The Strange Similarities Between Elisa Lam and Beth Short, aka The Black Dahlia


It's been a peculiar, and a sad few days.  

On Tuesday, a missing Canadian traveler, Elisa Lam, was discovered inside the rooftop water tank of the Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. 

That hotel happens to be one of the stops on Esotouric's tour Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice, and if you go looking for information about the place, you'll be sent our way. So this week we've given a number of interviews to reporters from Canada, New York and here in Los Angeles, clarifying the history of the hotel, its changing demographics, litany of suicides, and the peculiar bit of trivia that two serial killers stayed there during their sprees.

LINKS: CNN previews Cecil Hotel death lore from our Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice tour. Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice tour creator Kim Cooper talks about the Cecil Hotel’s grim history on CBC Canada (link), on CNN (link), on NBC4 (link), on KNX (link), in The Sun (link) and in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (link).

hotel-cecil-ad for web

Debunking L.A. myths before they form is sort of a hobby of ours, so when two different reporters asked "And is it true that this is one of the last places that the Black Dahlia was seen?" we quickly set them straight. And yet…

Although Beth Short, the victim in the notorious and still-unsolved Black Dahlia murder, has no known association with the Cecil Hotel, there are a number of startling similarities between her story — the subject of our most popular crime bus tour — and Elisa Lam's.  

• Both have names derived from Elizabeth. 

• Both were women in their early 20s, traveling alone, frequenting public transportation. 

• Both of them had loose travel plans that were known only to themselves. 

• They were both petite, attractive brunettes, with personalities described as charismatic and outgoing. Both also suffered from depression.

• Each one traveled from San Diego to Downtown Los Angeles in January.

• Each was last seen in a Downtown hotel.

• Neither woman's disappearance was immediately reported. Both were missing for a number of days before being discovered, dead, in a shocking location.   

• And the deaths of both of these unfortunate young women has inspired enormous media attention and speculation.

So we wait, for answers to the newest mystery to unfold in this mystery-drenched neighborhood.

With no results from Elisa Lam's autopsy and toxicology results still weeks away, the question lingers: was she murdered, or was this just some bizarre and perhaps unexplainable accident? And if it was murder, will the similarities continue to pile up? 

For the sake of all who loved her, may the answer to this question be a resounding no. 


An Esotouric Road Trip: Tinkertown

In October, the Esotouric gang set off to enjoy four days of adventuring in northern New Mexico, in search of Mission-era adobe churches, dilapidated neon signage, hot springs, horned toads, piñon coffee, funky graveyards, folk art environments and chiles relleño. (We found everything except the horned toads, much to said lizards' relief.) This is the second of two blog posts in which we'll share some of the gems we found on our travels. Peruse our first New Mexico blog post here.


Heading back into Albuquerque after our northerly rambles, we made a small detour into the Sandia mountains to visit the Tinkertown folk art environment, and gosh, are we glad we did. It's simply one of the most delightful and captivating places we have ever visited, so of course we took lots of photos, and even a little video, so we could share the magic with YOU!

Ross J. Ward, the genius of Tinkertown, was a South Dakota kid whose imagination was kickstarted by an early visit to the still-funky Southern California roadside attraction Knott's Berry Farm. Fascinated by its small-scale recreation of the American West, he went home and built one even smaller, with fruit box storefronts inhabited by toy Indians and settlers, some store-bought, others hand-made.


Ross Ward grew up to become a fine traveling carnival sign painter and a passionate fan of the independent spirit of Route 66 hucksters who sold tourists a peek at something novel, cold drinks and that certain undefinable quality of magic that even the humblest roadside attraction boasts.


He'd never stopped tinkering with tiny people and buildings to put them in, and after setting down roots in Sandia Park, his miniature constructions spread out over what would become a sprawling roadside attraction of his own creation: Tinkertown.


In partnership with his second wife Carla, he crafted elaborate bottle walls inspired by Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village in Simi Valley, slotted restored vintage automata between his own cleverly moving creations, assembled oddball collections ranging from different varieties of barbed wire strands to a complete sailing vessel, and curated a magical maze of densely packed rooms of wonder that can keep you gasping and laughing for hours.


