Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"LIFEGUARDING, AND THE WAY IT WAS", by Cal Porter

Perhaps its propinquity or just coincidence... what with the annual "Ed Perry Memorial Regatta" this Saturday, June 19, 2010, at the Venice Pier and that we are now able to bring you Cal Porter's article about Old Venice entitled, "Lifeguarding, And The Way It Was". In any case, we are stoked to bring you yet another gem from Cal. Enjoy!

LIFEGUARDING, AND THE WAY IT WAS

This is a short story for lifeguards about what it was like almost seventy years ago when I was a teenager starting out as a Los Angeles City Lifeguard on the sands of Venice Beach. So much has changed through the years besides just the wages, although those have gone up a bit from the 75 cents an hour we were paid then. However, since I had been working as a lifeguard at the Venice Salt Water Plunge for 35 cents per hour at that time I was overjoyed to have my salary more than doubled when I went to work for the city.

I had been assigned to work the Navy Street lifeguard tower at Ocean Park a mile or so north of Venice, the busiest of all the city beaches.
What follows is an account of what a lifeguard would have seen and done then, seventy years ago, as opposed to what he would see and do there today along that same stretch of beach; a sort of lifeguard travelogue.


The Sunset, Venice, Ocean Park, Crystal and Santa Monica Piers, 1939


My routine in those days would be to arrive at the Lifeguard Headquarters on the Sunset Pier before my shift began at Navy Street just to see what was new and to visit with the guards there, Captain Myron Cox, Babe Dillon, George Wolf, Putt-Putt Snelling, Bruce Kidder, Bink Hedberg and others. I loved to hear stories from the old timers who had been there almost from the beginning of the lifeguard force in 1925 when George Wolf was first assigned as the one and only guard on the entire beach from Ocean Park to El Segundo. I knew the Sunset Pier very well from all the time I had spent on its end as a kid waiting for the biggest set waves to form and then jumping or diving in to catch the long ride to shore, and then going back out to do it all over again. If I had a car at the time I was working there I would park it at headquarters for the day; there were no parking lots along the beach at that time where now there are many. If I was without a car I would oftentimes arrive from my house down the beach in Playa del Rey on the big, red Pacific Electric Street Car as so many beach-goers did in those days. I would pick up my emergency telephone and red, rubber rescue tube there at the station to carry with me to my lifeguard tower. We also had the old, aluminum torpedo cans for rescue work but I much preferred the tube perfected by Santa Monica Lifeguard, Pete Peterson, the preeminent water man of his day. The cans, however, worked very well for the under the pier, piling rescues, and we had plenty of those at Navy Street. I would then walk the few blocks along the boardwalk to the Venice Pier just past the kids’beach playground that was there then where the basketball courts are now. Incidentally, the walkway was made of concrete but was always called the boardwalk since years ago that’s what it was. The Venice Pier extended out to the rock breakwater that is still there today after over a hundred years; the beach was much narrower then. The pier was the starting point for the electric trams which had been traveling up and down the boardwalk from Venice to the Santa Monica Pier since they went into operation in 1916. The tram was an open air conveyance that carried a dozen or so passengers and let them off and on anywhere along the beach. The fare was five cents, but lifeguards had the privilege of riding back and forth free at any time.


The Beach Tram


As we started our journey north on the tram the lifeguard would see many sights that are long gone now. On the beach side of the boardwalk were the Venice Amusement Pier and The Race Through the Clouds roller coaster, and on the right, the famous and lavish St Marks Hotel on the corner of Windward Avenue. We soon passed the Venice Movie Theater, built over the sand, and then came to my all-time favorite, The Venice Salt Water Plunge. This building was constructed in 1907 and I had spent a good bit of my youth there as a high school swim team member and as a lifeguard. It was located right behind where the lifeguard tower at the breakwater is now, and where the skateboard park stands today. George Freeth is credited with being the first surfer in the United States when he paddled his board out and rode waves at that very spot in 1907. When I spoke to the lifeguard stationed there recently he was surprised to learn that the largest swimming pool on the Pacific Coast was once there.



