Enter the Funhouse

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!

The Fun­house is actu­al­ly the apart­ment of Alexa and Chris, our fan­tas­tic hosts.

Alexa and Chris, Funhouse hosts

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!

Breakfast nook

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.

Nelson Mandela Memorial

Jellyfish room

The effect is much bet­ter in stere­o­scope, by the way.

Anoth­er clos­et, still in progress, is a rock­et ship karaōke lounge.

Space lounge

They even turned the bath­room med­i­cine cab­i­net into a tiny gift shop!

Gift shop

Gift shop (adult section)

And on top of all that, there are rain­bows every­where, both paint­ed and pris­mat­ic. Here’s the entrance from inside and out.

Rainbow stairs

Top of stairs

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!

Hollywood’s Wildest Stars

Last Sun­day, I trekked out to Fra­zier Park to vis­it Steve Mar­t­in’s Work­ing Wildlife with Atlas Obscu­ra. The dri­ve itself was an adven­ture. The last leg was on a dirt road, and it was the far­thest I have tak­en the RX‑8 off-road.


First, we chat­ted with Chris and Bobi as they worked in the wolf enclo­sure by the gate.

Bobi and Wolves

Chris and Shadow

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.

Scarlet Macaw

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.

Red Lady

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!

Prehensile-Tailed Porcupine

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.

Prehensile-Tailed Porcupine

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.

White-Headed Capuchin

Next up was “Tara,” a mon­key star from Babe 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Capuchin intro

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.

Capuchin grooming

Bear Cat

The final Work­ing Wildlife actor Jeff brought out was “Nin­ja” the bin­tur­ong, or bear cat.

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!

Major - Working Wildlife's Biggest Star

This is also where Work­ing Wildlife’s green screen is, and they will bring ani­mals here to film stock footage for CGI inserts.

Green Screen


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.

Mountain Lion

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.

Big Gator


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.

Cradle of the Cosmic Age

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.

Columbia Mosaic


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-13 Valiant 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-64 Nava­ho 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!

Space Shuttle

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.

Downey site


The muse­um is in fact a memo­r­i­al for both the Chal­lenger and Colum­bia space shuttles.

Challenger and Columbia dual memorials

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?


Since I was in the area, I went down the street to the old­est run­ning McDon­ald’s in the world.

Oldest McDonalds

Oldest McDonalds sign

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.