An Interview with Esotouric Tours co-founders Kim Cooper and Richard Schave

Feb 12, 2010 by Tom Jones

Esotouric

The birth of a business can come in many forms. I wanted to ask the owners of Esotouric a few questions about how their business started, where their ideas come from, and what their plans are for the future–plus, a few interesting tidbits about the team of brilliant and creative entrepreneurs who are the owners and creators of Esotouric Tours.

With their concept now a reality, as both a business and a vision–I was curious how the creation of the Best Tours in Los Angeles, came into existence.

In that vein, I interviewed them both over the last week and a half, with some basic but penetrating questions, having no idea what answers I would receive, or expect.

In today’s instant gratification that defines and redefines our cultural landscape and customs; along with the “usual” cut’n’paste world of corporate knock-offs, and its irrelevant and annoying run-on themes that people embrace and follow without thinking–I wanted to learn more about the unique minds of Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, who are the “brain-trust” that is the Esotrouic experience–The Best Tours of Los Angeles.

Because this interview is “a story in a story” in and of itself, I’m splitting it into two parts.

There’s a lot of ground to cover, as they say, and much to be discussed– so buckle up, turn down that damn radio and television, and turn off your computer and Blackberry for a few moments to take a peek into the world of Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, whose personal adventures are just as interesting as their tours themselves.

Their story unfolds as a visual, poetic, disturbing, decadent slice of life, that could just as well stand alone as a piece of fiction, so we hope you enjoy this interview as much as we I did in presenting it:

Part I

1. Before you transformed into the Esotouric Tours, I see that you organized the 1947 Project, as a "Crime Bus Tour," which evolved into Esotouric tours. Could you share some of the thoughts you had, when you started this entire concept? Was it based on your own reading of Los Angeles’ history, the notoriety of the crimes, or something that you think would be interesting to do because the crimes are part pulp, but real life?

Bugsy Siegel

In the mid-1990s, I began to think that one could write an alternative history of Los Angeles by revisiting the daily crime reports for the highly charged year, 1947. Anyone even remotely interested in True Crime would recognize that 1947 as the year of the Black Dahlia and of Bugsy Siegel’s slaying, two iconic L.A. crimes– one of which has been kept fresh in living memories by a constant stream of books, films and improbable conspiracy theories.

Could a careful filtering of news and police reports, expose a secret social history of mid-century Los Angeles, and reveal how our contemporary city came to be? Does he Los Angeles of two generations ago hold the key to understanding 21st Century L.A.?

Or would the small-time crime stories that titillated my grandparents simply do the same for me– providing nothing more than a fresh stock of trivia with which to amuse my peers? That was also the same time period, when the war over and the city was to become a beacon of humanity, a city teaming with new émigrés , returning GI’ from World War II, long-neglected kids and recently independent women, new freeways and the first waves of suburban sprawl.

Double Indemnity

As a third-generation Angelino, a trained architectural historian and a collector of old travelogues, ephemera and magazines, I sensed a city beneath the one I thought I knew from memories and personal experience. But these perceptions were filtered through the indelible shadows of the town and the time wrought cinematic, in true period pieces; and in the bitterly nostalgic reflections of the 1970s and beyond.

Murderous Stanwyck and MacMurray in Double Indemnity, roaming the aisles of the local market pretending not to know each other; Maya Deren in silhouette with the brutal desert light burning everything white in the avant-garde tone poem Meshes of the Afternoon; the symphony of personal and civic corruption of Chinatown, that poison pen letter from Roman Polanski to the city that stole his wife and unborn son; the James Ellroy adaptation of L.A. Confidential– Hollywood’s heavy hand had cast its own dishonest gauze over the unknowable real city.

L.A. Confidential
For how could one set out to "know" L.A. in 1947, when that era was a time and place of infinite possibilities of the Los Angeles dream and at times L.A.s? The city had dozens of local and ethnic newspapers; it sprawl extended over nearly 500 square miles, and its soon-ubiquitous freeway patterns were still nascent and novel.

It was still a city of farmers, European refugees, beauty queens, religious nuts and the same working stiffs that power every town, but it’s never been easy to hold the target still enough to draw a bead. L.A. is multitudes and negation. Indefinable, it draws writers in, seduces, exhausts and horrifies them, and compels them to draw hard conclusions which seem to shimmer into unreality the moment they’re set on paper

For L.A. is a charlatan at its core and hard to know and harder still to contain. Is it is a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” or a dream, a reality, or puzzle to be either put together or ripped apart?

Raymond Chandler

Chandler, Huxley, Cain, West, Ellroy, Fante, Bukowski, Didion, and Lambert– each name is emotive of an emotion and thought, a snip into a layer of your psyche that devours your imagination into a microscopic focus, and puts your mind into a different era and way of thinking:

Los Angeles is a desert city, filled with a plethora of odd individuals. A City of yearning comprised of hard falls and mad heights. And as a native, for us it was a different concept to digest because the pat answers and the notion of one-size-fits all narrative of our city’s history, we knew to be naïve and ridiculous. Instinctively we knew that you can’t get away with pat analyses that work for the émigrés, because you fundamentally understand L.A.’s discordant songs, and how it’s a thousand cities, one but more than one and all at once.

So why not, when seeking to know the city, cut into a literal and metaphysical autopsy, taking the city’s pulse through one iconic year, in dozens of stark flash frames, each one denoting someone who was in the wrong place and time, like the hollow forms in the ash of Pompeii that, when filled with archeologist’s plaster, show the torment of those who died there.

