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Travels with Lenny

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Lenny Shapiro spots Broadway star John Glover on a New York street.

You have to talk to my girls, she beseeches Mr. Glover, the Towson State graduate who clinched a Tony for dual roles in "Love! Valour! Compassion!" They're going to be at the "LVC" matinee on Aug. 9, she tells him.

"Oh, my God," he says, "I'm going to be on vacation."

"John, you were going to be on vacation," Lenny says. "Don't let us down. We're from Baltimore, for God's sake!"

No one says no to Lenny, who has coaxed, prodded and coddled everyone from heavy-hitting Broadway producers to purveyors of low-fat snacks to offer their best to Diversions, her deluxe tour company.

On Aug. 9, after the matinee, Mr. Glover, sleek and showered, is on Lenny's bus, chatting charmingly about his portrayal of gay British twins. The "girls" -- mostly middle-aged and older Pikesville women -- are in a polite swoon. Appearances such as Mr. Glover's are one of the perks of traveling with Diversions. But then, perks are what they expect -- from their lives and from Lenny.

With chutzpah, hustle and capital-D drama, Lenny Shapiro delivers. The best seats, the best biscotti, the best accommodations, the best docents, the best travel agents, the best prices, the best star encounters.

Lenny (who is no relation to this reporter) demands the same of herself and her employees, a platoon of energetic women who expect top-notch service in their own lives and likewise provide it to their customers -- many of whom are childhood friends or attend the same synagogue or move in the same social circles.

"I know my stuff. I know my people," says Lenny, a startlingly youthful 62, with a pert hair cut, keenly observant eyes and smooth, untroubled skin.

Although she draws clientele from a broad spectrum, her base is mostly Jewish, well-heeled, and accustomed to comfort. Lenny's customers are her community, her friends, a clubby old-girl network that travels together from Wolf Trap to the Serengeti.

Under Lenny's direction, Diversions organizes some 300 trips a year to New York, Newport, New Orleans, Chicago, the French Riviera, Paris, London, Africa. To Streisand, Pavarotti, Yanni, Bennett, LuPone. To golf getaways, the U.S. Open, antiques markets, blockbuster museum exhibits, tony bridge weekends. To Savannah for a "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" tour and to Virginia hunt country to chase the memory of Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

The company employs 15 women on a flex-time basis who research and plan every journey. In addition, 135 volunteers rotate as trip guides.

Many of these women have full-time help at home, Lenny likes to observe. Their husbands are doctors, educators, lawyers, businessmen. But in exchange for a discount and a good time, they'll happily don yellow Diversions smocks, peddle salsa, freshen drinks and clean inevitable pothole spills.

The company is based in Lenny's home, a sprawling split-level in Baltimore County that is now more office than residence.

Party supplies

Fancy cars sit bumper to bumper in the Shapiros' driveway. Inside, every room is crammed with rattan baskets and trays, paper plates, plastic utensils, napkins, cases of juice, mixers, chips, mini-liquor bottles, setups, wet naps, bibs, mints. Scheduling charts paper the walls. Desks are covered with long lists. New York magazine, Variety and other trade publications are scattered throughout.

Wearing a powder-blue and white striped dress, Lenny runs the Monday morning brainstorming and critique session as she once ran her classrooms at Wellwood Elementary and Roland Park Country schools.

How many girls were in here over the weekend having to do some extra work? she asks. Several employees dutifully raise their hands.

They are dressed tastefully in linen, earth tones, golf clothes, sweater sets. They sit attentively, hair well-coiffed, designer bi-focals perched on noses, gold bangles jangling.

Lenny notes an omission on the monthly brochure mailed to Diversions' 2,500 dues-paying members. "Will we ever get it perfect?" she asks.

Imagine Bette Midler as your boss, stretching her syllables and gesticulating emphatically for theatrical effect. Lenny discusses a deadbeat customer, a quirky postage machine, a forthcoming USA Today mention of the Jackie Kennedy Onassis tribute tour and the Mechanic Theatre's new alliance with the Jujamcyn producing company, as if she is up for the lead in the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber gem. Her reading of a "Sunset Boulevard" review is a performance, in and of itself.

