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 café. 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.
Peyton, Britten and Kulak all say they got along as business neighbors for the first few years of Kulak’s tenancy and would often socialize. “I’ve known a lot of porn people — they’re everywhere out here,” says Kulak. “I’ll go out to dinner with them or work out at the gym with them. If you want to go out for a smoothie afterward, that’s fine — you learn something.”
Kulak doesn’t say if he ever had a smoothie with Peyton, but everyone acknowledges that during the first six months of Kulak’s operation, some of his friends — including Britten — began meeting at Decks, Etc. to sit around and strum guitars. From these after-work gatherings of half a dozen or so people, Kulak’s offices grew into an informal folk venue that soon required more furniture and better wiring. Kulak knocked down the wall separating his two storefronts, began booking acts and eventually installed a six-camera webcam broadcasting system to stream shows online. As attendance grew, volunteers served coffee and snacks.
This is where the origin myths of the feud differ. Peyton claims the musicians’ instruments became electrified and amped, and the noise level grew, making it impossible to write his memoirs next door. Kulak tells a different story: That, in 2001, after enduring what he claims were repeated and disruptive visits from a drunken Peyton, the club had no choice but to ban the star of Powertool and Santa’s Cummin’! Peyton denies ever having set foot in the Woodshed.
For his part, Britten says he felt menaced by what he claims was unauthorized construction performed on what had, by 1999, become Kulak’s Woodshed. Now he has nothing but criticism for Kulak’s Woodshed, although he does slip into a kind of reverie when describing the times he and Kulak would meet after work. “We used to sit around, play guitar and sing,” Britten says. “There were no amps, no cameras, no speakers, no sound-mixing board — just a guy and his guitar. There was no public let in, there was no coffee being served, no snack bar. Just friends.”
The Valley Village showdown highlights many of the personality differences between Peyton and Kulak, but it also underscores similarities.
“Chuck and I share a lot of the same self-esteem issues,” Kulak claims. “We both grew up feeling unwanted and unappreciated.”
The dispute also presents distinctly different paths to the American Dream of financial success and independence.
“I didn’t realize I had this ability to put something together that people liked,” marvels Kulak when discussing his Woodshed enterprise. “I’d always had a coffeehouse dream, but I’d never thrown a birthday party before — I’m basically a loner, a private person. And it was so surprising when [the Woodshed] became popular.” (Kulak himself avoids the spotlight at his club and prefers to work backstage, where he directs the camera work for the show’s webcasts.)
Today, when discussing his problems, Kulak often refers to his legal fights and his supporters as a “movement,” claiming the Woodshed’s artistic altruism “makes us a powerful political force.” At the time he opened for business, Kulak couldn’t have imagined what was in store for him.
On one side of Kulak was Peyton, who was himself embarking on another kind of career reinvention having left adult films to sell Jeff Stryker merchandise (including action figures of himself and dildos modeled on his own equine anatomy) and to appear in a one-man stage show scripted by Bruce Vilanch of Hollywood Squares. It was through this performance and other appearances in live theater that Peyton began to believe he had a life outside of porn. In time he began to see himself, somewhat like Kulak, as a local hero who breathed life into a grimy neighborhood.
“All my neighbors love me,” he says, “because I protect them and keep the area clean of graffiti.”
“Before he moved in,” Jim Britten concurs, “we used to have old couches and mattresses in the alley. Even tree limbs.”
Kulak’s other neighbor, of course, was Britten, who represented a more solid and traditional face of entrepreneurialism and who, Kulak believes, “fell under Peyton’s spell” and turned against Kulak.
“When I first moved in, Jim Britten was my fastest friend,” Kulak says. “I became part of his extended family — I’d go over to his house for dinner two or three times a week. He’d throw parties for all of the Woodshed volunteers. He was my closest adviser and a very, very good friend who was particularly loyal to me. The three or four years we were friends were some of the best years of my life.”
Kulak’s encounters with L.A.’s Department of Building and Safety and Police Commission began in 2004, thanks to Peyton’s persistent complaints to the city, which Kulak believes were payback for Peyton’s getting 86’ed from his club. City inspectors declared the Woodshed “a place of assembly” and in need of soundproofing as well as permits for entertainment and selling refreshments and — the biggest obstacle in L.A. — a variance for parking. Since the club only had two parking spaces in its rear alley, patrons had been parking on the street. Kulak needed to show the city he had obtained off-site parking before it would grant him the other permits.
“My life is one long string of doing things the hard way,” Kulak says, and following the bureaucratic process by which his fortunes rose and fell since 2005 is an eye-glazing study in minutiae. Broadly speaking, Kulak eventually got his permits and variance lined up after about a year, only to have Peyton drag out the appeals process for another year, after which time the Woodshed lost its shared-parking agreement with the nearby Country School, sending everything back to square one. Last year Kulak began the process all over again, but his period of probation ran out and he had to surrender himself to arrest, plead guilty to misdemeanor noncompliance and agree to pursue the necessary permits. He has operated his club throughout this time.
