The Porn Star's Revenge: Formerly Known as Jeff Stryker, Charles Peyton Has Turned His Toxic Feud Over the Folk-Music Club Kulak's Woodshed Into a Real-Life Online Obsession

Not a folkie: Charles Peyton, a.k.a. Jeff Stryker, is fighting Kulak’s Woodshed.
Ted Soqui

The grandiosely named Marvin Braude San Fernando Valley Constituent Service Center is a normally placid Van Nuys outpost of city bureaucracy. Last August, however, about 100 citizens crowded its Mediterranean-fantasy portico and halls. People had come from Tehachapi and from down the street. They arrived in cars and in wheelchairs. Women wore hot pants and cowgirl skirts; men sported beards and ponytails. They weren’t here for some ribbon-cutting ceremony but to attend a variance hearing in support of Kulak’s Woodshed, a tiny folk-music club in Valley Village trying to extend its hours of operation.

“I tend to hold long hearings,” announced zoning-department chair Nicholas Brown in a precise lecture-hall tone. “I believe in deep democracy, in which people sit together and talk things out.”

Surveying the unusually full hearing room, guarded by cops standing at parade-rest, Brown then confided his own facilitator’s philosophy: “I like to manage expectations.”

Over the next two hours and 45 minutes, he would learn just how much work that would be.

The Woodshed war’s seeds were sown in 1999, when Paul Kulak opened his club for business. (For the dispute’s origins, see L.A. Weekly’s “No Peace in the Valley,” by Steven Mikulan, February 22, 2007.) Kulak and his partisans claim that theirs is strictly a defensive battle for survival. But Kulak’s neighbors, Charles Peyton and Jim Britten, who operate businesses on each side of the club on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, beg to differ.

Peyton’s complaints boil down to his allegation that the folk club generates Studio 54–type pandemonium normally associated with large late-night urban venues: noise, drugs, unruly patrons, vandalism, graffiti, public urination and parking headaches. And because, among other infractions, Kulak was cited several years ago for not having a sound wall or offsite parking plan, Peyton habitually describes himas a criminal operating an outlaw club. In the past, Peyton also has claimed that noise from the club interfered with his attempts to write an autobiography in his next-door office.

“That’s been put on perpetual hold until I can get myself back together,” Peyton tells L.A. Weekly in his smoky drawl. “I got a $25,000 advance on it but could never complete it.” He claims the noise next door broke his concentration.

Peyton is not just any memoirist, but the porn star formerly known as Jeff Stryker. Besides writing about a hardscrabble upbringing (“Jeff,” the 10 Plus star writes online, “got expelled from the school district because he beat the shit outa a big Jock in class for breaking a retarded kid’s pencils”), Peyton has operated a mail-order business marketing dildos cast from his own anatomy, as well as Jeff Stryker action dolls. He currently uses his office to manage several Web sites tapping into his fame as a legendary porn actor.

Britten more modestly operates a floor-covering store, but similarly swears that the Woodshed wreaks havoc on his livelihood, saying that its performances have prevented him from expanding his business. The two men also claim that, with the connivance of city officials, Kulak flaunts permit laws and profits handsomely from his no-pay, donations-only club.

Kulak, however, notes that Britten’s business, like most others on the block, is closed during the Woodshed’s six-night 8-10 p.m. schedule. Britten counters by saying he often meets with customers or tries to do work after closing hours. And he has also considered extending his operating hours, but says he has been thwarted by the club’s activity. Still, as further proof of the Woodshed’s unobtrusive neighborhood footprint, Kulak points to his venue’s 35-person occupancy limit, its restriction against alcoholic beverages and the low-decibel nature of folk music. He says that Peyton frequently retaliates by blasting much louder dance music during performances, from speakers placed at the walls between the two storefronts, and that he has urinated on Kulak’s truck.

The club owner also alleges, more darkly, that Peyton often lurks in the alley he shares with the Woodshed, whispering threats to Kulak from the shadows and intimidating his patrons — when he is not on the front sidewalk, kicking a martial-arts mannequin a few feet from the folkies.

