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Street Artists Take Their Acts to City Council

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Anything goes at City Hall--remember the time a fellow lugged in a leaf blower to demonstrate to members of the distinguished council just how noisy the darn things are?

But even veterans of that meeting of the Los Angeles City Council were tickled this week when Harry Perry and a dozen other characters from the Venice Boardwalk showed up with balloons, guitars, and handwritten speeches.

The street performers were demanding that they be included in a measure adopted by the council Tuesday that exempts nonprofit organizations from a ban on soliciting on public beaches.

Perry, a well-known turbaned minstrel on roller skates, claimed that performers and artists also have a constitutional right to express themselves on the boardwalk.

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“I’m receiving the message from the other world that invaders are coming and that we should seek the sanctuary of the ecstasy,” Perry said. “You may not agree with my message, but I should be able to come from anywhere in the world and say things on the Venice Boardwalk. The poetry I write is just as important as Descartes and Plato.”

Councilwoman Ruth Galanter proposed Tuesday’s measure to clarify the growing debate over who has the right to profit from wares and weirdness on the boardwalk. In recent months rent-paying merchants and residents on the east side of the boardwalk have complained that the throngs of performers and vendors on the west side, who seek donations for everything from juggling chain saws to kneading sore backs, are hurting business and ruining the neighborhood.

Especially controversial are the burgeoning numbers of young gypsies and old hippies who wrap hair in beads and strings. Practitioners claim hair-wrapping is an art handed down to the Grateful Dead by the Egyptian Pharaohs. (“I left the salon because there was no art to it,” said Kathy Beight, a beautician turned hair-wrapper who lobbied City Hall.) Merchants scoff that hair-wrapping is nothing more than a money-making fad.

Just how the measure adopted will affect the hair wrappers and street performers remains unclear. To their disappointment the measure does not mention them, protecting only soliciting done for religious, ideological, philosophical and political purposes.

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This omission, however, did not prevent the Venice performers from stealing the show.

While council members tended to their business inside, outside the chambers the motley crew of healers, hair-wrappers and comedians blinked in the glare of television lights. The zany performance was orchestrated by Jerry Rubin, self-anointed leader of the Venice street performers and musicians. Rubin himself is known best not for street performing, but for publicity hunting.

Tuesday was no exception.

“If you have a photographer, we can get some dogs in here for you,” he offered one reporter.

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There were no live dogs, but there was a man who made dogs out of balloons. Joey Long had taped eight of them in different colors to his head. “I don’t know why everybody keeps looking at me,” he complained, as city aides and officials in suits bustled past and stared.

There was also Sookie the Clown, a healer who boasted of curing a car accident victim’s strained back for 75 cents, three hair-wrappers, two artists, one comedian and a comedian-poet in dreadlocks named Robert Parrish who specializes in dirty jokes.

“There was once a white horse and it fell in mud and got dirty,” Parrish told a reporter. “That’s my dirty joke.”

And of course, there was Perry, the turbaned guitar player who is a boardwalk fixture. He arrived without his roller skates.

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“I get too ethereal when I’m on my skates,” he explained.

After their so-called press conference, the performers filed into the chambers and sat politely in the long wooden pews under the enormous chamber’s chandeliers. Council members droned on and on about other city matters. It was a different theater from what the Venice entertainers were used to. A comedian fell asleep. Others left.

Item No. 67 finally came up for discussion around noon. Councilman Hal Bernson had just ordered some guacamole for his colleagues’ lunch and council President John Ferraro was eager to get the show on the road.

“Quickly,”’ he barked. “We don’t have much time.”

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Maybe Ferraro scared them. Or maybe they found the fancy marble pillars a bit too intimidating. But none of the entertainers who addressed the council had the nerve they show on the boardwalk. Even comedian Michael Colyer--who blasphemes about everything from sex to race relations on the boardwalk--approached the podium with a chaste plea to be allowed to stay.

“People come to Venice Beach for us,” he said.

“Time’s up!” Ferraro said.

About a dozen speakers addressed the issue. All but a handful of residents--who feared that the measure was an invitation for additional swarms of weird activities in their neighborhood--were for the exemption.

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Without further ado, the council approved the measure as an urgency ordinance, which means that it goes into effect immediately.

When the vote was over, the entertainers gave each other high-fives and rushed back to business on the beach. Perry lingered only long enough to say that while the measure is a start, it does nothing to clear up confusion over which performers and artists can remain on the beach. “I still worry for our welfare,” he said.

As for his impressions of City Hall, Perry had only a polite comment. “I like politics,” he said. “But I like guitar playing better.”


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