Out-of-towners, and some in-towners, are at times under the mistaken impression that Los Angeles is made up of 90 percent actors and 10 percent seawater. In reality, L.A. residents find ways to support themselves that are diverse, fascinating and often highly unusual. From men who attempt to resurrect the dead to a woman who spruces up visits to the coroner, here are some of the city’s most interesting and unusual jobs.
Josh Stern, Houdini Séance manager and special events at Magic Castle
Josh Stern has managed the Houdini Séances at Magic Castle for four years.
What is the Houdini Séance based on?
The séance experience is focused around the 10th and final séance held after Harry Houdini passed away. Harry and his wife, Bessie, never had any belief in spiritual advisers or psychics. Throughout the last half of his career, he tried to debunk them — he would go to parlors and intentionally try to fake them out. He always had an open mind, though, that maybe there was a possibility of contacting someone from the other side. He and his wife had a pact that for 10 years after one of them died, the other would hold a séance every year and see if it worked.
Harry died first on Oct. 31, 1926, so on Halloween every year for 10 years Bessie held a séance at the Knickerbocker Hotel. For nine years nothing happened, and then on the 10th and final séance, after hours of trying, it downpoured on the top of the hotel. Just there; that was the only spot in Los Angeles that it rained. We have no idea if it was him or a coincidence.
How does the séance work?
We have a dedicated room called the Houdini Chamber, and the séance experience starts with a Victorian-style four-course meal. Dinner takes two hours, then the group — which is usually 10 to 12 people — is joined by one of our three spirit mediums. They do an hourlong show, then the dark séance is the last 15 minutes of the experience. I can’t give anything away about that!
How do people react to it?
Most people come to a séance not really knowing what they are going to get. We have people who have to leave because they get creeped out, we have religious people who get uncomfortable. We’ve had people break down the door and bolt because they get so frightened. It usually has to do with if they are religious or if there is a language barrier; people don’t know what they’re getting themselves into.
What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you at the club?
My main focus at the castle is the séances, but I’m also a third of the special events team. We do cocktail parties, Christmas, things like that. We also do castlewide buyouts; someone with a party so big they have to take over the club. I don’t remember who the group was but Erin, my co-worker, and I were the only people left in the building. Everything was closed up, the lights were turned off, everything was finalized. It was 3 a.m. We were backstage in the large showroom, the Palace of Mystery, and both of us, at the exact same time, heard someone or something whisper, "Erin." Her name. It had, like, an echo to it. We were like, "OK, we’re out of here."
Edna E. Pereyda, manager of Skeletons in the Closet, the gift shop of the L.A. County Coroner
Pereyda has worked to build up the gift shop at the L.A. County Coroner’s building for 13 years. In that time, she’s seen many items come, and many items go.
How did you get this job?
I worked for the county in a different department. When I came to interview for this job, I didn’t think of a store; I thought it was records or something. The next week, when they called to say they wanted to hire me, they said we want you to work in the gift shop. I was like, "The coroner’s office has a gift shop?" But it’s growing and growing. It started with four tables, and my supervisor wanted to make it bigger, so he did.
What’s your most popular item?
The beach towel with the white chalk body outline. We’ve had that one since the beginning. The No. 1 sweatshirt is the hoodie zip-up with "Coroner" written on the back.
Who is your average customer?
People from all over the world come here. They’re Googling what to do in L.A. and we pop up. I don’t know how we got on those sites but we’re happy about it. Some people say the store is better than Disneyland.
Sometimes, people will also be sitting in the Jack in the Box across the street, sitting down eating, and see our sign: "Come visit our gift shop!" People will get interested and be like, "There’s a gift shop in the coroner’s office?"
How do you find new items?
Vendors bring them to me. I came up with the new towel that has the body outline and also the crime scene tape around the outside. The cup vendor had mugs with the tape on it, so I asked the towel guy, "Can you do that?" He said yes.
Our most recent addition is the gym bag with "L.A. Coroner" printed on the side. The red and green L.A. Coroner hats are new, too.
Have you ever had to discontinue any products?
Yes, we had to discontinue the sleeping bag that looked like a body bag. We have to be careful what we have here because we could offend someone. We also used to sell the black windbreaker with "Coroner" written on the back, but people used to get them and try to get onto crime scenes.
Arno Hartholt, director of integration and development research at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies
Arno Hartholt is at the forefront of making computerized humans who can walk, talk and interact with you. Working with the U.S. Army, medical experts and the best and brightest in the entertainment industry, he’s been at it since 2005.
What exactly does your job at ICT entail?
The main thing that I do is work with virtual humans. Those are interactive characters; they’re like computer characters. They can hear you, see you, think for themselves, they can talk back to you. It’s similar to Siri, but they have a body. You could see them as digital actors.
What do you get the virtual humans to do?
You can give them a role to play. That could be, say, a patient, so medical students can practice intake. Or, we do a lot of work for the Army. It could be a subordinate and you as a leader need to train as the leadership skills and practice how you can deal with these kinds of issues.
They’re also used for entertainment. We have something called Gunslinger. It’s a Hollywood set with a real physical bar, and we have a projector screen with a barman and a barmaid. You can talk to them and track them and make choices. What we use them for are tools to train people and educate people and entertain.
