The Venice Historical Society will present a lecture and book signing about the life of Arthur L. Reese at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 16th, at the Venice Library, 501 Venice Blvd.
Granddaughter Sonya Reese Davis will talk about her new book, The Wizard of Venice, which celebrates her grandfather’s life as a Venice inventor, decorator and businessman in the 1900s.
Arthur, born in 1883, worked as a Pullman porter with the railroad and often traveled to Los Angeles.
In 1904, he read about Abbot Kinney’s Venice of America and thought this would be a good opportunity to start his own business.
A man of many firsts, Arthur was said to be the first black to come to Venice and work. He was also credited with being the first black to live in Venice, but that didn’t happen right away.
On his arrival, blacks were not allowed either to rent or buy property in Venice. He and his crew had to come to their job by train.
A man of upstanding character, he found someone who would sell him a lot on Westminster Avenue, where he built his home.
“He broke the covenant of blacks,” says Sonya. The property is still owned by his descendants.
A shoeshine business was started. Indicative of his mind-set in future endeavors, Arthur would send his men out on bicycles to deliver this service.
A towel concession on the beach and at the Venice Plunge (swimming pool) came next and it worked up to a janitorial service.
“He tried renovating houses with a partner but it was the cleaning of houses that really took off for him,” says Sonya.
Business was so good that Arthur suggested that his cousins from the Tabor family join him. They built a house at the rear of the Westminster Avenue lot.
“The little house in the back started the black community,” says Sonya.
The Tabor brothers founded a trucking business. Many years later, after Venice was annexed to Los Angeles, it was their trucks that were used to fill in Abbot Kinney’s canals.
Happenstance created Arthur’s next and, perhaps, most famous career. He always had a knack for decorating.
His aptitude and natural ability were evident when he helped decorate the Venice amusement pier and buildings.
It was when Abbot Kinney purchased decorations from Hamberger’s Department Store (which became May Co. and now is Macy’s) and Percy Alen, the store decorator, discovered Arthur’s talent and was so impressed, that he told Kinney that the next time he needed decorations Arthur should do the job.
“That’s how it all started,” says Sonya.
Arthur Reese was now the official town decorator. Ballrooms were his biggest ongoing decorations.
He set himself apart from other decorators by creating a total environment.
“Buildings would have ugly pillars and rafters,” says Sonya, “but people never knew it because they were decorated.”
Do you remember the disco balls from the ’70s ñ the revolving balls of mirror pieces?
Arthur was perhaps the first person to use that concept in a dance hall.
“He just got the idea of a reflection,” says Navalette Tabor Bailey, Arthur’s second cousin. “When the light hit it, it would sprinkle all over the place.”
The Grape Festival was held in 1914. Arthur trucked in grapes from Fontana, Elsinore and Cucamonga to cover everything — including the Boardwalk and the gondolas — with real grapes.
“My father, who was very young, said we had grapes everywhere,” says Sonya. “As they got old, they turned into raisins, so they lasted a long time.”
Next came float making.
Having a natural love of beauty and an innate sense of good taste, Arthur took trade school courses in how to handle crepe paper and the delicate floral sheeting.
However, he learned most of the technical aspects of float making from experience. He had the creative ideas and then after he figured out how to implement them, he had other people do the actual work.
You may have seen the papier-m’chÈ Mardi Gras heads that were part of the Venice Centennial parade last year.
They were in homage to Arthur Reese, who was very successful in making these over-sized grotesque heads for parades in the early 1900s.
“It was Arthur’s idea to bring crowds back,” says Sonya. “From then on they had a Mardi Gras parade.”
Many publicity photos were taken of the cartoon-like heads that were particularly popular in the 1920s and 1930s.
Arthur wasn’t just a decorator. He was an active member in the Santa Monica community because, at that time, there were only a few blacks in Venice.
“The black people went to Santa Monica for church and whatever else they did,” says Sonya.
He was president of a tennis club and was a member of the Masons, Elks and Shriners.
He was the first black to serve on the election board of the City of Venice, was elected a member of the Republican County Central Committee of the 61st Assembly District and was a member of the Venice Chamber of Commerce, which was unusual for a black man in a white-majority community, especially in those days.
He started the Baptist church in Santa Monica.
The first Baptist church in Venice was built on the corner of Fifth Avenue and San Juan Avenue. Then another lot was purchased on Westminster Avenue and Seventh Avenue.
By this time, Arthur was head of the building committee and hired Paul Williams to design the church. In the 1960s, it was moved to Los Angeles.
Arthur and his brother also owned two boat concessions, where they rented out canoes, gondolas and motorboats.
When Abbot Kinney’s Venice canals were filled in, for one reason due to the advent of cars, Arthur foresaw the oil industry trying to put the railroad out of business. So, he went into the car repair business, although there were not many autos at that time.
“He didn’t repair them, he cleaned them,” says Sonya. “You didn’t have to change spark plugs in those days.”
“I’ve heard people say that Mr. Kinney was prejudiced because he wouldn’t let blacks do certain things,” says Navalette. “Well, he was just trying to make a success.
“People wouldn’t come if things weren’t separated. I don’t think he had a prejudiced bone in his body. But he had a public image to uphold.
“He was so nice. He gave our families all the opportunities they wanted to be successful. All they had to do was take advantage of it.”
There is still a reminder of Arthur Reese in Venice — Reese Court, west of Main Street between Brooks Avenue and Clubhouse Avenue.
Because his design creativity was renowned in its time and his public decorations gave early Venice a beautiful, festive atmosphere and because he was a community leader whose contributions to the founding of Venice deserve commemoration, in 1991 an until-then-unnamed alley was officially named Reese Court in his memory.