For L.A. is a charlatan
In the aftermath of crimes or accidents, the lives of everyday people receive the intense attention ordinarily reserved for movie stars and politicians, but absent celebrities’ public relations savvy that protects their own self presentation, victims’ families are photographed in cluttered living rooms, signs of their un-posed reality, there for our interpretation.

Dead girls’ purses hold the essentials that defined their suddenly absent lives; Elizabeth Short’s meager possessions turn up in a bus station locker and launch a thousand “Black Dahlia” theories. Mystery begets mystery. But inside somewhere are clues to the truth of the city in a time that can never be found from the period magazines, films, books, etc., any more than 2008 life can be extrapolated solely from the pop culture detritus that entertains the living majority.
Black Dahlia
Now that I had a theory, I tested it with a few days’ research, starting on January 1, like a refugee who picked up their new city’s newspaper in hopes of learning the lingo. Delving into the microfilmed L.A. Times at the Glendale Library revealed that 1947 had hosted hundreds of odd, revealing and utterly forgotten crimes, many with a recurring theme of sexual tension and danger. Elizabeth Short’s mid-January murder and dismemberment hung over the city as the year unfurled, making women jumpy and inspiring a particular breed of masher to use the threat of that unsolved crime to terrorize their victims and gain power, as other young women were murdered and left on the city’s streets, their killers, too, unknown.

But what I didn’t anticipate were the Black Dahlia copycats: the high school girl who rolled nearly naked in underbrush and burned herself with cigarettes before crying "kidnap," or the stressed-out young father who staged a bloody robbery scene in his car, then hopped a train for a new life in the Pacific Northwest. These stories drove home how powerfully the mythology of Elizabeth Short’s life and death already loomed in 1947, and how strongly the citizens identified with her. It seemed no coincidence that her murder lingered in the popular imagination as it has. Bigger than life in her death, already she was all things to all people: a chance for attention, or for a better life far away from home, all the things she was seeking when she came to L.A. from Medford, Massachusetts and found her dark fame.

Elizabeth Short
The subjects deemed worthy of coverage by the daily papers also provided a fascinating portrait of everyday life in the Southland. One read about little kids poisoned after slurping down dollops of a forgotten yet alluring product called “ant paste,” of restrictive housing covenants that broke up mixed race families, of welfare-hogging Okies and weird religious practices. And there were ghastly and bizarre crimes, unaccountably forgotten, though for years afterwards the memory must have colored certain spaces indelibly for those who’d lived nearby. This Los Angeles was only nominally like the black and white fantasies fed by noir films and Raymond Chandler novels—it was bigger, weirder, more fascinating and more varied.

But while the subject was undeniably intriguing, it was also vast. I put the project aside for nearly a decade, until early 2005, when the easy availability of free blogging software and The L.A. Times’ online archives sparked the creation of the 1947project blog, initially my personal project. It quickly became a collaboration with Nathan Marsak, and guest commenter Larry Harnisch.

In its online manifestation, the 1947project was a real-time experiment in time-travel, with a crime or offbeat public interest story for (nearly) every day of the year, bracketed by a visit to the scene as it looked on the posting date.

We found ourselves becoming one with the stories and areas we were covering—familiar with the paradoxically alien and familiar demographic and economic patterns;, following developing stories, digging like a pulp fiction reporter into what a semblance of “truth” was and is, based from past newspaper reportage– often finding one story, very different from another’s, depending on which paper was being read.
1947 Los Angeles
Before long, something utterly unexpected happened: the families began making contact. Emails and blog comments from descendents of the victims and (less often) the perpetrators brought an unexpected layer of immediacy to the 59-year-old stories being told. Knowing the families were watching kept us honest as we blogged: already striving for a respectful tone, it now seemed essential that it be maintained.

The families also provided clues that fleshed out the dusty news reports: 18-year-old war widow Ginevra "Ginger" Knight, who shot her would-be kidnapper Thomas Housos as he backed her car out of her Hollywood driveway, had been carrying her gun all night– in contrast to the complicated weapon-retrieval scenario the papers had told. The man she killed turned out to have a young son who had known nothing of his father’s crime until he was a teen; still yearning for answers in his 60s, he found our story and was compelled to write.

Rosenda Mondragon

Emails came from the great-granddaughter of downtown murder victim Rosenda Mondragon; from a niece of Gerald Snow Welch’s purported suicide pact partner, Dolores Fewkes; from childhood playmates of kidnap victim Rochelle Gluskoter; and from the stepson of pardoned killer Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker, hoping to learn more about his brother’s natural father. And with each of these contacts, the dry old tales came alive, and we felt the weight of all the untold stories and the families that were still bruised by decades-old tragedies.

“Los Angeles, the city of infinite possibility, was for many a place of pains that still throbbed and questions that needed answers.”

The beauty of subject and object is explained perfectly, and reads like a scene straight out of a novel. If you’re half as mesmerized by the often overlooked culture, history, and buried skeletons of days long past, Kim and Richard have evoked us into a different time, place, and era, here in Los Angeles, where is our home—how far we’ve come and how far we have to go to get where we want to go. Alas, is the human condition:

So, sleep tight and our journey together learning more about the Esotrouic story and legend is told us first hand and behind the scenes for the first time. Part II of my Interview will appear tomorrow, to keep you coming back for more. Meanwhile, enjoy the rest of the Travelin’ Local site.

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One Response to “An Interview with Esotouric Tours co-founders Kim Cooper and Richard Schave”

  1. Debi says:

    Fascinating! I love reading your blog… but you knew that, right? ;-)

    [Reply]

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