it was finally torn down. Meanwhile, POP offered a jurisdictional safe haven for hippies, surfers, hustlers, addicts, and artists who set up both workshop and home there and thrived in its skeletal remains.
In 1967, the Aragon Ballroom became the Cheetah Club and Lawrence Welk gave way to all the great bands of the day—The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, and house band Nazz (soon to be Alice Cooper). William Wegman and John Baldessari had studios behind what would become the Zephyr surf shop on Bay Street and Main. Artists Wayne Holwick and Dana Woolfe put murals up on vacant buildings. Vato graffiti and the custom-car and pinstriping movements took cues from each other while the legacy of former residents David Alfaro Siqueiros and Stanton MacDonald-Wright hung in the air.
“We were exposed to art and culture continuously,” Engblom said. They were also exposed to something else. By the late sixties, the area’s more than four hundred oil derricks were down to a handful of survivors. The carcass of POP, the vacant storefronts, the disappearing oil derricks, and filled-in canals were constant reminders that they were living in a sort of failed state. Venice locals The Doors were painting the psychedelic sounds of the Summer of Love in a darker hue, singing about this being the end, and the music being over. Someone said the sixties died here when Robert Kennedy was gunned down up the road.
“Nero fiddled while Rome burned. We surfed while America went down the tubes,” Engblom told me some years ago. “Robert Kennedy (before he got assassinated that day), I walked out of my apartment on Venice Boulevard and he wave[d] at me and my mom and he was dead a couple hours later. Starting with all that—John F. Kennedy, then Martin Luther King, and then the brother—you just knew something bad was happening. Any sense that good things were going to follow pretty much died at that moment.”
Did any neighborhood encapsulate the burned-out nature of the times better than Venice? The kids coming-of-age here in the seventies were latchkey kids, many of them from broken homes that didn’t survive the sixties haze. These kids were survivors, hardened against the soft naïveté of their flower-power parents. Dogtown was ripe for something new, something more aggressive in the 1970s.
It happened in a surf shop. Actually, it happened first in the surf.
By now, Skip Engblom made it through the crucible of localism— which included the grommet’s standard rites of passage of getting chased away, beaten up, and thrown in a dumpster—to become one of the regulars in the lineup at the Cove. The Cove was a break whose waves formed amid the pilings of a section of the old POP that went by the same name. Surfers would actually surf through the pilings when the waves broke through them. The fierce localism was partly protective—it was just too dangerous out there for kooks—and partly territorial: when you don’t have much, you hold onto what you’ve got.
Engblom and Stecyk met in 1966 at a festival in Pismo Beach, where they ran into each other one morning and got to talking. Each thought he’d lure the other to a local breakfast joint and then step out on the tab. When they both ended up on street at the same time, an enduring friendship was formed.
Jeff Ho, Stecyk, and Engblom all went through a version of Big Wednesday during the late sixties. Dogtown youth tended to be 1-A eligible, and these guys did what they could to avoid the war. “I grew up in Venice around Black people, Mexicans, and Asians,” Engblom explained. “The idea that I was going to go over and shoot Asians was totally repugnant to me.”
Engblom joined the merchant marines, Stecyk went for student deferments, and Ho fudged his physicals. Each eventually made it back in one piece to the beach, where Engblom and Stecyk met Ho on a winter day in 1970. It had been raining for the better part of the week, and Engblom and Stecyk were parked at the beach, waiting out the tail of a storm in Engblom’s Cadillac. When the rain cleared, he and Stecyk realized they were parked next to a 1948 Chevy truck—the classic surfer’s ride. This one also happened to double as Jeff Ho’s sleeping quarters since his recent breakup with a well-to-do debutante. Ho had already earned a reputation for shaping high-performance boards designed for the quick turns necessary to dodge POP pilings and other assorted wreckage at the Cove. Engblom had helped Larry Stevenson, a Venice Beach lifeguard, USC grad, and kick-tail innovator, with his fledgling Makaha skateboards. All three guys had surfboard shaping experience and backgrounds with lowrider and hot rod customizing, and were early skateboard adaptors.
Stecyk had also been painting totemic, streetwise cultural references to his environs on custom surfboard art for years (a 1966 Dave Sweet model he painted is on permanent display at the Smithsonian). “Stecyk invented the airbrushed surfboard,” Engblom insisted. “I don’t care what anybody else is telling you, he was making airbrushed surfboards a year or two before anybody was putting them on the market.”
Stecyk also suggested that some of the money Skip had accrued in the merchant marines went toward financing a business focused on manufacturing the types of boards they wanted to ride. Jeff Ho Surfboards and Zephyr Productions opened in 1971 on the southeast corner of Bay Street and Main in Santa Monica, across from the Sunrise Mission, and next to Star Liquor on the northern edge of Dogtown. Despite the grand dreams of Abbot Kinney, Lawrence Lipton, the Dentist with the Golden Drill, and many others floating through the firmament of Venice history, this surf shop is probably responsible for the neighborhood’s most enduring legacy.
