Travel

Venice Beach’s past comes alive in walking tour with clips from famous movies

A mural re-creating the famous opening scene from “Touch of Evil” adorns a wall on Windward Avenue in Venice, where Orson Welles’ 1958 film was shot.
A mural re-creating the famous opening scene from “Touch of Evil” adorns a wall on Windward Avenue in Venice, where Orson Welles’ 1958 film was shot. smcmanis@sacbee.com

We were not asked to stand back and picture the scene. No, thanks to the wonders of technology and more than a little gumshoe detective work, we were able to stand in the shade under one of Windward Avenue’s few remaining colonnades and watch a scene from Venice Beach’s past play out on Jonathan Kaplan’s iPad.

When Kaplan tapped the screen held in front of his torso, suddenly the vivid, technicolor Sunday freaky spectacle of this self-styled beach community faded, replaced by a murky, inky noirish nightscape – the celebrated three-minute tracking shot that opens Orson Welles’ classic “Touch of Evil,” shot in 1958 in exactly the spot where we were standing. This was the climactic scene, as it were, of Kaplan’s three-hour Vintage Venice Reel to Real Tour that illuminates the area’s storied and sullied history as filtered through movies shot on location over the decades.

“So it begins behind Larry’s,” pointing to the popular bar across the Windward traffic circle, near Ocean Front Walk.

We look down to the screen and see a man running on the street toward a 1956 Chrysler New Yorker convertible. The man places a ticking bomb in the trunk.

We look up to that spot and see some trustafarians loitering with intent, exuding cool and ganga fumes in the mid-morning breeze.

Look down and on screen and see a couple walking down the sidewalk of the fictional Mexican border town of Los Robles – he in a suit, she in a calf-length skirt — framed by lighted pillars. They get in the car and pull out on the street.

Pause …

“See those arches they had back then,” Kaplan said. “Columns of them, all up and down Windward.”

Look up, and notice that only two sets of columns remain on the north side of Windward and none on the south side, where a tattoo parlor and bar now stand.

Look down, and see cart vendors and peasants with goats scurrying across the street – Kaplan: “Don’t think they had goats in Venice in 1958” – to avoid the slow-moving Chrysler, which makes a left turn to another street, then a right.

Pause …

“There on the left, those columns, is the old St. Mark Hotel,” Kaplan said. “Not there anymore. Oh, and don’t get too attached to that car. Well, you’ll see.”

Look up, and see that a low-rise souvenir shop is at the St. Mark location; it’s obscured by street performers break-dancing for a buck.

Look down, and the car passes another couple walking down the middle of the street, where the camera shows a radiant Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston, made to look Mexican with makeup and a mustache, cavorting without a care in the world as they head west, seemingly in step with Henry Mancini’s Latin-tinged theme song. Both the car and the couple stop at the U.S. Customs and Immigration checkpoint.

Pause …

“That’s the former site of the Neptune Theatre, which, for the movie, had a big false canopy in front of it,” Kaplan said. “That is now Big Daddy’s (pizza).”

Look up, and crane your neck across the alley to Ocean Front Walk, near Market Street, where bikini-clad women and shirtless men nosh pizza and sip smoothies as a parade of roller-bladers, bike cruisers and gawking tourists pass.

Look down, and watch as Leigh and Heston walk around the car, which drives off as Kaplan jokingly mimics the line spoken by the woman in the car (“I’ve got this ticking noise in my head …”). Leigh and Heston kiss as the pan shot ends with an explosion. Then, a quick cut to Heston, with the neon lights of the “Paradise” bar shining behind them.

End of scene …

“You can see there’s a continuity error, as they are now suddenly further up (Ocean Front Walk), and you can see the columns of the (current) Sidewalk Cafe just behind them and the fake canopy in front of the Neptune Theatre where they just were, now far behind them,” Kaplan said.

Film clip over, Kaplan finished up an exhaustive morning of strolling the streets and alleys of Venice – not the last remaining canals across town; that’s another tour entirely – by showing us the ornate carving of faces on the columns, the Renaissance and Byzantine design flourishes and explaining how the colonnade is one of the last remaining artifacts from entrepreneur Abbot Kinney’s turn-of-the-century vision of Venice Beach mirroring its Italian counterpart.

Most of Kinney’s works – the lagoon and canals downtown, the two “pleasure” piers, the “Race Through the Clouds” roller coaster, biggest west of the Mississippi River, the World’s Fair-like midway with rides such as the Dragon Slide and attractions such as the Streets of Cairo and Temple of Mirth – have long since been razed, the water filled with dirt, covered with asphalt and concrete, visions of a wondrous Coney Island of the Pacific all but forgotten.

