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Highfalutin' Fantasy Trip : Outings: Pauper's Tour takes would-be shoppers on daylong excursion to Rodeo Drive, where the store managers treat them like, well, rich people.

January 10, 1991|LIBBY SLATE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Libby Slate is a free-lance writer who lives in Los Angeles.

One Saturday morning, a group of tourists gathered near a public bus stop outside a fine jewelry store in Beverly Hills, blithely consuming croissants and coffee, enjoying, if you will, a "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Once inside, they were greeted by the manager, who allowed them to try on a $10,000 diamond bracelet.

Later, the group moved up Wilshire Boulevard to Gump's, where they learned that the upper-crust gift emporium had provided mirrors and paintings for the bars and brothels of the Old West. And when the company faced bankruptcy it was kept solvent by contributions from philanthropic-minded frontier ladies of the evening.

Along the way, tour participants pledged allegiance to a Rodeo Drive shopping bag, received instructions on how to carry and preserve said bag, and joined in a sing-along of "Ode to Rodeo Drive" (to the tune of "My Favorite Things").

The day included lunch and culminated with a stretch limousine ride down Rodeo, complete with champagne and mineral water.

Hardly an offering from Gray Line, this excursion is dubbed the "Pauper's Tour of Beverly Hills." For five years, tourists have been buying this irreverent behind-the-scenes look at Beverly Hills, past and present.

The tour was conceived as a spoof of this glamorous but undeniably pretentious city and is designed, its creators say, to "combine the concept of being poor with the concept of being filthy rich."

The daylong outing is the brainchild of Elizabeth Paterson, a Century City legal secretary, who had become aware of Rodeo Drive through media reports in the 1970s, while still living in her native Montreal. After visiting Beverly Hills in 1980 and again the next year, she moved there in 1982, to an apartment two blocks from Rodeo Drive. It was Paterson's inveterate love of bargain-hunting, coupled with her observations of the public's perceptions of Rodeo Drive, that inspired the Pauper's Tour.

"I was attracted to Rodeo Drive like a magnet," she says, "but when I first came here as a tourist, my two girlfriends, who were in the car with me, absolutely refused to drive down the street as we were approaching it from Santa Monica Boulevard. They were too intimidated. I said, 'I paid for one-third of this rental car. Turn left now .'

"After I moved here, I found that it was not only tourists, but people who lived in Los Angeles who felt that Rodeo Drive was only for the extremely wealthy and not for them. I've never allowed poverty to be an impediment to my enjoyment of Rodeo Drive," she adds, explaining the philosophy behind the Pauper's Tour.

"I can have an entire day of pleasure figuring out how to spend just $5. It's a game with me to find something within my price range--the shoe bags from Gucci's for $17 were wonderful, or Gucci matches for no more than $5. . . . I've managed to make Rodeo Drive affordable and accessible, to enjoy a place that's extremely exclusive and make it my playground. I really wanted to show people how to have a good time in Beverly Hills."

The tour took root when, somewhat facetiously, Paterson mentioned her tour idea to friend and fellow Beverly Hills resident Mary Vance, who in turn introduced her to Marlene Gordon, owner of the Next Stage company in Los Angeles. Gordon, who is best known locally for her "Insomniac's Tour of Los Angeles," conducts tours and train trips emphasizing the more unusual aspects of nature, history and culture. After six months of planning, the Pauper's Tour made its debut in 1985.

It was launched in a most appropriate manner.

"We thought it would be suitably pauper-like to take the RTD bus into Beverly Hills, so we all parked in the mid-Wilshire area, where I'd worked out an arrangement for free parking," Gordon recalls. "Well, the bus driver took one look at us, 25 or so waiting at the bus stop, and promptly passed us up. So did a second driver. Needless to say, we now park in Beverly Hills."

That first tour took the group to Tiffany, Cartier, Gucci, to see $2,000 handbags, Giorgio, to gaze upon a $10,000 mink blanket, the Louis Newman art gallery and Great Earth Vitamins, where Earl Mindell, author of the "Vitamin Bible," lectured about the importance of inner beauty.

The itinerary, which is accompanied by Gordon and Paterson's patter about Beverly Hills history and great moments in bargain-hunting, has changed over the years, to offer variety and avoid wearing out store managers' welcomes.

"We started out as a spoof, but the merchants have treated us so royally that in some respects we could call this a tour of fabulous Beverly Hills," Gordon says.

"They've not only given us special talks and lectures on skin care and makeup, but they've also tossed us favors, which is in keeping with the pauper's theme. There have been free cologne samples from the old Giorgio's, vitamin samples, culinary treats from Mrs. Gooch's health food store and Jurgensen's market, catalogues, reading material. On our first tour we went to Robin Rose for free tastes of ice cream."

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