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Arts and Entertainment

Seven Questions with Rich Wysockey and Marty Poole; 'Venice Beach Heart & Soul' Photographer and Writer

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LA has a diverse cast of characters. Whether it's the characters with stirring stories or interesting occupations or the people who are just simply characters, this town has them all. In an effort to get to know some of those characters a little better, we've created "Seven Questions with..." If you have a suggestion for a future Seven Questions subject send us an email.

Today's subjects are Rich Wysockey and Marty Poole.

Rich is a professional photographer. Marty is a screenwriter. The two guys share a passion for Venice Beach and decided to preserve the city they love with a coffee table book titled, Venice Beach Heart & Soul: 30 Years of Street Performing. The self-published book, which is available for sale on their Web site - along with LA area Barnes & Noble stores, The Patio, Plantation, Hennessey & Ingalls, Small World Books and other Venice-area stores, was a two-year long passion project that features gorgeous photos and in-depth interviews with Venice's legendary street performers like Harry Perry, Mad Chad, the Calypso Tumblers and Glass Man (Huba-Huba!). As the title suggests, Rich and Marty successfully capture the heart and soul of the talented people who make Venice Beach one of the greatest tourist attractions in the world.

Rich and Marty met with LAist to further discuss the book and the street performers who made the whole project possible.

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1) How did you guys decide to team up to put together the book? How long of a process was it?

Rich Wysockey: The two of us met at a 4th of July party in Venice. We're just talking, he tells me he's a writer I tell him I'm a photographer. We got on the subject of Venice Beach, by the end of the party we decided that we were going to do a coffee table book about the stories of the street performers, which to my knowledge had never been done. The next morning we met up for breakfast and started working on the book. Two years later to the day, we were down on the beach selling it.

Marty Poole: I think it was really cool the way we met up. We had never met each other, just so happened to be at the same party on the beach, Venice Beach, a chance meeting through friends of friends. Our discussion began really just as the same old party banter, you hear that thousands of times in this town, 'We should work on something together' and for all that thousands of ideas you hear, maybe one sticks. When he called the next day, I knew he was serious. That's what you've got to have to do something like this, with anything creative you've got to start out as a passion project first and if that sticks then you're golden. It was cool that we both had the passion for the project along with the dedication to go and get it done. We were both willing to go out and do it ourselves at all costs.

2) What was the biggest challenge you encountered during the making of this book? How difficult was it getting the performers on board with the project?

RW: I would walk down Venice Beach every single day for long periods of time and never talked to anybody. Just observed the whole scene, really. One day I approached Solomon, the guy with the snakes and asked him if I could take his photograph for my portfolio. I showed him a few of my things so he could see my work and he agreed. I met him down at the beach. As I am shooting him, he starts to tell me a little about himself. After just a short time talking to him, I'm thinking, 'Wow, this guy is pretty interesting.'

After that, the wheels started grinding. Then I met Marty and it went from there. As far as the guys embracing the project, I first approached Tony (Fireman) and several other guys, and they said that they were into the book idea but they weren't really into it because they didn't know us and they get approached all the time by people who have an idea but it never really pans out.

Finally, I nailed down Tony. It took about a month, he let us shoot him. Once he saw the pictures he got excited and saw that we were serious about the project. He went out and started recruiting the other guys for us. At that point it kind of snowballed and we were able to get the guys to participate. It was tough getting Harry Perry on board, but eventually we did. The toughest part for me as a photographer was capturing the essence of their show in one shot, it's very hard to do. Some of those shots I had to go 30 days in a row, shooting five shows a day to get that one shot that really capture what these guys do.

MP: Tony, the Fireman, really helped champion this project for us. If we didn't get him on board, this thing might have fallen apart. We really owe Tony a lot in this respect. That's what it took, these guys are like a fraternity. Once they could physically see just how good Rich's work was and with Tony on board telling the other guys that they needed to get involved it really did snowball from there. We really owe Tony a lot, he's a good guy.

3) You guys just mentioned that Harry Perry was tough to get. Did you feel like he was essential to the book?

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MP Absolutely. That's why he stayed on him for six months.

RW: In the book, Marty mentions that he is like the 'Godfather of Venice Beach.' He's been there the longest.

MP: Also, what he did with Robert 'Jingles' Newman fighting for artistic freedom, giving those guys the right to perform and sell their stuff. Without him Venice might have never evolved into what is today.

RW: And I mean he's so popular, he's known all over the world. You mention Venice Beach and people will say, 'Hey do you know that guitar guy on the roller skates, or that 'Jimi Hendrix guy.' There's lots of different names for him but he's definitely one of the guys people think of when they think of Venice Beach.

MP: He does well for himself too. He's been in videos and commercials. The guy is doing great and he's a businessman. He knows that his image and his story are worth something. He's very much the entrepreneur.

4) You mention in the book, that Venice Beach is changing thanks to things like the "Lottery System" and other restrictions being placed on the street performers. Why do you think that these restrictions are being put in places? How are the street performers taking to these restrictions?

MP: Well this is just from being around the guys and hearing what is said, I feel like the city would like to change the boardwalk.

