After the Working Wildlife tour, I hustled back to town for a second Atlas Obscura event! Erin and Sandi were there also, but Siegfried was the official Field Agent for “Enter the Funhouse”. It was his first event in an official capacity for Atlas Obscura!
Its beginnings were quite humble. Alexa had just moved to Los Angeles and moved into the space, which was very plan. White walls, bare wood floors, etc. Chris was head-over-heels for her and would come hang out under the guise of doing some home repairs. After a while, they ran out of actual things that needed fixing and starting making up things to do. First, they added “the periscope” — a system of mirrors on hinges — so that from the bedroom, Alexa could see out of every window at the same time. This also meant they can always have eye contact while talking from different parts of the house.
They also maximized the space by ripping out all storage. As Chris put it, “Why store more things when you can store more people?” Every nook and cranny in the apartment holds at least one surprise for visitors. The pantry was converted into a breakfast nook that double as the world’s tiniest disco!
My own photo from inside the disco is very limited, but it’s an amazing space. You can close the curtains and there’s light-reactive posters, a laser show, even a fog machine.
One of their closets is the “Nelson Mandela Memorial,” a trippy black light “jellyfish room” viewed through lenticular glasses.
The effect is much better in stereoscope, by the way.
Another closet, still in progress, is a rocket ship karaōke lounge.
They even turned the bathroom medicine cabinet into a tiny gift shop!
And on top of all that, there are rainbows everywhere, both painted and prismatic. Here’s the entrance from inside and out.
I think Siegfried first described the Funhouse to us as a “magical place of rainbows and whimsy”, but that does not say enough. Alexa and Chris are clearly two of the fun, energetic, positive people I have ever met. You cannot be around them and talk to them and not smile. Beyond their amazing vibe, though, I really have to admire their commitment to the Funhouse. How many of us are willing to empty out our closets to make extra party rooms?
If you ever get a chance to see the Funhouse either on a tour or at one of their Shabbat dinners, you have to do it!
First, we chatted with Chris and Bobi as they worked in the wolf enclosure by the gate.
These guys have been on Game of Thrones, True Blood, Teen Wolf, Zoo, Bourne Legacy, and more!
When Field Agents Sandi and Erin arrived and signed us in and collected our waivers, the real tour started. Our guide, Jeff Lee, started us off with a bit of history about Working Wildlife.
Steve Martin, the animal trainer (not to be confused with the comedian/actor), has worked in the movie industry since he was 17 years old. Steve was a natural with big cats, intuitively reading their body language. He quickly became “the guy” to call when big cats were on set. He worked with Tippi Hedren as she adopted a lion and set up the Shambala Preserve. He championed positive reinforcement training methods. Jeff recalled that when Steve was starting out, animals would be put down on the spot if they misbehaved. The Prague zookeepers on set for Zookeeper were so impressed by his rapport with the lion star that they promised Steve the lion’s next offspring.
Jeff is Steve’s nephew and handles more of the day-to-day operations now. He told us some great stories about learning to be an animal trainer, including his “hazing” as an alligator wrangler. On his first day, Jeff and seven other guys had to dive into a pool at the same time to grab a seven-foot, 800-pound alligator and get it ready for transport. The other guys all held back so Jeff was the only one in the water. Then he pulled out this guy.
… who promptly peed on his arm. Jeff said Working Wildlife got this alligator from the police department, who took it during a raid and looked for someone with the proper permits to take care of him. He has already doubled in size in the few months that Jeff’s been working with him because the previous owner only fed him goldfish, which was not nearly enough calories.
Appearing next was “Red Lady.” Not because he planned to bring her out, but because she was screaming bloody murder and setting off the other animals. Jeff joked it was like the most annoying sound in the world.
Jeff explained that macaws mate for life, but Red Lady’s mate, Blue Boy, was killed when a large dust devil/small tornado picked up a tree and dropped it onto their enclosure. As her next strongest bond, Jeff is now her “mate” and she is like Overly Attached Girlfriend meme. Apparently macaws have incredibly long lifespans and she acted in Swiss Family Robinson!
The third critter we met was a coendous, or prehensile-tailed porcupine named “Boris.” Jeff had originally thought it was a girl and named her “Bora,” but one day he mounted Jeff and made it quite clear he was male.
He was super friendly after a couple of peanut butter pretzels and everyone got to pet him. “One direction only,” Jeff warned us. Then he told us to smell our hands. Apparently these guys give off a strong scent (even stronger at night, so we got off easy) to warn away predators.
Next up was “Tara,” a monkey star from Babe 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean.
She was a perfect example of the Working Wildlife training philosophy. When Jeff brought her out, she was a bit nervous and started running back to her enclosure to be with her capuchin friends. Jeff chased after her and grabbed her leash. Tara turned and bit him on the forearm, but he did not hit or even yell. He just let her bite a few times until she calmed down and realized that nothing bad was going to happen to her. When Jeff brought her back to the group, she was much nicer and even let us groom her.
