How To Take A Time-Traveling Tour Of Historic LA Without Getting On A Bus/DeLorean
Tour buses take the curious around the city, diving into what makes Los Angeles tick, excavating the history just under the surface. So what happens when the pandemic makes going on a tour bus with a bunch of strangers not a thing anymore?
Esotouric, which has given tours of the L.A. area since 2007, shut down in early March. It was before L.A. and the state more broadly. Now they're back — online — providing digital presentations that hope to recapture just a little of what made Esotouric special.
"We didn't know what to do," Esotouric co-owner and operator Kim Cooper told LAist. "We were already very conscious of [COVID-19], because one of our February tours was in Monterey Park, and that community was already hard-hit."
Their last tour was Feb. 29, with their last event being a talk at Cal State L.A.'s Forensic Science Center in early March. Cooper said she got concerned when she saw some of their local regulars on social media not taking the pandemic seriously.
"And I thought we have this opportunity here to make a stand, send a message out, let people know that we're taking it so seriously that we're actually stopping our tours," Cooper said. "It was hard for us to do financially, but it was the right thing to do."
Cooper and her husband Richard Schave, co-owner and operator of Esotouric, argued over the decision. But they ultimately cancelled their whole season, despite having tours booked months in advance.
Cooper and Schave said for years that they would never make their tours into an online experience, because they felt that the point was getting people together in the city and going places, as well as those visitors sharing their own knowledge.
Cooper felt it would make her unhappy to try to receate the exact thing online. So instead, the format is more like a talking tour — around an hour long, followed by 30 minutes of Q&A and feedback. Schave also pointed out that, unlike presentations they've given at libraries and other public venues, these don't need anyone else to approve them first.
And they have a wealth of archival material to draw from.
They're both art historians by training, having known each other when they both attended UC Santa Cruz. They've spent one day a week for the last several years in the Huntington Library's archival stacks with special access, photographing and scanning books, magazines, photographs, and maps from the museum's California collection.
They'd thought that all that info would become part of their bus tours, but now they're using it to tell new stories online.
THE BRADBURY BUILDING
Their first tour launches online Saturday, Sept. 26 — live at noon Saturday, but available online for a week.
"What people don't understand about the Bradbury Building," Cooper said, "is that for many years, it was incredibly accessible. It was not a secret that this was the most beautiful building downtown."
The family that ran the building wanted to use the building as an incubator for young creative people and new businesses, according to Cooper. He recruited kids from Roosevelt High School and helped them to start new businesses in his building.
One of the early tenants was the American Institute of Architects, which started creating a list of the L.A. buildings that should be landmarks.
"There were fundraisers, and dances, and concerts, and parties. And an art gallery up in the corner where Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller came. And there was this wacky gentleman's club that operated. It was the coolest joint in town," Cooper said. "It wasn't a bar, but it was like a great bar."
As the tenants changed, so too did public access, and the building's character. For many years, the LAPD Internal Affairs department held the lease for several floors, so the public was no longer allowed to go upstairs in the 1990s.
"It made it easier for management, because you didn't have people wandering all around, but also, even if you had an appointment upstairs, as you were wandering downstairs taking pictures, the cops would come out and be like, 'Why are you here?'" Cooper said.
The chance for more public access had been right around the corner, with a new co-working space in the Bradbury Building — but then it shut down thanks to COVID-19.
"I want to talk about what [the Bradbury Building] was like when it was very alive. Because I think the building lends itself to having people," Cooper said.
THE DUTCH CHOCOLATE SHOP (& FUTURE PROGRAMS)
Their second tour, set for Saturday, Oct. 3, takes you inside the historic Dutch Chocolate Shop, built in the early 20th century. It's closed to the public even in non-quarantine times, so they plan to give a virtual walkthrough with a 3D scan they've done of the space, beyond occasional public tours of the ground floor.
"There's three floors that no one's ever seen," Cooper said. "And there's some really neat stuff upstairs, including a complete quack medical clinic that was left trapped in amber at the end of the '50s."
They plan to add more programs regularly, including some based on the true crime stories that were among the most popular of their live bus tours. They're also hoping that these online talks help them reach a wider audience than they did in person, as well as former regulars who've moved away or want to share it with their friends and family.
Cooper said that both the Bradbury and the Dutch Chocolate Shop have a real depth to them, with their buildings rewarding repeated views and always having something new to discover.
CAN YOU MAKE A WEBINAR EXCITING?
They thought they'd be back up and running by the end of the summer. When restaurants initially reopened in the spring, Schave reached out to Morton's Steakhouse to look into doing a live event in a large banquet room at 50 percent capacity.
Then the restaurants closed again. That's when they realized they needed to look into webinars.
"But we didn't want them to look like City Council meetings," Cooper said. "I was hanging out in all of the Facebook groups where different tour companies hang out, and everyone's trying to figure this new model out, and no one has a good solution."
Schave, who also has a degree in computer science, rebuilt the Esotouric website from the ground up.
"I'm the worst computer programmer in the world," Schave said. "But I'm really well-suited to evaluating and understanding software solutions. And I don't know how I would have done this without having spent several years of my life understanding software and hardware problems. ... If you get a degree in computer sciences, you learn to ask what it is you're looking for. You actually have to write down what it is I want to do, not just 'Zoom is the solution.'"
Schave felt that Zoom was trying to be too many things to too many people, so instead, they're using the webinar platform BigMarker, paired with the virtual presentation software Mmhmm.
"We have images of these places that we've photographed, archival material, and that can all be on the screen at the same time, and we can interact with it," Cooper said.
They hope to be taking the public to share in their historical discoveries in person again before too long.
"In 13 years on the bus, we really figured out what made sense, and loved giving those tours — and we will again," Cooper said.
You can buy a ticket for one of Esotouric's new online seminars starting this Saturday, Sept. 26, for $10. (You can also watch a short documentary film on Esotouric, and how Cooper and Schave became a couple, here.)