Locals rally around the Venice Beach Freakshow, the latest casualty of a tech-fueled real estate frenzy

By Beige Luciano-Adams

The Venice Beach Freakshow brought small-tent thrills to the boardwalk one last time on Sunday, tying up its 11-year run with a protest, a party and even a wedding ceremony for Jessa the Bearded Lady.

As first detailed in last week’s issue of The Argonaut, Freakshow owner Todd Ray claims his iconic boardwalk attraction is being pushed out by the building’s new owners refusing to renew his lease — all the while more recent tenants, workers for tech giant Snapchat, remain in offices overhead.

In the ensuing media frenzy, community reaction has taken up this skirmish over a retail storefront as the latest front in a philosophical battle for the soul of Venice.

On the ground, a dazzling young sword swallower (Ray’s daughter, Asia), the mirthful Bearded Lady and various oversized fish hooks and electric drills laced through the skull of a performer named Morgue kept onlookers rapt and breathless.

Sign holders and activists, Sunday beachgoers, freaks and fans of all stripes mingled in a crowd of about 100 or more at any given time. Even the police, parked several yards down toward the water, appeared to be having fun.

Ray roared into the microphone, over a surprisingly good deejay.

“We got the dirty kids here, the traveling kids, the locals, ladies and the fellas,” he said. “We are all freaks on planet Earth.”

Referring to Snapchat’s much-documented and increasingly polarizing expansion, Ray broke it down: “Do you wanna walk on their corporate campus, or do you want Venice Beach? Do you want Snapchat, or do you want the Freakshow?!”

Snap Inc. has told the press, minimally, that it merely leases space at 909 Ocean Front Walk. The company has no relation to building owner Snapshot LLC, according to a company statement, and does not have any existing rights to lease the ground-floor space that until now housed the Freakshow.

That information has done little to quell rising anger in the community, however.

“If you don’t speak up the billionaire bullies will come in and take over. The Venice Beach Freakshow is still alive today. … We’re gonna keep it alive, with your support,” Ray said, adding that it was Sunday morning, after all, and passed around an offering basket.

Jessa the Bearded Lady said ‘I do’ at Sunday’s closing party for the Venice Beach Freakshow
Photo by Mia Duncans

Ryan Faber, a graphic artist and web developer, said he’s seeing the kind of gentrification that changed San Francisco happen in his native Los Angeles.

“I moved back to L.A. [from San Francisco] to afford to live here, and the price has gone up so astronomically. … The place we live is totally getting subjugated — like, what, this is going to be a cafeteria for Snapchat?” said Faber, 40. “Obviously Snapshot LLC is not Snapchat, but to deny there’s a connection between them allowing Snapchat properties to stay but the long-term residents have to go?”

Pointing to his young son, he added, “We want to teach him to stand up for the little guy. It’s such a metaphor — the little guy, the misunderstood — those are the people who can’t live in Venice anymore.”

Venice resident Mark Rago, 44, manned a booth for community activist groups Venice Dogs and the Alliance for the Preservation of Venice, which helped organize protests during Snapchat’s initial public offering in March.

Showing passersby a map of Snapchat-leased properties all around Venice, Rago hopes to catch the attention of the California Coastal Commission and
L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin to “have them put a stop to it,” he said. “Otherwise, all the money that comes into Venice Beach will be gone because there won’t be tourists anymore; it will all be private offices.”

Sheryl Lorenzo, 62, strolled the boardwalk in a Venice Beach Freakshow T-shirt.

“I think the bigger picture is bad,” she said. “Venice Beach will lose its uniqueness. People will stop coming. It will be more like Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive.”

Alicia Weaver, 28, said she would often bring guests from out of town to the Freakshow.

“It’s part of the experience. The presenter is a part of what I hear every time I’m here,” she said.

Comic book writer Joshua Dysart, 45, watched the show with a mix of excitement and defiance.

“I’ve lived in Venice Beach for 16 years, and watching what Snapchat is doing — buying and leasing so much property, pushing local businesses out — has been upsetting,” he said. “But the elimination of the Venice Beach Freakshow is the removal of our spiritual center. The idea that we are inclusive, that everybody is beautiful — that’s a Venice idea. It has been for decades. So this is a metaphorical death of Venice; it’s a funeral.”