Tuesday, September 3, 2019

In Loving Memory Of Solomon - The Snake Man Of Venice

The awful and hard to believe news that our friend Solomon (born Willie Lee Turner) had died on August 17th, 2019 reached me in Minnesota, where I've been helping to take care of my Mom all summer. If possible, it instantly made me miss Venice even more than I have been. I quickly called Solomon's longtime girlfriend, Greta Cobar, to find out that yes, this awful news was true. She didn't have any details yet, but it was - shockingly - true. Shockingly because Solomon was a man who really seemed invincible.

Solomon spoke truth to power up there on his ladder, holding his snakes for all the passersby on the Boardwalk, but it was never really about the snakes to me. It was about using your voice to engage with others and stimulate important conversation. This got him into trouble with the cops all the time, but Solomon didn't really seem to care all that much. Every time I saw him, I felt better afterward. His "Hey, CJ, how are you doin'?" was always asked with true interest, straight in my eyes. He was something else, the likes of which we'll never see again in Venice ... and another iconic member of our community is gone. I SO deeply regret that I never got to do my own story on Solomon - a solemn reminder that you just never know how long we'll have people and places, and the best time for enjoying them is NOW.

There was a tear-jerking memorial held on Sunday at Beyond Baroque (that I watched on Facebook Live - thanks, Logan Mote!) that I felt SO sad not to be at with everyone sharing their Solomon memories. There is also a special issue of the Free Venice Beachhead out now around Venice, and it includes the beautiful article below written by Greta for her Solomon.

Solomon, my friend ... Venice will never ever forget you. Rest easy, my Brother.

King Solomon, the Venice Snake Man, quickly departed from this world on Saturday, August 17. His passing brought shock and sorrow to so very many in Venice and beyond. On the morning of August 17 Solomon played basketball in Venice, and then performed the Snake Show at his usual spot, on Ocean Front Walk and Windward. After that he went to Burton Chace Park for the Leela James concert. Before the concert started he collapsed out of the blue, the paramedics were called, and he was transported to UCLA Medical Center in the Marina, where he was pronounced dead on arrival at 6:47pm. The results of the autopsy are deferred for three months because of down-town testing back-log, and an official cause of death has not been released.  

The Venice plaza between the flagpoles will never be the same without the Snake Show that he performed there for the past eighteen years. The tourists took pictures, and those millions of pictures are now all over the world and on the internet. All locals knew him, and most faces would sketch a smile at the sight of him. After a quick verbal ex-change, the passer-by would leave feeling uplifted by Solomon’s trademark words of encouragement and the compliments that he was so generous with. He was born on March 29, 1961, on Hope Street, in downtown Los Angeles, and his real name was Willie Lee Turner. His parents had come from Oklahoma, and his ancestry was African-American, Native American and French Creole. The memorable parts of his childhood were the times he rode his bicycle (on some occasions, a horse!) from Watts, where he grew up, to the bike trail in Manhattan, Hermosa and King Harbor. Back then he was one of the very few Black kids to ride in that area, and the white kids would try to harass him. He and his parents also spent time around bonfires on the sand of Santa Monica beach. Two tragic events happened to him while he was in his 20s, which made him question the righteousness of this world and whether he wanted to be part of it in a traditional sense. The first one was the death of his mother, Arnita Turner, when she was in her early 40s, which he blamed on the pills that the doctors were giving her for high blood pressure. It was common for experimental drugs to be tested on Black people without their knowledge. The second was his first daughter’s, whom he named after his mother, contamination with meningitis in the hospital when she was an infant, which made her severely mentally and physically disabled. He blamed that on the hospital using dirty needles. 

He tried working regular jobs, but had a hard time being controlled by the system. He even en-rolled in the Coast Guard, from which he got an honorary discharge because he didn’t want them to pull out his wisdom teeth. That was a wise decision! Venice didn’t come onto his radar until the late1980s. And after that he was never the same, much like Venice will never be the same without him. He started calling himself Solomon and be-came The King, King Solomon. Back in those days Venice allowed and encouraged people to break out of the mold and express their authentic selves, and he truly was The King. 

