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LIMOUSINES : Stretching It : New Year's Eve is a popular night for party-goers to rent chauffeur-driven cars. But it can be a boring evening for the drivers.


New Year's Eve. A time of festivity and fun for most people, the year's busiest evening for limousine services, and, for limo drivers, the longest, most boring night of the year.

"Sometimes it's lonely," said James Fowler, owner-operator of Home James Limousine Service of Ventura. He's spent many a New Year's Eve alone outside a house or in a parking lot, one eye on his limousine, the other on his partying customers.

It all goes with being a chauffeur. So does knowing he's keeping his customers safe, especially on a night synonymous with drinking drivers.

"I wonder how many lives I've saved," Fowler mused.

Rick Garcia, owner-operator of Black Tie Limousine Service of Camarillo, has enjoyed those New Year's Eves when the customers have requested that he park at a place with a view: on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, at the cross overlooking Ventura or in the Santa Barbara hills above the harbor.

He'll pour champagne for his customers at midnight, but said, "I, as the driver, don't partake in the champagne, but I do have 7-Up to bring in the New Year."

Drivers at White Wings Limousine Service in Camarillo also find New Year's Eve relatively quiet. "It's a pickup and drop-off service," said Tom Temple, adding that his destinations are often Beverly Hills mansions or the best restaurants in Los Angeles.

If New Year's Eve is dull for drivers, the rest of the year makes up for it.

Chauffeurs often see close up the lifestyles of the rich and famous. White Wings claims Gregory Peck, David Viscott, James Brown and Tommy Lasorda as previous clients. Their chauffeurs, they said, drove Billy Crystal to his gig as host of the Academy Awards and Bonnie Raitt to her sweep of the Grammys.

Executive Limousine Service of Ventura takes credit for having driven Dolly Parton and Mick Jagger and having ferried Merv Griffin and Eva Gabor to Elizabeth Taylor's wedding on Michael Jackson's Santa Barbara ranch.

"Our limo followed Nancy Reagan's car, and we were surrounded by Secret Service agents," said Dan Newby, general manager.

Swede Lindell of Eva's Limousine Service of Ventura has been impressed with how down-to-earth famous people can be.

He recalled picking up Western singer Conway Twitty at the Hyatt Regency in Los Angeles. Lindell arrived, he said, but Twitty wasn't ready to leave. So Twitty invited the chauffeur to join him for breakfast.

Some trips turn out to be more exciting than expected--or desired. Temple recalled driving a customer to a wedding that went sour.

"When the two families got together it was like nitro and glycerin," Temple said. "There were like 150 people in this huge brawl. The poor bride got punched out and had to go to the hospital."

The wedding, he said, was televised on the evening news and written up in the National Enquirer.

Limos are often the site of marriage proposals. Lindell recalled a suitor who told him, "If she says yes, take us to the Magic Castle; if she says no take her to a sandcastle."

On occasion, people can get too exuberant or drunk and take out their aggressions on the limousine. Eva's has had three cars trashed during 11 years in business. Clients, of course, are charged for any damage.

Part of a chauffeur's job is to familiarize the customers with company policy and rules of the road, which can be discouraging to riders who have their own ideas about how to get their money's worth from a limo ride.

A lot of people have seen the movie "Pretty Woman" and are anxious to stand up and stick their heads out the moon roof, a la Richard Gere, said a driver for White Wings.

"That," he said, "is a moving violation for a chauffeur."


The ride: New Year's Eve is the most popular time of the year to rent limos, and most services are fully booked at least a week ahead. Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, proms, concerts, and sightseeing trips keep the limos rolling the rest of the year. Airport drop-offs and shopping sprees are other jaunts.

The effects: Champagne, party favors, streamers. Some companies decorate the inside with balloons or flowers or personalize things at a customer's request. Black Tie Limousine Service will literally roll out a red carpet for weddings.

The lines: Most limousine services use Lincolns or Cadillacs, but some have Rolls-Royces, Mercedeses or Chryslers. Any vehicle can be stretched though, and Jan Blake of White Wings in Camarillo said she has seen elongated BMWs, Volkswagen bugs, Jaguars and even a pickup truck.

The gear: Color television, stereo, telephone, compact-disc player, complimentary bar, moon roofs, intercom, oversized doors. Some companies have vehicles for nonsmokers. Limos can accommodate four to 10 people.

The tab: $30 to $65 an hour with a three-hour minimum. Costs vary somewhat from service to service and depend on whether the outing is on a weekday or a Saturday night. New Year's Eve has a seven- or eight-hour minimum. A tip of at least 15% is extra.

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