Visiting Tinkertown is like falling head first into into a swirling dream landscape of 19th and early 20th century America. A hillbilly band hangs out on its front porch playing tunes for an audience of vultures, moonshiners whittle while grandma chops wood, an intricately detailed and densely-packed Western town pokes fun at every cliché of the genre, while all throughout hand-painted psychedelic wall signs dispense bits of homespun philosophy–and then the circus comes to town.


Ross Ward was a carney by trade, a collector of old sideshow banners, a lover of show people and somebody who, through his work, knew intimately the myriad details that make up a traveling show. And they're all there in his delightful tabletop circus, from the cotton candy stand to the furry Monkey Girl, from dancing dogs to marching bands, aerialists, jugglers, tiger tamers, clowns, wagons, tents, swamis and snake handlers, each one packed with personality and just where they belong. The circus is at the center of Tinkertown's warren of glass-fronted exhibition halls, and a wonderful reward for making it to the heart of the place.


Sadly, Ross Ward developed Alzheimer's disease in his late 50s, and died in 2002. But unlike so many folk art environments that fall into disrepair with the passing of their creator, Carla Ward keeps Tinkertown open and humming, as a tribute to her sweetheart and to the decades of creativity they shared.


We were fortunate at the end of our tour to be able to talk with Carla about her experiences running Tinkertown and helping Ross bring his dreams to life. She even showed us through the private rooms that had been their home, still packed with Ross' surprisingly sophisticated paintings and illustrations, his reference books and drawing studio. It felt like he'd just stepped out to get a smoke, and full now with the spirit of the man and his imaginary worlds, we soon followed.

See all of Chinta Cooper's photos from our visit to Tinkertown here

And if you're ever in New Mexico, pay a visit–and tell Carla we sent you. 


Esotouric’s Los Angeles Historic Preservation “25 for 2012”

Esotouric's Los Angeles Historic Preservation 25 for 2012


As 2012 ticks down to its inevitable conclusion, we're introducing a new annual Esotouric tradition: our very opinionated list of THE TOP LOS ANGELES HISTORIC PRESERVATION STORIES OF 2012. Because preservation is never as simple as buildings being lost forever or rescued from the brink, the list is split into three sections: the GAINS, the LOSSES, and those BITTERSWEET MOMENTS that hover somewhere in the middle, and keep us up nights. We hope you find the list by turns thought-provoking, infuriating and inspiring.  



1. Redevelopment agencies, which have strayed far from their idealistic origins and financed the destruction of uncounted historic buildings and neighborhoods–not least of them downtown's Bunker Hill–are dissolved by California Governor Jerry Brown. 

2. Under new and well-capitalized ownership, Monrovia's astonishing National Register Aztec Hotel begins an ambitious and long-overdue restoration program. 

3. Despite ongoing financial woes and an 88-year-old proprietor, Bob Baker's Marionette Theater continues to put on incredible puppet shows for children of all ages. 

4. Thanks to a last minute reprieve following the discovery of millions of dollars in hidden state park funds, Governor Pio Pico's house museum in Whittier remains open to the public. 

5. The City of Beverly Hills, ground zero for Southern California's teardown-to-mega-mansion activities, finally enacts an historic preservation ordinance and begins recognizing structures that should be saved for future generations.

6. Art Deco transportation-themed mosaics are found hidden under carpeting at the Long Beach airport, and will remain on view.

7. John Feathers' world class map horde isn't just saved from the dumpster after being discovered in his Mount Washington cottage after his death, but is donated to LAPL by the civic-minded realtor who found it. 

8. USC's Digital Library has scanned more than 10,000 images from the Dick Whittington Studios photographic archives at ultra-high resolution. Nearly every one of them teaches us something new about the history of Los Angeles.

9. After Frances "The Cake Lady" Kuyper dies, her archival collection of elaborate plaster cake designs is bound for the dump. They briefly find a home in a West Valley cooking school before moving permanently to New Orleans' Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

10. West Hollywood's Plummer Park, its historic trees and buildings threatened with demolition as part of a massive and controversial redevelopment scheme, is saved when the state refuses to finance the project.



1. The Old Spaghetti Factory is hurriedly demolished, despite developer CIM's promise to incorporate the historic structure (originally a Peerless Motors dealership and later radio station KMPC) into the new project. This mysteriously undervalued property later figures prominently in the L.A. Assessor's Office scandal.

