“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”
— Raymond Chandler, from Red Wind: A Collection of Short Stories
For about five hours last Saturday, I was dead and in heaven.
I was on a bus tour of Raymond Chandler‘s Los Angeles. It was the kind of experience tailor-made for Movie Places in L.A.
Down These Mean Streets Raymond Chandler Staggered
Cruising mean streets from downtown to Hollywood, I gawked at places figuring in every novel and short story Chandler ever wrote. Among them were deco palaces, decrepit edifices and beloved landmarks appearing in such great books (and movie adaptations) as The Big Sleep, The Lady in the Lake and Double Indemnity (Chandler co-wrote the Indemnity screenplay with Billy Wilder).
There were real places where Chandler’s fictional characters lived and died. And locations where his loved ones resided, including an apartment and nearby hotel where Chandler installed his mother and mistress, respectively.
All this on a remarkable bus tour operated by a pair of Angelenos with a near-religious reverence for the city’s fictional and real criminal pasts.
Richard and Kim: Renaissance Tour Guides
It’s no stretch to say Richard Schave and Kim Cooper have a wondrously unhealthy (I’m trying to avoid the word”obsessive”) attachment to film noir, mystery and detective fiction. But they come by it honestly, since their passion began with L.A.’s sordid, real-life criminal past.
(For the record, the tour’s actual name is Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles: In a Lonely Place. Which, while Chandlerian in tone, is shamelessly stolen from the Dorothy B. Hughes novel and the great 1950 film adaptation. But, as Kim admits with a shrug, it’s the mood that matters.)
The native Angelenos, married five years now, are quintessentially L.A. people. They should be the official greeters for all new arrivals to the city; you need people like this to get newcomers acclimated to L.A.’s rich history, real and imagined.
Their Esotouric bus adventures have been cruising streets for four years and overall, they’ve been busing people around for six. It all began with Kim’s great L.A. crime website, 1947 Project; the tours came later.
Richard and Kim met as art history majors at UC Santa Cruz, back in the late 80s. They hated each other. 18 years later, long after they’d both returned to L.A., they met at a party. Within a couple of years, they were married, conducting research on L.A. history, getting involved in preservation and civic groups and running these unique tours (“We’re the anti-bus tour company,” says Richard).
Joining them on the bus trips is kindred soul Joan Renner, a key contributor to 1947 Project. She’s also an L.A. Conservancy docent. Joan, whose red hairdo recalls the jet-black bob of Louise Brooks, is also deeply into art deco and the history of cosmetics. (Her website is Vintage Powder Room).
Together, they lead about 40 themed tours a year, mostly on Saturdays. Beyond the Chandler tour, they conduct bus rides focusing on author James M. Cain‘s L.A., writer Reyner Banham‘s architectural obsessions, the “real Black Dahlia” and many others.
But the schedule also reflects Kim and Richard’s diverse interests. For instance, thanks to Kim’s longstanding interest in rock – she once published Scram magazine (“a journal of unpopular culture”) – they also offer a look at singer-actor Tom Waits‘ haunts.
The Big Schlep
The Chandler tour begins upstairs at the historic South Seas-themed Clifton’s Cafeteria on South Broadway. First, you get a history of the eatery and its colorful, politically-active founder. Before boarding the bus, Richard offers a forewarning of things to come: “It’s impossible to underestimate,” he says with an arched brow, “how corrupt L.A. was in 1925.”
Not a bad setup for the next four hours.
Then it’s the comprehensive tour criss-crossing downtown streets where the master of detective fiction spent six years, through 1932, working, living and drinking – okay, mostly drinking – as an oil company executive. Kim and Joan share passages from Chandler works during drive-bys or stops at places depicted in those tales. But Richard wrote the tour and is the host and main guide.
Hotel Van Nuys Figured Prominently in The Little Sister
And to hear him tell it, Chandler spent much of these years wandering aimlessly, hanging out in hotel lobbies (notably the Hotel Van Nuys, now called the Barclay) and carefully observing (i.e., taking copious notes on) all the lowlifes and scumbags that crossed his path.
In fact, our busload of fellow noir travelers learned that room 332 of the Barclay was the scene of the icepick-in-the-neck murder in Chandler’s fifth Philip Marlowe novel, The Little Sister.
1927 Oviatt Building an Art Deco Treasure
Other look-see stops include the decadently deco Oviatt Building (which has a great backstory!) and the Giannini Building, both on Olive; Chandler worked in the latter, for the Dabney Oil Syndicate.
(By the time Chandler was fired from that cushy job in ’32, he was ready to begin writing in earnest, publishing his first short story the next year in Black Mask magazine.)
The great thing about the bus itself is that, with overhead aircraft-style video screens, our tour guides supplement their painstakingly well-researched commentaries with rare stills, movie clips and miscellaneous visuals that really fill out the overall presentation.
The three guides are quite a sight. Main man Richard’s floppy hair dances in rhythm to his rapid-fire delivery. Richard has the giddy enthusiasm of a kid on a sugar high who speaks as if he’d forget sacred details if forced to slow down.
He frequently gives up the microphone to soft-spoken Kim and scholarly Joan. They offer revealing extracts from Chandler’s writing, plus their own asides and takes on what we’re seeing.
Musso & Frank Grill: Walking Through History
My favorite stop was the legendary Musso & Frank Grill, Hollywood’s oldest continuously operating restaurant (since 1919). There, we learn about notorious bootlegger Stanley Rose, whose adjoining bookstore was the model for Arthur Geiger’s crooked shop in The Big Sleep. Richard also described the also-gone “writers room” at Musso’s, where Chandler is thought to have written the novel.
By late afternoon, the tour winds up back at Clifton’s downtown, having covered a ton of territory and revealed tasty tales about Chandler’s long-suffering wife Cissy, producer John Houseman, Hollywood executive and former Rose bookstore clerk Meta Rosenberg and the moving story of Chandler’s secretary, Dorothy Fisher, whom Richard and Kim befriended in the last years of her remarkable life.
This anti-bus tour is rich in detail, passion and perspective about L.A.’s real and imagined pasts. I couldn’t recommend it more.