“No good deed ever goes unpunished,” laments Wendy Greuel. “You can put that on the record.” The councilwoman for District 2, which includes Valley Village, was drawn into Paul Kulak’s world of turmoil when he approached her office for help in obtaining city permits. Kulak organized his patrons and webcast audience to flood the councilwoman’s office with letters.
“I’ve been amazed,” says Greuel, “from the outpouring I’ve received for him from all over the world. Including Australia — you name it.”
Greuel, impressed by the heartfelt support and accolades showered upon the Woodshed, believed the place to be a unique cultural resource worth saving. All she had to do, she thought, was guide the unschooled Kulak through what, apparently to him, was an impenetrable jungle of red tape. But Kulak never really seemed to move off the dime, and months would pass before he’d take steps to meet city standards for his building’s use. He appeared to expect the councilwoman’s staff to fill out and file all the paperwork for him. In conversation, it’s clear that Kulak feels that since nighttime street parking is fairly abundant in his neighborhood, there’s no need for him to obtain a variance for off-site parking. And on his Web site, he explains to his followers that given the choice of spending money on permits or keeping the Woodshed going in its early days, he freely chose to ignore the permits. Even today he speaks of soundproofing his club as a theoretical need.
By last November, after a Superior Court judge declared Kulak to be in violation of probation, an alarmed Greuel issued a two-page statement to Woodshed partisans urging Kulak to get his act together and bring the Woodshed up to code so that he could obtain the parking variance. Kulak’s people took this as a sign of Greuel’s washing her hands of their cause, and she soon found herself caught in a crossfire of words between Kulak and Peyton.
“Any night he’s been open for the last two years,” Peyton says with metronomic regularity, “he’s been violating his probation. It’s a criminal act, but Wendy Greuel is supporting a criminal against me, because I’ve been in porn. Even more so — gay porn. Nail me to the cross, I’m guilty!”
Greuel dismisses this charge as “ridiculous,” and those familiar with the city’s permitting process say it’s normal for someone like Kulak, who has pleaded guilty to misdemeanor code violations, to keep his business operating as long as he moves in the direction of compliance. Otherwise, these sources say, half the Valley’s businesses would be shuttered at any given moment.
For the past two years, Kulak’s Woodshed has operated in a gray zone, in which it cannot publicly advertise and its patrons must go through the technicality of registering as members of a private club. In the meantime, Kulak and Peyton wage a cold war on their separate Web sites, www.kulakswoodshed.com and www.charlespeyton.com. Peyton’s site is a particularly over-the-top specimen of folk art that features crudely manipulated images of Kulak, Greuel and Greuel aid Dale Thrush. Paragraphs in colored fonts and riddled with misspelled words attack Kulak and Greuel. Incongruously, one day, Narciso Yepes’ haunting guitar theme from Forbidden Games plays in the background while Peyton’s site angrily declares:
“Rodney King was beat for 3 to 5 minutes, try being tortured for years! That wasn’t dog food they were feeding me 5 nights a week, WORSE . . . denying my rights for years because of her public given authority, her descrimination [sic] and abuse of position. She helped him violate me…. Watch what this cost TAX PAYERS!!!”
On Open Mike Night, a man wearing gold-rimmed glasses who looks like a high school science teacher takes the stage with his guitar and begins singing James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” He doesn’t just sing the golden oldie but completely impersonates Taylor’s nasal voice. The audience comes alive and sings the lyrics with the man, who has taken them back in time.
The presence of the club’s six video cameras notwithstanding, the Woodshed offers a portal into the 1970s and resembles a hundred other folk clubs and coffee shops of that period from Cazadero to Venice and beyond. It’s an oasis from the conformity of commercial music, a place where people have the freedom to sing out of key. Still, parking is tight on the Woodshed’s side of the street. There’s also no question that without a sound wall, the Woodshed’s amplified singers, harmonicas and drums could penetrate its neighbors’ walls. Which would probably annoy anyone trying to write his memoirs — if the time and place chosen to write them was at night in a storefront on Laurel Canyon Boulevard.
For now Kulak has been granted yet another stay by the city and is in the process of lining up off-site parking. In theory his Woodshed could be declared up to code in two months, but with Peyton’s anticipated appeal, Kulak acknowledges that it will be at least a year until he can operate as a public club. Meanwhile, Peyton has filed a $2 million suit against the city for loss of income. When asked if he could ever live with a Kulak’s Woodshed that had parking, permits and soundproofing, he answers with a flat “no.”
“If somebody broke into your house and decided to stay there… ” says Peyton, not finishing the sentence. “How would you like having a criminal living next to you? Wendy Greuel is backing a criminal — I don’t think it gets any bigger than that.”
“The Woodshed is the result of a lonesome, conflicted loner,” Kulak says. “We’re here, we’re going to stay. So how are we going to get along as neighbors?”