L.A. Weekly: The paper That Wouldn’t Die

Half the story is in the eyes. Art director Ewa Wojciak’s eyes, bulging and glowing as her hands vibrated gently, three hours after the Wednesday print deadline and three to go. Line-shot operator Ted Schatz’s eyes, crackling behind thick lenses as he ignited a 20-foot trail of wax solvent into a wall of flame. Receptionist Jim Smith’s eyes, staring blankly as he sang, "Zip-a-dee doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay, my oh my what a wonderful day!" Suzi Gardner’s eyes, frozen in fear as she showed teeth through her first day as advertising coordinator. Paste up artist Kim Jones’ eyes, wide, as a flipped-out proofreader dumped a wastebasket full of cigarette butts onto the page of classified ads she was creating. Back-issues manager Don Bolles’ eyes, closed as he slept hanging over a stack of papers. Managing editor Phil Tracy’s eyes, sagging with dignity, humor and resignation.

But that’s the half that can’t be told. The other half of the Weekly’s 20-year anabasis depends on who you ask. "The Weekly we started did not last 20 years," says co-founder Michael Ventura. "This is a celebration of a logo. For me, it’s a marriage that went bad — with everything that that entails." Of course, this paper isn’t an "it," but people, always new ones, never alike. But the individuals have always had a few attitudes in common. Like the idea that people matter — which remains an extremist position at century’s end. Or the proposition that if you go to the edge of the world, you won’t fall off. And the idea that there’s still a lot to get worked up about.

Before the Beginning

The story began with Jay Levin, an undemonstrative New York reporter with hound-dog eyes and a habit of eating off your plate. His father, a tool-and-die maker and used-car salesman, gave Jay an early taste of journalistic class through his subscription to ’50s-’60s Esquire. "I think my dad picked it up for the girlie stuff," says Jay, "but it had the best writing in America."

After attending Hofstra and Queens colleges while supporting his wife and kids by working in the post office, Jay lucked into a job as an assistant to the New York Post’s financial editor in 1964, at age 21. He soon wangled his way into a slot as counterculture reporter — on his first assignment he met Abbie Hoffman, who would remain a friend until Hoffman’s 1989 suicide. By 1974, however, Jay felt creatively stifled. He had quit the Post and was freelancing.

"I was lying in bed one day feeling very miserable, trapped, middle of the afternoon, yet another piece to grind out. And an idea came to me out of nowhere — start your own magazine. My next thought was, ‘You can’t do that, because that’s what rich power brokers do.’ But I thought some more, and I wrote an outline for something that was a cross between High Times and Newsweek and Ramparts."

But what about the money? Bruce David, editor of Hustler at the time, told Jay that Larry Flynt was looking to branch out from his porn empire. Says Jay, "Flynt at that time was being rebirthed by President Carter’s sister Ruth Carter Stapleton, hanging out with Dick Gregory, learning about Lenny Bruce and the hip culture and the beat culture and civil rights and the Kennedy assassination and all that stuff."

Flynt fronted some dough, but didn’t follow up. Instead, he bought the L.A. Free Press, a formerly respected underground paper fallen into disrepute, and tapped Jay to run it. Through Yippie organizer and alternarag publisher Jeff Nightbyrd, Jay knew a few writers who’d collected in Austin, including former New Yorker Michael Ventura, film reviewer and eventual Weekly co-founder Ginger Varney, and wild card Big Boy Medlin. With Nightbyrd as managing editor, Stuart Goldman as music writer and Joie Davidow (the fourth of the Weekly’s main co-founders), whom he knew through Hoffman, as jill-of-all-trades, Jay had a staff.

Jay got fired 10 weeks into the job, just before the shooting of Flynt pushed the Freep into oblivion. But he wasn’t giving up. He told the staff to stick around.

"I got on the phone and started calling everybody I knew," says Jay, and in a few months he’d bagged around $200,000 from an oddball group of investors, including video entrepreneur Joe Benadon, corporate raider/progressive angel Burt Kleiner, actor-producer Michael Douglas and others. Hearing that the Chicago Reader was also about to launch a free weekly L.A. publication, he stepped on the gas. The 24-page first issue of the Weekly hit the liquor stores and movie theaters five weeks after the inaugural L.A. Reader — Thursday, December 7, 1978, Pearl Harbor Day. It carried the date December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

 

The Weekly holed up in a trashed old two-story house at 5325 Sunset Blvd., near Western Avenue, in a Hollywood war zone a couple of blocks from the Pussycat Theater. The foot traffic was largely prostitutes and transients.

