Esotouric Gives Quirky Tours of SoCal's Darker History

The West Adams District is one of L.A.'s oldest neighborhoods. It's also the location for some of the most interesting crime stories of the 20th century. Esotouric Tours takes visitors there on regularly scheduled forays into the city's past. KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports.

Frank Stoltze: Just south of the 10 freeway and west of downtown L.A., West Adams is home to an impressive collection of historic houses. Amid the Queen Anne's, Beaux Arts, and Craftsman Bungalows lie stories of mayhem. Some are fairly recent. The Esotouric tour takes you by the old home of Marvin Gaye Sr., where he shot his famous singer-songwriter son, Marvin Gaye, almost a quarter century ago.

Nathan Marsak: It was right here, right on that very stoop, a very famous stoop right there, where Marvin Gaye Sr. famously said to his son, "This is the last 45 you'll ever hear."

Stoltze: Tour guide Nathan Marsak employs plenty of gallows humor.

Marsak: Actually, it was a .38. He heard it through the carbine.

Stoltze: Forty-year-old Marsak is a regular guide on Esotouric tours.

Marsak: I'm a child of historians. My father was a historian, my mother was a historian. And as a child of historians, I started collecting newspapers when I was very, very young, and I got interested in how things used to look. I got interested in old buildings. I was taken to Europe many, many times.

Kim Cooper: If everyone just cranes their little necks and gets a crick, you'll see a traffic light, Redondo and Adams. August 3rd, 1946!

Stoltze: Cooper and Richard Schave are behind Esotouric. It grew out of their research into the infamous Black Dahlia murder.

Some of Cooper's stories are less grisly than fun – like the one about a woman in 1945 who scared off a burglar with her 13 Pekingese dogs.

[Sound of laughing]

Cooper: I do this because I want to understand Los Angeles and I think the way to do it is to look through the history of the strange and weird and forgotten and bizarre moments that kinda freeze real life. I don't know. It's just fun.

Stoltze: Cooper holds a master's degree in art history. She and her crew research old newspaper articles and books. They drive visitors past the house where, in 1930, baseball player Gus Sandberg lit a match to find out if he'd siphoned all the gas from his car. The resulting fireball killed him.

Kidnappings and homicides play prominently in the West Adams crime tours. Kim Cooper concedes some of it is awful.

Cooper: But crime happens to everybody. And what's interesting about a criminal case is that an ordinary person whose life normally wouldn't be subject to any scrutiny at all is suddenly the object of everybody's attention, and that moment in their life is frozen and can be looked back at and analyzed. And as a cultural historian, I'm just fascinated by that.

Stoltze: So is tour passenger Johann Hassan, a 71-year-old native of South L.A.

Johann Hassan: Oh, I'm enjoying it. I like stories. I like history. You never know what goes on in a particular place, and I like the morbid things. (laughs)

Marsak: I couldn't think of anything else I'd rather do. It tickles me in parts where I shouldn't be tickled. (laughs)

Stoltze: Later, tour guide Nathan Marsak launches into the 1914 story of a loud party visited by an angry neighbor. Tipsy revelers stripped the visitor naked.

Marsak: And unfortunately, that was Detective Robert McMann of Central Police Station. (laughter) And he didn't take too kindly to that. So he runs and without thinking, 'ya know, I should really put some clothes on,' he gets his gun and he returns and he starts chasing these guys all around the place, up and down the hall with his weapons. (laughter)

Stoltze: Crime is not the only subject of Esotouric's jaunts. One takes the curious strolling around downtown's Bunker Hill. Another is called "Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles." Prices vary for these and other excursions that allow Angelenos to become tourists in their own sprawling city.