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Tour Bus Companies Fight for Turf on the Streets

July 06, 1986|KENNETH J. FANUCCHI | Times Staff Writer

Handing out tour bus flyers along the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard with characteristic good cheer, Fran Brown hardly looks like a candidate for a criminal complaint.

But her seemingly innocuous activities have become the focus of a bitter dispute between two Hollywood tour bus companies fighting a turf war around Mann's Chinese Theater.

Officials of the Hollywood-based Starline Tours have insisted that the city attorney's office prosecute Brown, who works for Hollywood Fantasy Tours, for violating laws that prohibit soliciting business on city sidewalks.

Assistant City Atty. Timothy Hogan said the city would rather not get involved but must enforce the law, and added that his office is looking for a sidewalk-solicitation case that it can take to court.

"This is something we will do very reluctantly," Hogan said. "This appears to be a longstanding business dispute. But on the other hand, the law is on the books and it our duty to enforce it if the law is being consistently violated."

According to Hogan's office, Starline officials have claimed that Brown and other Fantasy employees aggressively recruit tourists in front of several Hollywood Boulevard tour offices that Starline runs, including one in the alcove of the Chinese Theater. They say that Fantasy employees hand out flyers and pitch their tours.

But Michael Kellerman, owner of Fantasy Tours, said Starline is using the rarely enforced sidewalk solicitation ban to try to eliminate honest competition for the Hollywood tour trade, which involves an estimated 12 million visitors each year. About five companies are operating on Hollywood Boulevard.

"This is ridiculous," said Kellerman, a fast-talking former marketing researcher. "The Starline owners seem to think they own Hollywood Boulevard because they run a few businesses on the street. Hey, this is America.

'Forcing Us Off'

"What Starline is trying to do is get everyone off the boulevard except Starline by forcing us off the sidewalks. If the city moves against us, then it will be selective enforcement, since anyone with something to sell, including cigarettes that kill people, sells it on Hollywood Boulevard."

Sgt. Michael F. Butler, special events coordinator for the Hollywood Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, said the city, through several different agencies, has tried unsuccessfully to mediate between the two tour companies.

The dispute "is like a nagging wife that won't go away," Butler said. "We're caught in the middle, where we don't like to be."

Councilman Michael Woo, who represents the Hollywood area, organized a recent meeting of all interested parties in Hogan's office, according to Woo aide Pat Michell. No agreement was reached, Michell said, because Kellerman refused to attend.

"Our point was that there should be enough business for everybody in Hollywood, without having to fight over customers," Michell said. "We gave it our best shot to reach a meeting of the minds and we are disappointed that we failed in that goal. As for who is right and who is wrong in the dispute, I do not believe we know. It is very hard to find out the truth in matters of such intensity."

Vahid Sapir, Farid Sapir and and Shoeleh Sapir, the owners of Starline, did not return telephone calls from The Times. Callers were referred to a public relations firm, which, in turn, referred them to a consulting lawyer, Terence Lyons.

Lyons said that the firm's telephone operators probably were instructed to deflect calls because of a May 30 accident in which 21 elderly Westside people were killed when a Starline bus plunged into the Walker River near Bridgeport, Calif.

According to Lyons, Starline's owners contend that Fantasy Tour employes intercept tourists who on their way to buy Starline tour tickets.

Expensive Offices

"Starline has spent a lot of money for their ticket offices," Lyons said in an interview last week, "and they do not want someone else to take their customers away, particularly in front of their offices."

He said that if the city does not enforce the ban on solicitation of business on city streets, the result will be a free-for-all.

Lyons said that Starline is not interested in driving Fantasy Tours out of business. "Rather," he said, "Fantasy Tours has been picking on Starline by trying to intercept its customers."

He said that if Starline ignored the activities of Fantasy Tours the Starline operations in Hollywood would not be profitable. "The tour business operates on a very thin profit margin," Lyons said. "You lose, say, 5% of your business, you lose your profit."

Another tour operator, Fred Schwartz, who owns Casablanca Tours, which also operates on Hollywood Boulevard, sided with Kellerman. He worked for Starline before forming his own company five years ago.

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