A hot place for free expression
| VENICE BEACH, CALIF.
A snake charmer twirls in slow loops as two pythons coil around his neck. Next to him a dreadlock-haired girl in a bikini clashes her tiny hand cymbals in time. They are surrounded by more than a hundred drummers keeping beat in their jam band on the sand.
Dancing and drumming the day away, these revelers are regulars on present-day Venice Beach, which has become the mecca of performance artists the world over.
On the eve of the Venice Beach's 100th birthday in September, the boardwalk continues to set trends for street performers across the US. In the 1980s, the oceanfront helped spawn the robot and mannequin act, where people froze as statues. Now, Venice is leading a resurgence in a familiar form of carnival: hippie-style performance art. If Venice is any indicator, tie-dyed firebreathers or a drum circle may be coming soon to an urban street corner near you.
"Venice sets the stage for street performers everywhere," says Mike Tonya, a store owner on the boardwalk whose family has lived in Venice for more than 50 years. "Venice is the stage for street performers who want to be taken seriously. I see performers come here from Coney Island and Times Square to scope out acts."
On the boardwalk are many signs that "the times, they are a changin'." Where the original Venice was a free-for-all, today's performers need to apply for licenses, and where a leisurely stroll was once possible, today's beachgoers have to contend with throngs of thousands as they make their way down the beach.
Some, though, feel today's scene is simply an imitation of the '70s. One shopkeeper, who asked to remain anonymous, referred to the modern Venice crowd as the "MTV hippies."
It wasn't quite what wealthy tobacco mogul Abbot Kinney had in mind when he designed the oceanfront as a tribute to Venice, Italy. Construction began in September, 1904, on what Mr. Kinney hoped would be a resort town resplendent with gondolas, amusement piers, and Venetian architecture. But, the area was quickly occupied by Midwesterners whose tastes led Kinney to bring in entertainment such as camel rides.
It was not until the late 1950s that the bohemian nature of Venice emerged. Veterans from the Korean War settled the area, bringing with them feelings of disillusionment. They began to develop the countercultural lifestyle that gave rise to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and the other beatniks (or "beats"). Soon, they were gravitating to the boardwalk, a popular spot for roller skaters, to make money.
"The earliest performers were engaging in free expression," says Elayne Alexander, historian of the Venice Historical Society. "It was an anything-goes performance, but deeply rooted in artistic expression."
By the 1960s the beatniks had given rise to the hippies. And with them came a penchant for the exotic that is back in vogue today.
"When there were guys here doing the robot with their boomboxes in the 1980s, it was a different scene," says Joe Neumann, a T-shirt vendor on the boardwalk. "It had a certain harshness and the people down here were either into hip-hop or rap. But now it seems like the next generation of hippies has claimed it."
Now performers such as Nick, "The Crazy Greek Glasswalker," and Harry Perry, a guitarist on inline skates, share space with a man in a Technicolor shirt who juggles handkerchiefs. Just off the main boardwalk, approximately 100 feet from the sea, is a drum circle.
"There are a lot of regulars," says a drummer who goes by the name of Tom. "But it's been getting bigger as this next generation starts to get more and more interested."
Such diversity seems likely to remain a hallmark of the beach, even if there's more regulation than ever before.
"They have to receive permits, but in a way this brings out the best performers," says Ms. Alexander. "I think that the artists in Venice have gotten better and more upscale with time."