“He constantly reminds me he’s a firearms expert,” Kulak says, “and will hide behind his back door when I dump the trash. Once, he started making mechanical gun clicks. I could see he had a pistol in his hand as he was dry-firing it.”

“That guy is so out there!” replies Peyton when this allegation is raised.

These are the dispute’s bare contours. Beyond them lies a baffling thicket of lawsuits, restraining orders, building inspections and neighborhood-council hearings. And past these stretches a litiginous horizon of threats, cyber stalking, sabotage and vandalism — all alleged or documented on videotape and online (including Peyton’s disco music and his outdoor kickboxing). According to a statement issued by Kulak, the past four years have produced no fewer than “24 LAPD raids, 14 Dept. of Building and Safety raids, 10 Fire Dept. raids, nine City of L.A. public hearings, six court appearances, three LAPD Vice Unit raids and investigations.”

 

The Woodshed war’s narrative, in fact, has become so convoluted in its mutual accusations, and its personal hurts run so deep, that the accompanying stacks of legal paperwork have grown to Himalayan proportions and are almost unintelligible at this point. Peyton, for example, operates no fewer than four Web sites devoted to excoriating his nemesis and the Woodshed’s supporters, who include City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel. Visitors to charlespeyton.com, nokulakswoodshed.com, chuckpeyton.com and nolosangelescitycouncil.com find dense blocks of accusations, typed in different-colored fonts and linked to yet more blocks of PDF documents or cartoonishly manipulated images of Kulak, Greuel and a Greuel aide, Dale Thrush. (One animated short features lemmings dancing around the L.A. City Council chamber.)

While Kulak mostly eschews the Web as a soapbox, he has relied upon it to seek donations to defray his continual legal costs. The Woodshed also makes ample use of the Web to post videotaped performances that are recorded by half a dozen remote-controlled cameras. It’s tempting to believe that this is one war that couldn’t exist without the Internet.

 

“It’s an important place for the community,” Leda Shapiro says of the Woodshed. “Especially for the musicians. There aren’t too many places in the Valley — anywhere, period — where people can come and play and just hang out.” Shapiro is a member of FolkWorks, a local group dedicated to providing information and support resources for folk and traditional music through events and its Web site. Although she is not connected to the club, Shapiro says she would hate to see it close.

The latest round in the saga includes Kulak’s request to keep his club open one hour later, along with a $4 million loss-of-income lawsuit filed by Peyton in 2007 and a similar but separate suit filed by Jim Britten. Both Kulak and Peyton see their roles as transcending a simple spat between two guys debating the right of a harmonica to be blown at 10 p.m. on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. This is why neither will — or can — back down. Instead, they inhabit a controversy that is impervious to mediation, a never-ending argument in which they are champions of a cause larger than themselves.

“I’m willing to risk my life to keep this [club] going,” says Kulak, whose social awkwardness reinforces the impression that he is a gangly teenager in a middle-aged man’s body. “As corny as it may sound, if I were to die now, it’s okay — I’ve done it all, I’m 48 years old. I started a business, if I have to die, I have to die.”

Peyton, a compact and still-boyish 46, spins the case no less dramatically. To him it’s a matter of one man standing up to sinister — and nonpermitted — forces supported by an unresponsive city bureaucracy. Peyton’s Web-site graphics variously depict him as Superman, a rebel biker or a muscular action figure — while an image of Kulak shouting from a Dumpster can be found in the background. In conversation after conversation with the Weekly, Peyton has portrayed himself as a man drawing a line in the sand, a High Noon hero taking an existential stand against a mob of selfish folk musicians.

It is a fact, however, that not many of the nearby businesses are open during the Woodshed’s hours, and few other neighbors have complained.

“I’ve never had any problems,” says Moshe Hanun, the owner of Kiko Hair Studio.

“He’s a really nice person [and] I know he’s having a really hard time,” says Silvia Fregoso, who works at nearby LeTux, of Kulak. “There is trash outside but we don’t know if it’s from them or not.” Fregoso says Kulak is currently seeking to rent LeTux’s substantial back-alley parking area.

