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Venice Beach Easter with Jan Karlin & Do Huong Tra My.

Venice Beach with Jan Karlin & Do Huong Tra My.

Timing is everything.

Mae West was right. You only live once, but if you do it right, once should be enough.

So after hard work, it’s time to enjoy life on a holiday. It was Easter Sunday in LA, and my friends from Hanoi had naturally not had a lot of time to see things. And it’s important to see what any city has that is only found in that city. One of those unique places for Los Angeles is what I call The End of the Western World.

The Venice Beach Walkway. In all its bizarre glory…….

A circus throwback Venice Beach attraction.

A circus throwback to 1906 Venice Beach attractions.

Abbot Kinney might well be the King Ludwig of Bavaria of Los Angeles. His grandiose ideas that didn’t quite take off during his lifetime came to symbolize a grand dream for Los Angeles that now defines the place.

That idea? To literally dig canals and transplant Venice, Italy to Southern California creating a New Renaissance cultural mecca in the West.

Abbot Kinney's replica of the Doge's Palace on Windward.

Abbot Kinney’s replica of the Doge’s Palace with To Trinh and Tracy.

Kinney was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1850. Fluent in six languages, he helped map the Lakota nation reservations for the U.S. Geological Survey, and then surveyed Yosemite Valley. He, of course, met and became friends with John Muir. Working for his brother’s tobacco company he then traveled to Egypt and Turkey before embarking on a vacation through Europe, India, Celyon, New Guinea, Australia and Hawaii, with no frequent flyer miles in the bargain. Arriving in San Francisco, he’s delayed by snow traveling East so wends his way south to Sierra Madre, close to my home in Pasadena in the San Gabriel Valley.

His dangerous life threatening asthma? Cured by sleeping in Sierra Madre. You guessed it, he stayed in Southern California, believing in the miraculous recovery possible for every visitor to the Golden State.

By 1886 he’s moved to Santa Monica, seems his wife didn’t like Sierra Madre that much. She yearned for the Pacific Ocean breezes not far away. Kinney’s 1887 purchase of 247 acres of the Santa Monica Canyon fell through and he was forced to sell the Palisades development idea to Collis P. Huntington.

With the Santa Monica Pier in the distance, Kinney's Palisades idea still delights Jan and Tra My.

With the Santa Monica Pier in the distance, Kinney’s Palisades still delights Jan and Tra My.

In 1891 he and his partner Francis Ryan buy 1.5 miles of the Santa Monica Beach.   Sadly, Ryan dies in 1898. His widow remarried and let’s just say Kinney and the New Husband did not get along. Especially when it concerned the real estate investment he’d made with Francis Ryan. The solution to their disagreement? Take a guess (remember that John Cage is born in LA in 1912…..)

They flipped a coin. Kinney won. Venice Beach is born.

Thank you, Abbot Kinney, for Venice Beach!

Thank you, Abbot Kinney, for Venice Beach!

Fast forward to July 4, 1905. The opening of Venice Beach. Kinney had envisioned a cultural mecca, replete with the best performers, artists and lecturers of the day. But the high culture idea didn’t take and by 1906 Kinney changed gear and knew he’d better retool or lose it all. So he brought gondoliers from Venice, Italy, dug canals, added freak shows (see earlier photo above), amusement attractions and created the Coney Island of the West. The parade is still going on so you’ll have time to catch it when you visit!

Imaginative street performers are everywhere on the Venice Beach.

Imaginative street performers are everywhere on Venice Beach.

We whisked Song Hong to Venice from their downtown hotel quickly (traveller’s hint: you can negotiate any big city easily on a Sunday) to a favorite breakfast spot, the Fig Tree Cafe.

Easter Sunday brunch celebrating Song Hong's U.S. debut at Fig Tree.

Easter Sunday brunch celebrating Song Hong’s U.S. debut at Fig Tree.

We like to take out of town guests to Fig Tree, it fits the bill for beach atmosphere and very good food and service. And there are street musicians close by so the soundtrack is also appealing.

John Ford was right. If the facts contradict the legend, print the legend. There’s a lot of doubt that Charlie Chaplin owned what is now Gingerbread Court but even as a native Angeleno that’s what I grew up hearing. No matter, as there are many Chaplin haunts you can find here, and you can even rent his home in Venice not far from the walkway on the website Home Away.

Regardless of historical truth, the Gingerbread Court buildings are a great way to see the Old Venice Beach.

Tracy, To Trinh and My Tra at Gingerbread Courts.

Tracy, To Trinh and Tra My at Gingerbread Court.

Everybody needs sunglasses and, yes, Jan and I buy ours here!

A great place for shades.

A great place for shades.

Gronk’s Homage to Starry Night was the perfect place for a new quartet photo for Song Hong’s strings (pianist Quynh Trang Pham was in Santa Barbara visiting her daughter, another reason for this group to gravitate to California).

New publicity photo for Song Hong by Gronk's mural.