"One of the hookers pulled a knife on one of the staff women and said, ‘Get off my block, I do business here. Who’s your pimp?’" says Jay. "We’d find condoms in the back yard every day. We called the cops, and they did nothing. So I wrote a letter that everybody on the staff signed, that said if the hookers aren’t gone in a week or so, you’ll see a huge banner hung out on our building saying, ‘Hookers available here, no cops.’ The cops showed up the next day and cleared the hookers off."

An Unformed Heart

Joie Davidow, who’d hit the Free Press fresh from a job at the Santa Barbara News and Review, became the Weekly’s corporate vice president and Calendar editor, and soon launched a popular, conversationally toned style column that paralleled the Melrose boom. Before coming to California, she’d trained as an opera singer at New England Conservatory and the University of Pennsylvania, and had done some entrepreneuring: a neon-art gallery, a wearable-art shop, a video-production company. She shared duties as the Weekly’s bookkeeper, supply manager, baby sitter and more — later founding the Weekly offshoot L.A. Style (1985–88) and the Latino-culture magazine .

"It was very, very stressful," Joie says of the early days at the Weekly. "We were in that crappy little building — rotting carpets in the halls. There was no air conditioning in summer, so when we would paste up the [pages] the wax would melt off."

The start-up was a killer. "We worked right through Thanksgiving. And we worked through Christmas and New Year’s. New Year’s Eve at midnight, I said, ‘Jay, happy New Year,’ and he looked up for a second and said, ‘What? Oh.’ And he went right back to work. The paper was like a baby that was born prematurely, with an unformed heart or something — one that’s always in the incubator."

Joie had figured out a Calendar format she believed would make the Weekly indispensable, utilizing experts in dance, jazz and the rest. "Our idea was that people would pick up the paper because they just had to know what was going on, and that would give us the opportunity to do whatever we wanted — we wouldn’t have to do editorial that would appeal to anybody necessarily! That way we could sneak in all our political ideas."

The politics weren’t long in surfacing — though Jay, writing his Editor’s Statement in a September sample issue of the Weekly, hadn’t tipped his left hand to potential advertisers, preferring to emphasize the youth-culture and lifestyle coverage. Besides featuring such voices from the cultural jungle as post-rock absurdist Richard Meltzer, Warhol biographer Victor Bockris and punk intellectual Chris Desjardins, the early Weekly was making a dent with its revelations: the U.S. involvement with the Shah of Iran, Tom Bradley’s neglect of South-Central, the virtually ignored death squads in El Salvador, the scandals behind L.A.’s smog.

"We made an immediate difference," says Jay of the smog ambush. "The head of enforcement was fired the day the article came out."

Running All the Lights

Varney and Ventura belonged to an alien species unfamiliar to the L.A. film establishment.

Before reviewing films for the Austin Sun, Ginger Varney, the Weekly’s film editor, had been a bartender, an Air Force sergeant and a television weather forecaster. She had applied for a job as a seal trainer, blowing the gig when she cursed a pup that bit her. Today she is a private investigator. "I like it," Ginger chuckles. "You get to ask nosy questions, and you don’t have to write."

Michael Ventura credits Ginger with slipping the Weekly behind studio fortifications.

"I was nice," says Ginger. "And it turns out that most people out here are not nice. I have this Southern accent, and that was when Urban Cowboy was coming out. They wanted to know how many horses I had. I hate horses."

Less kind was Michael, whose reviews sometimes inflamed studios, unaccustomed to harsh treatment in their company town, into pulling their ads. The Weekly’s ad staff revolted the first time he trashed an advertiser’s product. Complained one ad rep, "My mother always said if you can’t say anything nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all."

Michael today, while elsewhere maintaining the journalistic assault he perfected with his definitive Weekly reviews and columns, has also published four novels. He sums up the original staff’s attitude: "We meant the paper to be disruptive and original, and we meant it to be a writers’ paper. We wanted it to be souped up, stripped down, a hot rod, burning rubber and going through as many lights as possible."

 

Burnout

Rubber wasn’t the only thing burning. As the paper grew, Jay found it harder to deal with the pressure. There were days when he’d shuffle in unable to speak, because his previous night’s session of Janovian primal-scream therapy had blown out his vocal cords. He didn’t want to raise his voice at the office, and it seemed as if a parade of staffers was screaming at him.

One frustrated new accountant, a sidewalk swami on the Venice Pier the week before, used to rise up from the Weekly’s scrambled ledgers to pound the desk and bellow with rage. The paper’s messengers spent half their time serving small-claims actions against delinquent advertisers. Now and then, paychecks bounced. Many of the underpaid production staff, who routinely slaved 12-hour days on deadline only to watch Jay tear up their work, were frying on crystal meth to keep going. Salary disputes precipitated a work slowdown, and Jay was forced — not for the last time — to sell off some of his shares in the company so he could distribute raises and pay bills.

