Bondo Wyszpolski

Can you escape the mortuary basement?

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Sara Myers, the Volunteer Center’s President and CEO, in front of what was the old Stone and Myers Mortuary in Old Torrance. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Let’s See You Get Out of This!

The “Mortuary Mystery” is an escape room fundraiser

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Apart from the time when you were five or six years old and your older sibling locked you in the closet, have you ever been confined to a room with only your wits to get you out alive?

If not, maybe it’s time to practice. The Volunteer Center, located in Old Torrance, is presenting “South Bay Escape Room: Mortuary Mystery” through Oct. 29.

The history of the building is a little unsettling, so let’s go back nearly a century, shall we?

In 1921, O.W. Stone and Charles Myers opened a mortuary business on Narbonne Ave. in Lomita. A few years later, in 1929, or rather just in time for the Great Depression, they opened another mortuary on Cravens Ave. in Torrance. I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone that the definition of “craven” is cowardly or contemptibly timid: precisely the sort of people who wind up on a cold slab in a funeral parlor.

Eventually, the mortuary on Cravens moved across the street and in the 1980s the building was renovated and today it’s the home of the non-profit Volunteer Center which runs such helpful programs as Operation Teddy Bear and Food for Kids.

Sara Myers dares us to spend an hour locked in a basement room of a former mortuary. What could be more fun than that? Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Anyway, so the story goes, at the bottom of a steep flight of stairs one of the walls was starting to crumble and, on examining it closely and removing some bricks, an abandoned and sealed-up room was discovered. Could this be the 1930s office of Charles Myers?

Well, it’s not called the “volunteer” center for nothing, and that’s where we, the unsuspecting general public, come in. We’ve been asked to volunteer our services to help solve the mystery behind the room, and to determine why, 80 years ago, masons were hurriedly called in to seal it off.

TRAPPED DOWN HERE FOREVER?

I’m sitting upstairs with Liz Reinhardt, the Center’s Director of Marketing and Communications, and Sara Myers, the Center’s President and CEO. It doesn’t escape my notice that Sara Myers and Charles Myers have the same last name, which makes me think of Roderick Usher, the last of his line in Poe’s famous gothic tale. Even more uncanny, we’re in what was the former living quarters of the old Myers family. Coincidence? Oh, please!

Escape rooms (also referred to as puzzle rooms) are apparently a big deal. “It’s a little like a scavenger hunt meets mind-bending puzzles,” Sara says. Adds Liz: “I would say (it resembles) a live-action boardgame or an imaginative video game.”

I mention that it sounds like jail, but they frown at my words (hmm, I wonder why; have I hit upon a sensitive or forbidden topic?)

Sara explains that escape rooms started as a phenomenon in 2007, initially in Japan before spreading to Europe and then, from about 2012, to the U.S. “It’s a very fast-growing industry and there are now over 1,400 rooms.

“What we’re very proud of,” Sara continues, “is that to our knowledge no other non-profit in the nation has tried this. My family has always been escape room enthusiasts and my brother (henceforth called, by me, Houdini Junior) has done over 200 rooms. Whenever we go to a new city on travel, we’ll look up and do escape rooms.”

There’s one nearby in Harbor City called the Back in Time Escape Rooms, currently featuring “The Salem Witch Hunt” and “Inside Area 51.”

In and close to downtown Los Angeles there are quite a few, with many of them located in the more dubious or unsavory parts of town.

“The first time I went, literally,” Sara says, “it was a room that had come over from Russia, so they all had Russian accents, and we put our wallets and everything (keys and cellphones) in a locker. I told my brother, ‘This is everything your parents tell you not to do.’” We laugh. “Late at night, strange place; but he had done it, and so that’s what I wanted was an experience.

“A lot of people I talk with say, ‘Oh, I really want to try one, but I don’t want to drive to downtown L.A..’ So we figured we should open one in the South Bay, in the Beach Cities. It’s the perfect area. And with this building and its history…”

LOOK, NO ONE LIKES A LOSER

It seems that the average escape room experience is designed for six people at a time, or about the same number of bodies that would be piled onto a horse-drawn cart during the Bubonic Plague in the Middle Ages. Some rooms can accommodate up to 20 people and some as few as four. Naturally, the room size is often the determining factor.