2. Despite the quick launch of a very vocal preservation movement spearheaded by independent filmmakers, several historic buildings at Pickfair Studios are quickly demolished, again by developer CIM.

3. The original 1912 Los Angeles Athletic Club men's room, perhaps the most beautiful bathroom in the city, is gutted to make space for a women's restroom.

4. Lloyd Wright's soaring modernist Moore House in Palos Verdes is demolished to make room for a mega-mansion.

5. The Venice Post Office, including its publicly-owned WPA mural of the neighborhood's history, passes into private hands–albeit with verbal promises that the building will be restored and the mural remain accessible.

6. The stately mid-century Wilshire Grand, formerly the Statler Hotel, is demolished to build an LED-coated tower.

7. San Fernando's JC Penney store, an anchor for the shopping district since 1953, is closed despite community outcry, but an attempt to steal its vintage modernist signage is thwarted by observant citizens.

8. The demolition of portions of Downey High School proceeds before the street-facing modernist mural can be removed and preserved.

9. The massive Downey Space Plant (birthplace of the Apollo capsule and Space Shuttle) is demolished to make room for a Super Walmart. This massive loss to aerospace history goes unnoticed amidst the hype surrounding the arrival of Space Shuttle Endeavour.

10. The beloved 1950s Felix the Cat neon car dealership sign, voted L.A.'s Best Neon Sign by L.A. Weekly in 2011, is partially demolished, its neon tubes replaced with LED strips. The LEDs promptly fail.



1. UCLA tries to sell off the Hannah Carter Japanese Garden, a legacy gift. The community and Mrs. Carter's family mobilize to save it, and while many antique architectural elements have been sent away to points unknown, the sale has been blocked in the courts… for now.

2. The 1960s-era metal grate covering Clifton's Cafeteria is removed, revealing the heavily damaged 1935 facade. But fifteen months after it closed, and ten months after the grate came down, the historic restaurant remains shuttered, with no signs of the promised facade and interior restoration, and no reopening date. 

3. Several of the 1970s-era wooden facades are stripped off the early 1900s brick downtown buildings in San Dimas. But with redevelopment funds in limbo, restoration work has stopped and the incongruous wooden sidewalks remain. And honestly, we kind of liked the silly "Old West" facades.

4. The ugly shop fixtures and metal grates that were cluttering up Ernest Batchelder's 1914 Dutch Chocolate Shop are removed, revealing the stunningly tiled beautiful interior that historians knew as hidden in plain sight. But the proprietor lacks funding to develop a business in the space, and in the months since this gem re-emerged there has been no restoration done, and the shop is rarely open to the public.

5. The King Eddy Saloon, the last Skid Row bar and an oasis of good fellowship in a rough part of the world, passes out of the Croik family's ownership after 50 years, and is closed pending renovation by its new owners. Restoration of the basement storeroom, a speakeasy during Prohibition and a location in John Fante's great downtown novel Ask the Dust, is planned.

An Esotouric road trip: Santa Fe and Taos

In October, the Esotouric gang set off to enjoy four days of adventuring in northern New Mexico, in search of Mission-era adobe churches, dilapidated neon signage, hot springs, horned toads, piñon coffee, funky graveyards, folk art environments and chiles relleño. (We found everything except the horned toads, much to said lizards’ relief.) This is the first of two blog posts in which we’ll share some of the gems we found on our travels. Check out our first New Mexico photo set here.

We flew into Albuquerque, rented a car and immediately hit the road, bound for the high country and one of the oldest North American towns, Santa Fe.
The magical late afternoon light on the Spanish Colonial architecture made for some stunning vistas, and the cold air was most refreshing after L.A.’s endless summer.
We stayed at La Fonda on the Plaza, which was central to everything and charming.

La Fonda on the Plaza

One of the first things we did was to find a cowboy hat for Richard.
He took it off when visiting the (desanctified) Loretto Chapel, whose supposedly gravity-defying spiral loft staircase is a favorite topic on television shows about “unexplained mysteries.”
After perusing the stair for a spell, Richard announced it not atypical of the work you’d expect to see imported in sections from France for a regional American chapel, noting that the French stained glass arrived the same year as the mysterious carpenter who supposedly erected the strange stairs, then vanished without asking for payment.


