A DINER GUY WHO DID GOOD 'Boogie' Weinglass: clothing maven, restaurateur, philanthropist

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In an article in Sunday's People section, the annual sales of Merry-Go-Round Enterprises were incorrectly reported. The correct figure is $650 million.

Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass is an hour late for a 10:30 a.m. appointment.

An hour late -- and unrepentant.

"Alan Charles kept me out last night until 4," he offers in explanation. "He met me down at Sabs [Sabatinos, a Little Italy restaurant], and we closed Sabs up at 3 in the morning."

He adds some self-analysis: "I should have known better than to make a 10:30 appointment. Noon is a much better time for me."

This noon, sitting in the courtyard at the Village of Cross Keys, Boogie Weinglass exchanges greetings every five minutes with passing acquaintances. The merchandising whiz kid who 22 years ago started Merry-Go-Round Enterprises -- now a $120 million operation -- hasn't called Baltimore home for nearly 10 years, but he still keeps an apartment at Cross Keys and returns for frequent visits. And he's not exactly the type of guy that people forget.

"They threw away the book when they made Boogie," says his friend Alan Charles, a Baltimore advertising executive who has known him since high school days at City College. "He's got a heart of gold. To say he's one of the good guys doesn't begin to say it about Boogie."

"I have nothing bad to say about him," says his first wife Joanie Young, who married him when she was 17 and despite her praise goes on to talk about the tension and angst in their year and a half of marriage. "He grew up in Towanda playground and was poor and crazy. He's really no different than he ever was, except now he's rich and crazy. When you're rich and crazy, they call you eccentric."

It doesn't take too much conversation with Boogie Weinglass to begin to appreciate the good, the crazy and the eccentric -- many of the same characteristics, in fact, that distinguished Boogie, the heavy gambling, free swinging character played by Mickey Rourke in Barry Levinson's 1982 movie "Diner," a chronicle of coming of age in the early '60s in Northwest Baltimore.

"What's this for?" Mr. Weinglass says now, settling in for a interview that he was something less than enthusiastic in agreeing to. "What, that section of the paper that everyone throws away?"

He's dressed in skin-hugging faded blue jeans, a plain white T-shirt with the short sleeves cuffed and Reeboks. His gray hair is pulled back in a discreet ponytail. He wears no jewelry, no ornaments, nothing to reveal that this is a man who made his millions in the fashion industry.

Exactly how many millions he has made, Mr. Weinglass is cagey about revealing. But Merry-Go-Round Enterprises, the clothing chain that he began in Atlanta in 1968 selling bell-bottoms to hippies, now controls 649 outlets around the country under seven different store names.

Mr. Weinglass backed away from full-time business involvement nearly a decade ago, but remains vice chairman of the board and a principal stockholder in Merry-Go-Round with control of -- according to his own vague estimate -- "a few million shares."

He also owns two homes in economically upscale Aspen, Colo., where he lives with his wife, Pepper, and their three children, Bo and Skye, 15-month-old twins, and Sage, 3. He estimates that the 40-acre ranch 10 minutes from town is valued at $7 million or $8 million in Aspen's inflated real estate market; the condo that he bought "so we'd have a place in town to change the babies' diapers" is worth another half-million. Plus there's a condo at the Carousel in Ocean City, another in the posh Turnberry Isle resort, north of Miami, and the Cross Keys apartment.

Three years ago, a little bored with the domestic life he has committed himself to for the past decade, Mr. Weinglass opened Boogie's Diner in Aspen, a combination restaurant/boutique, featuring an eclectic blend of clothing on the first floor and diner-type food upstairs.

He had already opened one clothing store in Aspen -- Pep's, named for his wife -- and they were spending more time in town, discovering, he says, that "whenever we went to get something to eat, we found ourselves like tourists, standing in line at a busy restaurant. So I said, wait a minute, the next store we open here, I'm going to make it a clothing store with a restaurant. So when we want to take a break, we go right in our own restaurant, sit down and get served."

The idea was a hit -- no surprise if you've followed the career of Boogie Weinglass -- and a second Boogie's Diner, operated by Merry-Go-Round, opened last year in Chicago. A third will open next month in Georgetown.

Not bad for a boy from Baker Street off West North Avenue, a boy who grew up without two nickels to rub together. Not bad for a playground scrapper, a kid who had a reputation of getting what he wanted with his fists whenever the need arose.

Not bad, indeed, for the member of the diner gang who earned the dubious distinction of spending more years in high school than anyone else in the group, not graduating until he was nearly 21.

Back in those days, Mr. Weinglass remembers, he had one ambition: "just to graduate high school."

It didn't come easy. He was thrown out of Forest Park High School for reasons he declines to specify -- although he acknowledges that the blank report cards he stole and sold for $10 each could have had something to do with it.

"I was in the principal's office so much and just sitting around me were all these forms," he explains, reminiscing fondly. "It was just a natural, really."

The friends he made in high school and earlier were friends who would be his for life. Like Alan Charles, who delights in the fact that "I'm 44, he's 49, and we went to high school together."

Mr. Charles tells of the two of them riding the transit bus together to City, checking the morning paper for sports scores on which they were both more likely than not to have wagered money. And he tells a typical Boogie story, a story involving fighting.