But not completely.

Because of Venice’s convenient location near Hollywood, and its unusual architecture and landscape, filmmakers over the years have used it as settings for hundreds of movies. And Kaplan, a longtime Venice Beach resident and TV writer by profession, has sifted through the vast celluloid dustbin of history and unearthed clips that show visitors what the place looked like in days of yore. He started his side touring business, “Vintage Venice,” as a hobby, and it has turned into almost a consuming passion.

Clips he shows visitors date from Mary Pickford’s “Never Again!” (1910) through the Chaplin/Keaton/Laurel and Hardy era, musicals such as “Hollywood Cavalcade (1939), noir classics such as “Touch of Evil,” and too many 1960s and ’70s films to mention (“Mother, Jugs and Speed” or “Roller Boogie,” anyone?), as well as footage featuring Jim Morrison and The Doors cavorting on the streets, the site where the Eagles played their first gig and a house once occupied by Manson family members.

Entertaining as it is to watch the old clips, the important thing is to focus on the setting. Venice Beach itself, remember, is taking its star turn.

“What’s neat about seeing all movies is you can kind of see L.A.’s history through Venice movies,” Kaplan said. “In the old days, all the movies shot here showed this place as Coney Island of the Pacific. Later on, it was like these down-and-out movies like, well, ‘Down and Out in Beverly Hills’ and ‘Cisco Pike,’ which is about a washed-up country star now dealing drugs. Now, you can see Venice used in movies for these hip things. It’s all like having home movies of L.A., but it’s all done by professionals.

“And the thing is, I’d say most of the people I take on tours are locals, though I believe Venice is No. 2 behind Disneyland in tourism, with about 17 million a year. But people live in L.A. 40 years and don’t know (Venice’s) history. They might just think of Venice from the ’80s and ’90s as the ‘Slum by the Sea’ before the money came in. They don’t realize this once was a magical place of dance halls, attractions and movie stars. There’s not a lot left, but I’ve found enough (footage) to see things if you know where to look.”

Like any savvy Hollywood writer, Kaplan shows more than tells on the tour, which loops around the north and western parts of the community before heading back along the oceanfront. He makes liberal use of his iPad as well as old-timey photos he keeps in a black leather binder.

But a little exposition was needed to put the Venice clips in context. He told the story of Kinney, developer, conservationist, renaissance man, how he came to Southern California to cure his asthma, fell in love with the coastal burg south of Santa Monica and wanted to replicate it in the Venetian style – canals, lagoons and all – and how he basically bought and transported the St. Louis World’s Fair midway to the town, constructed a pier and the oceanfront walk to make use of the water, but also built two elaborate bathhouses for those preferring to swim indoors.

Kaplan flipped through vintage photos, some colorized but most faded black-and-white, that showed the impressive size and scope of the amusement park and piers. Three Australian tourists, Jane Pierce and Jan and Brendan Wayland, said they could hardly believe the intersection at which they were standing (Main Street and Grand Avenue) once was under water.

“That must’ve taken (Kinney) forever to build,” Pierce said.

“It actually took Kinney less than a year,” Kaplan said.

Enough talk, though. We stood on Main Street as Kaplan cued up the first clip showing the now-filled-in canals in 1910, as Pickford glided along in a boat in “Never Again!”

“That’s America’s Sweetheart at the beginning of her career,” Kaplan said. “This might be the only scene left, which I found in a compilation.”

He paused the iPad, pointed to the screen.

“See that house with the gable a couple of blocks down? It’s there (in the clip),” Kaplan said.

Next clip: A scene from “The Sheik of Hollywood” (1923), showing stars Fred Caldwell and Gale Henry riding the giant roller coaster with the ocean in the background.

“We’re at that very spot,” Kaplan said. “It stretched from here all the way to the beach.”

He then led us to the corner of Main Street and Westminster Avenue, a nondescript intersection bordered by an elementary school and dog park.

“You don’t need me to tell you that this is the most historic intersection you’ll see today,” he said. “What? I take it you’re not impressed. This was important for one day only and that day was Jan. 10, 1914. An event was happening here in Venice and a Hollywood producer wanted to cover it but couldn’t get his favorite actor. So he settled on this kid.”

With that, he tapped in iPad and on the screen came frenetic footage of Charlie Chaplin in hat with mustache and cane, on a street that looked vaguely like Main Street of today.

“You are now standing in the very spot where the Little Tramp was born,” Kaplan said. “His first time in that character. Look down this way, there was roller coaster back in the lagoon. Basically, Chaplin’s like ‘Borat’ 100 years ahead of his time, screwing around with the crowd. No one has any idea who this insane person is or that he’ll be the most famous person in the world by the end of the year.”