So it’s not really all that mysterious, but still a handsome building and worth the small price of admission. We particularly admired the unusual capital decorations, which seemed to be inspired by honeycomb or the mineral called Desert Rose.

Over the next few days, our dance card was positively packed with church visits, since Northern New Mexico is flush with ancient worship sites. We admired the fresh coat of straw-flecked adobe on the San Francisco de Asis Mission Church at Ranchos de Taos…
… its well-cared for flanks a striking contrast to the melting homestead just across the path.
At the otherwise captivating Taos Pueblo…
…we found the San Geronimo Chapel, while very handsome, to be an unsettling space…
…perhaps some psychic holdover of the community’s bloody struggles with Spanish Catholic colonization and American rule.

So we were glad to get back on the road, for a long ramble over winding Highway 76, bound for the Lourdes of America, the pilgrimage site Chimayó.
Passing through Las Trampas, the massive old roadside Church of San José de Gracia demanded we stop to admire its fine walls and towers.


Richard was examining the vast wooden door when he heard movement inside, knocked, and was rewarded when a group of gentlemen on a Catholic pilgrimage welcomed us inside to see the place.

Our new friends, who were preparing for an evening ritual recreating the Stations of the Cross, asked us not to take photographs inside. It was no great sacrifice, as pictures could not have captured the astonishing time capsule of this holy place, which seems not to have changed significantly since it was built circa 1770.


Happily, the Library of Congress holds a number of fine photographs of the church and town from the 1940s. This is, miraculously, the very church we saw.

The rough-hewn floor clearly showed the outlines of burial crypts, reminding us with each step deeper into the space of the faithful souls who had constructed the church in this remote mountain hamlet.
Its heavy walls were lined with powerful, primitive paintings of saints and the family of Christ, and one small altar held long, bright metal nails, clearly intended for use during the evening’s ritual. We wondered if one of the gentlemen bustling around the church intended to be crucified in emulation of his lord, a practice which has long been a part of the culture of rural New Mexico. But one doesn’t ask such impertinent questions.

At the back of the church, the brightly colored main altar was framed with an adobe arch, a theatrical touch which lent even greater power to the assemblage of religious paintings and sculpture against the wall.

On the way out, we were instructed to look up to the roof beams, where our penlight bulbs illuminated the primitive drawings of the town’s long-dead children, their contribution to the building of the church.

If you’re hungry in this neck of the woods, we recommend a stop at  Sugar Nymphs Bistro, where the nicest ladies in the world will bring you delicious gourmet treats. It’s a little bit of San Francisco bohemia in the midst of the mountains, and if you’re lucky, the kids circus camp will be in session when you visit.


At Chimayó, which was nearly deserted, the fences leading up to the shrine were hung with hundreds of crucifixes made from bits of wood or other found objects.
We made the slow passage through the nautilus shell of the shrine, past hundreds of photographs of people whose families sought prayers for their healing, up a ramp, into the church, then into a side chapel hung with crutches left behind by those that were healed, and finally into the little room containing the miraculous hole in the ground, which the priests of the place keep topped up with blessed dirt from the surrounding hills. It was from this hole, it’s said, that a statue of Christ mysteriously appeared, and to which it returned every time its discoverer sought to take it away. After the third time, the small church was built around the holy spot, and the statue hung on the altar.

It is a strange and powerful place, which on holidays is thronged with the faithful, some of whom crawl for miles in hopes of divine intercession.
There were no such faithful here today, but at the base of the hill, a handsome horse gorged on a feast of fresh apples.

Sagebrush Inn

Back in Santa Fe (we stayed at the wonderful old Sagebrush Inn) Richard built a fire.
While Chinta documented the folk art decorations of the ladies lounge off the hotel lobby.
And soon we were on the highway back toward Albuquerque, stopping along the way to admire neon signs both well-loved…


… and sorely neglected.
Thus concludes part one of our New Mexico adventures. Stay tuned for the next installment, featuring our visit to the Tinkertown folk art environment, one of the most delightful spots on earth.

