By: Alex Schmidt
All summer long, tourists in Los Angeles have been doing the sorts of things you'd expect -- taking trips to Disneyland and the beach, heading to Beverly Hills to check out celebrities' homes and maybe catching a glimpse of the Hollywood sign. Hollywood tours are a big business, with dozens of companies competing for their share of a $12 billion a year tourist industry. Perhaps it's not surprising that out of the millions of tourists who visit L.A. every year, a few want something a little different.
"Stick close to me, as close as our newfound friendship will allow," says Philip Mershon, who's leading a small group of three on a walking tour near Sunset and Vine called Felix in Hollywood.
They stop in front of a parking lot where a barn used to stand. Mershon tells the story behind Cecil B. DeMille's arrival in town and the very first studio in Hollywood, which the director got permission to start from his partner Samuel Goldwyn back East.
"And Sam writes back grudgingly, 'Have authority to rent barn on month-to-month basis only. Don't get into any long term arrangements,'" Mershon recounts. "So they did, and the barn sat right here. So this becomes the first place where the first feature length film was shot in Hollywood, this beautiful parking lot."
This tour is just one of many that delve deeper into L.A.'s history. There's a Charles Bukowski tour, and a Raymond Chandler tour. The Dearly Departed tour takes visitors on a tour of places where people were shot, stabbed, robbed and murdered.
"First out of the gate we go by the Knickerbocker, where 'Fred Mertz,' William Frawley, died," says tour guide Brian Donnelly, standing at the front of a small tour bus. "He had a heart attack on a street corner at Ivar and Hollywood Boulevard."
Donnelly explains other famous facts about the stately old Hollywood hotel, the Knickerbocker. Along for the tour is Jay Edwards. He just moved to L.A. from Atlanta.
"It seemed better than 'this is a celebrity's home and this is another celebrity's home,'" Edwards says. "You get a little more history and story, and it's all about crime and death, and that's always more interesting."
L.A. has always had alternative tours and amateur historians, though in the past you might have had a hard time finding them.
"I thought, you know, why don't we get a little more organized and shine a light on all of these great tours," says Kim Cooper, who, along with her husband Richard Schave, owns the Esotouric tour company.
Thinking there could be power in alternative tour numbers, they decided to team up and create an online consortium called 7 Days in L.A.
"We started 7 Days in L.A. and just kind of extended the invitation to all the high quality tour guides we know of," Cooper says.
These tours are part of a general growing interest in history, says Bill Deverell, a professor of history at USC. He attributes it in large measure to the Internet, and the ability for anyone - budding tour guides, say - to easily learn about the past.
"The Internet offers the opportunity to amalgamate a great deal of information," Deverell says, "and then use that canvas to draw in more people, ask questions and relay info. I think that's probably the key. We've had non-scholarly interest in L.A. ever since we've had L.A. but I think we're seeing a real rise in that. It's very exciting."
Case in point: a few weeks ago, Elisa Jordan launched her new tour company, called L.A. Woman, which is also part of the 7 Days in L.A. consortium. Her tours specialize in two things: The Doors, and Marilyn Monroe. Jordan timed the launch to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Monroe's death last month. Jordan stops in front of a facility where L.A. native Monroe spent two years as a child, using a slideshow of old pictures to bring it to life.
"This is what was the orphan's home. It is now Hollygrove," Jordan explains. "It's still a facility for children. The picture on the screen is what it looked like when Marilyn was there. Her bedroom was up here and she would look at over the RKO lot and dream of becoming a movie star."
While 7 Days in L.A. has seen some success for its members, it can be tough to get a bunch of people excited about learning while they're on vacation. The 10 or so people on the small tour coach were all Elisa Jordan's friends and family. But she, and the rest of L.A's alternative tour guides, are hopeful that if they stick with it, more people will get on board with intimate tours of L.A.'s history.