The word “madcap,” rendered in all caps, is hidden behind a gate — the fence a holdover from the downtown location’s past life as an industrial space. Today, however, it’s a family or date-night playground, a fake motel outfitted in midcentury yellows and browns that at times looks like a real one, a relic from an era when Los Angeles wasn’t threaded with freeways.
“A lot of my investors are older people,” says Madcap Motel founder Paige Solomon. “They were like, ‘How will they know it’s not a motel?’ I said, ‘No, you’re kinda supposed to think it might be a motel.’”
You check in, maybe for an hour or two, but there’s no spending the night or R-rated activity in these rooms lined with mirrors, descending lamps, mini-fish-tank-like dioramas, or oversize furniture designed to appear as if it’s floating.
The Madcap Motel experience starts in a lobby with a flowery, elongated couch — a Rose Bowl Flea Market find that looks as if it belongs on a set of a ’70s-era television show — and is filled with photo ops and actors (beware the walking bush), plus a somewhat sinister story line about time travel, shifting dimensions and a philandering motel magnate.
“This is crazy,” texted my guest shortly after entering, and that was long before we spent 25 minutes lying on fake grass in a room outfitted with projections of vintage film and television while we envisioned our future plans, drifting into an imaginative state in which not even the exposed warehouse ceilings could distract us. “Is this what camping is like?” I asked her. “Kind of?” she said, laughing.
Pulling tricks from the immersive theater of “Sleep No More,” the all-encompassing digital scenery of TeamLab and just a hint of the otherworldly art of Meow Wolf, Madcap Motel’s long-term ambitions, if it’s able to survive a post-pandemic world, are something of an indoor theme park and a walk-in video game.
And yet it possesses a handcrafted, do-it-yourself feel that’s laced with an old-fashioned charm, one that’s more akin to a roadside attraction on Route 66, parts of which ran not too far from the Madcap Motel’s Arts District locale, than it is our era of disposable Instagram museums or large-scale physical worlds.
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The spot opened at the end of April after the pandemic forced its March 2020 grand opening gala to be called off on the day of, and it survives as a symbol of the sort of pre-pandemic entertainment that was increasingly all the rage before nationwide calls to shut down and stay in. That is, it’s an all-indoor space dedicated solely to friends and families crowding together for silly photo-ops and interactions with actors, a type of play that has gradually morphed over the decades from arcades to escape rooms to now themed spaces that encourage live-action role-playing.
And like Meow Wolf, which in Santa Fe, N.M., uses a suburban house as an entry point and in Las Vegas focuses on a twisted supermarket, Madcap Motel takes a relatively familiar setting and wants guests to see it in a new way, to blur the lines between what’s real and what’s fake, and to wonder if play can be extended beyond screens and boards into daily life.
Thank whoever you need to thank that you’re alive today. Just get out and play. Be weird. Do a handstand when you’re at home by yourself.
Paige Solomon, chief executive of Madcap Motel
Along our journey in the Madcap Motel we’ll see some magic tricks, may be asked to sing, encounter characters who ask us to look for a missing sock — all of it mostly designed to get us to break down internal barriers that we carry with us throughout the day.
Solomon isn’t terribly worried about guests readjusting to indoor activities in a world recovering from a pandemic. Although she has an avalanche of bills that she won’t be able to put off too much longer, the last year of isolated life has her thinking grander, of foreseeing a world where we want more reality-breaking experiences. While the Madcap Motel is a walk-through experience with actors as guides who will usher those who linger in a space too long, Solomon, two days before the show opened in late April, was already envisioning its second life.
“One day, is this a real motel, where the rooms are super-designed rooms like the Madonna Inn?” asks the 30-year-old business leader, referencing one of San Luis Obispo’s best known institutions. “You can get the jungle room, and your a la carte room service is an aerial artist who comes in doing backflips.
“The extraordinary in the ordinary resonates with a lot of people,” Solomon says. “Yeah, that’s just a door, but what’s behind that? There’s beauty in the mundane, and we become numb to it. As adults, we don’t play. Before 7, you’re in a state of imagination throughout your day. After 7, you’re never in imaginative state the rest of your life.”
A gala interrupted
Perhaps that isn’t all bad. The ability to pretend is powerful, but it can also be dangerous when the dream fails to mesh with reality.
And on March 11, 2020, Solomon was not interested in the slightest in what real life was trying to tell her. On that day, the NBA canceled its season and the news out of the state was making it clear that all large public spaces would likely be shuttering momentarily.
The Madcap Motel, however, hosted an event for friends and family. In about 24 hours, Solomon’s nearly two-years-in-development project was slated to have its grand opening for press and VIPs, and as far as she was concerned, nothing anyone said was going to change her mind. She even took personal offense that some family opted not to fly across the country to see her creation.
“I have an aunt and uncle, and the uncle is a venture capitalist and is very plugged into the news,” says the Miami native, who would soon compare her trips to the local grocery store to that of a hurricane arriving.