 

The problem for any outsider trying to make sense of the imbroglio is that if you earnestly start sorting out who’s correct about specifics — say, about whether the Woodshed received a parking variance within the legally prescribed period of time, or whether the thickness of its exterior wall makes up for the club’s lack of soundproofing — you risk getting caught up in the litiginous fever that infects the story. If, however, you step too far back for perspective, it becomes very easy to dismiss the whole thing as a flea circus of petty grievances and NIMBYism run amuck.

That would be a mistake, for the Woodshed controversy provides a glimpse into how, in 21st-century Los Angeles, ordinary citizens armed with the power of the Internet and homeschooled legal savvy are turning traditional homeowner disputes about backyard hedges, obstructed views and lawn upkeep into savage brush wars.

 

“A married couple,” says San Francisco mediator Jim Garrison, “will get divorced because one squeezes the toothpaste from the middle and the other from the end. But it’s never really about the toothpaste.”

Garrison has worked for 20 years at San Francisco’s Community Boards, a pioneering organization that helps solve the small neighbor-to-neighbor disputes that can often turn toxic. He knows a thing or two about quality-of-life feuds such as loud music and parking disputes, and says there’s often a subtext or hidden narrative at work — and that the tube of toothpaste is merely a symptom of some deeper turmoil. (It’s worth noting that Kulak, Peyton and Britten were all once friends, back when Kulak operated Decks Etc. — his livelihood business that rents video-editing decks — at the current Woodshed location.)

Garrison also says that as people, we seek quick fixes through the courts instead of mediation throughconversation.

“Americans as a rule like to sue,” Garrison says. “They’re not good at talking to each other. They want to make [a neighbor’s behavior] a crime by calling the police. They see this as a way of easy resolution through a judge who can say ‘Guilty/Innocent.’”

Even a cursory look at the controversy’s paper trail bears out Kulak’s claim that the vast majority of legal accusations and calls to the police are initiated by Peyton — who, in turn, defends his actions by saying he is simply trying to get the city to uphold the rule of law.

Kulak accuses Peyton of gaming the system to continue his harassment of the club while coating his obsession with a legalistic veneer. There’s little doubt that Peyton has developed an uncanny acumen when it comes to blocking the Woodshed’s attempts to operate in the free and clear.

“Peyton knows the LAPD is migratory,” Kulak says. “[Officers] rotate every six months. He’ll call them out and the officers who show up are completely unfamiliar with the history of this [dispute].” (An LAPD spokesman told L.A. Weekly that there is no average length of time an officer spends at the department’s stations.)

Kulak sounds especially frustrated when he speaks of how law-enforcement and city-government personnel have been manipulated by Peyton into serving as his “proxy army,” but his voice takes on a cautiously and ominous tone when he discusses what he alleges is Peyton’s flair for the kind of stealth harassment that escapes police attention and is almost impossible to prove. He accuses the former porn star of Super Gluing the club’s locks and of tracking down its performers online and threatening them. He also claims that dead rats have mysteriously appeared in the Woodshed’s mailbox and at its back door.

Kulak says that for a while he kept the rats, along with a dead pigeon he found on his premises, in a corner outside as proof — until the smell became too much.

“Any rats around here came from his place,” Peyton says. “He’s made so many false allegations that he trips himself up.”

 

There is, perhaps, another reason for Kulak’s unease. Kulak says that in 2004, when his deck-rental business was still operating in the Woodshed space, he had arranged for a high-definition Betacam deck worth $85,000 to be placed in his store for a brief time prior to its pickup. A crew of robbers had somehow been tipped to the deck’s arrival and carried out a particularly brutal holdup of Decks Etc. Only a piano tuner and Kulak’s fiancé were present. Kulak says his fiancé was savagely beaten, and almost suffocated by a sloppy duct-tape wrap of her face.

“I constantly revisit that day,” Kulak says. “It haunts me and terrorizes me on a daily basis.”

None of the alleged crime’s perpetrators was ever caught, and Kulak now operates Decks Etc. from his apartment. He claims Peyton goads him with mocking referencesto the event: “He loves to allude to it in various ways: ‘You think the robbery was bad, you just wait.’”

