Cal Porter continues to document Southern Californian surf history from a personal view:
The Venice Hot Salt Water Plunge was built in 1907... It was the creation of Abbot Kinney, the founder of Venice, California, along with the canals and the amusement pier to fulfill his dream of creating, “The Venice of America”. The Plunge was showing its years when I went to work there seventy years ago, but I loved the place. I started as a towel boy, then beach boy, locker room boy, and finally lifeguard, my goal since I was a young kid. Each of these positions had interesting aspects to them.
The Towel Boy. - The hundreds of white towels and grey bathing suits that were issued to the bathers each day as they entered the building were washed in big machines in the basement boiler room. After washing they were raised to the fourth floor rooftop by a huge mechanical dumbwaiter or elevator. There the wet towels and suits were hung on a vast array of clotheslines by the towel boys to dry in the hot sunshine. In the afternoon the dry suits and towels were either lowered four floors to the basement by the dumbwaiter or arrived there by a method that my fellow towel boy and I devised and preferred. At the bottom of the chute was the towel folding table where one of us would go and lie face down. The towel boy remaining on the roof, instead of using the dumbwaiter, would proceed to dump basket loads of hot towels to plummet the four floors down the chute at great speed covering the boy on the table below in several feet of soft warmth. The engineer in charge of the boiler room, Steve Smith, who had been there as long as the plunge, and whose son, Tom, was a beach lifeguard, didn’t mind our antics a bit. He often joined in. Then came the hard part for a towel boy: neatly folding and stacking the suits and towels and then transporting them upstairs to the lobby area.
The Beach Boy - As beach boys our main job was to see that the customers were happy. A chair or back rest here, a dry towel or two there. And the beach had to be cleaned every morning and kept clean during the day. It was a nice outdoor job and there was always the possibility of working in an occasional swim or bodysurfing session.
The Locker Room Boy - Now being a locker room boy was something else. Besides just opening and locking the dressing room doors for the customers and handing out towels there was more to it than that. I’m not sure I ever understood the policy, but we locker room boys worked both the men’s section and the separate women’s section. Maybe girls couldn’t be hired or something. However, throughout the women’s locker room there were signs everywhere informing the ladies that we boys were there, and to please not remove bathing suits until in the private dressing rooms, not even in the showers. Well, I guess some ladies weren’t paying attention when reading was being taught in school, or they just decided to ignore the signs. They always acted like it was a complete surprise when they saw us, and sometimes a lot of giggling ensued. At first, as a young teenager, I was embarrassed and wished for a reassignment, but after thinking it over for a few days I resigned myself to do my job, and resolved to treat this episode in my life as a valuable educational experience, and to do my utmost to make the best of it. Which is what I did.
The Lifeguard - Soon I was taken away from this demanding job and was assigned as a lifeguard. Frank Rivas, the chief lifeguard, had watched my swim workouts many times, and had seen me in all of our Venice High School swimming meets where I was a free style sprinter, 50 to 200 yards. It was a happy day in the late 1930’s when he asked me to join his crew, and who could resist a salary jump to thirty-five cents an hour. Heck, you could go to the Venice Movie Theater next door for fifteen cents and get a hot dog for a nickel. I was by far the youngest lifeguard; many of them had been there for years, a couple since the 1920’s. Some of them had doubled as gondoliers in the heyday of the canals. We usually had two guards in the twelve foot deep end, one of us under the high diving boards. There were one or two in the shallower end and even a lifeguard for the kiddie pool. I was usually at the deep end with Frank the chief, who also stood guard over the back door to the beach in case someone tried to sneak in without paying. The pool guards also used to be responsible for the ocean swimmers in front of the plunge but in 1926 the Los Angeles Beach Lifeguard Service was formed and took over the responsibility. We still helped out when called on, and I knew that I would take the beach guard test as soon as I was old enough, eighteen being the minimum age.
All the beach guards came to the plunge to work out and I got acquainted with all of them. It was special when the “Glamour Squad” would arrive. These were the Santa Monica Guards who were usually preceded by a follower or “groupie” who would announce in a loud voice to all, “Get ready, the Santa Monica Lifeguards are coming”! Then in would come Pete Peterson, the greatest swimmer, surfer, paddler and all around waterman of the era. Pete starred in many short movies demonstrating his tricks of water skiing, aquaplaning and surfing. Then there would be Paul Stader, movie stunt man, high diver, director, and double for Tarzan in all the movies. Freddy Zendar, MGM stunt director, and underwater expert was there. Even Buster Crabbe, Olympic swim champ, and the star of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movies would come. Girls would gather to watch. Knowing these guys even got me a few movie jobs, swimming in Esther Williams films, or in some costume drama. More glamour was evident when comedian, Bob Hope, and his radio cast of Jerry Colona and singer Francis Langford, would pop in before and after dining at Bob’s favorite restaurant, the famous Jack’s at the Beach, which was at the northeast corner of the plunge building. We knew the chef at Jack’s well, and he would feed us plunge lifeguards free; my favorite was the apple pie ala mode.
