Living in L.A., celebrity sightings are a normal part of life, and pretty much a passé one at that. Many TV shows are filmed here, big awards shows take place here, reality shows are set here, and velvet-roped "hot spots" and step-and-repeat backdrops are plentiful here. Visitors from the Midwest definitely want to see stars' homes and hangouts, and guided bus tours provide all the goods, conjuring glitz and gossip while enforcing the mystique presented on film and television.
But celebrity is relative, and Esotouric Bus Tours has proven there's an avid fan base for something darker, if no less dramatically driven. Esotouric is less about aspirational fantasies or fame-whoring, and more about historical documentation, artistic inspiration and literary representation.
Providing bus tours based on themes such as author, cultural figure or criminal genre, Esotouric's husband-and-wife team Kim Cooper and Richard Schave since 2007 have been educating visitors and locals alike about the hidden history of places we might pass by every day. With multiple tours of Los Angeles–area crime-scene locations, architectural marvels and other notable sites, they offer experiences full of music, mayhem and murder that are educational, salacious and revelatory.
Beginning with episodic true-crime tours of South Los Angeles, loosely based on cases covered in their blog, 1947project.com, Esotouric Tours quickly flipped focus to become the most uniquely informative tour company in L.A. Complemented by the blog, it offers tours of Raymond Chandler's L.A., Charles Bukowski's L.A., the Real Black Dahlia, John Fante's Bunker Hill and the Pasadena Confidential true-crime tour, to name a few.
"All of these tours have been rewritten many times since 2007 as our understanding of the city has evolved, but they are all still central to the L.A. story we tell on and off the bus," Cooper says.
The Real Black Dahlia is one of the most popular tours, a true-crime exploration that is more interested in who Elizabeth Short was than in who her killer was. The tour covers theories and one lesser-known suspect, but it's really a celebration of Short's life, providing a portrait of an anonymous American whose ordinary life is extensively documented because she was a crime victim.
"It's a very moving experience to walk in this doomed woman's footsteps and consider all the possible fates she missed out on," Cooper says. "We're always interested in exploring how people who live outside the mainstream use the city, and both Beth Short and Charles Bukowski are good examples of people whose lives took hard left turns at specific landmarks. Bukowski's hard drinking almost killed him as a young man, and it was at County General Hospital, when he got the fear of dying without having written one good poem, that he began to write in earnest."
While Bukowski's persona conjures smoky dive bars and crusty crash pads, Short's veers between visions of elegant nightclubs and lonely, low-lit hotels. Walking or driving past the Biltmore Hotel, Cooper says, the tour Short inspired leaves many with as many questions as answers, wondering, "What might have happened if she had only turned left?" She adds, "I wish she had and we never even knew her name."
These subversive tours of L.A. are, in fact, meant to be a sophisticated spin on the idea of the typical guided L.A. bus tour, and in recent years the tours have expanded their scope to include not only true crime and literary lore but "architecture, social history, urban planning, spirituality and a little bit of rock & roll," Cooper says.
When they created their best-known tour, exploring the haunts of lush literary icon Bukowski, his East Hollywood bungalow was a rent-stabilized dwelling in a fully inhabited bungalow court. "But when we did a last locations check before launching," Cooper says, "we discovered that the famed locale had been purchased by property flippers who evicted everyone, boarded up the buildings,and were advertising it on Craigslist as a tear-down site for a new condo development.
"We blogged about the demolition threat and were contacted by Lauren Everett, an artist and Bukowski fan who wanted to submit a historic landmark nomination," she continues. "We helped her with PR and research, and a passionate team coalesced to speak for this important literary site. The landmark hearings got international headlines when the landlords' attorney falsely accused Bukowski of having been a Nazi sympathizer. "
Thanks to Esotouric, Bukowski's bungalow and the whole rent-stabilized bungalow court in which he lived was saved. "We learned that it was possible, and exciting, to use the lens of our guided tours, and the voice we had as savvy users of social media, to help advocate for and preserve places that matter," Cooper explains. And just like that, the company became both invested and embroiled in the historic preservation of Los Angeles landmarks.
Since then, they've continued to take on causes they care about, and to create channels to help get the word out about threatened places that other people around Los Angeles are fighting to save.
"We didn't set out to fight City Hall, but unfortunately the interests of big property developers, who pay big money to lobby local leaders to support their needs, have intersected repeatedly with our interests in preserving and activating important and beautiful Los Angeles buildings, landscapes and signs," Cooper explains passionately. "Historic sites tend to take up a lot of land in central neighborhoods that are more highly valued than the outlying parts of Los Angeles. Our latest and most brutal preservation battles have been against development interests seeking to demolish and replace structures that seemed by their nature permanent and unlikely to ever fall to redevelopment schemes: Parker Center and the Los Angeles Times complex."
Another preservation battle concerned the orange 76 gas station ball signs that were ubiquitous at Unocal pumps around SoCal. Sadly those are gone now. Their focus downtown has driven the couple to combat political corruption in City Hall, and yes, they have a tour planned for that, too. "It won't be launched until after the FBI completes its investigation, people are indicted and the secret history of power and its misuse is more clearly revealed," Cooper says. "After that, in addition to giving a tour that sets contemporary corruption in context with historic L.A. noir narratives, we're looking forward to seeing how Los Angeles puts itself back together again, ideally with better leadership and policies and much more engaged citizens. After all, José Huizar, who is currently under FBI investigation, was elected by only 11,000 people, to represent a quarter of a million citizens. That's embarrassing, and Angelenos have to do better."
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Meanwhile, Esotouric has other new endeavors. It hosts quarterly forensic science seminars at Cal State L.A.; is working on an ongoing series of explorable 3-D scans of hard-to-access Southland landmarks with photographer Craig Sauer; and hopes to create new episodes of its podcast You Can't Eat the Sunshine soon. Of course, tours are what Esotouric is known for, and it continues to develop new ones all the time, such as Mansonland (with author Brad Schreiber) and Silent Echoes (with cinema locations sleuth John Bengtson).
Most people who hop on the Esotouric buses are locals, from L.A. or greater Southern California, though Cooper says some fly in from other states to take specific tours. "They're passionate about California history and architecture, and eager to discover places and stories that aren't in guidebooks or part of the standard Los Angeles narrative," she says. "We have a lot of regulars who come back again and again, and have come to feel like extended family. Many of them have deep local roots and amazing stories to share.
"We feel incredibly privileged to be able to tell the stories of this amazing city, and provide a place where people who love Los Angeles can come together and explore with like-minded folks. If you love Los Angeles, and are ready to be surprised by what the city has to show, we'd love to see you on the bus."
Book a tour at esotouric.com.