It’s easy to see why people love to repeat guided tours with Kim Cooper and Richard Schave of the Los Angeles-based company Esotouric. Schave and Cooper have been charming history buffs with their deep knowledge of obscure L.A. for more than 10 years. Tour guides can be so much more than talking press releases for a city—Cooper and Schave are activists, preservationists, historians, and self-described “overeducated” obsessives who get a thrill out of showing people the secret history of Los Angeles. They have unspooled wild tales about secret Batchelder murals in swap meets, labor activism and bombmaking in historic Skid Row, and 21st century real estate grifts; just don’t try to ask them any Dodgers trivia.
With group congregations on hold, Esotouric has had to remake their business for the pandemic. We talked to Schave and Cooper about how mmhmm is helping them keep in touch with their followers through their unique and fascinating virtual historical tours.
When did you start Esotouric?
Kim Cooper: Well, we started Esotouric with that name in 2007, but we started giving tours about a year earlier, in response to people who were reading this true crime blog. They were asking for us to take them to the places they were reading about, because we were blogging about places in LA that were definitely off the beaten path. The idea of going out there and seeing crime scenes in a group was really appealing.
We've always had an almost 90-95% Angeleno audience. We're not trying to tell people the greatest places to go in LA if you only have two days here. We want to give people who are already attached to the city—and think they know it pretty well—a chance to see things that are new, and find new ways of telling the stories of the city. And preservation became a really big part of it right from the beginning.
So much has changed for your business in the last nine months. How did you decide to create webinars?
Richard Schave: We didn't have a choice. I think April, May, and June was this blissful phase of denial, where we thought at some point in the late summer, we'd have $300-a-person dinners with 20 people. And somehow that would work and be interesting. But, ultimately, that never happened, because the governor shut down restaurants as soon as he reopened them. So I guess it was I was early June that we realized we weren't going to be able to delude ourselves any longer.
KC: We've always been resistant to doing virtual programming. People always ask, but I felt like so much of the importance of what we were doing was actually giving people a chance to get together with fellow lovers of history and to go to the sites. But I could tell that there was a hunger to get together with the Esotouric gang. So we just wanted to think about what that would look like.
When we started looking at what digital programming (that isn't actually heavily-produced) looked like, we were just dreading it. Everybody's calling into city council meetings now, and you just see the same visual language. It’s tedious, and it's actually kind of repellent. We have to provide something that's different, something that feels fun—and more than that, something that feels like you're lost in time, you're going to places that are not everyday.
What do you show in your virtual tours that you can’t show from a tour bus?
[Richard displays a picture of a 1970s photo behind them on the video call.]
KC: This is 1971 Leimert Park, that's where Beth Short’s body was found, the Black Dahlia. And it's really great to have that photo from 1971 because the neighborhood has changed a lot since then. And it's such a just normal place. It's not normally photographed. But the LA Times did a piece about it in ‘71 and they documented it in this way. And you can actually see the Hollywood sign above my head. We go here on tours. We walk this block. We do not drive a coach class bus through that neighborhood because that would be wrong, but we take people to where the body was found.
And tunnels. Even though everyone wants to see them, we've only been able take small groups into tunnels a few times, because gaining access to these spaces is so difficult.
RS: But see, this is a great example of webinars. What's behind us is our webinar from two weeks ago about underground LA.
KC: It took us about 10 years to get the property owners to agree that we could take a group down there. And then I said, I'm not even charging money for this, because there's no way we can get appropriate insurance. If we make it free then everyone understands they’re at their own risk.
We probably could have charged $100 a ticket, everybody was so eager to get down there. So it's better to just make it free—give people the opportunity, as folks have been champing at the bit to see that space. It's the old subway that used to lead from Downtown to Silver Lake towards Glendale. And I think we had about 1000 people on the waiting list, we were able to take a little over 100 down. It was totally amazing.
RS: We did this once. It took literally 10 years of calling to get the property owner who was about to sell the property to let us come in. And then it took like 20 minutes of getting the security guard to let us in. It was just an incredibly complicated scenario, and we can't repeat it because it's under new ownership and the capacity of the space is, like, two.
KC: it's problematic. I mean, one day the space will be reactivated. But to be able to take people in virtually, that's really new for us. And it means that we can take some of these locations that have been very much on people's wish lists. And now we can share them with more people.
RS: But see, the webinars are totally amazing for that because it's so much easier to do this.
How did you find mmhmm?
KC: I saw a link for it, and I watched a couple of videos, and I said, this does not look like a City Council meeting at all. In fact, I think that with the visual material that we have, we could really do something very cool with this.
RS: So the unofficial modus operandi of Esotouric is the same as the Gödel, Escher, Bach book. Kurt Gödel was this German mathematician who said logical systems are inherently finite, they're inherently susceptible because you could always create a record that breaks the record player. When I saw the logo [for mmhmm, which looks like the one on the cover of Gödel, Escher, Bach], I’m like, “Oh, yeah, the record that breaks the record player—we’re using this software.” The record that breaks the record player is Esotouric.
KC: Yeah, we're not like normal bus tours. In some cities, you can't give tours unless you get a seal of approval from the powers that be. And the cities that do this are places like Washington, DC, and New York City, where it's a very limited footprint, and they want to control the messaging that comes out. But there are law firms that focus on civil liberties and free speech that have sued cities that have tried to implement this.
RS: Laws are algorithms, right? Ordinances are algorithms. Esotouric breaks any algorithm for certified tour guides that you could ever possibly think of.
Esotouric breaks any algorithm for certified tour guides that you could ever possibly think of.
KC: What we've seen happen since we started giving these tours is that everything in Los Angeles has fallen apart. The corruption is nothing new. But the refusal to actually make a livable city while you're behaving like a parasite and profiting off it—it's psychotic. And it's hard to know how to tell these stories, because if you hop on a tour, and you're like, I want escapism, we can't give you that. But we can make you understand things a little better.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.