Into this garden of earthly delights walked Mike Sigman, the Weekly’s new general manager.

The year was 1983. Jay had been looking for a victim to wrangle the paper’s business and management affairs so he himself could concentrate on the editorial side, and Mike, a bright Long Islander who smiles even when he’s in pain, had been a candidate. A Bucknell University philosophy major, at 22 Mike began editing the trade magazine Record World, keeping that position until it folded 10 years later, in 1982. He was initially passed over for the Weekly job. Jay’s original choice didn’t work out, though — one of that gentleman’s introductory injunctions was to tell the women on the staff to shave their armpits because they looked like lesbians.

"I was entirely unqualified for the Weekly job," says Mike. "I didn’t know alternative newspapers, I didn’t know L.A., and I had never worked on the business side of a publication."

Mike soon realized that mere lack of credentials was the least of his worries. "My first experience at the Weekly was this. I was supposed to be met by somebody at the airport holding up a copy of L.A. Weekly. There was nobody there. So, after two hours, I took a cab to the office with my bags and everything. Part of my deal was that I got a car, which was supposed to be left for me at the office. But it was a messenger car and had every cigarette butt and Coke can in it, and all this debris. It smelled, and had no gas, and it was dented all over. I was allowed to drive it to and from work, but could never go out to lunch or anything, because all during the day it was out being used.

"The Weekly wasn’t just dysfunctional, it was absurdly, cosmically screwed up. We would constantly be doing things that no one would believe when I told them that we did them. Like the time we ran a big contest in the paper, and we printed the answers in the same issue." ä

Silver Lake Crackup

In 1983, the Weekly decamped to a bunker-style warehouse at 2140 Hyperion Ave. in Silver Lake. It was already too small — the circulation, classified and accounting staffs soon had to open satellite offices in the neighborhood.

Things got weird as the ’80s waned. With the paper now past the early years of communal marijuana, ecstasy and speed, numerous staffers had become full-time rock & roll alcoholics and heroin addicts. Successive managing editors Phil Tracy and Mayer Vishner struggled to cope with the perennial cataclysms. As for Jay, his main drug was work, and he needed intervention. Though he’d tried one holistic-medicine booster after another, his shoulders slumped and the bags under his eyes looked as if they were stuffed with kittens.

"I was going crazy," says Jay. "I was so exhausted, I turned toxic from all the stress. Seriously — my brain chemistry had changed. So I needed out. I couldn’t stand to see myself constantly making mistakes and hurting people." He also wanted to realize a longtime dream of starting an alternative television network, and felt himself pulling away from the Weekly.

"The political coverage got erratic," Michael Ventura remembers. "I saw Jay go from an exciting, unpredictable editor to a very obsessive man who was writing stories with no apparent basis."

The nadir was reached on the eve of the final 1988 presidential debate when, as part of an anti-Republican package, the Weekly ran a story citing a number of rumors about what tarts the president might have been sampling on the side. In a sarcastic, condescending 1990 L.A. Times article on the Weekly by Frank Clifford, Jay was quoted as saying, "I loved that story, but boy, did we take a lot of heat for it."

 

In what seemed to be becoming a Weekly tradition, this special moment was the occasion for the arrival of a new management figure.

Stage Two

Kit Rachlis, the Weekly’s second editor, is a tall, big-brotherly kind of man who looks you in the eye. "Jay published the piece on the Thursday that the Dukakis-Bush debate was taking place in Los Angeles," he says, "and handed out a press notice and a copy of the paper to every national journalist who’d arrived here." Now the fallout was in Kit’s lap.

Kit, formerly The Village Voice’s executive editor, had come to town with some goals. "I wanted to re-establish the Weekly’s journalistic credibility, expand the notion of what it ought to do, and identify it as an alternative paper that was farther ahead than any straight publication, whether it was on performance artists or rock & rollers. I believed in progressive, left-wing politics, but I thought most progressive, left-wing newspapers were lousy and ideological."

Kit’s hiring of Harold Meyerson, a socialist activist and Democratic organizer, as news editor — he’s now executive editor — created one of many situations that made Kit glad he’d insisted on a contract that assured his autonomy.

"I almost fired Kit on the spot," says Jay, who had retained the title of president at the time of transition. "I didn’t think Harold’s news sensibilities and political sensibilities were radical enough. I told Kit I felt betrayed."