Several years before the Zephyr shop opened, a towheaded little grommet paddled up to an older dude who was ripping it up at the Cove and said, “Man, that was a really good ride. Who are you?” It was a bold move for a seven-year-old, but even then Jay Adams was known for his bold moves.
“I’m Jeff Ho,” the guy answered. “You make surfboards, don’t you?”
“I wish I could have one of your boards.”
“Maybe you will,” replied Ho.
In time, Jay Adams was riding one of Ho’s boards as part of
the Zephyr shop’s junior surf team. Among the other junior team members were Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta, Bob Biniak, Wentzle Ruml, Shogo Kubo, and Jim Muir. To get on the team, these guys, and girl—the pioneering Peggy Oki was an original Z-boy—had to prove themselves in the surf at the Cove. When the waves weren’t breaking, they’d take the radical maneuvers honed at the Cove onto the concrete playground of Dogtown and its vicinity.
The shop and the team were part savvy marketing (it was a badge of honor to be seen wearing the colors of the renegade Zephyr team) and part clubhouse for the area’s feral youth. Engblom said that the Zephyr team gave them a sense of family and empowerment at a time and in a place when it took some determination to generate as much. “We had an us-against-them mentality. It was so much more than just a business.”
It’s hard to precisely put into words how much more than a business it became. For a lot of these kids, who were constantly being reminded they existed on the margins, what little positive reinforcement they got came from the Zephyr shop. Earning a Zephyr T-shirt “was the one thing we could make our mark with, so we all wanted to do that,” said original Z-Boy, and eventual world champion skateboarder, Stacy Peralta.
The opportunity to prove that they were as good as anyone else, despite hailing from the slum by the sea, came in the spring of 1975 at the Del Mar Nationals skateboarding competition. Del Mar, a polite, affluent community just north of San Diego that the turbulence of the sixties and early seventies seemed to have passed over, was everything Dogtown wasn’t.
“We had to work these people over,” said Engblom. “We had to validate our existence.”
Self-determination came on the heels of innovation. By 1975, Cadillac Wheels had introduced urethane wheels into skateboarding, which, at the time, had a mostly tame, upright style. The new wheels meant that the Z-boys, who had been outperforming their equipment for years, finally had something that could fully accommodate their low-slung, slashing style—a style that looked more like radical surfing than the combo of roller and figure skating most skateboarding resembled at the time.
Peggy Oki finished first in the women’s junior freestyle at the Del Mar Nationals, and Jay Adams and Tony Alva finished third and fourth in the men’s juniors. The judges didn’t even know what they’d just seen, let alone how to judge it. Adams and Alva, in particular, blew minds and even outraged folks with their audacity. But the kids knew what they were doing—they were claiming the future.
Much has been said, written, and filmed about what followed. The Z-boys legend is well told by now—the world championships, Stecyk’s “Dogtown Chronicles” for Skateboarder Magazine, the documentaries, the Hollywood feature. But even now, it’s hard to appreciate fully how the human flotsam and detritus of Abbot Kinney’s folly changed the vernacular of popular culture and remade it in their image. Glen E. Friedman, Spike Jonze, Shepard Fairey, Vans, Volcom, the Beautiful Losers…it all goes back to this. There may not have been an American Renaissance by the sea, but if you’re a kid with even a hint of cool, no matter what your age, you’re probably living in some version of 1970s Dogtown.
Of course, now, it mostly lives in cultural and commercial appropriations. In the seventies, you could buy a corner lot home in Venice for $30,000. These days, probably, $3 million would get the conversation started. Bohemia gives way to bourgeois—the dull, homogenizing effect upscale gentrification has certainly had with Dogtown as with much of Los Angeles. It’s a safe bet nothing as radical as POP or the Z-boys will sprout from these environs anytime soon.
Fittingly, in 2007, the former Z-boys headquarters was slated to be demolished. An application to preserve it as a historic landmark and to pay homage to the Z-boys’ legacy was filed in response. It was quickly approved. Now, it’s the home of Dogtown Coffee, “a café with a surfer-skater vibe serving local coffee blends plus vegan & gluten- free menu choices.” At the entrance is a surfboard with an imitative graffiti scrawl on it that says, No Kooks.
Joe Donnelly is an award-winning journalist, writer, and editor. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Journalism at Whittier College.
‘Venice Bohemia: From Abbot Kinney To The Z-Boys’ appears in Los Angeles in the 1970s: Weird Scenes Inside The Gold Mine edited by David Kukoff and published by Barnacle Books.