New publicity photo for Song Hong by Gronk’s mural.

As you walk the Walkway, which is miles and miles long, you should stop at the store Indigenous. A last trading post for things Native American, the predominant language you’ll hear might be German or French or Italian as people shop for presents. My maternal grandfather spoke Lakota Sioux in Minnesota, so I grew up fascinated by Native Americans. I hated the cowboys in the movies I saw and believe Custer Had It Coming. Edward S. Curtis winds up in Los Angeles, many of his photos are at our namesake Southwest Museum, and we are all fortunate he got out his camera when he did.

The Vietnamese were very moved by one pop-culture T-shirt. Displaying a defiant group of Apaches, the shirt carries a warning message that is a fierce reminder of the past.

“Fighting Terrorism since 1492.”

Once I explained the date (Columbus is not big in Vietnam) everyone knew what the warning meant and got quiet out of respect. And people thought John Cage was crazy asking for a Native American chief as part of his American bicentennial piece Apartment House 1776…..

But Indigenous does captivate with its inventory and, spoiler alert, there are gifts for Hanoi being purchased!

Song Hong dreaming of the Native American world at Indigenous.

Song Hong dreaming of the Native American world at Indigenous.

Kinney’s carnival atmosphere is everywhere on the Walkway. I always feel Venice Beach connects the present LA to its past. Abbot Kinney? I think in many ways he’s the Grandfather of Southern California. A dreamer proved right by the march of time.

New friends as Song Hong meets the Drum Orchestra of Venice Beach.

New friends as Song Hong meets the Beach Drum Orchestra of Venice Beach.

Here’s a parking tip for my international readers thinking of going to Venice Beach. Pay to park at the Rose St. parking lot. That way you won’t miss the Venice Beach Drum Orchestra as you return to your car! Not to mention the convenience to the Walkway and the avoidance of a parking ticket…

My two favorite violists by the Beach Drum Orchestra truck.

My two favorite violists by the Beach Drum Orchestra truck.

But everybody wanted a picture, so I was happy to be behind the camera! After all, that’s quite a truck. Is it from India!!!!????

The sounds of the Beach Drum Orchestra are fantastic, a great moment!

The sounds of the Beach Drum Orchestra are fantastic, a great moment!

We made our way up to Kinney’s Palisades Park (though Huntington developed it, it was Kinney’s idea). You’ll get the best views of Santa Monica Bay from here. The woman who taught me to speak German, Elsbeth Schulz-Bischof, lived here and said she thought it was the most beautiful street in the world. Stan Laurel had a home here. And Jan said during her first trip to visit me after we met at Tanglewood, that knowing about the Palisades and Venice Beach, she could see moving to Los Angeles. Phew, that was a big deal in 1978!

There’s something magical about being at The End of the Western World….

On the Palisades in Santa Monica.

On the Palisades in Santa Monica.

As we walked the Pacific Ocean, I told my Vietnamese friends to look West over the beach. Next stop Asia, specifically Japan from our latitude. That LA is equidistant from London and Tokyo. Looking East is what Cage and Harrison did before my time leading the way for us all (not to mention Christopher Isherwood, who my Aunt Phyllis waited on often at 20th Century Fox). Schoenberg and Stravinksy are here shaping the backbone of the musical community for decades to come through titanic personal force (would you toy with the composers of Pierrot Lunaire and Le sacre du printemps face to face?). That’s what is behind Disney Hall and it’s made all of LA’s music community a strong beacon in the 21st century. None of this development is by accident.

I’m glad we all had sunglasses. The truth always comes out when you say goodbye. Even though we know that both California and Vietnam are stronger working together, saying goodbye this time was not easy. Small tears about big emotions…

Which is always a good thing for future projects!

What those projects will be remains under construction but I do know that 2015 is the 20th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam. And Jan and I didn’t go to Hanoi this fall for the fifth time for a bowl of noodles. Where this is headed, it’s specifics, details and realizations, keeps me going as I plan the next LA International New Music Festival.

But a Hanoi critic got on Song Hong’s last concert, saying that it was high time a Vietnamese group champion George Crumb’s Black Angels. They know this and now we’ve gotten to work on how to make new music happen. But how did I begin this post?

Timing is everything. Somerset Maugham was right when he wrote that years are short but days are long.

Thank God for the Abbot Kinney’s of this world. Be careful everybody. When somebody from New Jersey gets to California with dreams, the world might change. Jan’s from Newark. From student encouragements from Walter Trampler to Song Hong coaching Ton That Tiet in our house this week, here’s to her key role in a masterful orchestration making a big difference.

And here’s to the state of mind that is California and the Venice Beach Walkway at The End of the Western World. Next stop Asia.

Do Huong Tra My is off her feet with her arms in the air on Venice Beach!

Do Huong Tra My is off her feet with her arms in the air. Peace is the message.

Until we meet again, soon. After all, you never know when Jan and I will need a great bowl of pho in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.  Talk about a parade that never ends…….

Best, best, best,