As a boy growing up in Kansas City, Marcus Gladney was obsessed with two things: the movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (the good one, with Gene Wilder), and carnivals. Boyhood fascinations giving way to adulthood, it was love that would finally bring him west. In 2014 he left Missouri with his girlfriend, but six months later found himself beached in Venice without the girl, a plan, or much else. Nothing was going his way, except an unusual bicycle that caught his eye one evening on the bike path; it had strings of LED lights entwined in its wheels, creating a dazzling trip of color and motion when the bike whizzed past. Amazed, he chased it like a lunatic, yelling for the guy to stop. The rider told him that a guy named Sebastian had installed the lights.
Gladney found Sebastian, and asked him for help creating his own illuminated bicycle. “Have you ever put twelve strings of lights on a wheel?” Marcus asked. “Twelve sets of lights! Why? And where would all the batteries go?” Sebastian answered him, in something akin to the outraged tone of Dr. Emmet Brown’s “One-point-twenty-one gigawatts!” from “Back to the Future.” But just like Doc, Sebastian found a way to do it, and the blend of hundreds of red and yellow lights spun a dazzling impression of fire when Marcus rode the new creation down the Venice bike path. Not longer after that, as L.A. stories often go, two producers approached them and asked if they would consider being part of the opening sequence for a new TV show, “The Late Late Show with James Corden.” A week later they shot the sequence with Corden riding Marcus’ bike in Windward Plaza that appears in the show open.
In the way that a single idea can change the course of a life, Marcus and Sebastian became boardwalk evangelists for illuminated bicycles. They festooned their own bikes and themselves with increasingly more elaborate arrays, and recruited many followers with their infectious enthusiasm. They received no income from the enterprise, and had no sponsors or deep pockets. It was all about the joy of it. They started riding every Sunday at sundown, and always from Windward Plaza, and started calling themselves VELP, the Venice Electric Light Parade.
Lately, VELP rides often draw more than a hundred riders, led by Marcus as a pied piper in his glowing purple sombrero, but it took a lot of uphill pedaling. “Early on, there were some very lonely rides,” Marcus admits. “Just two of us.” But they stuck to it because they loved it, and they loved the faces of spectators dazzled by the moving light show. And this would be the moment to refer back to Gladney’s childhood loves: carnivals and Willy Wonka, and to note how much of those two ideas are in VELP, and to celebrate keeping the kid inside us alive and well.
— Martin L. Jacobs