“And they said they weren’t coming. I remember being like, ‘I’ve worked on this project for more than a year and a half and you’re not coming?’ I couldn’t. I was like, they’re being scared. I knew COVID existed, but I thought people were being weirdly cautious. I went home on the 11th on cloud nine, and I woke up on the 12th and it was just a really gloomy day here. I remember walking into the Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake and it was a disaster movie. People were stealing carts. I was nervous. I walked out.”
But she continued to plan the opening gala.
“I like to think of myself as a nice person and a pretty good boss, but I was dismissive,” Solomon says. ‘I was like, ‘I don’t care what needs to happen. I’m not calling investors. We’re opening. Limit the guest count. I don’t care.’ But the vibe of everyone was just off and gloomy, and then the reports started coming in from [Gov.] Gavin Newsom. I finally called the PR team and I was like, ‘OK, I guess this is how the cookie crumbles.’”
The entire themed-entertainment industry, which in Southern California has only recently started to spring back to life, was decimated with mass layoffs and delayed projects. Last March, Solomon cut 100 part-time employees.
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And while Solomon is hopeful to be staging a Halloween-themed event at the Madcap Motel come fall, she knows she’s not Disneyland or Meow Wolf, and the last 13 months will eventually catch up to her if her space doesn’t draw a word-of-mouth audience. Before the pandemic started, she was already behind and over budget, struggling to manage last-minute requests from the city such as upgrading water line structures.
“I basically just held my vest as close to chest as possible,” Solomon says. “I didn’t respond to anyone who came looking for money. ... There’s so many moving pieces that at this point I’m just focused on getting open and making it the best it can be, because those conversations don’t matter in 60 or 90 days if we don’t have enough people who are interested for me to have those financial conversations.”
If there’s a reason for confidence, it’s that historically in America we’ve turned to fantastical universes to emerge from difficult times: the rise of cinema during and after the Great Depression, the postwar, inward-looking nostalgia that fueled the birth of Disneyland or even the economic downturn of 2007-08 that spurred the anything-goes, trash-is-beautiful mindset that would ignite the make-the-best-of-what-you-have maximalist art of Santa Fe’s Meow Wolf.
“Life is serious,” Solomon says. “COVID is serious. COVID put everything in perspective of what actually matters. The mean email you got from your boss on a Friday night? That doesn’t matter. Shake it off and thank whoever you need to thank that you’re alive today. Just get out and play. Be weird. Do a handstand when you’re at home by yourself.”
A place to play
Trying to get guests to be weird will be a goal of the Madcap Motel, where you may be asked to sing in tune to return to the real world or could be invited to fish in an indoor water pool. If all goes according to plan — Solomon expects to be in the Arts District at least two years — the show, officially billed as “Elsewhere at the Madcap Motel,” will continue to morph as visitors begin to peel away at its story.
“Elsewhere is just a place you go and discover,” Solomon says. “It’s somewhere else.”
Solomon, who dropped out as an undergrad at San Francisco State to return to Florida to flip vintage furniture, eventually crawled into the world of experiential marketing, having before the Madcap Motel led a successful photo-focused immersive exhibit in Brooklyn, N.Y., called the Dream Machine. She didn’t want her next project to be slammed as an “Instagram museum,” and she routinely dismisses the Dream Machine as “an Instagram trap.”
Although there are plenty of outlandish photo ops in Madcap Motel — a life-size coral reef, an intergalactic laundromat, cars seemingly caught in a wall — it’s clear early on that this is a spot where guests are supposed to interact with each other and with a cast. In the first proper showroom of the motel, which is thematically caught in the 1960s, an actor dressed as a maid comes shuffling out of a fireplace even before guests can settle in.
We’re directed around a room and told a story of messages sent from other years. And thus begins a sci-fi tale of portals to other eras and postcards — and perhaps more — that can travel across decades.
Solomon cites Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe as an influence but wanted the Madcap Motel to possess a more linear narrative as opposed to Meow Wolf’s abstract, experimental approach. And yet she stops short of calling the space a work of immersive theater, knowing many an attendee will balk at the idea of improvising with an actor, here residents trapped on an eternal vacation, or housecleaning staff destined to dust and disinfect forever, the latter a not-so-unwelcome pandemic-era detail.
“I’m not immersive theater, but I love elements of it,” she says. “I love in the immersive theater sense of it that there’s storytelling and a flow, and you can feel like you’ve been sucked into a movie set, where you don’t know what’s happening but people are coming at you. I wanted something lively about the space, so I added a bunch of really talented L.A. immersive actors.”
The main goal, she says, is simply to get guests wandering the space, wondering aloud what’s behind each hotel door. Sometimes it’s a trick. Sometimes it’s something akin to a submarine. It’s about entering a state of play and getting guests to ask, “What’s behind Door No. 305?” and then getting lost in back hallways.
“Don’t come to Madcap to critique it as the best piece of art or theater you’ve ever seen,” Solomon says. “Come to Madcap to play, to get out of your head.”
I took Solomon’s advice and at end of my night at the Madcap Motel, as my guest and I walked back to her car, she slowed down and looked at all the closed doors on this downtown Los Angeles street. “I want to go open every single one of them,” she said. “I’m just imagining each one as this place that’s filled with some amazing fantasy.”
Who says they can’t be?