Business spotlight

THE VENICE SIGN STORY, A Story of Civic Pride, gone wrong.

By Jon Wolff

Stop! Thief, by Jon Wolff.

Stop! Thief, by Jon Wolff.

The following is from a recent conversation with Venice Sign Restoration Team Project Manager Todd von Hoffmann.

In late 2003, the Venice Centennial was coming up. Venice resident Todd von Hoffmann saw a need to preserve Venice History. He had loaned historic Venice artifacts to the popular bar Danny’s on Windward Avenue in Venice Beach. He had postcards showing the Venice Sign that had hung across Windward in the time of Venice Founder Abbot Kinney. The buildings that held the original sign were still there on Windward and Pacific and, in fact, the ring bolts that once held the sign were plainly visible. Restoring the Venice Sign seemed natural. Von Hoffmann pitched an idea to Sandy Kievman, the field deputy for then L.A. City Councilperson Cindy Miscikowski about re-creating the Venice Sign.

Von Hoffmann studied old photographs to figure out how big the sign letters were, and he and his team made cardboard cutouts to determine the right size by comparing them with overlaps on a computer. The building owners agreed to make the project happen, and two Venetian-owned companies helped out, chiefly Pat Wojciekowski of DesignTown USA and Kip Smith of sign manufacturer Heaven Or Las Vegas.

Everyone in Venice came together, and people volunteered countless hours to the Venice Sign effort. They formed a Venice Sign Committee. They received a $10,000 grant from LA Beautification. The Garacochea family lent the newly empty Pioneer Bakery space for a benefit fundraiser that raised over $9,000, thanks to a performance by the band VENICE. Their newly elected champion was Councilperson Bill Rosendahl in the form of his Field Deputy Mark-Antonio Grant who saw the proposal and famously said, “All I can tell you is, THIS is going to happen.”

Von Hoffmann contacted the Hollywood Sign Trust who generously shared their trademark, licensing, and organization structure. Why reinvent the wheel after all? Venice Chamber of Commerce President Robert Feist arranged for the Sign Committee to come under the umbrella of the Chamber with fiscal receivership status, meaning autonomous budget and decision making. As the Chamber is a for-profit entity (501c6) this would be a temporary arrangement until a similar Hollywood Trust type non-profit 501c3 could be formed befitting the cultural status of the sign.

Ann Everest of General Real Estate Management (the Scharffs had been early supporters) stepped up to loan the Sign Committee monies needed to complete the project as well as provide their construction facilitator and contractor. Daniel Samakow was instrumental in coordinating the completion of the project. To repay GRM, Samakow and von Hoffmann designed a Venice Sign plaque that hung in Danny’s. Donors could sponsor a bulb while local organizations could sponsor a letter ($100 and $500 respectively). Through their efforts, donors quickly came in and their names were added to the plaque.

The project complete, Venice celebrated the first lighting of the sign in 2007. VENICE took the stage again and L.A. City Councilperson Bill Rosendahl and Ted Lieu pulled a giant knife switch that the Committee had rigged. A great night for Venice.

Then came the downward spiral. While new Chamber President Alex Rosales was the first to complain about monies still needed to repay GRM, he and other chamber members did little or nothing to find new donors. David Moring (who joined the Sign Committee and then attempted to appoint himself chairman) reported repeatedly to the Chamber Board that the Sign Committee was a Chamber sub-committee and not under fiscal receivership. This falsehood became the “truth” to new chamber members.

Sign Committee meetings became increasingly frustrating for von Hoffmann. A plaque honoring the Venice Sign Restoration created to celebrate the Centennial of Abbot Kinney’s Venice-of-America had long been discussed. Donna Lasman, Moring, and Rosales designed their own plaque declaring Chamber ownership of the Venice Sign trademark and warning against use without permission. This was done behind the back of von Hoffmann and Samakow. Venice arch-villain Carl Lambert spoke to Jose Bunge who agreed to have it mounted on his building. Bunge told von Hoffmann later that he was under the impression that he (von Hoffmann) was aware of this. Von Hoffmann raised hell with Lasman who said he had been copied on the emails, which was a falsehood. She could not produce one.

At a subsequent Sign meeting, Moring and Lasman announced that they had granted new licenses for use of the Venice Sign trademark to several businesses, which came as a surprise to von Hoffmann and Samakow, as these had never been discussed in committee. Moring announced that they had created their own sub-committee. This was an amazing confession of bald-faced deceit to von Hoffmann and the generally non-confrontative Samakow. It was apparent that Lasman, Moring, and Rosales were working toward one goal: Complete control of the Venice Sign and eradication of those who did the work to restore it.

At another Sign Committee meeting, Moring presented von Hoffmann with the next big lie. He reported that he and Lasman had concluded that the Restoration Team had lied about the fundraising, and reported as much to the Chamber Board. This was years after the fact, and they had not contacted anyone (GRM, LA Beautification, Mark-Antonio Grant) to corroborate before making this accusation. When von Hoffmann demanded to see the Chamber Board to dispel this blatant falsehood, Moring’s response was, “We don’t have to meet with you.” Alex Rosales, when informed of the accusation, wrote von Hoffmann back saying, “Sorry you feel that way.”

Von Hoffmann went directly to Rosales’ place of business, Control Printing. Moring and Lasman had convinced Rosales, again with no corroboration, that the monies raised by the band VENICE fundraiser were, in fact, monies from the Chamber. Believing the lie, Rosales saw no reason for von Hoffmann to have his “day in court”. Todd von Hoffmann called this slanderous and said that the City had overseen the project for years, all above board, and that the Committee was composed of volunteers who were never in it for the money. Von Hofffmann gave copies of the financial report to the Chamber board. But the Chamber continued to perpetuate the lie.

Chamber member David Moring believed that the Venice Sign Committee was a sub-committee of the Chamber. Moring wanted to be the head of the Committee but the people on the Committee insisted that it was a democracy. Todd von Hoffman told him that under fiscal receivership the funds that were raised were not the business of the Chamber. The Chamber’s attitude was that the Committee had done a nice job but now the Chamber would take over.

The Venice Sign Committee had accomplished so much independently and the Chamber had done nothing. Then the Chamber put their own plaque on the column under the sign that said that the sign was the property of the Venice Chamber of Commerce and that anyone wishing to use the image of the sign would have to contact the Chamber. Chamber members Donna Lasman, David Moring, and Alex Rosales had their own little committee. Carl Lambert had joined that committee and facilitated the installation of the Chamber’s plaque. Moring had got new people to license the image of the sign without the consent of the Venice Sign Committee.

A new Chamber president took office and time went by. The Chamber sent a letter to von Hoffmann firing him from the Venice Sign Committee without ever hearing his side of the story.
Todd von Hoffmann spoke at a Venice Neighborhood Council meeting with members of the Chamber of Commerce on the Council. He told them that they had no business celebrating anything with the Venice sign until they answered for their actions. They only remained silent and hoped the issue would just go away.

With new business interests coming to Venice every year, the Chamber of Commerce is always busy courting anyone with money. Newcomers may think that it was the Chamber that restored the sign and that they alone are responsible for it. There are sign lighting events, but the individuals on the stage taking bows are liars and frauds. They have their pictures on the Chamber website proclaiming their leadership in Venice. But leadership can’t exist in a moral vacuum.