All the rooms are thematic. We could be on the Titanic or on a space shuttle, in the future or in the past, in Montreal or Mongolia.

Liz and Sara say it’s great for team-building, because the six people have exactly 60 minutes to figure out all the clues and thus spring their release. At the end of 60 minutes, if you and your crew are still fumbling for answers, you’ll be released anyway, and undoubtedly the jeers of the staff will shame you horribly as, downcast and even sobbing, you scurry from the building.

Liz points out that “Mortuary Mystery” is not spooky, and that there isn’t any gore. As for that loud thumping noise you’ll hear, it’s only your own heart beating faster and faster as the minutes tick by.

Sara explains how it works, after you’ve made your way down the very steep stairs.

“You go into a room and start solving a series of puzzles together. You could find clues that lead you to maybe six different puzzles all at once. It’s not linear.” Furthermore, she continues, “it uses all kinds of skills and talents. It could be unscrambled words, it could be math, it could be mechanical puzzles, it could be locks…”

Locks? That’s why I’ll have a skeleton key concealed in one shoe and, in case that doesn’t work, a screwdriver concealed in the other so I can simply remove the door from its hinges. Pretty clever, huh? That’s what they teach you in arts & entertainment school.

It’s not too late to turn back, and to run for your life!

“I’ve noticed that people take on roles,” Liz says. “So, someone’s the leader and trying to make sure everybody’s got a task.” In other words, as the executioner with the axe will tell you, six heads are better than one.

When an escape room is designed, how do the room’s architects know if it’s too easy or too hard?

In this case, Sara says, they’d been working on it for about nine months, and then calling up escape room enthusiasts to come over and try it out. These are the folks who’ve done maybe 30 or 40 escape rooms and so they know what’s effective and what isn’t. Houdini Junior came in to test it as well, so we can be assured it’s now watertight.

“There’s one puzzle we had from the beginning that we actually had to replace,” Liz says, “because we saw that it just wasn’t working correctly. So we slowly tweaked it and tweaked it (because) we want people to have a fun time since it’s a fundraiser.”

Sara points out that it’s a fine line. There needs to be a challenge for the escape room aficionados, and yet it can’t simply be frustrating for the uninitiated (or, to be non-PC, the dullards and the mental midgets).

OUR COMPETITIVE NATURE

Is it possible to be stuck or forgotten in the “Mortuary Mystery”? Liz says no, because the idea of a fundraiser is to usher people in and out and to collect their cash, their checks, or their credit card numbers as they do so. But let me pose a couple of questions because, after all, each person does need to sign a liability waiver. What if there’s an electrical blackout or if some miscreant goes to the side of the building and tampers with the fusebox? What if there’s a flash flood, like in Houston? What if there’s an earthquake? What if there’s an earthquake and another wall crumbles and there’s something behind this one that should never have been disturbed?

But that’s not why people want to get out before the 60 minutes is up. They want to get out quicker because, as human beings, they have pride, big egos, and they’re fiercely competitive. They want to be able to emerge from the basement thumping their chests and crowing loudly to their friends: “We figured it out in 12 minutes” or “We unlocked the last clue with 20 minutes to spare.”

As I said, and it can’t be uttered too often, no one wants to be let out of the room after an hour with an inferiority complex that just won’t go away: “Okay, losers, you can go home now.” After all, when four squirrels were placed in the room they solved all the clues in less than half an hour. And you’re smarter than a squirrel, aren’t you?

“Mortuary Mystery” is for ages 14 and up, and that includes seniors without mobility issues. We are advised not to wear flip-flops or high heels, unless you want to be the first one at the bottom of the stairs, if you catch my drift.

“It’s fascinating for us to watch how different people approach it,” Sara says, “how different people organize themselves, how socially they work together, and the different levels of competitiveness.”
South Bay Escape Room: Mortuary Mystery takes place through Oct. 29 on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, as well as Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Tickets are $35 and they must be purchased online and in advance. The address is 1230 Cravens Ave., Torrance. Tickets and details, including a list of frequently asked questions, are available at volcenter.org/escaperoom. ER

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