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Scents and a Business Sensibility

Entrepreneur carves a niche concocting 'smell effects' for theme parks and other attractions

July 08, 2002|ELIZABETH KAYE McCALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lorane Wasserman never knows what the workday will bring; she just follows her nose. This day she is asked to deliver the smell of an exploding volcano, the scent of a tropical rain forest and the acrid aftermath of a forest fire. Not a problem for the woman who recently re-created the musky odor of a 20,000-year-old woolly mammoth for the Museum of Science in Boston.

How does she know she captured the essence of a creature long extinct? "When we had it, I knew," recalls Wasserman, 51, who launched her Torrance-based scent company, Escential Resources, in 1998.

Seems she did, indeed, get it right. Samples of the fabricated scent earned a nod from scientists excavating the remains of Siberia's Jarkov mammoth (They called it 99% accurate.) Now on a five-year tour, the traveling "Prehistoric Worlds--Backyard Discoveries" exhibit offers Wasserman's not-to-be-forgotten whiff of prehistoric mammoth with the push of a red button.

A project undertaken last year for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., requiring the smells of fresh-cut grass, a campfire and even buttered popcorn, brought its own challenges. Did the grass smell like it was just mowed? Was the popcorn buttery enough?

The company's biggest job to date, for the "Soarin' Over California" ride at Disney's California Adventure theme park, added a whole new dimension to the heightened sensory input already induced by the Imax theater setting. The flight not only simulates hang gliding as riders "soar" over California landmarks, it is also punctuated by bursts of scent as the journey proceeds over fragrant pine forests and the briny ocean.

Sold by the pound, the scent beads (each about the size of a peppercorn) vary in price depending on the cost of the fragrances used to get just the right smell. And each job varies in the amount of beads needed, depending on the space the scent must fill and how often it is used.

The Disney job required 300 pounds of beads for each fragrance, and given the size and daylong use of the scents, the park has had to reorder several times already. In contrast, a small job might require about 40 or 50 pounds, maybe up to 100, Wasserman says. The scents are released by shooting air through the beads, so if use is constant they wear out much more quickly than if the air blasts are more intermittent.

"This is a lot of fun," says Wasserman, a native New Yorker and onetime history teacher. She recognized the opportunity to develop a niche market--"smell effects"--for the theme and entertainment industries while working at a fragrance house.

Today, perfumers from several East Coast fragrance companies collaborate with Wasserman to develop custom scents needed for a slew of projects, concocting everything from the aromas of stew, French fries and musty haunted houses to a "red swamp."

Just off Crenshaw Boulevard in a quiet industrial park, her company already has carved out business with theme and amusement parks, museums, science centers, national parks, historic sites and interactive exhibits. "We did George Custer's house at Ft. Abraham Lincoln National Park in Mandan, N.D. They wanted his kitchen to smell 'kitcheny,' so we did baked bread," Wasserman says.

"I used to call it scents," she says of her smell effects. "I even said fragrances ... but you're not trying to make a person smell better; you're trying to enhance an exhibit, give it that last bit of dimension it needs."

Showing a visitor around, Wasserman leads the way into "the room"--an orderly warehouse where her library of scents resides.

"What's this?" she asks as she waves a familiar scent under her guest's nose. Hmmm, can't place it. "Red Hots!" Wasserman exclaims.

Shelves here are filled with small bottles of what look like translucent bath beads. Wasserman and her team are experimenting with adding colors, so a few bottles labeled "cotton candy," "forest" and "ocean" show off vibrant pinks, greens and blues. Luckily, "skunk" remains untouched, tucked in its bottle and two double-sealed bags.

Among the more challenging assignments (woolly mammoth aside) was an order for a red swamp from Draper Museum of Natural History in Cody, Wyo. Typically, "a customer will put in a request and we will take it from there," says Wasserman.

The evolution of red swamp was more complex. After delving into research on swamps and developing multiple odor samples, a surprising comment from the client made her realize she was way off track. The client had envisioned a smell more akin to watermelon.

"So we sent watermelon-scented beads and we labeled it 'red swamp,' and that's what they were looking for." Someone else wanted asphalt. After the red swamp request, though, Wasserman began asking more questions up front. So when she asked the client his thoughts about asphalt? "He said licorice. Licorice reminded him of asphalt!"

She's had requests for "dirty diapers," "smelly sneakers" and the more abstract "Hawaiian breeze." Why would anyone want to fabricate the aroma of a baby's diaper?

Not all companies spell out the details of their projects; Wasserman just goes with it. "Sometimes we don't really know what the smells [we create] will be used for."

So where is there left to go after unleashing the scent of a woolly mammoth on an unsuspecting public? Wasserman is developing a compact diffusing machine called the Escentialator.

As small as a travel-size blow-dryer, it will have the capacity to dispense smell effects through spaces as large as a small warehouse. Also in her sights: resorts and movie theaters. "Movies are becoming so real. What's left is scent--smell effects."

But Wasserman realizes life is not just about work. A daily exercise buff, she has lately been enjoying the scent of the sea, thanks to a new hobby, ocean kayaking. "Life without smell, it just wouldn't be the same," she reflects. "Imagine walking into a great Italian restaurant if you couldn't smell it."

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