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Next Stop: Offbeat L.A. Tours

Excursions * One company's quirky jaunts give visitors an opportunity to explore the city's sights, scents and, most of all, its spirit.

August 17, 2000|DENNIS ARP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Had enough of the speechmaking, spin-doctoring, fund-raising and coalition-building? Perhaps what you need right about now is a view of Los Angeles that flies in the face of convention.

Meet tour director Marlene Gordon, an Angeleno who can cut through the heat and the haze, stride past the protesters and the cops in riot gear to unearth an L.A. the rest of us might never have considered.

Take, for instance, the tour she calls "L.A. Has Its Ups and Downs," which celebrates the best escalator and elevator rides of the city. Or try her "Scentimental Journey: The Whiffs and Sniffs of L.A.," which often includes visits to a rose garden, a citrus market, a bakery that supplies downtown hotels and a Beverly Hills shop that roasts coffee all day long (destinations subject to change; your smells may vary).

Gordon's Next Stage tours also offers more standard selections, such as "Icons of L.A.," which stops at City Hall, the Griffith Park Observatory, Olvera Street and the Hollywood Bowl, among other places. But, she says, the offbeat tours are closest to her heart. "I really like sharing the nooks and crannies of the city," she said. "It's like cooking with spices instead of just with salt and pepper."

Gordon, 61, first started leading tours in 1978, when she quit her job as a legal secretary and turned avocation into livelihood. She and a friend used to explore the city separately on their lunch hours and after work and then would meet on weekends to show off what they'd found.

That spirit of urban adventure actually dates to Gordon's childhood, when on Sundays she and her mom would board a bus near her L.A. home without knowing their destination. "Mom would let me pick the stop," said Gordon, who now lives in Pasadena. "We'd get off and go exploring."

Gordon built her business by making contacts and researching local history. She worked as a docent at Olvera Street and became friendly with the superintendent at Union Station. She spent a lot of time in the California room at the L.A. Public Library downtown. She met people who worked at the produce market and would let her groups in after closing.

"She's such a warm person that she makes friends easily," said Anne Megowan, a veteran of many Next Stage tours. "By the end of a tour, everyone's a friend."

Slowly, over the years, the quirky tours emerged. Like her 1984 Olympic tour, which she organized on a whim but which attracted 40 people willing to pay $10 each. Participants wore red, white and blue and met at an Olympic Boulevard bus bench draped with Old Glory.

One client circled the bench holding a lighter aloft as if it were an Olympic torch until the public bus arrived. Then the group boarded and Gordon passed out kazoos to all the riders, including those who were just going home from work. Everyone played patriotic songs all the way to downtown.

Six years ago, Gordon cut way back on her tours to care for her ailing mother, who died Dec. 31. Now she's gearing back up, offering tours of the city and beyond.

On Monday, she offered a glimpse of her latest "Ups and Downs" tour, which includes a five-story ride on an ornamental wrought-iron elevator in the 1893 Bradbury Building and a trip up the escalator that fronts a giant mural celebrating L.A.'s ethnic diversity at Union Station.

The tour starts in the Pershing Square subway station, where a long, steep escalator ride takes you from underground into the summer sunlight. As your eyes adjust, a view of glassy skyscrapers slowly emerges. Because of the underground perspective, you see the building tops first and don't see the bottoms until the ride is completed.

"Do you see how each building reflects its neighbor?" Gordon said softly, beaming over an experience she has had umpteen times before. Another updated Gordon favorite is her "Famous Insomniacs Tour of L.A.," which begins at 3 a.m. and visits the bustling flower and produce markets, Union Station at its most empty, and concludes with a view of the rising sun from atop a skyscraper.

One morning, just after Gordon and her clients had witnessed such a sunrise, they all got a show of a different kind. They watched a man jog down Olive Street wearing nothing but a towel around his neck. "Everyone thought I'd set it up as part of the tour," Gordon said.

Just another story of the naked city, as told by Gordon, whose take on L.A., she admits, is not only rose-colored but floral-scented. "This is a great city to sample different sights and fragrances and textures," she said. "I love it when I can show people something they'd never seen before. That's when I know it's been a good tour."

Next Stage city tours cost $15 to $50, depending on the length, activities and number of participants. For more information, call (626) 577-7880.

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