Writers of “Chavez Ravine” and “The Watts Towers Project” turn a critical eye to the history of Venice

By Christina Campodonico

Historic postcard of Abbot Kinney’s original Venice canals, now paved streets

Historic postcard
of Abbot Kinney’s
original Venice canals, now paved streets

Richard Montoya’s and Roger Guenveur Smith’s playwriting projects have taken them from the hills of Dodger Stadium to the Watts Towers, respectively. But before working on the play “American Venice,” a work-in-progress that they’ll discuss on Wednesday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, neither Angeleno had really ventured far west of the 405 for work or play.

“My work has always been so hardboiled and downtown L.A. and Chavez Ravine and cops and capers. That there’s this whole world west of Lincoln Boulevard, it just kind of blows my mind that I missed that universe and many different worlds for so long. It just seems so rich and satisfying to finally sink our teeth into the sand there. And it’s so vibrant and it has many, many eras of history that are fantastical and controversial. It’s almost like ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ but a western version of ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ It blows my mind,” says Montoya, co-founder of the acclaimed Chicano theater troupe Culture Clash and writer on last season’s Kirk Douglas revival of “Chavez Ravine.”

“Even though I grew up in Los Angeles, Venice to me was almost like another city, another realm of existence. Every time that I came out, as a child, even as a teenager, it was something altogether that I didn’t necessarily understand — that I didn’t necessarily relate to, even. It seemed to be a culture unto itself. So to come now as an adult and to really dig in, it’s always a revelatory experience,” adds Smith, known for his work with filmmaker Spike Lee and his one-man show portrayals of Rodney King and Black Panther Huey P. Newton.

For “American Venice,” Montoya and Smith have sifted through historical and archival materials, including The Argonaut’s own news reports, and interviewed local scholars, community leaders and families. But the challenge of portraying the neighborhood didn’t really hit them until they took a walking tour of Venice. In Oakwood they found two pairs of Tupac Shakur Makavelli sneakers on the street and a handwritten sign that said, “Take what you want.”

“One pair for Roger and one pair for me,” quips Montoya. But the shoes were also a warning to tread carefully — “walk in these shoes,” says Montoya, and get the story right.

From the rise of Abbot Kinney’s Venice of America to the apex of gang warfare in the ‘90s, a variety of narrative threads will flow through their dramatization of Venice. But two pillars of the Westside’s African-American history serve as “guiding lights”  for the playwrights — barrier-breaking surfer Nicolas Gabaldón and the family of Abbot Kinney’s aide-de-camp Irving Tabor.

The first documented California surfer of African-American and Mexican descent, Gabaldón is known for penetrating the beach cities’ predominantly white surf culture by riding the waves of Santa Monica and Malibu during the 1930s and 40s, a time when African-Americans were not often welcome at some area beaches. The popular young man tragically died at age 24 in a surfing accident at the Malibu Pier in 1951.
Yet his short life remains a symbol of hope for surfers and people of color, says historian Alison Rose Jefferson, who will speak on Wednesday’s panel.

“He is representative of African-Americans, who were enjoying the beach at that time and pursing their California dream. He is a symbol of that pursuit of the California dream,” says Jefferson.

The dreams of Gabaldón and all those who flock to Venice to pursue their aspirations similarly inspired Montoya and Smith as they delved deeper into the neighborhood’s history.

“That’s really the story of Venice, which has very much been a cyclical story of people’s movements, people’s visions, people’s nightmares, their dreams,” says Smith.

Yet in researching the history behind these dreams, Montoya and Smith also discovered shocking tales of injustice and resilience — namely Irving Tabor being forced to relocate Abbot Kinney’s house to 541 Santa Clara Ave. following the Venice founder’s death. When Kinney died, he left his home to chauffeur and confidant Tabor, but a combination of discriminatory housing covenants in the area and objections from members of the Kinney family prevented Tabor from living on the land where the house was originally located.

“So Tabor and his family literally cut that house in half and put it on logs, and then put it on a barge and then put it on the canal to an integrated neighborhood, where they reassembled the house and lived for the rest of their lives,” recounts Smith. “That is a fantastic story and one I think that anyone who knows anything about Los Angeles should know. It’s right up there with the story of Chavez Ravine and the story of Simon Rodia and creating the Watts Towers out of junk. These are the great L.A. stories that have very little to do with Hollywood but a lot to do with the truth, the reality, the tragedy of the real place that we call L.A.”

George Pyrce, Irving Tabor’s grandson, is glad that Montoya and Smith are making a play based upon his family’s history that could preserve his grand-father’s legacy for generations to come.

“What I love most and miss is all the little stories he used to tell,” says Pryce of his grandfather. “He knew the history of Venice like no one else.”

Ultimately, Montoya hopes that “American Venice” will not only do justice to Venice’s original dreamers, but also encourage people to pause over the neighborhood’s history before it is erased or forgotten for good.

“Hopefully, before everything turns into a high-tech campus of Silicon Valley at Venice, we should recall the families and especially the dreamers and the builders of Venice that made it that place in the first place,” says Montoya. “It was very brave of Abbot Kinney and for the first generation of Tabors to dream.  … We think it’s worth our while to take a moment to recollect and recall that.”

“Excavating Venice of America,” a conversation led by Richard Montoya and Roger Guenveur Smith, happens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 1, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City.

Advanced tickets are $5 online or by phone. Free at the box office. Call (213) 628-2772 or visit CenterTheatreGroup.org.