Kari Passi, the owner and operator of the Finland Baths in Sherman Oaks, says that his sauna and massage business is exactly what it seems.
"We aren't very trendy," he said after leading a tour of the oldest and largest public bathhouse in the San Fernando Valley. "We have no chanting, no mind expansion, no aerobics and no sex."
At 29, Passi is the latest in a line of Finnish-American masseurs to preside over the bathhouse, which sits near Moorpark Street and Fulton Avenue.
Established in 1947, the bathhouse has long been a haven for Scandinavian methods of sauna and massage, and very nearly an anomaly in an otherwise health-crazed city.
These are boom years, after all, for athletic clubs and health spas, as well as for most variations on the theme. And the massage, in all its forms, has long been popular.
But, as a well-established bulwark for traditional massage, the Finland Baths has made a point of clinging to the past. With the Burbank Spa on Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank, the bathhouse is one of only a handful of local outlets for organized, licensed Old World massages.
Specifically, this is a place where customers sit in one of two large saunas, one for men and one for women. On the hour, staff masseurs and masseuses lead well-heated individuals to one of a series of private rooms for therapeutic rubdowns licensed by the city clerk's office.
The specialty at the Finland Baths is Finnish massage, a method known for its vigor and for what Passi refers to as "deep muscle manipulation." Each massage contains long strokes and specific attention to troublesome knots of muscles. Passi, who has personally trained most of the staff, learned the process from his mother, a masseuse in Finland.
The process, he says, is far more energetic than better-known methods of massage. He describes those methods as little more than "putting oil on and wiping it off."
There are no group rates at the Finland Baths and no membership drives. Massages are delivered on a pay-when-you-leave basis to whoever walks in the door.
Inside, the bathhouse is simply furnished with the same metal lockers that were there at the start. The only decoration is a large sign that reads: "Please speak quietly." Each of the changing rooms dividing the sauna from the massage tables contains several partitioned cubicles with cots for relaxing between sauna and massage.
Except for the lack of snow in the surrounding neighborhood, in fact, the Finland Baths might well have been lifted from Passi's hometown on the eastern coast of Finland. Eight of the nine staff members are Finnish-American immigrants, including Passi's brothers, Timo, 30, and Jouni, 28.
"Maybe it helps that we all have funny accents," the owner joked recently. "People are sometimes nervous at first. But, as soon as we start talking, they relax."
For the record, however, funny accents have not always been sufficient at the bathhouse. By Passi's account, the business was slowly fading when he began working there four years ago as a masseur, while studying political science at USC. At the time, he said, the business was in the hands of its first non-Finnish owner, who had bought it from an aging Finnish couple. Rates stood at $18 an hour, and Passi said volume had dropped to about 18 visitors a week. The owner, who was rumored to be heavily in debt, was having trouble paying his staff, Passi said.
In any case, Passi bought the business in 1982. He hired a new staff, including his two brothers, and slowly began replacing and repairing the equipment.
He also raised the rates to $30 an hour. Even so, Passi says, business has been building at the bathhouse, to an average of 38 customers a week.
Customers Mostly Regulars
Today, Passi says, most of his customers are regulars who come from everywhere from local gas stations to nearby movie studios. Some have been visiting on a weekly basis for more than 20 years. One is a New York businessman who visits Los Angeles regularly.
Although that hardly qualifies as even a miniature boom, Passi is hoping that the bathhouse will continue to prosper. Although he won't say how much money he makes, he will say that his profits have helped to pay for steady interior improvements and expansions of an apartment behind the business. If all goes as planned, Passi will open a second bathhouse in 1986 in the West Valley. A third is scheduled to follow in 1987.
Passi acknowledges that he is not averse to promoting his Finnish heritage as long as it helps the business. He went so far once as to appear as a health expert on Jack LaLanne's TV show, where he prepared "a sort of official Finnish health drink" based on a recipe he has since forgotten.
In time, Passi hopes that his business might begin to escape the stigma attached to any sort of enterprise with the word "massage" in its title. Although he guesses that his staff takes as many as 30 calls a week from people looking for sex--he swears, by the way, that calls are heaviest during a full moon--there are plans to try to escape that threat with some changes to the front of the building.
"We painted the words 'Physiotherapy Studio' over the door," he said. "That isn't sexy at all. It should help our reputation."