By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
THE SILLY PUTTY-COLORED PAINT JOB AND PLYWOOD-COVERED DOOR ARE the first things you notice. Stains, cracks, debris all over the place . . . you figure it's just another abandoned building in Echo Park. Then you spot a man in his late 30s with longish red hair, bushy eyebrows and a jaw line that descends into a sharp V dragging a heavy roll of smelly carpet onto the sidewalk. He wears gloves, and as he tugs the roll with a pair of pliers he waves away anyone who tries to help. "You don't want to touch it!" he warns. Until this morning, the carpet had been soaking up rain dripping into a hole in the roof of the fourplex behind him.
In tiki circles, the man struggling with the carpet is known as King Kukulele — ukulele player, aficionado of novelty songs from the '20s and '30s, and, after placing the winning bid at a HUD auction last year, proud owner of the decrepit building near the corner of LeMoyne and Sunset that he hopes to make his dream home. Of course, King Kukulele — better known to his banker as Denny Moynahan — has certain ideas about this crumbling apartment complex that wouldn't occur to most other homeowners. He looks at its sloping roofs and rickety balconies, its curlicue wrought-iron porch, ugly security fence and sad-sack landscaping and pictures a tropical tiki paradise: the LeMoyne Lanai.
Check out the conceptual rendering of the LeMoyne Lanai, drawn by artist and tiki lover Kevin Kidney, and you'll get an idea of what Moynahan has in mind: windows framed in bamboo, the façade painted with abstract Polynesian flourishes, glass globes hanging from beams sticking out of the roof, subtropical ferns and palm trees planted around the complex. If the original Trader Vic had owned an apartment complex, this is how it might have looked.
Onstage, Moynahan dresses up in a grass skirt and rattan crown; his ukulele is attached to a long rubber band so he can throw it toward the audience and have it return like a yo-yo. In 2001, Moynahan figures, he was the highest-paid professional ukulele player on the planet, thanks to a contract at Universal Studios Japan that netted him $70,000. But now the ukulele money isn't flowing as freely. To finance his tiki apartment wonderland, Moynahan has tapped his line of credit, hit up his friends and enlisted the L.A.-based coterie of the Tiki Central message board on the Internet to pitch in with the renovation. A number of exotica artists are helping to decorate the complex with old-school Disney-style tricks like faux wood tikis that have mail slots for mouths. And in the back yard, Moynahan plans to build a small stage and fake volcano out of lava rocks. "In essence, it'll be a little amphitheater," he says. "All my friends are musicians, so we can play here."
Moynahan has already moved into one of the units, the one with the most visible damage. He wants to spiff up the other units quickly so he can get people to move in and help him pay the mortgage on the place. It's been more than a year since anyone has occupied the building, and the elements have chewed into the structure considerably. The balcony in the back of the building leading to his unit has large holes in it because the wood is rotten.
Moynahan has none of the attributes of a spec home builder. He has few belongings — a 1970s-era tiki statue from Hawaiian Airlines, a couple of ukuleles in their cases, framed copies of the LeMoyne Lanai artistic renderings, a few pieces of nondescript furniture and an astonishing amount of paperwork scattered on the floor. And he didn't kick anybody out of the place; he plans on living here permanently. What's more, he is saving his building, not tearing it down and erecting a stucco box in its place.
Even so, he's nervous about his neighbors misinterpreting his motives. "Echo Park is the place that everybody is worried about gentrification. People may get up in arms and say, 'Hey, what are you doing to this neighborhood?'" He hopes to convince his neighbors that he's a good guy by turning the back yard of the LeMoyne Lanai into a kind of weekend public luau where the families can hang out. "I imagine them having parties for their kids or a reception. That would be great."
As it stands, the only things in the back yard are a pad of cracked concrete and a broken-down car, which Moynahan hopes to bring to life again one day. But that will have to wait.
"One of my big inspirations is the unique vibe you get from the Snow White cottages near Griffith Park and Hyperion," he says, referring to the buildings built in 1926 by Walt Disney as his first home and studio. "They're cool enough that I go out of my way a couple of blocks just to drive by it. I hope this place eventually becomes like that for people, so that instead of going over Echo Park Avenue, they'll come up LeMoyne instead."
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