Riverside’s Mission Inn is looking for a few good docents – San Bernardino Sun

There are more than a century of stories at Riverside’s Mission Inn. Tourists want to hear them. And that means someone has to tell them — and within 75 minutes.

Docents lead tours four to five times daily, every day of the year except major holidays. To do so, first they need to be steeped in the history of the grand hotel, which opened in 1903, and in Riverside.

And that means weeks of classes and practice runs with seasoned docents.

“I tell people, we’re going to hit you with a lot of information. You’re going to be overwhelmed,” says Steve Lech, who is director of docent training, and who also co-writes this newspaper’s Back in the Day column, not necessarily in order of importance.

Typically, 35 to 40 sign up in a burst of optimism, 20 to 25 actually attend and 8 to 10 finish, Lech says.

A new round of classes will soon start. Jarod Hoogland, executive director of the Mission Inn Foundation, invites yours truly to meet at the hotel Wednesday with docents Robyne Williams, Rose Escamillo and James Ranger, plus Steve.

“The people who are docents,” Jarod says, “turn out to be Riverside’s best ambassadors.”

Docents obviously need to have curiosity about local history. Robyne wasn’t sure she did until names and origins of Riverside streets came up and she realized these were part of her daily landscape. She’s been a docent since 2003. “I’m not tired of it yet either,” she says.

For Rose, who did her training via Zoom during the pandemic, it was finding out about people whose names are attached to familiar places, like White Park or North High.

You don’t have to be retired to be involved, although it helps. James fit in the training and then his docent duties as a full-time UC Riverside student.

Not everyone is cut out to be a docent. You need to be physically able to climb flights of stairs and stay on your feet. Also, mentally able to recall facts, tell stories and respond to questions. Liking people is necessary too. Yes, even tourists.

We didn’t get into the ability to walk backwards while reciting “we’re walking, we’re walking,” but I suppose that’s a given.

Has any would-be docent been too shy, unable to retain facts or gone rogue?

“All of the above!” Robyne exclaims, chuckling. She adds: “We don’t give up on people easily. But some people are not cut out for this. It becomes obvious to most of them.”

Some 15,000 a year booked tours pre-COVID. Many are hotel guests or are downtown for the Festival of Lights. For out-of-town family members visiting a local relative, it’s something to do. (Or, for the local relative, a way to get rid of them for a couple of hours.)

It turns out the Mission Inn’s Taft Chair, scene of many a tourist’s photo, can hold two people, in this case Robyne Williams, left, and Rose Escamillo. Standing from left are James Ranger, Steve Lech and Jarod Hoogland, all with the Mission Inn Foundation. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin)

What do people ask about on a Mission Inn tour?

“Was this a mission?” Steve says, feigning a tourist’s sense of gullibility. It was never a mission, but it’s meant to evoke one.

“Can we go in the catacombs?” James says. There are none.

“I want to see the church,” Steve says. There are chapels for weddings but no church.

“Is this place haunted?” Robyne asks.

That subject is off-limits. I imagine the ghosts prefer not to be gossiped about.

The foundation, a nonprofit, has been in charge of tours since 1985. Its roster of docents numbers about 100, with a new crop added annually to replace people who drop out for various reasons.

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