January 19, 2020

Docents of downtown’s dark side

Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler did not get along. At all.

Paired at Paramount to create the screenplay for Wilder’s 1944 film adaptation of the classic James M. Cain novel, “Double Indemnity,” these icons somehow managed to conquer the script at Wilder’s office, despite a mutual enmity.

Chandler, the novelist and screenwriter, griped about the Jewish filmmaker’s chain-smoking and phone calls to women during creative sessions. The tension between the two escalated while about a dozen pages of the script remained unwritten just two weeks before production was to begin.

In the end, after receiving a list of demands from Chandler regarding Wilder, producer Joseph Sistrom got the latter to apologize, and the pair were able to finish the script.

Such lore derived from L.A.’s rich commingling of cinema and literature is what Richard Schave, co-founder of Esotouric literary and true crime bus tours in 2007 with wife Kim Cooper thrives on.

“Our job at Esotouric is to capture this transitory, fleeting, ephemeral experience of the urban metropolis that is Los Angeles,” Schave said. “Crime and sex is a great lens to look through at these things.” 

To Schave and his wife, that means covering the crime, public policy, architecture, cinema, literature and food culture shaping 20th century Los Angeles — and, by extension, America. But where to begin?

Earlier this year, the Jewish couple from El Sereno led 50 people through downtown and Hollywood on Esotouric’s “Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles: In a Lonely Place” tour. Stops included the Los Angeles Athletic Club, where Chandler played bridge after working at Dabney Oil Syndicate’s legal department in the Giannini Building across the street, and the Mayfair Hotel.

With 15 Saturday tours on rotation, Chandler is not the only downtown-centric author to whom Esotouric devotes itself: Cain, Charles Bukowski and Italian-American John Fante, father of Los Angeles literature, are among them, as well. (Schave lobbied City Councilwoman Jan Perry for three years to get a street named after Fante, finally succeeding when John Fante Square was unveiled in 2010 at Fifth Street and Grand Avenue.)

Schave said downtown has always been one of his favorite places.

“I always have loved L.A. architecture,” he said. “I memorized the Thomas Bros. Guide, page 634, when I was 15 in order to prepare to learn to drive and explore downtown better. I had always gotten older friends to drive down to Broadway as a teen.”

Schave grew up in Cheviot Hills, the son of a clinical psychologist mother and a psychoanalyst father. His maternal grandmother had moved to West Los Angeles from Boyle Heights, where his great-grandmother kept a kosher home.

He met Cooper when the two were art history majors at the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

“We hated each other on sight,” Cooper recalled. 

Still, Schave said, “We had the same adviser who told us we were soul mates.”

After UC Santa Cruz, Schave joined L.A.’s bricklayer’s local, got a truck and lived out of it for a few years with his girlfriend at the time while he did some soul searching. Eventually, Schave’s paternal grandfather invited the couple to fix up his vast rental property empire in Oakland. 

After splitting up with his girlfriend, he returned to school in 2002 at California State University, Los Angeles, creating his own blogging engines for class projects and receiving a degree in computer science. Two years later, Schave reconnected with Cooper. 

Cooper was an L.A. native who had ended up in San Francisco, where she started Scram, a funky music/comics magazine that moved with her to Silver Lake during the early ’90s. Her meeting with Schave was decidedly sweeter this second time around. Schave, 44, married Cooper, 46, in 2006.

It didn’t hurt that Schave had become a technical expert at blog engines, and he realized that Cooper’s passion for post-World War II Los Angeles history could have great possibility as a blog. Her crime-a-day 1947project retro blog (with Nathan Marsak) became an impetus for Esotouric.

It turns out, the couple decided, that crime and literature provide a great way to view the world.

“People are drawn to these topics,” Schave said. “Crime and literature both, in very different ways, illuminate fundamental truths about human nature.”

The Schave-Cooper marital dynamics are on display during Esotouric’s tours around the region as Schave taps his wife for sultry readings of noir passages or to help wrangle floating Esotourists. Cooper hosts “Weird West Adams,” “East Side Babylon,” “Pasadena Confidential,” “Blood and Dumplings,” and Esotouric’s most popular crime tour, “The Real Black Dahlia.” 

Leanne Brown of Victoria, British Columbia, said she found her Chandler tour guides inspiring. 

“Their passion comes through,” she said.

Schave has been involved in attracting visitors downtown through more than Esotouric’s tours. In 2009, five years into downtown Los Angeles Art Walk’s run, he became executive director at the request of event founder Bert Green. It didn’t last long, though, Schave said, as his attempt to expand the Art Walk’s scope beyond the Main Street/Fourth Street bar scene backfired. Schave and Cooper left the board in a mist of acrimony. 

Shortly after leaving Art Walk, they created the Los Angeles Visionaries Association, a free monthly salon offering guest lectures and downtown walking tours. 

While too purist to derive satisfaction from them, Schave believes recent kitsch — think the movie “Gangster Squad” released earlier this year and 2011’s period video game “L.A. Noire” — motivates people to seek out local lore. He only hopes that they see what he does.

“I’ve come to an understanding of what 19th [and early 20th] century Los Angeles is — an unimaginable world of wonder.”