By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Monday is Open Mike Night at Kulak’s Woodshed, a folk-music club that operates four evenings a week from 7 to 10 p.m. On one February night the dimly lit Valley Village storefront is filled close to its legal capacity of 35 with a rather middle-aged audience of listeners and performers, the latter of whom are given time to perform one song. The place is tiny, its main floor area measuring roughly 50 feet by 25. A funky hodgepodge of old chairs, couches and a sofa bed form a horseshoe about the small stage and its piano. The Woodshed’s eccentricity and world of make-believe are immediately clear: Little stars dangle from the ceiling, bookshelves are filled with stuffed animals and volumes of thrift-store novels, and the walls are plastered with posters of Bruce Springsteen and old record albums. A pair of mourning doves huddle in a cage, while a bullfrog sits stoically in an aquarium.
The Woodshed hardly looks like ground zero for one of the most bitter wars of words in recent Valley history, but its story has become another Los Angeles fable about privacy, parking and noise, and how these issues can drive friends apart and to arm themselves with three-ring binders filled with court transcripts and affidavits.
“I haven’t done porn in nine years,” says Charles Peyton, the X-rated-film star formerly known as Jeff Stryker. Now 44, Peyton speaks in a smoky drawl, and his declaration sounds vaguely wholesome. Nevertheless, today he’s dressed in classic hustler attire — what might be called Early Rechy: white T-shirt, blue jeans and watch cap. A pack of Newport menthols is never far from reach as he sits in the back room of Brittany Floor Covering on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. It’s a warm day, and Peyton’s dog, Sharkey, rests in the back parking lot, on a mat that is half in shade, half in sun.
“He’ll lie wherever you put that mat,” Peyton says.
Peyton himself lies at the center of the controversy that has pitted him against Paul Kulak, who, since 1999, has operated Kulak’s Woodshed next door to the business office from which Peyton says he manages his Web sites and writes his memoirs. It’s not easy to confuse the two men’s addresses: Peyton’s entrance sports a martial-arts logo on a dusty window and a door with a lot of restaurant fliers jammed into it; Kulak’s windows are draped with Snoopy curtains.
Peyton claims Kulak, an amateur musician, is running a noisy cabaret without the necessary parking spaces and is undermining his peace of mind. He’s been working on his untitled autobiography for more than two years, and rules out writing the book at his Studio City home.
“I pay $2,000 a month for an office,” says Peyton, who has been here 12 years.
Jim Britten, Kulak’s other next-door neighbor, has operated Brittany Floor Covering since 1979 and has joined Peyton’s crusade against the Woodshed. As we speak, Britten’s caged cockatiels screech loudly throughout the afternoon, and he mostly seems content to tend to Sharkey or to listen while Peyton talks.
As far as Peyton is concerned, Paul Kulak is running an illegal club with the help of L.A. City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel. To Kulak, Peyton is every artist’s worst nightmare — a building-code-quoting NIMBY who, like a modern-day Inspector Javert, is persecuting him with a blizzard of legal complaints and restraining orders.
The feud has generated more attention than most property disputes because of Peyton’s Jeff Stryker persona, which is why, today, he reminds an interviewer of how long he’s been out of the adult-film business. News and blog stories, however, tend to come with a “Porn Star versus the Folkie” spin, and Kulak supporters routinely refer to Peyton as “the porn guy.” Some have even implied that the ex-porn star’s business office is too close to the Country School, a private primary school located across the street, to be legal under California’s adult-entertainment statutes.
“That law is for titty bars,” Peyton says dismissively of the charge. “I’m not open to the public. Everything I do is 100 percent legal — I could probably operate next door to the [school]!” Peyton has counterattacked by claiming Kulak patrons have brought in the four horsemen of the urban apocalypse: litter, public urination, pot smoking and unisex bathrooms.
“Everything I do in my life,” Kulak says fatalistically, “seems to be wrong according to the American Dream. The Woodshed is all about that — amplified by a thousand.” Kulak, 47, is sitting outdoors at Aroma, a Studio City cafĂ©. Peyton’s attorney served him with a restraining order three days before. To illustrate Peyton’s own aggressive behavior, Kulak plays a DVD of his neighbor practicing martial-arts kicks in front of his office against a boxing mannequin. In the footage, Peyton is bare-chested and attacks the dummy with wild ferocity. He is doing this on the sidewalk of Laurel Canyon Boulevard at night, just when Kulak’s patrons are entering the Woodshed.
Kulak is a tall man with an unblinking stare who, like Peyton, comes from Illinois. He survived a troubled life as a juvenile delinquent who dropped out of school in Chicago at 15 and spent time in various boys’ homes. His move to California followed the familiar route of people seeking reinvention, although after arriving in L.A. at the start of 1978 he couldn’t hold a job and was sometimes homeless. Eventually he found steady work in film post-production, and in late 1998 began Decks, Etc., selling and renting editing decks first out of his apartment, then from the two adjacent storefronts he leased on Laurel Canyon Boulevard.