Welcome to Venice West: Audio Recordings from the Lawrence Lipton Papers

Lipton and Venice

I have chosen Venice, California, as the scene, the laboratory as it were, because I live here and have seen it grow up around me. Newer  than the North Beach, San Francisco, scene or the Greenwich Village scene, it has afforded me an opportunity to watch the formation of a community of disaffiliates from its inception. Seeing it take form I had a feeling of "this is where I came in," that I had seen it all happening before. But studying it closely, from the inside, and with a sympathy born of a kindred experience, I have come to the conclusion that this is not just another alienation. It is a deep-going change, a revolution under the ribs. These people are picking up where we—left off?—no, where we began. Began and lived it and wrote about it and waited for the world to catch up with us. I am telling their story here because it is our story, too. My story.[1]


As much as The Holy Barbarians is a study of the people that inhabited the Beat scene in Venice West, it is also a profile of the city that housed them. The final pages of The Holy Barbarians feature a "Venice West Picture Essay" with photographs—taken by Austin Anton, William Claxton, and others—depicting the Beats of Venice West in their chosen setting: the cafés, apartments, streets, and canals of Venice, California in the 1950s. The Lawrence Lipton papers at USC contain many of the original photographic prints from the picture essay (right: parts of the essay as it was printed in The Holy Barbarians).

The Gas House

The Holy Barbarians refers to a couple of the gathering places frequented by the Venice West Beats: the Venice West Café, the Cosmo Alley coffee shop, Lipton's own living room, John Altoon's studio, and the Gas House. The Gas House was an especially popular Beat haunt during the time that Lipton was writing The Holy Barbarians and it is mentioned on a couple of Lipton's audio recordings.

The majority of Tape 154 consists of a compilation of various television and radio news broadcasts from August of 1959 regarding the Los Angeles Police Board of Commissioners' hearing to determine if the Gas House would be granted an entertainment license. Caught on this tape is Lew Irwin from KABC Channel 7 Los Angeles interviewing Lipton about the hearing. Irwin introduces Lipton to viewers as "the philosopher of the Beat Generation" and summarizes Lipton's claims that "the hip squares" (squares posing as Beats), not actual beatniks, are the ones "causing Venice citizens so much distress." Irwin's full interview with Lipton begins at 12:35 on the recording.

In December of 1959, presiding officer Thomas Mulherin denied the Gas House an entertainment license. A few years later, in August 1962, the Los Angeles City Board of Building and Safety Commissioners declared that the building that housed the Gas House was structurally unsound and on September 3, 1962, the Gas House officially closed.[2]

Venice's Beginnings

Both The Holy Barbarians and Lipton's collection of audio tapes present the origins of Venice, California and its evolution over time as central themes. Lipton uses "Slum by the Sea" as the title of The Holy Barbarians' opening chapter and introduces the setting: "Venice by the Pacific, dreamed up by a man named Kinney at the turn of the century, a nineteenth-century Man of Vision, a vision as trite as a penny postal card."[3] The chapter repeatedly highlights the contrast between the grand vision of Venice's developer and the current (circa 1959) reality of moral and economic decline.

The Venice Pier Opera House, where Kinney dreamed of Nellie Melbas warbling arias and Italian tenors singing Neapolitan boat songs, went into history instead as the ballroom where Kid Ory first brought New Orleans jazz to the West Coast.
The luxury hotels along the beach front promenade, too costly to tear down at present-day wrecking prices and not profitable enough to warrant proper upkeep and repair, stand like old derelicts, their plush and finery faded and patched.
To this area of Los Angeles, as to similar areas of other large cities, have come the rebellious, the nonconformist, the bohemian, the deviant among the youth.[4]

The "nineteenth-century Man of Vision" that Lipton describes is Abbot Kinney (1850-1920), developer of the 1905 "Venice of America" plan, which eventually grew into the present Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles. The recording on Tape 434 of Lipton's audio collection begins in the middle of a discussion between Lawrence Lipton and Nellie Loeb regarding Abbot Kinney and his family. Lipton and Loeb discuss Kinney's ownership of the Los Angeles Saturday Post; his political views; the competing visions for Venice as a summer resort and a cultural center for the arts; Kinney's children, who took over some of the Venice enterprises following his death; a love for Italian opera that Kinney fostered in his children; and the roots of jazz music in Venice. During the conversation on Venice, Nellie Loeb refers to her notes from a recent talk, written piece, or interview involving Abbot Kinney's daughter. Since Abbot Kinney only had one daughter who survived into adulthood, Helen Kinney, much of the biographical details discussed on this tape probably stem from Helen's accounts.

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