Los Angeles is misunderstood. Paraphrasing Woody Allen, it’s dismissed as having no culture except for yogurt, or simply dissed as La La Land, paparazzi paradise, a city without a center — and the list goes on.
But there’s one couple dedicated to a deeper appreciation of Los Angeles, its social history, crimes, literature, architecture and more.
In addition to the company they run — Esotouric: Bus Adventures into the Secret Heart of Los Angeles — Kim Cooper and Richard Schave have devoted themselves to “demythifying” this megalopolis through popular blogs, cultural salons and championing community causes.
Richard’s L.A. obsession began as a student at Santa Monica’s Crossroads School. “I always wanted to go downtown,” he told me during lunch at the 18th Street Coffee House. “Anytime I met a friend who could drive, I’d say let’s go see the old movie houses on Broadway, but no one was interested.”
Back then, no one went downtown. It was seedy and scary. But Richard memorized page 634 of the Thomas Guide, covering downtown L.A.’s historic core.
Growing up in Venice, Kim loved the downtown library, but she had to sneak out to get there. Being discouraged from going only made downtown a more desirable destination for her.
Kim and Richard met and despised one another at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1980s. Kim said, “He looked like this English schoolboy, riding a bike with a basket and a cricket hat on his head,” and Richard added, “She just seemed impossible.” But they had some friends and professors in common, including renowned architecture critic and lover of L.A., Reyner Banham.
Years passed, and thanks to one shared friend, they ended up at a party together. Though each remembered how much they hated one another, they found themselves attracted to one another and sharing their passion for the real Los Angeles.
After following an eclectic career path, Richard received a degree in computer science from Cal State L.A.; Kim had done curatorial work at the Museum of Contemporary Art but “I didn’t like to be supervised.” She started creating “zines,” hip niche publications, later selling thrift store collectibles on eBay.
And she had an idea for a book; 1947 was the year of the still-galvanizing Black Dahlia murder and the killing of mobster Bugsy Siegel. “I was sitting on this book proposal for 10 years,” Kim told me, “looking at L.A. in 1947, a turnkey year, as you look through the filter of the city’s criminal history, to understand its social history and how it developed. It was a time when women were entering the work force, the growth of the suburbs, major demographic shifts in the population.”
She mentioned the forgotten kidnapping of a young Compton girl, whose skeleton was later discovered in the desert, and a murder/suicide by a traumatized veteran in Los Feliz who lost his cool because of a burned roast. “No one remembers these stories,” she said. “In small towns, big crimes are what everyone remembers, they become memory maps for the community, but this sense of community and continuance is lost in L.A.”
Kim began reading newspapers on microfilm in Glendale until Richard’s father loaned her his UCLA faculty library card, and wrote a story a day about L.A.’s criminal history on the corresponding 1947 date.
With his computer science degree, Richard convinced Kim that a book was old school and she should blog instead. “So I wrote my girlfriend a blogging engine,” and Kim recruited the mutual friend who reintroduced them, a historic preservationist, to document the scenes of the crimes she was writing about as they look today. This became a popular blog called “The 1947 Project,” 1947project.com.
At dinner with friends, the idea of a bus tour to these crime locations came up — and Esotouric (Kim’s title) was born. After early trial and error, Richard began refining the five-hour excursions into “three-act plays” with a narrative structure and stops along the way for specialty snacks, and they began adding literary and architectural tours to their line up.
Their hands-down most popular tour is the Black Dahlia, but other neighborhood true crime and literary tours (Charles Bukowski’s L.A.; James M. Cain and the Birth of L.A. Noir) also bring in the crowds.
Through their volunteer work curating the Downtown Art Walk over an 18-month period (they’re no longer involved), they connected with a group of cultural creatives, inspiring them to create LAVA: L.A. Visionary Association, where artists and others list specialty L.A. events online. This resulted in a series of monthly salons at Clifton’s Cafeteria, free to anyone wishing to enjoy intellectual conversations about L.A.’s culture.
When Clifton’s closed for renovations, their relationship with a LAVA member morphed into their newest venture, a quarterly literary salon honoring the storied history of Musso and Frank’s restaurant in Hollywood. Stanley Rose’s bookstore next door and the Writers Guild, then across the street, helped set the scene for “The Algonquin Roundtable West,” a small private room in the back where only the greatest writers of the 20th century were allowed to enter and drink: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fante and “Day of the Locust” author Nathanael West among them.
This weekend, May 19 and 20, Esotouric offers a pair of tours delving deep into L.A.’s noir past, from the fictional spaces inhabited by Raymond Chandler’s legendary 1940s detective Philip Marlowe to the real-life horrors of the San Gabriel Valley’s true crime scenes, “Raymond Chandler’s L.A.,” and “Blood and Dumplings.” Find out more here: http://www.esotouric.com or (213) 373-1947.
Last Friday in Santa Monica, The Herb Alpert Foundation and California Institute of the Arts gave their 18th annual Alpert Award in the Arts to five exceptional mid–career artists, each receiving a $75,000 award, including Nora Chipaumire, dance; Eisa Davis, theatre; Kevin Everson, film/video; Myra Melford, music; and Michael Smith, visual arts.
“This year’s winners represent the essence of the Alpert Award,” Alpert said. “They take aesthetic, intellectual and political risks, and challenge worn-out conventions. They’re unafraid of the unknown.”
Sarah Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She reviews theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.