Some peaks Kit remembers from his editorship include the Weekly’s coverage of the 1992 Rodney King–verdict uprising, which saw most of the paper’s writers out on the streets dodging bricks, and the selection of Andres Serrano’s notorious Piss Christ, which featured a crucifix immersed in urine, for the cover of an issue on the First Amendment. And there was the moment when Kit learned of late developments in a cover story about the closure of the Herald Examiner. "I walked into the production department," he recalls, "and announced, ‘I’ve always wanted to say this: We have to stop the presses.’"

Battles raged on behind the scenes. Mike Sigman, frustrated by his inability to steer a course through Jay’s minefield, had resigned in 1989. Gary Horowitz, a businessman, world-class gambler and longtime member of the board of directors, became publisher, immediately alienating the staff into a near shutdown by announcing there would be no smoking, drinking or drugging in the building. (Coincidentally, the staff soon consolidated its power by unionizing — one of the few journalistic work forces in the region to do so.) Jay took the Weekly to a new printer, and the old one sued. And for a while, two boards of directors operated simultaneously, Jay’s and Gary’s.

Eventually the boards merged and the waters calmed. But then Mike Sigman, assured that he would be allowed to do his job, returned in 1990. And he and Kit walked their way to a duel in the sun.

Mike was critical of the Weekly’s slant: "I thought there was too much navel-gazing and opinion-spouting, not enough news and information and street stuff. And I thought that it didn’t have much of a sense of humor."

Amid considerable acrimony, Kit was fired in late 1992. Wrenching all-night staff meetings were held to patch things up, and he was asked back. Eight months later, in June 1993, he was fired again. In a gesture of loyalty to Kit (who’s currently senior projects editor at the L.A. Times), writers John Powers, Michael Ventura, Steve Erickson, Tom Carson and Ella Taylor quit, and there were strong indications that more might follow.

Thus began a Lord of the Flies interregnum that would last a year, with the quality of the editorial content dropping like a big rock off a cliff. Numerous candidates were interviewed to replace Kit, but prospect after pros pect shied away from throwing himself into the path of the boulder.

Then the Weekly found a sucker.

An Amazing Story

Sue Horton, a connected USC journalism professor, had offered Mike a number of leads on potential editors. At first this unpretentious leftie insomniac wasn’t interested in the job herself. But, says Sue, "It was hard to go and talk to Mike and not start thinking what you could do with a paper in Los Angeles."

A student of Tudor history and the daughter and granddaughter of teachers, Sue had worked five years for the Community Information Project, a pool of socially conscious reporters who did investigative reporting under contract to print and television media, and had written a 1989 book, The Billionaire Boys’ Club. Still, she had never edited a newspaper.

 

Like many writers in L.A., Horton had endured a Weekly debacle. For months in 1981, she had worked on a Weekly cover story on L.A.’s worst landlords, only to pick up the paper and find a new lead paragraph on her story: "Some ghastly tale of a woman with a sadistic landlord. I called Jay up, and he said, ‘Isn’t it an amazing story? I heard it at a party!’"

In 1994, she found herself in an awkward position: She was given her friend Kit’s former job.

On Sue’s arrival, the Weekly, about to make an expensive move to the former digs of The Hollywood Reporter at 6715 Sunset Blvd., was clunking edgeward with two broken axles in the editorial department: no organization, no direction. The staff were paranoid and feuding like hillbillies.

Sue was optimistic: "My mother had been a school principal, and I remember early on saying to her, ‘I really love the editing part, and as soon as all the people issues are solved, this is going to be the perfect job.’ And my mother burst out laughing and said, ‘You don’t get it. The people problems are never solved.’"

True, but over time — a long time, it seemed — the smoke cleared a bit. Dread prickled many a spine when Village Voice owner and pet-food magnate Leonard Stern bought the paper in 1995 — still, no hail of fire ensued. Through Sue’s emphasis on stories that put a human face on complex issues, the Weekly has drawn in readers not accustomed to seeing things from left field. The paper is (knock wood, pour libation) successful.

Lest heads swell, though, the gods keep nagging that lots of people complain — while admitting they don’t read it much anymore, so how would they know? — that the Weekly sucks.

Ginger Varney: "I’m assuming that the Weekly has some ‘credibility,’ but it has the kind of credibility that mainstream papers have these days, and I frankly don’t give two cents for that kind of credibility."

Jay Levin: "What’s missing? Passion, humor, good editing, good choices of articles, wit, a sense of the life force, a sense of the dynamic of the culture, good hard journalism about the big core issues. The fact that the Weekly hasn’t covered the spiritual culture — outrageous in this town."

What can we say? Plenty, obviously, though the L.A. Weekly’s survival seems like a movie miracle. We’ve tried here to drag some of the twisting rivers this paper has traveled over its 20-year history. But the story doesn’t reveal how it got to be the nation’s biggest alternative weekly, does it? One thing’s sure: It could never happen this way again.


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