Charlie Walters, the manager, had grown old with the plunge. I think he had been there from the beginning. One day as usual I walked in the main entrance, where Charlie always stationed himself, to report for work. I had my plunge lifeguard trunks on and Charlie saw me, looked up, and shouted, “Where did you get our lifeguard trunks? Did you steal them?” I said, “Charlie, you know me!” And Charlie said, “I’m calling the police, an arrest will be made”. Luckily, Elmer Orr, who had worked as the plunge swimming instructor for thirty years, was nearby and overheard. He came over and said, “Charlie, you know Cal, he’s a lifeguard here, he’s worked here for a couple of years”. Charlie took another careful look and said, “Oh, yeah, okay, I guess I forgot”. I’m glad he recognized Elmer Orr. I began to wonder how much longer Charlie and this old relic of a building were going to last. A couple of nights later a somewhat similar case of mistaken identity occurred when my brother, Lee, who was a beach lifeguard, and I were watching a movie next door at the Venice Theater. Somerset Maugham’s, “Moon and Sixpence” was playing when three policemen raced down the aisle toward us, grabbed my brother by the arms, dragged him out of his seat, and up the aisle to the lobby. I followed, and when we got under the bright lights the officers took a hard look at my brother and said, “Hey, this isn’t the guy, he doesn’t even look like him, sorry bud”, and off they went. Back to our seats we went to finish seeing one of my favorite movies about an artist who runs off to the South Sea Islands and a native girl.
The engine room in the basement of the plunge was a scary but interesting place. A pipeline that ran out from the pool under the sand and out into the ocean alongside the pier for about 200 yards brought sea water into the boilers to be heated and treated and then piped into the plunge. It was noisy and hot down there. Everything out of the past was stored there. It looked like nothing was ever thrown away. Rental bathing suits dating all the way back to the opening in 1907 were there. Some of us would occasionally don those old, scratchy wool suits and go out and mingle with the crowds on the beach and boardwalk. We would amuse them (I hope) by running around and acting goofy with our imitations of the silent movie comedians like the Keystone Cops and Charlie Chaplin.
All this fun came to an end in the early 1940’s. By then I had become an L.A. City Beach Lifeguard at the amazing salary of seventy-five cents an hour; I was finally rich. The old plunge building was condemned and boarded up, as was almost all the rest of the salt water plunges up and down the coast; relics of the past Beach goers no longer arrived in the big red streetcars, they drove to the beach in their cars and had no use for a dressing room or a plunge. They swam in the ocean. I would poke my head into the boarded up lobby of the plunge from time to time and I would see Charlie Walters still sitting there. He would look up and see me and always say, “We’ll have this place opened up again any day now, it won’t be long”. But it wasn’t to be, it would never happen. The amusement pier was soon to follow with condemnation and removal. “Venice of America” would never be the same. Abbot Kinney, the founder, had been dead for many years. The offices of his sons on the third floor of the plunge were closed and abandoned. It was over for all the private, hot salt water baths and semi-secret massage rooms upstairs. The rows and rows of upstairs locker rooms that hadn’t been used for years would be reduced to scrap. The hot fountain in the middle of the pool that the old folks and kids loved is a memory. The day and night music from The Flying Circus on the pier is heard no more. I can no longer climb to the rooftop skylight and jump through the opening, dropping forty feet into the deep end of the pool. And there is no more looking out the front glass windows to see where Hawaiian surfer, George Freeth, caught that wave in 1907, long thought to be the first ever ridden in the U.S.
Sometime before the plunge was completely demolished, lifeguard captain and Olympic swimmer, Wally O’Conner and I gently forced open a boarded up side door at the plunge that we had been using for years. We entered with our water goggles in hand. The water was cold and dark when we dived in but we wanted to be the last ever to swim in the Venice Plunge. We left the old place, that we had known for so long, happy with that thought. And we had each picked up about seventy-five cents in coins from the murky bottom.
There were no professional, paid, beach lifeguards in the early days of the plunges, only plunge lifeguards. When beach lifeguard forces were first established in the 1920’s and 30’s many , if not most, of the lifeguards hired came out of the salt water plunges, including many of the captains put in charge. Although I came along a bit later, I have been told that I am the last living lifeguard that came out of that tradition. I’m proud of that.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Dec. 15 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2009, all rights reserved
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