Esotouric takes the criminally curious on a mischievous tour of the area’s dark underbelly.
By Noela Hueso 02/01/2010
The clown was deep in conversation, his face painted a garish red with two black rings circling his eyes like a bandit’s mask. His oversized mustard jacket, plaid tie and baggy crimson pants hung limply on his bulky frame. An old brown fedora was mashed on his head. He was a sight to make anyone’s eyes sore.
I first encountered him as I headed to the corner of Arlington Street and Fair Oaks Boulevard to catch Esotouric’s semi-annual Pasadena Confidential Crime Bus Tour, which has been revealing the Crown City’s dark secrets since 2006, gleefully pinpointing locales of the weird, gruesome and sometimes just ridiculous crimes that have occurred here.
As I approached, I could hear the clown going on about how odd it was that public urination isn’t illegal in Los Angeles — but public exposure is. His voice sounded like gravel tumbling through a concrete mixer. As I passed him, I murmured, “Excuse me,” and he gave me a glance that could only be described as lascivious. Then again, maybe it was just all that black makeup. This was going to be interesting.
Crimebo, touted as the world’s only crime-sniffing clown, is the tour’s bizarre master of ceremonies, and I would soon discover that he was as full of inappropriate comments as he was off-the-wall facts, enough to keep any busload of passengers entertained for hours.
At the corner, Kim Cooper, 42, and her younger sister, Chinta, 21, were checking names off the mandatory reservation list. Cooper, a third-generation Angeleno, is the creator and mastermind behind the four-hour excursion. Today’s crowd of tourists, who had each paid $58 to be a part of the experience, was eclectic, ranging from Asian college students to WASPy retirees. Several were veterans of some of Cooper’s other offbeat Esotouric trips around Los Angeles.
Richard Schave, the afternoon’s tour guide and Cooper’s husband, ushered us onboard, where video monitors were unspooling vintage film and television clips from the 1950s and ’60s, including footage of marching bands in long-ago Tournament of Roses parades. Crimebo cracked jokes and passed out his balloon-making specialties — swords and double-barrel shotguns — as we settled in.
This clearly wasn’t your ordinary tour. Despite the morbid subject matter, the mood on the bus was light as the Esotouric team, who were joined by guide Joan Redd, wryly told their horrible tales.
And the stories of misery came fast and furious. There was wealthy H.G.C. Gordon who, in 1895, was too cheap to put his mentally unbalanced wife in an institution and instead kept her in a giant chicken coop in the middle of the living room; South Pasadena High School Principal Roland Spencer, who, faced with the prospect of dismissal in 1940, came to a staff meeting with a .22-caliber pistol and killed the school superintendent, vice principal, secretary and two others; and South Pasadena’s Virginia Judd, who, in 1946, planned to kill herself after taking out her mother and brother but instead used her last bullet on the family poodle (in the end, she stabbed herself, leaving rather a mess). Then there was the story Redd told us about Charles Fuller, who chain-smoked, stitched his own clothes and misbehaved in his Pasadena neighborhood back in 1914. “It’s not surprising,” Redd said, “considering he was a chimp. He wandered the neighborhood, wearing a top hat, ringing doorbells and freaking out the housewives who answered.”
Pasadena’s rich architectural heritage played a supporting role in the tour. As we passed a modest Victorian farmhouse on Mission Street in South Pasadena, Schave pointed out that the structure appeared in the 1977 film Halloween before being moved two blocks north in 1996 to its present location, where it has been reincarnated as a chiropractor’s office. “Now you can get your spine adjusted at the Halloween house,” Schave quipped.
After 90 minutes, the bus pulled up next to Carmelita Gardens, a small park adjacent to the Colorado Street Bridge, and we all filed out to stretch our legs. This was our opportunity to eat our sack lunches or partake of the cookies and coffee our hosts provided.
But the stop had another purpose as well. After the break, Crimebo gathered us to stage fictionalized accounts of real events, casting tourists in the starring roles. I portrayed an angel who saved a 3-year-old girl from a tumble off the bridge in 1937. (Her 22-year-old mother, whose bad idea this was, wasn’t so lucky.)
We headed across the bridge, stopping a quarter of the way to examine the decorative sides — rather inadequate barriers for someone determined to commit suicide, in Crimebo’s estimation. He climbed up and showed us how easy it would be to do the deed, reminding us that one or two people each year attempt to jump and that, to date, about 250 have been successful in finishing themselves off there.
Back on the bus, Cooper told us about a little-known incident in the history of the Tournament of Roses: how on January 1, 1926, in the middle of the parade, a packed grandstand collapsed at the corner of Madison Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, injuring 250 people and killing two. Yet onlookers just in front of the accident had no idea what had happened and could be heard cheering and applauding for the parade. I found this story to be particularly compelling because the site of the tragedy happened to be the exact spot where my family and I have watched the parade for the past 15 years.
Before long, we were heading north on Los Robles Avenue toward Altadena, getting closer and closer to my neighborhood. We were mere blocks away from my street, but just before reaching it, we turned right on Howard Street and Redd started talking about Robert F. Kennedy and his convicted assassin, Sirhan Sirhan. Four blocks away from my street, the bus stopped in front of a plain yellow house without a street number. “This is the house that belonged to Sirhan Sirhan’s mother,” Redd told us. As the bus headed south on Lake Avenue back toward downtown and the end of the tour, my mind was reeling. Who knew so much dark history took place so close to me?
The afternoon was drawing to a close, but there was still one more stop to make. We pulled up to the Scottish Rite Temple on Marengo Avenue with its pair of stone sphinxes, to hear yet another story of murder and mayhem: the discovery, in December 1933, of Pasadena dentist Leonard Siever lying on the steps of the temple, dead from multiple gunshot wounds. The murder was widely publicized at the time and would remain unsolved. The stop was also designed to be our photo op with Crimebo. At first I hung back as he climbed one of the statues and posed for the cameras. Others posed with him too. Finally, I surrendered. By this time, Crimebo was sprawled lifeless on the temple’s steps, like the unfortunate dentist we’d just heard about. I took my place alongside him, our fates sealed by the camera for generations to come.
The next Pasadena Confidential Crime Bus Tour is May 1. For reservations, visit esotouric.com