Santa Cruz duo starts historical walking tour company
In his fedora and three-piece vest, Ben Lilly resembles a rehearsing actor. He moves his hands animatedly, raising his voice to fight the sound of motorcycles, crashing surf and foot traffic around the Santa Cruz Wharf. His audience, a small group of locals and tourists, listens as he extols stories of a long-ago era.
The recent scene resembles a street performance, but is actually the first installment of Santa Cruz City Tours’ History Tour, a 1.5-mile jaunt from Pacific Avenue’s Memorial Square to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
The new business, which was launched by Santa Cruz transplants Scott Kaufman and Seth Heitzenrater this summer, seeks to impart Santa Cruz’s rich cultural and slightly deviant history on visitors and residents alike. City Tours will also debut three more themed tours to join its History Tour—the Beer and Bordellos Tour begins Friday, Aug. 24, and the Ghost Tour and Wine Walk will begin in the fall.
“We decided that the most important thing was to give Santa Cruz its personality back and tell people who [Santa Cruz] was again,” Kaufman says.
Although Kaufman is not a Santa Cruz native, he grew up over the hill in Santa Clara and has fond memories of visiting his sister here. Those recollections and the need for a lifestyle change played into his decision to move to Santa Cruz with his partner after spending 16 years in New York City as an actor. Kaufman now works at Soif Wine Bar in Downtown Santa Cruz, where he often plays concierge to tourists.
“I would get a lot of tourists coming in asking about things to do, and I was drawing blanks,” he says.
This spawned the idea for a tour company and led Kaufman to approach his friend Heitzenrater, who moved here from Philadelphia more than two years ago and works at both Bonny Doon Vineyard and Companion Bakeshop, about becoming his business partner.
The rest, of course, is history. Kaufman and Heitzenrater began meeting with local businesses and the Downtown Association of Santa Cruz to gain support and partnerships. The Beer and Bordellos Tour, for example, will include stops at The Red Room and 515 Kitchen & Cocktails to sample “vintage” brews, or beers crafted using traditional ingredients and styles.
“[I want] to provide a hospitable experience for people and provide a service to them as guests like they were visiting my home,” Heitzenrater says.
Participants in the History Tour’s soft opening hear about several centuries of Santa Cruz history, from its original Native American inhabitants to its red light district roots. While the latter topic will primarily be discussed in the Beer and Bordellos Tour, Lilly provides a teaser by alluding to the gambling parlors, opium dens, prostitutes and Chinese bathhouses found in the fourth and final Santa Cruz Chinatown, located by what is today the Museum of Art & History.
With the Beach Hill house that was featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho as a backdrop, Lilly recalls the Pleasure Point bird attack that inspired another Hitchcock film, The Birds. In doing so, the UC Santa Cruz student draws on his high school acting experience to change to an ominous tone that reflects the disturbing nature of the incident.
Like Lilly, many of the guides hired for Santa Cruz City Tours are college students with a background in theater—a decision Kaufman chalks up to his belief that each tour is a performance for which the guide is an actor. Lilly and other tour guides memorize a script of facts and anecdotes that Kaufman penned. To craft the script, he and Heitzenrater scoured through microfilm and historical texts in what Kaufman says was an effort to provide the most thorough and interesting experience possible.
“History is known to be dry,” Kaufman says. “We hope to make history hip again.”
The pair’s personal interest in Santa Cruz’s history is evident by their tendency to spout off historical facts even when they are not on the job.
“This is Pacific Avenue’s oldest standing building after the 1989 earthquake,” Heitzenrater says, gesturing from a table in the back garden at Lulu Carpenter’s cafe. “Lulu Carpenter made dresses for the finer society in town. My favorite thing is that she would take a pair of men’s pants and turn them into a skirt.”
He says it is stories like Lulu Carpenter’s that inspire him to pass along the history of this town to others.
“I like the idea of being able to contribute to telling those stories,” Heitzenrater adds.
Meanwhile, Kaufman hopes to not only elevate Santa Cruz’s status as a tourist destination, but also inform people, locals included, about facets of the town’s history that may have been previously unknown to them.
“If you don’t know about your town already, then you owe it to yourself to come,” Kaufman says. “Then you’ll know even more strongly that you love where you live.”
For more information, visit santacruzcitytours.com or call 429-TOUR. Photo: Sal Ingram