The final Working Wildlife actor Jeff brought out was “Ninja” the binturong, or bear cat.
Hard to see its form in that picture, but that is the best one I got. Ninja was very attached to Jeff. You can find better shots elsewhere. Jeff talked a bit as we pet Ninja about how bear cats form extremely strong bonds, so they are not common in zoos because trainers come and go. When Ninja’s litter was born, Jeff was invited to visit, and she picked him. For the next three months, they lived together in the same room and slept on the same bed. (Jeff says she sleeps on her back with a pillow… she thinks she’s people!)
That wrapped up the portion with animals that could be brought out of their enclosures. Next we walked into their biggest structure, “the barn.” Normally, this is where the first bit of the tour would have taken place, but “Major,” their older male lion and biggest star, just had surgery to fix a herniated disc and was recuperating there, since it is the easiest place to keep him cool and calm. Major, by the way, plays MGM’s mascot Leo!
This is also where Working Wildlife’s green screen is, and they will bring animals here to film stock footage for CGI inserts.
Then we walked around to the other animals in their enclosures. By the front gate were a fox and a racoon. Foxes, I learned, smell like skunks. Not sure if his dip in the water trough made it better or worse. The racoon was spread like a rug on top of his igloo-shaped house and either growling or wheezing at us.
We stopped by Amos the brown bear and Tag the Kodiak grizzly. We learned that when animals growl on film, they are actually just “smiling” for the trainer, and the sound effect gets added later. Also, Tag is trained to act tranquilized since they do not actually want to drug him up on set.
Next was Massai, Major’s understudy. He would try to cuddle up with some of us on one side of the enclosure and then dash as if to pounce on the lone photographer on the other side.
Oh, and we learned that if you neuter a lion, its mane falls off.
Then it was time for Kenya and Shiva, the lionesses.
Near the end of the line was Spirit and Storm, the mountain lions. Spirit came over to say “hi,” but Storm was not having any of our shit in the heat.
At the far end of the complex was the chimpanzee enclosure, where we met Suzy, Billy, and Eli. We were not allowed to take any pictures because organizations like PETA had been giving Working Wildlife a lot of grief. We learned that the family were soon to be shipped to a preserve in Florida to be with other chimps. With the current legal landscape on great ape personhood, they will probably be the last chimps in show business.
As we circled back, we saw the fully-grown gator, “Stripes” the zebra, a couple of coyotes, and some more foxes. Oh, and there were three bears boarding at the complex that actually belong to another trainer who is having a new enclosure built for them.
Stripes did something funny to my camera and there area extra stripes in the fence but the actual zebra looks like it has a brownish torso. I am going to blame it on a perfect storm of zoom, stripes and heat.
Lastly, we met “Cat” the housecat. She wandered into the complex one day and lives between the cages, using her bigger cousins as protection from the local predators.
As the tour wrapped up, we found out that Working Wildlife will be drastically changing in the future. As Steve Martin is getting older and no one else is as qualified to handle big cats, they will not be taking any more on. Jeff said they are eventually going to move to Oregon and completely shift from filming to education and outreach.
On Saturday, I went on a tour of the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey. Atlas Obscura’s Ben Harmon was the organizer and our host was the Center’s Ben Dickow. The first part was a presentation about the history of the Center and the second part was checking out the various exhibits. Just inside the entrance is a beautiful photomosaic of the Columbia’s crew.
My only previous exposure to the SoCal aviation scene was The Rocketeer, so I was simply astonished by all that happened here. As soon as the Wright Brothers showed it could be done, many aviation start-ups appeared in SoCal, where space was plentiful. The area between Santa Monica (later pushed up to Simi Valley), Long Beach, and Palmdale was a “Golden Triangle” of aviation, with countless companies designing and building their aircraft along the coast and then doing final assembly and testing in the desert.
Specifically at the site of the museum in Downey, it started humbly with local entrepreneur E. M. Smith and his company, EMSCO. It folded because of the Depression, but the space was next taken by Bert Kinner’s Security National Aircraft Corporation, which built two planes for Amelia Earhart and pioneered folded-wing aircraft, which revolutionized naval aviation.
Next at the site was Aviation Manufacturing Corporation’s Vultee Aircraft Division at the suggestion of Gerard “Jerry” Vultee, who once worked for EMSCO as their chief design engineer. Vultee’s BT-13Valiant was the chief training aircraft for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Rosie the Riveter worked at the Downey site assembling these planes!
Vultee was spun off and then had a merger/buy-out by North American Aviation, which made the B‑25 Mitchell famously used in the Doolittle Raid.