How do you make their personalities?
Well, part of the interesting thing about ICT is that there are so many different — partly programmers and partly designers and artists, people that are from the entertainment industry that we work with. So you want to tell a story — from there on you define the characteristics that you need to create. Are they nice or not so nice? Are they really working to challenge you or work with you? Are they edgy, quirky; what is their sense of humor? We design it similarly as if you would write a movie script. We create concept sketches or we scan real people.
What’s the most surprising moment you’ve had at ICT?
The most surprising is how these characters sort of subconsciously are present and make you react as if they are real, and we can see that in a variety of different ways. The first time I noticed it is the project of Gunslinger. It’s a real set and the characters are very lifelike. I know they’re not real; I made them myself. But from the corner of my eye, I keep seeing this digital character and thinking someone is there. I know they’re not but I think they are.
Nick Araya, owner of TreeCareLA and board-certified master arborist
Nick Araya, owner of TreeCareLA, is one of only 12 board-certified master arborists in Los Angeles. He spends much of his days high up in the trees, and when we spoke, he had just finished injecting a sick tree with medicine.
How did you get into the field of caring for trees?
I think all arborists come from one of three paths. One is, they went to school and learned the trade. Another is, they just started doing tree work as a side job or fell into an apprenticeship. Then there’s a whole world of people that like to climb things; rocks and mountains and towers and things like that. Someone else says, "Hey, since you can climb that other thing over there, if I gave you some money would you climb this tree?” I’m in the third category.
I started climbing rocks in 1997. In college, I didn’t have a lot of money and I didn’t have a car but I did have a lot of rock-climbing equipment. I started climbing a tree on campus as a way to practice climbing rocks, and I was like, "Hey, this is kind of cool." I started climbing trees just to keep my mountain and rock skills sharp, then I realized I liked it more. That’s how I got into being an arborist.
What does your job entail?
The absolutely most common thing we do, and the thing that separates my company from most tree services, is that as arborists our goal is to save trees. So if you run a tree service, the easiest way to make money is tree removal. But that’s not what we want to be doing. What we do the most is pruning and helping people manage big trees. We have a crew of arborists that can look at your tree, help you identify the parts that are most dangerous, and help you put together a plan to manage the risk that that tree represents. A good way to think of it is structural pruning; we’re looking for weak branches, broken branches, dying branches or overloaded branches.
So what’s it like up there?
Visually, it’s super awesome. If you live in the Hollywood Hills or by the beach, in those houses with the good views, those are the expensive houses and every day we get to climb higher than those houses and get even better views. There’s an entire world happening up there that concrete dwellers aren’t aware of. Just birds and insect activity that’s above our heads. As an arborist you get to see all that stuff in your face, which is really cool. It’s also noisy. [Normally] houses block the sound of all the traffic on the street, but if you go 30 feet up you are above most of the houses. At that point, all you hear is traffic. Really loud traffic.
The other thing is that it’s really, really dirty. Trees do a really important job, and they don’t get credit for this. All the smog and dust that cars create, trees are big giant filters that are catching that. If you go 40 feet up into a tree and rub a branch on your shirt, it will be black from just decades of crap building up on the leaves.
Lauren Devon, photographer for Airbnb
Lauren Devon has worked as a freelancer for Airbnb since 2012. Over the course of two months, she photographed 30 L.A. neighborhoods for the company.
How did you get the job working with Airbnb?
After a friend recommended me, I did a test shoot of Culver City, and I was hired based on that shoot. There was one other photographer for the neighborhoods [project], so between the two of us we split the 60-something neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
How did you decide what to shoot in each of those neighborhoods?
When we started out they gave us these blurbs, and based on that I did my own research and targeted out points of interest. I would give myself one day to shoot the entire neighborhood — I couldn’t afford to spend more time than that. I shot 30-something neighborhoods in the span of two months. It was fast and furious and fun.
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How far did you go in each direction?
Long Beach was the farthest south, the farthest north was Van Nuys, and Monterey Park was the farthest east. I also shot a bunch on the coast, including Santa Monica, Marina del Rey, Redondo Beach, coastal San Pedro and Pacific Palisades.
Did you learn anything about Los Angeles as you were shooting?
I just remember thinking how neighborhoods could be so close to each other and still be so different. I would start in Little Tokyo and then drive five minutes and be in the Arts District, then five minutes east of that and I’m in Boyle Heights. I discovered something new in every neighborhood. Like, there’s an amazing Japanese garden in Encino. I was walking with a friend in Marina del Rey and there is this 172-foot sailing yacht; we befriended the crew and ended up getting a tour of the area. Toluca Lake has this big car show, and it’s like a real small-town feel. Mount Washington I had never been to before, and I fell in love with it.
It was also interesting how people treated me differently in different neighborhoods, and the meaning of someone coming in with a camera. In Topanga, everyone wanted to hang out. It was like, "So-and-so is going to be in to get her coffee, she will love to have her picture taken!" Whereas when I went and shot Beverly Hills, everyone just assumed I was a paparazzi. Everyone was scowling at me. They treated me like they were defending themselves somehow, like they were on guard.