Local Legends: Erwin Sokol and Larry Bell have shaped Venice history. Photo courtesy of the Venice Current

Special to the Daily Press

For over sixty years, Erwin Sokol has had a knack for always seeing the potential in Venice Beach, and in particular, Windward Avenue. His art-filled vision and his sheer pride in the community have contributed to several notable businesses including the Hotel Erwin, Larry’s restaurant, and a new partnership with the Wish You Were Here Group to see the opening of Belles Beach House. All through the building of these Venice hospitality institutions, Sokol has been devoted to the arts and to artists. Gregory Hines and Larry Bell among others have been long-term guests at the Hotel Erwin. The hotel may be one of America’s most unique oceanfront hotels, but it has also made Sokol’s life unique.

This vision didn’t come easy, and certainly Sokol faced hardship along the way, but his passion and deep-rooted friendships carried him through, and none of them was more meaningful to him than his friendship with artist, Larry Bell.

Where it Began

Sokol has affectionate and fond memories of Venice. When he was growing up, his family lived in another part of LA, the West Adams neighborhood but rented a cottage on the beach. “I had fond memories of going to the beach with my family,” he says. “I remember at just eight years old heading to the Venice Pier every night to see what was going on.” He recalls the tram rattling up and down the boardwalk offering rides for a nickel. “The driver would give me a ride to the pier. People were friendly. Those were such great, fun days.”

But these were also darker days for Venice. At the beginning of the Great Depression, oil had been discovered, the beach was covered in oil wells and tourism disappeared. People had very little disposable income to spend on Venice’s amusement industry, and oil brought in much-needed money. Sokol’s memories also included the noise, the smells and how ugly and dangerous the beachfront could get with all the drilling. Oil production waste was dumped into the canals and the now paved over lagoon. It was so unhealthy; students were often transferred to other school locations for safety reasons.

“What’s the worst thing you can think of that could ruin us?” asks Sokol. “The smell, the sound. Our canals were filled with oil, refrigerators and [abandoned] cars.”

There wasn’t even a place to go get a hot dog,” adds Bell. But he recalls that you could get a storefront for $40 a month and an apartment for $14.

Larry Bell, now 82, first came to Venice in 1959 looking for an art studio. “It was dead commercially,” he says. “It was dangerous. Everything was empty except the synagogues on the Boardwalk, so that made it affordable for artists.”

Dreams of a Hotel

In 1958, Sokol started working for his dad on Windward Avenue. “At the time, it was a beach parking lot,” he says. Sokol added, however, his father thought of Venice as being in “hibernation” but knew that it would eventually wake up. “With the perfect climate and being next to the city of LA, he knew all of that would have to change.”

Sokol had the idea of building a hotel on the parking lot to bring more families and tourists to the area. “I wanted people to come and enjoy the beach. We wanted to stimulate the area and get something going on Windward Avenue.”

“At one point, this place [Venice] was the attraction for everyone in Los Angeles, California and worldwide. It was the most amazing place to be.”

In 1975, Erwin’s dream became a reality as he prepared to open the doors to Hotel Erwin. But it wasn’t with any fanfare. Venice had gone from the mess created by oil drilling to a mess caused by dangerous drug use in the Seventies. “It was a rough spot,” he sums it up.

In the early days, only a handful of people would check in. “We would average eight to ten guests a night, but sometimes several would leave and want their money back because of the location.”

Sokol says it was other properties he owned that kept the hotel afloat along with creative thinking–like registering the hotel with Marina Chamber of Commerce and offering various groups a place to stay and work. Sokol also first named Hotel Erwin the Marina Pacific Hotel & Suites to gain attention because, at the time, no one wanted to stay in Venice. For a short period, Erwin also partnered with Best Western to take advantage of the first online reservation system.

This is about the time Sokol and Larry Bell first met. Venice had a lure for so many. Especially these two young men who had a vision for the long term. “When I first met him, he was always walking around the area picking up and cleaning the area,” said Bell. [He] had guts to open a hotel at the time [and place] that he did. He had the guts of Tarzan and Superman.”

It was around the same time the hotel opened that Bell moved his art business to New Mexico.

“I needed a change of life, and New Mexico gave me that opportunity,” says Bell. “I didn’t know if I was stepping out of the cosmos or not.” Bell couldn’t sell enough art from his Taos studio, though, so he started regularly making the trek back to Venice where art collectors were more plentiful. “I saw Larry struggle during the lean years,” says Sokol.

Wanting to keep art alive in Venice, Sokol let Bell make Hotel Erwin his home away from home. “I have so much respect for Larry. He didn’t know where his next meal would come from as an artist. They start with nothing—just their passion.”

The friendship and Bell would also serve as an inspiration for the décor of Erwin. The hotel walls are home to Bell’s art as well as photos of numerous artists who have stayed at the Erwin. Finishes also include custom-made wallpaper with hand prints of the artists.

Sokol’s next venture was the opening of Larry’s. “Larry said it had to be a first-class place with good food and good service,” he says. “I drew a lot of inspiration from Larry.”

From a sketch on a napkin, which became the neon logo outline of Larry, iconic in his hat, smoking a cigar, Sokol paid close attention to branding and other details to turn Larry’s into the place to go for locals and tourists alike.

Full Circle

Venice and the Beachfront would take another hit with the onset of COVID 19. But, once again, Sokol’s vision would breathe new life into the area. “I want to see the area come back,” says Sokol about Belles Beach House. He adds that he and his family did their homework before finding the right restaurateur to open it. “We’re confident that this restaurant will thrive—we’ve already seen it happening,” he says. “Making Larry part of the new restaurant was also important. You’ll see on the staff uniforms and throughout the restaurant that we brought in a lot of things that are about Larry.”

Most importantly, says Sokol, he wants to see Venice, its art culture and the community continue to thrive. “We treat everyone, our employees and guests, with a lot of respect and kindness. We want to see that continue. The first thing is to care about other people. Thank God I can help other people, whoever it is.”

Clear as a Bell

Larry Bell may have been a struggling artist for a time, but he is now regarded as one of the most renowned and influential artists to emerge from the Los Angeles art scene of the 1960s, alongside contemporaries Ed Ruscha and Robert Irwin, earning an international reputation by the age of 30. Known foremost for his refined surface treatment of glass and explorations of light, reflection and shadow through the material, his significant oeuvre extends from painting and works on paper to glass sculptures and furniture design.

Bell’s use of commercial, industrial processes in his studio, located in Venice since the 1960s, demonstrates his unparalleled skill and dedication in each step of his sculptures’ fabrication. Since 1969, his studio has used its own high-vacuum coating system, which allows him to deposit thin metal films onto glass surfaces, harnessing a little-known technique developed for aeronautics, to create an unprecedented body of work.

“Art has been only good to me,” says Bell of both the lean and more fruitful years. “Art is a teacher—my work is my teacher—and I’ve been in school all my life.”

These two men with their visions are the material Venice is made of. Believing in themselves and in their community, they’ve helped shape the Venice people see and love. And, whether it’s a new spin on a tiki bar or world-class art, they’ve achieved it individually and together. Most importantly, as friends.

Published in partnership with the Westside Current