After more than a decade of entertaining crowds with two-headed turtles, five-legged dogs, a bearded lady and a cast of circus performers that inspired an AMC reality series, the Venice Beach Freakshow is being forced out of its namesake location on the boardwalk. A farewell party is scheduled for Sunday, April 30, a week after it held its last show.
Todd Ray, who founded Venice Beach Freakshow in 2006, says he learned roughly six months ago that the building on Ocean Front Walk had been sold and that the new owner would not be renewing Ray’s five-year lease on the first floor. Since then, Ray says, he’s been paying rent to Snapshot Partners LLC, an investment group that, according to a report last year in the L.A. Business Journal, was hired by Snapchat to acquire the leasehold interest in the building.
“This is a classic example of where art, freedom, culture and creativity meets greed, arrogance and just pure deceitfulness,” says Ray, who believe Snapchat is disguising itself under a different name in an attempt to avoid bad publicity. (Earlier this year, the grassroots group “Evict Snapchat” organized protests over the displacement of small businesses.) “They’re just doing this as an investment, but with their lack of vision, they’re also killing a lot of the culture along the way and really pushing out the family businesses that have made Venice what it is.”
In a statement emailed to L.A. Weekly, Snapchat denied it has any affiliation with Snapshot Partners LLC. Snapchat sub-leases a space on the third floor of the same building as the Venice Beach Freakshow, but the company does not own the building, “nor do we have any leasing rights to the ground floor retail,” the statement reads. “We have already said publicly that we intend to focus our future expansion outside of Venice.”
L.A. Country records show the property is owned by a trust attributed to Leslie Ekker and Simone Scharff under the name General Real Estate Management Company. A woman named Simone Scharff was previously married to Werner Scharff, the now-deceased women’s fashion magnate responsible for giving Venice a makeover after moving there in the late 1930s, though it’s unclear if that woman is the same one associated with General Real Estate Management. Werner Scharff had bought up properties including the Cadillac Hotel, art gallery L.A. Louver, and what is now the restaurant known as James Beach Cafe. Phone calls to Simone Scharff at her office were not immediately returned.
The Venice Beach Freakshow is only the latest casualty of the gentrification sweeping Venice as a result of companies like Snapchat, which has bought or leased a handful of properties — including one that left a homeless shelter for teens with a homeless problem of its own — since opening its headquarters there in 2013. But the closing of the freak show might also be the most potent metaphor for the neighborhood’s transformation as a former home to free-spirited freaks, weirdos and poet outcasts like Jim Morrison and Charles Bukowski to a sleek new playground for the wealthy tech elite.
“The scary thing is it’s starting to feel like they’re trying to turn it into their corporate campus on the beach,” Ray says. “I don't blame them for wanting to work on the beach, but at some point it’s like saying, ‘I want to live in this exotic area of the world’ and you go there and cut all the trees down and you kill all the wildlife.”
While Ray is hopeful that the Venice Beach Freakshow will continue on in a new location, he acknowledges that finding affordable retail space in Venice will be extremely difficult.
Venice Beach — a hub for graffiti artists, body builders and street performers — became a popular tourist destination long before the Venice Beach Freakshow took up residence. But the freak show itself seemed to embody all that was still wacky and unusual about the neighborhood.
It also garnered fans far beyond the boardwalk when in 2013 it became the subject of an AMC reality show, which ran for two seasons and offered viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the family business. Early episodes showed Ray’s daughter Asia training to swallow swords and electrify herself with Tesla coils while her father worked to recruit new performers including a bearded lady and a so-called lobster boy, named for his clawlike hands, the result of a congenital disorder.
Ray wasn’t always in the business of recruiting people he likes to call the tallest or the hairiest in the world. A Grammy-winning producer — he earned the award in 2000 for his work on the Santana album Supernatural — he says he spent decades in the music industry working with everyone from Mick Jagger and Jack Johnson to Nas and Beastie Boys. He eventually founded his own label under Warner Bros. Records before becoming disenchanted with the business side of the industry and calling it quits.
Ray’s first love was magic. He recalls going to a carnival sideshow as a kid in Charlotte, N.C., and watching a man who was paralyzed from the neck down perform a stunt in which he rolled a perfect cigarette using only his face. “I went up to him and I said, ‘I’m a young magician. I sit in front of the mirror, I practice my tricks, I make sure it’s going to look good. But what you just did for me, I don’t think I could ever do in my life with all the practice in the world.’
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“This man looked me right in the eye and he said, ‘Son, if I can do what I just did in my condition, a young man like you could do anything you ever dream of.’”
In typical Venice Beach fashion, the freak show isn’t leaving without one last spectacle. On Sunday, April 30, from noon until 6 p.m., Ray and his performers are hosting a farewell party they hope will also serve as a de facto protest against Venice gentrification. There will be appearances by fire eaters, the smallest man in America, the wolf boy and even a marriage ceremony for Jessa the Bearded Lady on the freak show’s steps.
“The freak show has always been a place where you can go to see the things you can’t Google — the things that seem impossible, where in fact the impossible is possible,” Ray says. “Our goal is just to bring wonder back in the world.”