By Michael Aushenker
Every other Saturday morning, Venice resident Ben Dickow grabs a cup of coffee from Groundwork and heads over to Rose Avenue and Fourth Street, where he utilizes a community room to help area kids from low-income housing experience some hands-on science.
Founded by Dickow, the Westside Science Club non-profit works in partnership with the Venice Community Housing Corporation (VCHC), a nonprofit low-income housing group. Dickow and the kids, ages 8-13, launch water rockets and egg drops, and build small robots. About six months ago, Cal Tech researchers specializing in solar chemistry became involved, enhancing the experience for the children, Dickow says.
Dickow calls himself “a facilitator, not a teacher.”
“My Westside kids rarely go cross-town to the Griffith Observatory (or other science venues),” he said. “The idea is to bring (science) to the Venice and Mar Vista kids.”
Science has always been a social avenue for Dickow, who met Laurel, his wife of three years, while they shared a brief stint at the California Science Center in 2004.
Originally from Villa Park, Ill., the University of Chicago graduate studied literature and physics. The Chicago native, who moved out from his artsy Wicker Park neighborhood to like-minded Venice back in 2000, has never left the beachside community ever since.
“When I lived in Wicker Park,” he said, “it was a big art colony. Venice felt like that neighborhood except with the sun and the palm trees and the beach.”
Dickow loves his area but he has also witnessed a gentrification over the past dozen years.
“There is definitely a change going on,” he said. “It’s more Eastside hipster. Things (such as rent) are way more expensive than it used to be. A lot of new restaurants aren’t speaking to large portions of the neighborhood – the poorer portions.”
Since moving out west, Dickow has fallen into a career as a museum consultant, applying his expertise to non-traditional spaces. He is the director of informal science at the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education.
Dickow’s childhood love for comic books, inherited from his father, a big Marvel Comics reader, reveals a whole other side to Dickow that, most recently, has been showcased at El Cid, the venerable Los Feliz Mexican digs with the mariachi floor show.
Back in Chicago, Dickow started Captured Aural Phantasy Theater, which re-enacts old crime and horror issues from comics’ Golden Age in a radio drama style for semi-camp effect. There’s no need to push too hard to wring laughs out of howlers such as a 1952 Crime Smashers story, “Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective” from Trojan Comics or “Small Guy,” a 1952 tale from EC Comics’ Shock and Suspense Stories.” (Most famously known for “Tales From the Crypt,” the EC imprint published the comics which had Sen. Joe McCarthy witch-hunting the entire industry as youth corruptors in the 1950s.)
“The secret is not to do it campy,” he said. “It’s just to say the words as straight as possible because all of the comedy is there.”
The retro evening of fun dubbed “A Night of Noir” also includes wife Laurel performing old chestnuts with a spooky patina and Dickow’s surf band the Noble Gasses, who are scheduled to play on the back of a flatbed truck at Santa Barbara’s July Fourth parade on State Street.
Dickow recreated Captured Aural Phantasy Theater in the late 1990s back in Chi-Town soon after a Chicago bud of his moved out to L.A. Outside of their regular monthly El Cid gig, the group recently performed at the fifth anniversary of GHOULA (Ghost Hunters of Urban Los Angeles) on the roof of the famed Oviatt Building in downtown L.A., and previously played Alexandria Hotel’s Court Ballroom in the late 2000s as downtown’s Art Walk gained traction.
“All of us do this because we really love it,” said Dickow, who aspires to see the show go to Broadway or air on television.
For information on Westside Science Club, visit vchc.org. Captured Aural Phantasy Theater will perform on Sunday, June 2, at 8:30 p.m. at El Cid, 4212 W Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 668-0318; elcidla.com. Visit CapturedAuralPhantasy.com §