Zuma Dogg Wags Tale in Council's Face

Times Staff Writer

Suddenly, they stopped.

The often distracted, sometimes disaffected and occasionally downright rude members of the Los Angeles City Council swung in their chairs until all eyes were on the man strutting to the lectern.

"Our next speaker is Zuma Dogg," council President Eric Garcetti said.

Standing before them was a man in his mid-30s, wearing a black wool cap and dark sunglasses. He immediately burst into a manic tirade punctuated by hip-hop slang:

"We don't need no legislation.

"We don't need no beach patrol.

"No politicians on the boardwalk.

"Council, leave our beach alone! Hootie-hoo!"

Only in L.A., Garcetti said, do City Council meetings draw characters who look fresh from the bar scene in the movie "Star Wars."

But he said Zuma Dogg has distinguished himself as a "mix of curiosity and crusader" fighting for what he considers his free-speech rights.

"He's been able to do it with humor and at times be more direct and substantive," Garcetti said. "At other times, he's putting on a good show."

Zuma Dogg's real name is Dave Elliott, and he says the issue is one that threatens his livelihood as a performance artist: For more than a month, he has regularly appeared before the council to protest a recently imposed ban on street vending along the Venice boardwalk.

For the few minutes allotted to impromptu speakers at council meetings, Elliott sings, dances, raps and reads legalese proclaiming his right to keep performing for donations and selling "Zuma Dogg" T-shirts, jewelry and incense along one of the region's most popular tourist paths.

"I hope they're getting a better democracy in Iraq than Zuma Dogg is getting from the L.A. City Council, y'all," Elliott told them recently.

"The police are out of order.... That's called terrorism and harassment, y'all, and I'm suffering all kinds of emotional problems from it, y'all."

While council members typically react to Elliott with smiles or furrowed brows, they do watch: A couple of years back they were scolded by judges for not paying attention when the lawyer for a strip club appealed a zoning decision.

"He wakes us up; it gets everyone's attention," Councilwoman Wendy Greuel said of Elliott.

"He cannot sing, rap or dance a lick," Councilman Herb Wesson said, laughing. Wesson describes the council's reaction to Elliott as something between stunned and amazed. "I've never seen anything like it," he said.

After each performance, Garcetti keeps a straight face when he says, "Thank you, Mr. Dogg." Then Elliott dances away from the lectern, flailing his arms and bobbing his head.

Not everyone is a fan. Councilman Bernard Parks said Elliott's act lost its effectiveness after his debut. "The legitimacy of the issue is being lost in the theatrics," he said.

The regulation of boardwalk activities has been an issue since the 1990s, when the council ran afoul of federal courts for allowing street sales only by newspapers and nonprofit organizations.

Since then, the ordinance has been revised repeatedly in an attempt to appease surrounding merchants -- who say beach vendors hurt their businesses -- while protecting performers crowded out to other parts of the city. At the same time, the council has tried not to violate the rights of beach entrepreneurs.

Beginning in 2003, vendors and performers were required to buy $25 permits they assumed would last a lifetime.

As competition increased, a lottery system was instituted two years later to determine who could use the boardwalk's 150 spaces.

An ordinance also was passed that identified what items could be sold, such as T-shirts and jewelry created by the seller.

That law was challenged by a local civil rights attorney, so it was revised in March to ban such sales and crack down on excessive noise -- which was a problem for Elliott, because Zuma Dogg performs karaoke with an amplifier.

"Eventually we're going to win this by having a judge overturn this," Elliott said later during an interview in the council chambers, when he was slightly calmer.

He insisted he was not trying to make a mockery of the system with his council appearances. Instead, he believes they are helping bring attention to the problem.

"If I didn't show up, nobody would know," he said.

Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who has a committee fine-tuning the ordinance, said any radical changes are unlikely. The ordinance was unanimously approved by the council after being discussed at three town hall meetings, and Rosendahl said most Venice residents support it.

Elliott has met privately with Rosendahl, who calls him "an original ... another treasure of Venice."

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Cleveland, Elliott says he has been a radio program director and consultant, making more than $50,000 a year.

He says he worked for Top 40 stations in cities across the nation, including Washington, New York and Los Angeles, where he's lived the last 12 years.

Then he reinvented himself as Zuma Dogg.

He made his debut as a performer in 2000 on Howard Stern's radio program. Shortly thereafter, he began performing at Venice Beach and started a cable access show. He also has launched a website, www.zumadogg.com.

Elliott says he made up to $600 a day -- all of his income -- performing and selling on the beach. Now, he says, he is homeless on the days when he can't crash with a fellow performer. Sometimes he sleeps in his white 1999 Dodge Caravan.

Elliott is taping his fight against City Hall with a camcorder and hopes to turn it into a movie.

He describes himself as a "gangsta representing Venice Beach" who can "rap like Snoop Dogg, sing like Whitney Houston, rock like AC/DC and dance like Justin [Timberlake]." At a recent City Council meeting, he broke into a shrieking rendition of Houston's "I Will Always Love You," drawing laughs from council members.

Elliott said he won't stop showing up as Zuma Dogg at council meetings until the ordinance is overturned.

"The minute this Venice Beach thing is taken care of," he said, "they'll never see Zuma Dogg again -- only on television."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World