Displaced by murky real estate dealings, the Venice Beach Freakshow celebrates one last hurrah

By Beige Luciano-Adams

Jessa the Bearded Lady welcomes visitors to the Venice Beach Freakshow
Photo by Ted Soqui

Venice Beach Freakshow paterfamilias Todd Ray is adamant this story should be about celebrating the Freakshow — its history and import to an iconic and inclusive boardwalk counterculture. He wants their closing party this Sunday — from noon to 6 p.m., and you are totally invited — to reify that legacy and connect the community.

He does not want this story to be about his most recent landlord, a shell investment group reportedly summoned at the behest of tech giant Snapchat, which has been infamously gobbling up chunks of Venice real estate for its ever-expanding offices.

“We worked really hard over the last 11 years to transform our part of the boardwalk into a magical and wondrous family place,” Ray said. “I’m on the boardwalk all the time, talking to everybody. I’m interacting with them and their families. What they come for — it’s the creative energy, it’s freedom, it’s art, it’s music. They come because they want to experience people who are living a free life.”

A 2012-14 AMC reality TV series about the Venice Beach Freakshow brought this colorful extended sideshow family — the Tallest Man in America, Wolf Boy, Ray’s fire-eating daughter, a two-headed turtle and the Bearded Lady — to viewers around the world.

But Ray’s story is tied up with the other remnants of a kaleidoscopic West Coast lifestyle, one that many see as imperiled by the insistent creep of tech office colonization.

Todd Ray with his son Phoenix and wife Danielle
Photo by Ted Soqui

Eviction Day

After appealing to as many higher powers as he could find, Ray and his family of performers are being pushed out of their home in the 900 block of Ocean Front Walk.

“A good while back I was told by the last building owners that Snapchat was buying the building,” Ray said in his honeyed Southern drawl, adding that he was instructed to send new rent checks to Snapshot Partners, LLC.

Previous media reports have linked Snapshot to Snapchat, the latter having a rumored first right-of-refusal on the entire three-story Ocean Front Walk property where the Venice Beach Freakshow is housed. Filings with the California Secretary of State show Snapshot Partners is headed by Michael Schlesinger, an office-focused real estate investor who runs Cambra Realty in Beverly Hills. Calls and emails to Schlesinger were not returned by press time.

Ray says that when he asked to renew his lease, as was typical every five years, the new owners declined. Desperate to save his family business, he reached out to L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin’s office, which sent the case to a city planning commissioner, who ultimately put him in touch with an elusive Snapchat communications rep. Ray said he tried every angle, even offering to lease the space after the proposed two-year renovation period.

“The owners sent their lawyer after me … said if I’m not out by April 30 they’ll sue me for potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars. So I told the lawyer, I said, ‘Why are you being so aggressive?’ And he was basically telling me I’m not sophisticated at their level of business. The guy was just a jerk to me,” Ray said.

Snapchat did not return our request for comment. (UPDATE 4/27: After publication, a Snapchat spokesperson responded on background that Snapchat does not have any leasing rights to the building’s ground floor retail space and that Snapchat is unaffiliated with Snapshot Partners.)

The Snapchat Effect

Snapchat’s Venice takeover is reality laced with myth, as constant rumblings circulate about new popups and sightings — even after the company issued a statement in March appearing to put the brakes on its Venice expansion.

Ray started noticing Snapchat employees coming in and out of the offices above the Venice Beach Freakshow about eight months ago.

“Oh yeah, I see them all the time,” he said.

Ray’s not opposed to Snapchat, per say —“They have every right to come into town,” he says — but to the snowballing effect of other investors turning all of Venice into lucrative Silicon Beach real estate “so they can transform Venice into what they want it to be, instead of celebrating what it is and making it better.”

Anxieties about office-park automatons run high in Venice, and Ray said each day the transformation is more apparent. “It’s starting to feel robotic … like literally we’re on a [corporate] campus.”

The powers behind that transformation are formidable.

“On the Westside of Los Angeles we have some very sophisticated property owners,” said Esther Margulies, a member of the West L.A. Planning Commission who has heard various other cases regarding proposed developments on Ocean Front Walk.

“It’s safe to say most folks in Silicon Beach are highly educated and some of the smartest people in the room. So they will definitely be evaluating property acquisition and reuse, and will be well-informed and know all rules and regulations regarding the degree of entitlements based on being in a coastal zone,” Margulies said.

On Tuesday, Ray said he was feeling down, packing things up. But his passion for the wondrous underbelly of society remained intact.

“You can buy the property, but you can’t buy Venice Beach and its spirit,” he said.

“This idea that we have to fit into other people’s boxes is really the trap that keeps us all so unhappy,” Ray observes. “If everyone would just hold that idea in their heart, then in fact the Freakshow will still be alive.”

The Venice Beach Freakshow closing party is from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, April 30, at 909 Ocean Front Walk, Venice. Visit facebook.com/venicebeachfreakshow for more information.