Kaplan replayed the short clip twice, then put the iPad away. “But again, you didn’t need me to tell you that because you can see the wonderful statue the city’s erected to Charlie Chaplin on this important spot,” he said, sarcastically. (There is no marker.)

Clips, both visual and audio, came about every five minutes during our Sunday stroll.

He cued up the Doors song “The End” when he reached the “blue bus” stop that Morrison immortalized in verse. When we stopped on Main Street in front of the faded facade of the original Gold’s Gym, he flipped to clips of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a muscle-bound lad in “Pumping Iron.”

He showed the pagodas on Ocean Front Walk where Nick Nolte and Richard Dreyfuss chatted in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” the beach-side retail store where Steve Martin and Sarah Jessica Parker got a “high colonic” in “L.A. Story,” the oceanfront bathhouse scene from Buster Keaton’s 1928 film “The Camera Man,” a clip from the musical “Hollywood Cavalcade” that gives a glimpse of the original Venice Pier, and another clip from “The Sheik of Hollywood” showing that electric trams used to shuttle Ocean Front Walk visitors from hotels to the amusement park.

Nothing if not thorough, Kaplan spent more than an hour on the beach and Ocean Front Walk, playing clips and pointing out places of note, such as the apartment where Morrison spent the summer “on a diet of canned beans and acid, writing poetry we all now know,” he said, smiling.

But Kaplan turned serious when he took us to the winding concrete bike path lined with palm trees.

“I’m going to show you know the thing that took me the longest to find,” he said. “It’s kind of my crowning achievement. This one took me a lot of sessions coming out here. I’m a little proud of this one. … People, we’re going back to 1977. Do the curves on the bike path look familiar? If they do, it might be because of this …”

He whipped out the iPad, tapped the screen. John Ritter is riding a bike along the path, with the TV show’s title, “Three’s Company” flashing in front of him and then … wait for it … Ritter falls off his bike onto the sand.” End of clip.

The Australians nod but don’t look overly impressed. I asked, “Did you get ‘Three’s Company’ in Australia?” They nodded. Tough crowd.

“Right where we’re standing is where he fell off his bike,” Kaplan said. “It was hard to figure out because there was like a dozen curves. But then I figured out it was by the green pagodas. But then there are three sets of green pagodas. I narrowed it down, but then I was like, ‘Hmm, I looked at the film and there were these tiny little palm trees. Where are those now?’ I finally figured it out by the tree pattern where he actually fell off.”

Pierce: “Well done!”

Kaplan smiled, perhaps thinking that “Three’s Company” is not as famous a ’70s TV show overseas as it is here. Perhaps a little gun-shy, he then asked the Australians if the movie “White Men Can’t Jump” (1992) made its way to the outback. The trio nodded enthusiastically.

“OK, well,” Kaplan said, stopping at a parking lot near the ocean front and Rose Avenue. “Let me show you one of the basketball scenes.”

After 30 seconds of Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson going at it on an outdoor court, Kaplan pushed pause.

“Look, there’s the hotel (on the walk) right there (in the frame),” he said. “They shot the basketball scenes right in the parking lot. The thing is, the real basketball courts farther down are a city park and they couldn’t keep it closed long enough for filming, so they just set up courts here in parking lot. … So, everyone goes down to the basketball courts and says this is where they shot ‘White Men Can’t Jump.’ But they are wrong. Now you know better.”

After three hours of seeing the sights and squinting at the screen, I felt I knew Venice like a local. Kaplan, in fact, said we now knew Venice’s old canal district better than 90 percent of Venice residents. He’s part of a neighborhood group trying to preserve the district.

“The good news is, about 60 percent of the old Craftsman houses are still here,” he said. “The bad news is, literally, only one house is protected (as a historic site). A lot of money is coming into Venice now. It’s not the Slum by the Sea anymore. These houses might get torn down for mansions. We might be about to lose a neighborhood.”

We ended up back on Windward Avenue, under a giant black-and-white mural called “Touch of Venice” on the side of Danny’s, a bar and restaurant that in Orson Welles’ time was a chop suey restaurant. In the mural the colonnade is lit, the “Venice” sign glows brightly, as Heston and Leigh stroll Windward Avenue with the doomed Chrysler New Yorker trailing them. Inscribed on the bottom left is a message that captures that feel of the Reel to Real Tour:

“Like a dream I remember from an easier time …”

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.

VENICE BEACH

What: Vintage Venice Reel to Real tours lead visitors on two- to four-hour walks to historic sights and movie locations.

Cost: $25; plus canals tour, $40

Information: www.vintagevenicetours.com

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