Here’s a wee teaser to whet your appetite. There is much more to come!
(photos by Chinta Cooper)

Esotouric Day Trip: Exploring L.A.’s domestic architecture

On a drizzly February day, your intrepid Esotouric / 1947project gang (Kim, Richard and Nathan) set out for a road trip in our own backyard, seeking out the most beguiling and delightful examples of domestic architecture from Pasadena to Silver Lake, the Hollywood Hills to the Palisades. Below you’ll see a few of the gems which we found. Check out the full photo set here.

La Miniatura, glimpsed from a wee Arroyo, is Frank Lloyd Wright’s most convincing Mayan temple.


Clinker brick is the junk that falls to the sides of the kiln. It took the clever folk of the Art & Crafts Movement to recognize how interesting and beautiful this industrial waste product could be.


A set of windows wittily echo the staircase behind.


What other weathervane for a hillside Storybook House than a witch on her broom?


Please, CalTrans, don’t tear down the first Greene & Greene house (1897) to extend the 710 freeway.

The lesson from our day’s exploration: you don’t need to go very far off your regular path to be somewhere completely new and amazing. Go out and discover the magical things that are close to home… and bring a friend!

Remembering Clifton’s Cafeteria (1935-2011-?)

IMG_1203.jpg Gentle reader, There exist in this world those rare places where souls can linger, each one alone in their thoughts but feeling part of a lively community. Unlike so many contemporary spaces with their hard surfaces and excess of rules (read: Pershing Square), these spots are calibrated to welcome individuals. There are comfortable chairs, little corners of privacy, light for reading, reasonably priced and healthful food and drink available. In these places, lovers meet, tourists marvel, visions are nurtured and the old and lonesome can escape their rooms. Nobody will lean over you and clear their throat to suggest you've been sitting too long, and ought to be moving along in one of these magical places, for there, you are at home. This week, we say a fond farewell to one of these gems, Clifton's Cafeteria. Since 1935, Clifford Clinton's redwood-themed cafeteria has welcomed millions to its bosom in the heart of downtown. Clifton's was there when 7th & Broadway was among the busiest corners on earth, through the dark years of urban decline and into its renewal. Founded with a remarkable philosophy which fused solid business acumen with charitable works, Clifford Clinton's flagship restaurant was a lightning rod for right action that transformed this city. cliftons10Clinton fed the hungry, treated his employees like family, and led the brave campaign that brought down the corrupt Mayor Frank Shaw and the octopus of vice which inhabited the LAPD. For his efforts he was harassed, his home bombed (by a cop), his cafeterias subject to false reports of food poisoning, but he and his friends fought on, armed with a vision of a better Los Angeles in which every person was treated with dignity, and had a full belly, a safe place to sleep and real opportunities to better themselves. Mayor Shaw and his venal cronies laughed at the Cafeteria Kid, but they weren't laughing when the jail bars slammed. Last year, Clifton's was sold to a sympathetic new owner, and attempts were made to renovate the building while remaining open as a restaurant. This didn't work. So on Monday, after 76 years, Clifton's closed its doors. There are plans for a soft reopening as a bakery soon, with the full restaurant and two cocktail bars to follow in time. cliftons8We are working with the management to continue to lead tours through Clifton's, and to host our free LAVA Sunday Salon there (Sunday, closing day, marked the 19th month of this event). But today, the doors of Clifton's are closed, and the good people who felt so at home there are scattered to the winds. This edition of the newsletter goes out, with love, to all our friends from 648 South Broadway. We are thinking especially of the gracious associates, some of whom worked at Clifton's for upwards of thirty years.We're so pleased that Clifton's will live on, but it won't be the same without those friendly faces. We will leave you with Clifford Clinton's credo, which are words to live by: "We pray our humble service be measured not by gold, but by the golden rule."

Esotouric visits the Tom Waits In The Neighborhood video location

Once a year, the Los Angeles tour company Esotouric makes a very special excursion – CRAWLING DOWN CAHUENGA; TOM WAITS' L.A. In this brief clip from the 2011 tour, host David Smay shows off the unassuming Echo Park alley where legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler shot Waits' "In The Neighborhood" video, and talks about his favorite things about being an Esotouric tour guide for the day. More tour info here. Buy David Smay's "Swordfishtrombones" book here.