Kulak has kept a record detailing his claims of Peyton’s alleged intimidation. “Simply parking my truck or emptying the trash is a very frightening ordeal ...,” Kulak writes. “Many times, Peyton would be waiting and surprise me by springing out of his back door shouting all sorts of threats and scary things to me. He often said things like, ‘You’re dead, motherfucker,’ ‘I’m just waiting for the right time’ or ‘I’m gonna burn you down, all the way, you fuck’ or ‘Are you ready to die, Kulak?’”

Peyton dismisses the accusations. “When would I ever speak to him?” he says. “I don’t talk to the guy. It’s B.S.”

Despite this, Kulak remains dug in, claiming he cannot move because no other venue can offer the 55-cents-per-square-foot rent he now pays. And then there’s the principle involved.

 

“We cannot let this terrorist bully have his way,” Kulak says. “We’ve got to fight.”

But Peyton says he is the one being bullied. “He ripped down that wall to the bare studs,” Peyton says of some Woodshed renovations, “with no other reason than to torture me.”

Other times, Peyton sounds almost Zenlike in his acceptance of this war without end: “It’s hard to deal with such a crazy situation, but everything in my life works out. You just have to keep looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

 

And so last August, the belligerents brought their cases before Nicholas Brown, the newest city official to be introduced to their war. Charles Peyton, accompanied only by Jim Britten, sat a few feet away from Paul Kulak and Wendy Greuel aide Dale Thrush — two men whose pictures Peyton had regularly turned into cartoon caricatures, along with a bobble-headed Greuel, on his Web sites. Two years ago, when interviewed for this publication about her efforts to help the Woodshed, City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel sighed, “No good deed ever goes unpunished. You can put that on the record.”

Today she still believes in the ultimate success of Kulak’s Woodshed. “I’ve learned a lot about city processes,” says Greuel, with more than a trace of irony in her voice. “I’ve learned that no case is simple and that there are no easy resolutions when you are dealing with emotions and personalities. There have been projects of bigger magnitude than Kulak’s, but this is a fairly unique case. People do have to follow the rules – things just won’t go away.”

Although Nicholas Brown has yet to issue his ruling on the Woodshed’s request to remain open an extra hour, Greuel says “I think we can expect something shortly.”

For his part, Kulak, buoyed by his club’s 100 supporters, hoped he would, for the cost of 55 cents a square foot, be able to coexist with a man he considers a dangerous bully.

The long hearing remained civil and was videotaped by both sides. Kulak submitted the opinion of a sound engineer that the Woodshed didn’t require a sound wall because the ambient noise from Laurel Canyon Boulevard was actually louder than the music played inside, while Britten alleged that when rehearsals, workshops and special events are figured into the equation, the Woodshed also operates during the day. Peyton, who preferred to stand while addressing Brown — who sat three feet in front of him — claimed that “there’s 340 exhibits showing Mr. Kulak is not everything he claims to be.”

Nicholas Brown announced he would decide on Kulak’s request some time after November 5. That date has come and gone, but even if Brown (now presumably schooled in the war’s numbing minutiae) grants the Woodshed its extra hour of operation, his decision will probably not prove to be a game changer in this debate. Peyton let the cat out of the bag when, after the zoning hearing, he told L.A. Weekly that he will continue to fight the Woodshed’s existence, regardless of how Brown rules.

“It’s not that important,” Peyton says of Brown’s decision. “We’re going to appeal it anyway. There’s a chance the [appeals] panel isn’t corrupt and we’ll win there.”

And if not there, Peyton has other battlegrounds in mind. His $4 million civil suit against Kulak for emotion distress and loss of income goes to trial next week.

Peyton is confident of victory and, as he advises Kulak in one of his Web-site tirades:

“I think now it’s time to start packing your bags and get a movin. Don’t go Far though, Ill [sic] be suing you soon for the years of torture you caused with your proven illegal establishment.”

Kulak is just as unyielding.

“Peyton is the most insidious form of cancer that exists,” Kulak says. “ ... [He]’s like a staph infection — there’s no antibiotic.”

Needless to say, Kulak is countersuing.


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