Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Hot Place for Free Expression

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Hot Place for Free Expression

Article excerpt

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. …

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