RW: I think the city is trying to create another Hermosa Beach at any cost. It would destroy Venice. I feel like the city doesn't care. They're just trying to make money on the property. The city doesn't care that five years from now, these 300,000 people who come down to Venice every weekend aren't going to be here. The city thinks the people come down to Venice for the shops, but that's not why people come to Venice. They come for the whole lifestyle. I don't think the city sees what a great place the boardwalk is and they don't want to preserve it. It's not anything personal, it's just a business decision.

MP: I agree. At the end of the day it really comes down to commerce. The guys that own the stores, I'm sure that there's some animosity there because you have their side of their story too. They're paying their rent and there's the street performers and the vendors selling their things for the price of permit. When we sold our books down on the boardwalk, we paid $25 for our permit. So I see that side of the story, I see where the guys paying rent are coming from.

RW: I agree there are two sides to the situation. If you're a store owner, yes there are people 20 feet away from your store selling cheap stuff. But, if it weren't for the people that are drawn to Venice by the street performers and the vendors, then the store owners wouldn't have the number of people that they need to make a living either. I think it all revolves around the atmosphere of Venice. The store owners are thinking these guys are ruining their business but if it weren't for these people, they wouldn't have a business. When you're trying to pay the bills at the end of the month though, I'm sure you don't think like that.

MP: The lottery system, I assume was set up to have some sort of control. The performers don't like it because they feel like they should have the right to perform wherever they want and it inhibits their right to earn a living. I think that they feel like they're being pushed out.

RW: When we first started the book, I believe the lottery system had just begun. The performers were able to set up anywhere between Winword and Rose, you know that's a pretty good range there. Now they're limited to just a two block radius, so they're pretty much right on top of each other, the space isn't big enough for all of them so now the performers have to rotate and it's killing their business.

Venice Beach Heart & Soul: 30 Years of Street Performing Photographer Rich Wysockey with Tony Vera, better known as "The Fireman" and writer Marty Poole
5) Each of the street performers' stories in the book are written in the first-person from their perspective. Why did you decide to write it this way?RW: The book is a tribute to the performers. This is their stories. We wanted to do them justice. We'd do the interview with them, draft it and run it by them to see if there were any changes they'd like us to make. We didn't just a print a book, we really wanted to tell their stories so we gave them the opportunity to take a look at it before we went to print.

MP: From day one, we wanted every one of those performers to feel comfortable with us. So we gave them approvals. Having it written in first-person gives you the feeling that you're hearing the stories from them, not from someone outside of the system giving you their observations.

6) One of the performers in the book, Mad Chad, has gone on to be a successful performer touring the world and doing movies. How do the other performers take to his success? Is that something that they want?

RW: When you mention Mad Chad's name down there you'll see that he's well respected by everybody. They love him. I think that a lot of them, about 70 percent. definitely have a dream of being big and being in movies, but who doesn't. For instance, the Calypso Tumblers are content with what they're doing. They had their shot on America's Got Talent, but at heart they're street performers. They love the art of street performing. I think all the guys have goals and dreams, but each has their own methods and reasons to achieve them.

MP: While Mad Chad has performed all over the world and done so many different things, he'll tell you that working on Venice Beach is the most honest money he's ever made. You earn every penny when you're down there performing. These guys aren’t paid, they don’t draw a check, and the only money they earn comes from tips. So if they don't perform to the highest standards, they don't make money. Talk about pressure.

7) What has been the most rewarding aspect of the book, which as you said had been a passion project, for you guys? If you could anything over again, what would you change?

MP: The most rewarding thing is to have someone when they see the book to see their face light up and say, 'Wow, that's cool' then as they go through the book to hear someone say, 'This is very cool and you guys did a great job.' We'd love to make a million dollars off of it, but we knew from the start it wasn't about going and making a million dollars. When I told people we were making a book, people said, 'Don't make a coffee table book if you want to make money.' Of course, what did we do? We made a coffee table book. It wasn't about the money, it was about the love for Venice. I've been in Venice for years now and always felt a kindred spirit to it but never really felt apart of it. Now after doing the book, I feel like I'm apart of Venice Beach. It's a great feeling.

RW: I agree totally. I walked down Venice thousands of times. Since 1996 I've been walking down there. I put a lot of time into being down there but I never really felt apart of it until we took on this project and preserved a piece of Venice. For me I think the most fulfilling thing so far, was when Tony started doing the paparazzi thing and hadn't been down to Venice in a while. I asked around with the other performers and they were telling me that Tony's doing pretty well with the paparazzi thing and hasn't really been performing that much. I ran into him about a week later and he told me he's sticking to the paparazzi thing, he didn't think he needed to be performing on Venice Beach anymore. A week later I'm down on Venice Beach and I see Tony, he comes over and gives me a big hug and thanks me. I'm not sure why he's hugging me or thanking me, so I ask him what's up and he says, 'I read my story again and I am the Fireman. I belong here.' I almost cried when he said that. I felt like we did it. It worked, we preserved a piece of Venice.

Venice Beach Heart & Soul is available for sale on their Web site - along with LA area Barnes & Noble stores, The Patio, Plantation, Hennessey & Ingalls, Small World Books and other Venice-area stores.

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