Five live entertainment stages, three beer gardens, a children’s activity area and vendors galore are expected to draw 100,000-plus on Sunday to the center of West Coast cool
By Joe Piasecki
These days it’s hard to imagine Abbot Kinney Boulevard by any other name, but three decades ago GQ’s “Coolest Block in America” was a low-rent, rough-and-tumble stretch of roadway known as West Washington Boulevard.
“People were afraid to come to Venice. There were still guns going off,” said Don Novack, a real estate developer who became a restaurateur nearly 28 years ago when he took over The Merchant of Venice, now Hal’s Bar and Grill — Abbot Kinney’s longest-surviving business.
Novack’s first Abbot Kinney Festival, in 1987, was basically a sidewalk-sale collaboration of some of the business owners on the block that drew about 8,000 people.
“Almost like a First Friday [food truck event] now, but that was busy for us back then,” he said.
Organizers of Sunday’s 30th annual Abbot Kinney Festival expect more than 100,000 people — maybe as many as 125,000 — to pass through the .7-mile stretch of boulevard between Main Street and Venice Boulevard.
They’ll find plenty to keep busy: three live music stages, a spoken word stage, a children’s stage, three beer gardens (Firestone Walker, Goose Island and Shock Top) and plenty of food trucks and merchandise vendors.
The festival remains free, though food and drinks must be purchased.
“And even though its grown over 30 years, it’s still truly a community festival,” said Donna Humphrey, chair of the nonprofit Abbot Kinney Festival Association, which took over organizing duties in 1990 — the same year West Washington Boulevard got its now iconic new name. “You see neighbors, friends. It’s the day the community comes out to have fun together.”
Case in point: The live music stage at Andalusia Avenue features a locals-only lineup curated by Venice singer-songwriter Matt Ellis.
The music starts at 10:30 a.m. with the volunteer Venice Symphony Orchestra, which charts the course of music history “from Beck to Beethoven” with tunes that blend classical and pop/rock aesthetics, jams and big beats included.
At 11:15 it’s up-and-coming singer songwriter Lacey Kay Cowden, who recently released a debut EP and “has a great big old voice and an acoustic guitar and stomps her foot along for the back beat,” said Ellis.
Blue Eyed Son performs psychedelic/acoustic surf rock at noon, and then at 1 p.m. Paul Chesne and his band perform what Chesne describes as a mixture of Dr. Dre and Johnny Cash — “which is pretty apt,” said Ellis.
Ellis performs American rock with a full band at 3 p.m. A native of Australia, he moved to the neighborhood with his wife in 2005.
“The Abbot Kinney Festival was one of our first experiences in Venice. We had just arrived and were trying it on. There was such a welcoming atmosphere, such a fun day, that it definitely sealed the deal,” Ellis said. “So I just wanted to help out this year and celebrate local bands.”
Nocona, a new band that’s already played Outside Lands and the Stagecoach Fest, do their cow-punk thing at 4 p.m.
Then celebrated singer-songwriter Tom Freund, a fixture of the Venice music scene, closes it all out at 5 p.m. with songs from his new album “Two Moons.”
To mark this year’s milestone anniversary, three longtime Venice artists of international standing — Ed Moses, Laddie John Dill and Tom Everhart — lent their talents to help raise funds for the Abbot Kinney Festival Association’s nonprofit community grants program, creating a series of commemorative posters for sale at the festival.
The association is funding 11 grants this year, a total of $30,000, for various community and youth programs in Venice, Humphrey said.
The locals-only Andalusia Stage also hosts the 2 p.m. presentation of the Spirit of Venice Awards, which honor people who’ve made special contributions to the welfare of the community. This year’s recipients include community activist Mariana Aguilar of the Oakwood Recreation Center and Eduardo Manilla, chair of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s arts committee. Moses, Dill and Everhart are also receiving awards, with a posthumous award going to late Z-Boy skater Jay Adams.
So what does Novack see in the decades of change on the boulevard, reflected by the monumental growth of a festival that still remains community at its core?
“It’s good and bad. A lot of the old timers and people who were on the street can’t afford to stay, but it’s good that there’s new life and new people and some great new shops opening,” he said. “Venice still has the stuff — an amalgamation of all kinds of people.”
The Abbot Kinney Festival runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Visit abbotkinney.org.