The Venice Plunge


On the tram we now passed Jack’s at the Beach restaurant where you could often see comedian, Bob Hope and his movie friends dining. He would sometimes pop his head into the plunge building and watch us swim. We would next drop off the lifeguard at the Westminster Avenue tower on the beach just beyond. In those days all the towers were the little open air, wooden boxes on four tall legs. Brooks Avenue was the next stop where the original City Lifeguard Headquarters building stood before the move to the Sunset Pier; now it was a substation. The Gorman CafĂ©, where lifeguards often ate, was across the boardwalk. If the lifeguards working the Sunset Avenue and Dudley Street towers were aboard they would be let off soon, but if we cast our eyes to the right, looming up before us was the Waldorf Hotel. The Waldorf opened in 1916 and had a guest book full of the leading movie luminaries of the day, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and others. But just beyond the hotel we were reaching the end of the line for me and many of the other passengers at Navy Street. The tram would continue on its way to the Santa Monica Pier and then repeat the course many times during the day.


The Navy Street Tower was on the sand alongside the Lick Pier which was part of the larger Ocean Park Pier and opposite the Lick Pier Bath House. The bath house was built under the pier itself and was run by Mark and Mame Peterson where you could rent bathing suits, towels, lockers and take a shower. The lifeguard tower was white in color and was a sturdy, wooden lookout to watch for bathers in distress, and to also occasionally enjoy a visit from a lady friend; which, of course, is not done these days. Sometimes on a Saturday or Sunday morning many buckets of hot water from the bath house were needed to clean up after late night revelers, spilling down from the amusement pier, who decided to use the tower for purposes other than lifeguarding.




My Navy Street Tower


One of the few volleyball courts found anywhere on the beach in those days was located behind the tower. The court was good for a warm-up before the daily workout swim to Brooks Avenue and the run back in the soft sand to the tower, quite often done with Rube Wright, lifeguard and California State wrestling champion. Next to the bath house, and also under the pier, was a no-name hamburger, cold drink stand serving uneatable food and loud music. On the pier above stood the Lick Pier Ballroom where all the name bands of the day played, Harry James, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw. During afternoon sessions the bands could clearly be heard on the beach. In its later years it was known as the Aragon Ballroom with radio shows broadcasting from its bandstand. Also on the pier overlooking the beach was the Bingo Parlor where friends Fuzzy and Soggy worked, two fellows who could always be counted on for backup if trouble started on the sand. Next to bingo was a ball throwing concession run by Dave and Izzy. If you had a halfway decent aim you could cause a young lady in skimpy bathing attire to fall from her perch into a tank of water, resulting in the girl being wet most of the time. Next door was the Rosemary Movie Theater where it was possible for a lifeguard to acquaint himself with the attractive usherette girls working there and thereby gain free admission to the movies, and other benefits. All of these Lick Pier and Ocean Park Pier employees spent their time off frequenting the beach where the Navy Street Lifeguard ruled.



A Day At Navy Street


Ah, but all this was so long ago. Almost nothing described above remains today. The Navy Street Tower is now a comfortable, enclosed structure with a deck and ramp. The towers now are identified only by numbers instead of colorful street names. There is no amusement pier alongside the tower drawing throngs of people to that particular spot on the beach where it was always warm with the pier blocking the daily west wind. The beach is now one long vacant stretch of sand in both directions, all looking the same. The dance halls, roller coasters, theaters, penny arcades, restaurants, games, rides, fun houses, and saloons built right out over the sand and water are all long gone. The electric trams were discontinued years ago. A parking lot stands where the Sunset Pier once entered the ocean at the foot of Venice Boulevard. Everything on the beach side of the boardwalk, the Venice Pier, my beloved Venice Plunge, the movie theater next door, and even the grand St. Marks Hotel across the way came down long ago. One thing that remains along the strand is the Waldorf Hotel where Charlie Chaplin rode the elevator to his penthouse, and then on up above to hear the Rooftop Orchestra. The hotel is now a National Historic Landmark, and when I last looked inside the original elevator was still working. Most important though, the lifeguard force is still with us, and today it is the best in the world, the best equipped, best organized, best run, and capable of handling any emergency on land or sea.


However, and I wonder if Charlie Chaplin would agree, somehow it just seemed like a lot more fun back then. But at least there is one good thing that hasn’t changed, girls are still allowed to sit in the towers. Now they work there.


Cal Porter


(Please note: "LIFEGUARDING, AND THE WAY IT WAS" by Cal Porter. Copyright 2009 Cal Porter. All Rights Reserved. Used here with permission. Photos courtesy of Cal Porter and used here with his permission.)


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Many Thanks to Cal for sharing yet another great lifeguard story with all of us.

Until next time.....


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1 comment:

Jeremy said...

Thanks for the fun and interesting stories of how lifeguarding used to be.