At first he sold T-shirts with socially conscious messages on the Boardwalk, such as Love Sees No Color. In the 1990s he spent years being a full-time dad for his baby daughter Jasmine, as well as his oldest son, David. At this time he also spent more time concentrating on making art and music, two hobbies that he enjoyed and practiced throughout his life. He took photographs and created beautiful collages with his own photographs, cut-outs from newspapers and magazines, and found objects. His artwork carried strong political/social messages of justice, freedom and equality. Creating music was a constant part of his life, and he loved singing and playing the flute, guitar, drums, ukulele, banjo and any other instrument he could get his hands on. In 2001 he was jogging along the ocean in Venice, and in alignment with the flagpoles at the end of Windward, on the wet sand, he found a rubber snake that had washed ashore. He picked it up, and was playing with it on Ocean Front Walk, by the flagpoles. A Haitian historian visiting Venice walked by and said: “Hey, I have a snake just like that, I got it at a garage sale.” Solomon thought, “Ya, right.” A few days later the guy came back and gave him the second snake. They both had “Made in China 1989” written on them. He started playing with both snakes, with his eyes closed, and when he opened his eyes, there were a bunch of people watching him, mesmerized by his presence. And that is when the idea of doing the Snake Show came to him. 

Betty White, of the famous Elton and Betty White Show that was taking place on the Boardwalk at that time, told him: “Take off your clothes, you’ll make more dough!”. He found a wooden ladder abandoned on Venice and Lincoln, and started performing between the flagpoles, on Windward and Ocean Front Walk, in alignment with where the snakes came to him. And that is the story of how the famous Snake Show got started. His mastery of making the snakes look real (they weren’t!) combined with his incredible balancing and yogi poses on the ladder, his physical beauty, his kind and wise words, made the show a hit. It was original, different, out of the blue, unexpected and unique. It was what Venice was all about, what people came to Venice for. The sight of systemic police injustice trans-formed Solomon’s calm, composed and thoughtful demeanor into outrage, and he was not afraid to speak out against it. That resulted in constant police harassment and numerous arrests on bogus charges. A Black man speaking truth to power in the most crowded part of Venice did not fit in with the restrictions of the system that we live under. If his family and friends would not have intervened with private attorneys and tens of thousands in bail money, the cops’ efforts to keep him locked up would have been successful. This is the real story of being a Black non-conformist man in America. 

When the lottery system of allocating freshly painted boxed spots on the Boardwalk to the performers and artists was instituted in 2005, he was one of a few, if not the only one, who refused to be part of it. Through all his struggles, Solomon re-fused to compromise his conviction that freedom of speech is a right, not a lottery prize. In 2015, when the cops succeeded in banning him from the Boardwalk for a year as a plea deal on a totally bogus charge, he moved to Santa Monica and started performing there, at the top of the pier. In January of this year he came back to Venice and continued doing his show in the original spot, to the delight of locals and tourists alike. Aside from his show and with his clothes on, he was a big part of the Venice community, ever-present at rallies, community meetings, gatherings, local hang-out spots and the basketball courts. He had more friends than anyone else I know. People loved his perseverance, strength, beauty and optimism. He often said that he lived by miracles, and encouraged the rest of us to believe in miracles as well.

I personally met Solomon on my first day after moving to Venice in October of 2004. Dr. John introduced me to him at a table outside of Cafe Collage, which at the time was the local hang-out spot. We started dating just a few weeks later, and continued, on and off, until now. The time I spent with him was by far the highlight of my life so far, and he inspired me to be the person that I am today. From riding bikes to decorating bikes, to buying and restoring my own VW bus, to my local activism and the work I did for the Beachhead, to making my own collages and paintings, to the way I carry my-self and deal with others, my philosophy of life and my expanded horizons, all that and more has his mark on it. He’s had the biggest influence on my life, was my best friend, my passion, my source of strength and happiness. 

On August 17 I drove to Malibu and parked in a ranch, on the grass, under a big tree. I was sup-posed to get out and listen to live music, but I was overwhelmed by sorrow and spent hours in the car sobbing. I longed to be connected with him and repeatedly tried calling, but his phone was off. A deep, unprecedented and overwhelming need to hold his hand took over me. The urge was so strong that I held my two hands together and pretended that one of them was his. I held them really tight for quite a while, while tears were uncontrollably streaming down my face. It was at this exact time that he was going through his transition into the next form of energy. I didn’t know it at that time. The following day I scolded myself for being so needy, but when I found out about his passing I realized that he needed me to hold his hand during his transition just as much as I did, and I am honored to have been connected with him like that. Venice lost one of its greatests, and it will never be the same without him. We can find solace in our fortune to have known him, to have enjoyed his presence, to have been blessed by him. He truly was larger than life. 

Solomon is survived by his five children Arnita Turner, David Turner, Joshua Turner, Elisha Turner, and Jasmine Turner; his step-daughter Crystal Spradley; his sister Cassie Turner; his former long-term partner Jill Horowitz-Groeschel, Jasmines’s mother; and Eva Marie Svensson, Joshua’s and El-isha’s mother. A memorial for Solomon will be held on Sun-day, September 1, 5-8pm, at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd. May he rest in power, love and peace. May he know that he was deeply loved and is now just as deeply missed.  
- By Greta Cobar


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  3. Rest in peace, Solomon.