"I was a freshman, a kid with a big mouth," Mr. Charles recalls. "At one point I said stuff I guess I shouldn't have said to a couple of guys, and the next day there were at least 40 guys waiting to beat me up. I mean, they were really going to hurt me.

"Well, Boogie had a great reputation as a fighter. He stepped in and said, 'I hear one more word from you guys, I'm going to slap you six feet under.' And they all said, 'This guy's friendly with Boogie, we better get out of here.' And that was the end of it. They scattered."

Finally out of school, Mr. Weinglass put in six months-plus active duty with the National Guard. "I screwed up the Army just like I screwed up school," he remembers, "and had to repeat basic training." College was cut short at one semester because he wanted to make money. During his short-lived first marriage, he took a brief stab at a career in hairdressing with his wife.

Mrs. Young attributes the breakup of their marriage to his immaturity. "He was still a boy, and he wanted to be with the boys," she says. And to gambling. "He couldn't stop," she remembers. "He would lose $5,000 at a clip, and we just didn't have it. I just couldn't take it anymore."

Mr. Weinglass doesn't deny the charges. "Gambling was definitely part of my life," he acknowledges. And now? "I think I have it under control, pretty much. But I'd be a rich guy if I'd never gambled." He laughs. "That was supposed to be a joke."

Being rich wasn't even a fantasy when he took a warehouse job for Glenhaven Suits in downtown Baltimore in the mid-'60s, then moved into a sales job based in Atlanta. He stuck to it for three or four years until he reached the conclusion that there had to be a better way.

"I had a boss who would call me at 6:30 in the morning, wanting to know my itinerary," he recalls. "And I was a single guy now and had a little trouble getting in before 3. That's a tough wake-up, very tough."

The solution, he decided, was to open his own store.

"I finessed credit," he says, and with a partner got $1,200 together to open the first Merry-Go-Round on Peachtree Street in Atlanta in 1968. The counter was a couple of fish barrels with 2 by 4s laid across them. Rock music blared from a sound system. Stock was bell-bottom jeans and hippie shirts and beads, as well as pipes and bongs and other trappings of the counterculture. Hours were from noon to midnight.

"That sure was a fun time in my life."

And a successful one. Within a year, he had opened a second Merry-Go-Round in Atlanta, and by 1970, he was scouting locations in Baltimore and expanding here. By then he had broken with his first partner and teamed up with another diner alumnus, Harold Goldsmith, who handled the administrative end the business, while Mr. Weinglass handled the merchandise. Realizing from the start that the place for their stores was in the shopping malls that were proliferating all over suburban America, they were off and running.

"I made money right out of the box," Mr. Weinglass remembers. "It was an instant success."

"Lenny is just a great merchant," says his friend Michael Sullivan, who is now president and CEO of Merry-Go-Round, which is headquartered in Joppa. "He's always had the instinct. He has a great sense of what the young customer is going to buy."

"He's aggressive, he's outgoing," Jack Weinglass, who is in the wholesale fashion business, says of the qualities responsible for his brother's success. "He likes to take a lot of chances."

As the business expanded through the '70s, Mr. Weinglass was hopping around the country, opening new stores, finding out that "business is fun. I was having my cake and eating it too, traveling around, hiring people and falling in love every time I went into a city." Living in the penthouse of the Hopkins House in Baltimore, he spent his money, he adds, "singling around."

By the early '80s, though, he was feeling "a little burnt out" and once he put Mike Sullivan in charge -- and discovered Mr. Sullivan's own magic touch that has kept the company growing -- Mr. Weinglass decided to pursue other interests. Like beginning the family he'd never had time for before.

Gabrielle Pepper was a 21-year-old cocktail waitress at Turnberry when Mr. Weinglass met her. Her first reaction to him was "leery," as she describes it. "I thought he was a pretty wild and crazy guy, always with the girls." Once she started to date him, though, she discovered "a kind and giving person," and though their three-year romance had its ups and downs, when he followed her to Aspen in 1984, where she was staying with friends, and proposed -- offering her a choice among three diamond rings -- she accepted. They settled in Aspen because they both fell in love with the area.

At home Mrs. Weinglass -- who legally changed her first name to Pepper after her marriage -- laughingly calls her husband "Mr. Thermostat" because of his constant concern that the house might be too cool for the babies. They employ a live-in nanny and groundskeeper, both drive Jeeps and are friendly with their neighbors, who include John Denver, Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith.

In addition to family life and business dabblings, Mr. Weinglass oversees the workings of the Leonard Weinglass Foundation, which he describes as "a low-profile Make A Wish type thing, that tries to help sick kids." In six years he's provided funds for special trips or medical procedures for about 70 children, he says, with only one string attached to the money: "One of my requests is that people not get in touch with me personally. It's too hard, you get these heart-wrenching letters."

THE WEINGLASS FILE

Born: Oct. 21, 1941, in Baltimore.

Education: Forest Park and City College high schools, one semester at University of Baltimore.

Family: Married to Pepper Weinglass; three children, twins Bo and Skye, 15 months, and Sage, 3.

Lives in: Aspen, Colo.

How Baltimore has changed since he moved away 10 years ago: "The only thing about this town that's different is that the Colts are gone."

Personal clothing style: "I'm a very casual dresser. Everything for me revolves around jeans."

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