The meeting ends with a recitation of motivational proverbs: "Success is more attitude than aptitude" and so on. The employees murmur approvingly and copies are made for all.

"I won't hire any men," says Lenny, the product of all-female schools: Western High School and Goucher College. "I'm afraid they will not take [the business] seriously enough."

Getting the show on the road

On Aug. 9, Lenny, her husband Morty and several guides arrive at the Temple Oheb Shalom parking lot at 6 a.m. to stock two rumbling motor coaches with hot coffee, breakfast and mid-morning munchies. Departure is at 7 a.m. sharp. Lenny will ride one bus to New York and take the other home, so everyone gets a piece of her.

Before the bus hits the Beltway, the party's on. Say good morning to your neighbors, commands Gay Greenbaum, lead guide for Bus No. 2.

Like flight attendants in overdrive, Mrs. Greenbaum and two other beaming guides get to work, plying revelers with coffee, muffins, bagels, butter, cream cheese, juice, yogurt, chocolate-covered apricots, pretzels dipped in chocolate, cereal bars, hard candies, breath mints.

Several of Baltimore's most visible movers and shakers are on board today. There's Carole Sibel, fund-raiser extraordinaire for the Baltimore School for the Arts, AIDS services and the Baltimore Zoo. Once upon a time, Ms. Sibel was Lenny's co-counselor at Camp Holiday, where they taught theater arts. Long ago, the two women also performed "Guys and Dolls" on local stages. "People paid to come to see who would die first," Lenny reminisces.

Mary Garfield is on the bus, too. She took her first Diversions trip after her husband, Leon, died last year. The couple ran Lee's Ice Cream together. Aware that Mrs. Garfield was traveling solo, the Diversions guides made sure she had a lunch invitation and didn't feel awkwardly alone. "They watched out for me," Mrs. Garfield says.

And there's Ansela and Michael Dopkin, the Classic Catering People. Mrs. Dopkin remembers an early Diversions excursion to New York. Lenny's customers had already seen "Evita," inspected a body jewelry exhibition and visited a florist when the bus broke down. "Like the Pied Piper," Morty Shapiro led everyone through the streets of Greenwich Village to see a vaunted blues singer, Mrs. Dopkin remembers. She didn't get home until 3 a.m.

Lenny's hyperpromotions and uproarious monologues are as much a part of the Diversions experience as the food, the pampering, the good seats. "Wait until she gets on the bus and starts selling [other trips]," Mrs. Dopkin says eagerly.

Meanwhile, it's time for the trivia quiz. Passengers must identify 30 photos of bearded and mustachioed celebrities and public figures, from Thurgood Marshall to Kurt Cobain. It is a raucous contest, pitting passengers against one another in a mock cut-throat battle. Carole Sibel wins. "She always wins," another passenger grouses good-naturedly.

Around 10:30 a.m., the bus enters the Holland Tunnel to the strains of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" over the intercom. Passengers disembark at Saks Fifth Avenue, the new Barney's, Polo Sport and the Whitney Museum. They are on their own until show time.

Lenny disappears. She has work to do and won't let a reporter tag along. She'll spend the day buying theater tickets for her guides, meeting with Helmsley Hotel representatives, getting better seats for Anne Meara's "After-Play," and checking out a place downtown where you can buy great-looking imitation Chanel and Coach bags.

She cultivates a deliberate air of mystery concerning her reconnaissance. But chances are Lenny will return with stories galore. Like the time she bumped into a Broadway hotshot and talked him into $450,000 worth of orchestra tickets for the first six months of "Miss Saigon's" New York run.

