Michael Fawcett Ph.D. sits at the wheel of his bubble-top bus with a microphone strapped over his wavy hair. His blue eyes sparkle, and he smiles as locals and tourists alike climb on board for a trip back in time.
He turns over the engine and starts rolling toward the Venice of yesteryear, when the Beat Generation writers read poetry on Sundays, when evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson mysteriously disappeared into the surf and visionary Abbot Kinney carved canals out of the marshland.
A year ago, Fawcett traded in his classroom lectern for a three-ton tour bus, and he has been spinning tales about the history of Venice and Santa Monica ever since. Recently he added a tour of Los Angeles.
A UCLA graduate with a doctorate in Hispanic language and literature, Fawcett was chairman of the language department at Brentwood School until June, 1991. He had been a teacher for more than 20 years.
He loved teaching but was looking for a way to be financially independent, he said. The light bulb went on one day when he was out jogging--he would start a tour company and call it Insider Tours. In a way, he would still be able to do what he loved.
"It's that old teacher thing," he said. "I love giving people information. On the tours, we do everything but have a quiz at the end."
With a 13-seat bus for a classroom, Fawcett threads his way expertly through Venice's back streets and alleys. His voice rises and falls with excitement as he recounts how during the '50s an illustrious crowd that included Jack Kerouac and Anais Nin would gather at the Park Avenue home of beatnik guru Lawrence (Larry) Lipton every Sunday to eat sandwiches, listen to jazz and read poetry.
He tells how hotels piped in water from the ocean in the early 1900s because folks believed soaking in hot salt water was therapeutic.
He talks about how during Prohibition, hotels ran booze from ship to shore via underground tunnels. The tunnels are closed but still there.
"We have the highbrow and the lowbrow," Fawcett said. "There's something for everyone."
Fawcett said that after he hit upon the idea of starting a tour company, he beefed up his knowledge of local history and folklore with library research and interviews with area residents.
He also drew from his own experiences, having lived the bohemian life in Santa Monica and Venice for seven years in the '60s and early '70s. A transplant from the small Kansas town of Neodesha, he taught school when he could and worked toward his doctorate, all the while immersing himself in the local folklore of his exotic new home.
A typical insider tour of Venice starts near Santa Monica High School--SaMoHi in local parlance. As the trip starts, Fawcett tips his hat in a tongue-in-cheek monologue to the school's famous and infamous graduates, including John D. Ehrlichman of Watergate fame, and actors Glenn Ford, Sean Penn, Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen.
He illustrates his running monologue with thick photo albums containing pictures of historical sites to help riders envision what Venice must have been like in its early days. He also has photos of Westside luminaries past and present.
Fawcett points out that the first photo in the album is of a "sad-looking man named Abbot Kinney. . . . Sad because that year, 1904, the first pier he'd built in Ocean Park had burnt down."
He tells how Kinney, soon after joining three other men in buying large tracts that today are Venice and Ocean Park, decided to get out of the partnership. By winning a coin toss, he got to choose the tracts he wanted to keep.
"To the astonishment of his partners," Fawcett said, "he chose the swampy, sandy southern half because he already had the idea of turning it into a Venice of America.
"Everyone in this area called his plan Kinney's folly. . . . But lo and behold, July 4, 1905, Venice of America opened to great fanfare. Thousands of people came to the newly built pier and listened to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which was playing at the pier, and enjoyed swimming along the beach and the other attractions," Fawcett said.
To add to the ambience, Kinney imported gondolas and gondoliers from old Venice, Fawcett said.
"Some of the canals were covered with lily pads that had a purple flower in the spring, so you can imagine how pretty that sight was."
Even longtime residents say they are impressed by the Kansas native's grasp of the local lore.
"I've lived in Santa Monica 36 years," said Elizabeth Wilson-Hoyles. "I've bicycled down here, and I didn't know half of this was here. This is a great tour."
Fawcett's customers are a diverse lot. The locals often include curious travel agents and hotel concierges. Among the recent out-of-towners were a jaded Australian travel columnist on his 153rd trip to the United States and a happy couple from what used to be East Berlin. Horst and Helga Puhlmann were traveling abroad for the first time since the Berlin Wall was built in 1961.
Passing the corner of Pacific Avenue and Market Street, site of the old Haley Hotel, Fawcett called his guests' attention to the scrapbook photos of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, who were roommates there for awhile in 1925. Goodman was 16 and Miller was 21; they played for Ben Pollack and his Californians.
Another famous American stayed at that same hotel, Fawcett said, warming to the story. Aimee Semple McPherson, America's most famous woman evangelist, came to the Haley Hotel on May 18, 1926.
"She and her secretary went down to the beach for a swim. While Aimee went into the waters, her secretary read from the Bible. Only Aimee Semple McPherson disappeared. This was national headlines throughout America, and 5,000 of her faithful came to Venice and searched for her body. They had dragnets, deep-sea divers, and one lifeguard lost his life. One of the mourners committed suicide because Aimee Semple McPherson had apparently drowned.
"One month after her disappearance, they had a memorial service and were strewing flowers in the spot where she was last seen. Lo and behold! Who should show up two days later in Douglas, Ariz., but Aimee Semple McPherson, claiming she had been kidnaped and tortured and dragged around all of northern Mexico. When the truth came out, it looked like she had run away for a monthlong tryst with the operator of a radio station."
Venice gets the warts-and-all treatment from Fawcett. He explains that the community went into a long decline. The company founded by Kinney lost its tidelands lease from the city of Los Angeles in 1946, and with it the right to operate Venice Pier at the foot of Windward Avenue. The Red Car trolleys stopped soon thereafter. Venice was certifiably seedy through the '50s and '60s, and only started back on the road to recovery with the roller-skating craze of the early '70s.
Venice is continuing to make a comeback, gaining a reputation for its artists and architects. Fawcett said he expects the Chiat/Day/Mojo building with its binocular-shaped entrance on Main Street to become the visual symbol of Venice. Designed by architect Frank O. Gehry, the building features a three-story pair of upright binoculars with skylight eyepieces that illuminate a large conference room. The binocular sculpture was created by Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen.
Fawcett said he hopes his tours will contribute to the revitalization of Venice, and the community will become what Kinney hoped would be a cultural mecca.
"I'm trying to make Venice a destination rather than a curiosity," he said.