After the end of World War II, orders for planes dropped sharply, so North American pivoted to rocket technology. The SM-64Navaho was essentially a modified V‑2, but refinement led to the AGM-28 Hound Dog, America’s main nuclear deterrent for many years.
When President Kennedy announced that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, no one was sure how that would happen. But because of North American’s experience with rocket technology, they won the contract to do it. Around this time, the Downey site was officially bought out by NASA and then leased to North American as a contractor on the mission.
Ben Dickow invited Jerry Blackburn in as a guest speaker, who actually worked on site at the time. He told us it was a crazy and magical time for them, because the project was answering questions no one had thought to ask before. Ben Dickow called it the “ultimate makerspace.” The Rocketdyne division of North American built a small nuclear reactor on the Downey site to power the facility, and built the larger commercial nuclear power plant at Santa Susanna when they were spun off into their own facility in Simi Valley. Jerry also told us about building giant centrifuges just because someone thought it would be a good idea to test the effect of G‑forces on materials, making a 250-foot-high crane over a pool to perform splash down tests, and shooting fuel tanks with pellet guns to test resistance to space debris.
All of this experimentation came to bear fruit in form of the Little Joe rocket that carried Mercury and Gemini capsules into space. This in turn led to North American getting the contract to design and build the Apollo command modules along with the second-stage Saturn rockets that would carry them. (When they won that contract, Jerry said the director told a manager to fill his pick-up with ice and champagne and head to the local bar. The whole town was invited to a party that went on for three days!)
The Downey site became Engineering Control for the Apollo program. This was where the failed Apollo I command module was returned for study and refinement after the disaster in Florida. The famous scene in Apollo 13 where engineers need to find a way to fix life support for the astronauts? That was on a conference table in Downey!
After the Apollo Program wound down, North American Rockwell, as it was known at this point, was not sure what to do with itself. They actually stopped so suddenly that they had leftover Saturn rockets that ended up converted to Skylab. So they built a to-scale engineering mock-up of the space shuttle (still in storage on-site) and sold NASA on it. The original orbiter design was a glider designed to be launched from the back of a modified Boeing 747, and while Boeing did eventually acquire Rockwell, the design was changed to be launched with the help of booster rockets. The engine on the orbiter, itself, though, can still trace its roots back to the Navajo.
As the space shuttle program was winding down, Boeing shut down the Downey site, and much of it has been redeveloped. All that remains is the Columbia Memorial Space Center and the disused former main building, which is in need of seismic retrofit.
The museum is in fact a memorial for both the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles.
Ben Dickow told us about how his vision was to be a museum of the 21st Century. He wants the Columbia Memorial Space Center to be very interactive and very distributed. They want to keep the museum’s physical footprint small but do as much outreach as possible, bringing presentations and exhibits to guests in order to inspire STEM study and indirect science learning.
That said, they do have some very cool stuff there. Downstairs, there is are exhibits on propulsion and aerodynamics (air pump rockets, a controllable model plane in a wind tunnel, and a small drop test with parachute capsules). Upstairs there is a real space suit you can take pictures inside and computer simulations of landing or docking a space shuttle.
There two stand-out gems, though. First is the robotics lab, where we got to play with LEGO MindStorm Mars rovers.
I got it on my third try. Not bad for someone who was going to do this sort of thing for a career! I’m told the summer robotics camps go into much more detail and challenge, but this was a nice sample. It was my first time playing with a MindStorms kit, and the first time I have done visual programming. Instead of typing out instructions, the MindStorms interface is a bunch of blocks that you drag into place and they get executed along a “track.” I saw the ability to expand the track with loops and conditional statements, but did not need to use those features to accomplish my “mission.” The programming ends up looking like a flow chart, much more intuitive than lines of text code. The lab is open to the public if you want to come in and try your hand!
The second is the Challenger Learning Center. This is an advanced simulator for teams of 12 – 40 split across two rooms, Mission Control and Space Team. At the front of Mission Control is a bank of monitors showing the Space Team. Every member of Mission Control is assigned to a different aspect of the mission, and gets two screens of stats and a mission binder, just like at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Space Team goes next door after putting on “space suits” and going through an “airlock.” There, each member is assigned to a different station where they are responsible for either performing experiments in space, keeping an on essential systems, or flying the shuttle. As the simulation goes on, “emergencies” pop up and both sides of the team must work to solve them.
Oh, and not to bury the lead or anything, but Ben told us that they are doing an “alien invasion” re-vamp for Halloween, which will have an “escape room” type of scenario! I would absolutely love to try this, who’s with me?
The sign has their “Speedee” character from before Ronald McDonald. The store itself is walk-up only. The seating area contains a museum with some history about the McDonald brothers and Ray Kroc. I was disappointed to find that the store only has the standard current McDonald’s menu, no unique stuff like old DQ’s.