And how she insisted that actress Jennifer Grey not renege on a commitment to speak to a Diversions audience following her performance in "Twilight of the Golds" at the Kennedy Center. Or how she finessed 13 buses to the Barbra Streisand concert at the USAir Arena. And how a Diversions tour group got into the Holocaust Museum before it was open to the public.

She's got contacts, she's got cache, she's got clout -- that's what she wants you to know.

A good idea

Lenny came of age when most young women, if they finished college at all, went on to teach. A business career was not an option, she says. After graduating from Goucher, she won a Ford Foundation fellowship that paved the way to a master's in education at Goucher.

Lenny's urge to organize expeditions struck early. As a sixth-grade teacher at Wellwood in 1959, Lenny organized a three-day trip to Colonial Williamsburg, which was "unheard of in those days," says Ellie Feldman, a Diversions guide who was a student in that pioneering class. The trip became a county-wide school tradition for sixth-graders.

Later she taught English and drama at Roland Park Country School until "every blue uniform began to look alike." Her own children, Tammy and Andrew, left for college in the mid-1970s. She was restless. For a time, she operated a home-based food co-op but that "dropped by the wayside," Lenny says.

Then she and her husband took a disastrous trip to Washington, getting lost in a downpour and getting to the theater late. Morty told her for their next foray, she should pack champagne and a dinner to enjoy en route. A good idea, Lenny thought.

And that's how Diversions got its start. In 1978, Lenny, Ms. Sibel and a third partner each chipped in $1,000 and went into business. But as Diversions expanded, Lenny was the only one of the three partners who wanted to stick with it.

"Lenny was born with tremendous talent, energy and drive," says Morty, an investment Realtor who revels in his wife's spunk, despite the fact that his home now resembles a warehouse.

The Shapiros have been married 40 years this month. When Lenny needs a cash infusion -- say a $450,000 advance for Miss Saigon tickets -- he is there for her.

Though the business grosses $1.5 million a year, it doesn't really make much of a profit, Morty Shapiro says. Diversions is more a labor of love than a big profit, he maintains.

After the matinees let out, Diversions passengers return to their buses and exchange notes. There was a John John sighting at Trionfo: "I almost went into labor right there," a younger, pregnant passenger says of the sight of JFK Jr.

"He was drinking a vodka and he ate a salad," someone else notes.

There are new shoes and parcels from gourmet stores. The Edward Hopper show at the Whitney was wonderful. So were the shows: "Showboat," "The Heiress" and of course, "LVC."

Across the street from the buses, Lenny stands at the Walter Kerr Theatre stage door waiting for Mr. Glover.

When Mr. Glover exits the theater, she snatches him up and escorts him to Bus No. 2. "How many loved that show, ladies?" Lenny asks. Hands shoot up and she hushes gushing passengers.

Mr. Glover fields a few questions, and plugs the scholarship in his name at Towson State. He is courtly and game. And soon, he's off to the other bus.

As Diversions rolls out of Manhattan, Lenny and her guides push dip, veggies, crackers, biscotti, pickled olives and distribute dinner sacks from Zabars. Dessert -- cookies, low-fat linzers and chocolate -- follows.

If you liked this . . .

And then, the moment Mrs. Dopkin has been waiting for: Lenny takes the bus microphone and begins to hawk future trips.

"Now, here is something we think is so exciting, we can't stand it," Lenny says. "And it is totally tax-deductible!" She has arranged for VIP access to the Fashion Institute & Designer Benefit House Tour, a breast cancer benefit that will take Diversions customers into the homes of Nicole Miller, Mary McFadden, Joan Vass and other designers.

"Don't miss it!" Lenny commands. "We have all the fun."

Also in the works: Patti LuPone in concert, "Master Class" at the Kennedy Center and "Victor/Victoria" with Julie Andrews. "The woman looks good," Lenny says. "She must have had everything done."

The Radio City trips in December are sold out, but there is still time to sign up for the New York trip that will visit the Coach knock-off place downtown. "Where is it?" someone asks Lenny.

E9 Lenny won't say: "I can't tell you until I take you."

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