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Need a lift? Go see stars

This tour bus might be the happiest place on Earth. Whadya gonna do?

May 22, 2003|James Verini | Special to the Times

Who loves his job more than anyone else in Hollywood? Nicholson? Hefner? Sajak?

As I sat in the back of a small, egregiously air-conditioned tour bus one recent Friday afternoon, climbing Foothill Road in Beverly Hills, soaking in a stream of celebrity trivia and the delighted giggles of Midwestern tourist couples, I grew convinced that none of those people enjoys his job half as much as Brian Donnelly.

What does he do? Donnelly drives a tour bus for Starline Tours, of course.

To suggest to any resident of Hollywood, of Los Angeles -- of Irvine -- that he or she should go to Mann's Chinese Theater and pay $29 to take a bus tour around the city is, at best, insanity. It is like suggesting that a Parisian ride the elevator up the Eiffel Tower or that a New Yorker visit the Statue of Liberty. That gruesome stretch of Hollywood Boulevard? That fake pagoda? Waiting on a line next to a person in a tracksuit taking pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger's handprints?

Just completely out of the question, off the map, you say.

And that's what I said. Until I took a ride with Donnelly.

We boarded the bus -- tourists included a couple from Miami, a couple from Idaho (plus one mother-in-law), a couple from Arizona and me -- outside Mann's. We knew we were in for a special afternoon when all of the women leaving the previous tour kissed Donnelly and all the men pushed wads of bills into his palm.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 04, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Actor's nationality -- An article in the May 22 Calendar Weekend on Hollywood tour buses misidentified Peter Lorre as a German actor. Lorre was Hungarian.

"I love Hollywood!" Donnelly said, once we were moving. "Whadya gonna do?" We sped past the Magic Castle to the parking lot of Yamashiro, where the parade of obscure facts and sidebars began. Did you know, for instance, that at night the light at the top of the Capitol Records building spells H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D in Morse code? Or that the stars on the Walk of Fame range in price from $7,500 to $15,000, depending on location? Or that the ghost of Montgomery Clift is widely known to haunt the upper floors of the Roosevelt Hotel? That's right. Any number of guests have heard him in the middle of the night, reading his lines from "From Here to Eternity" and blowing a bugle.

"Room 928," Donnelly said, matter-of-factly. "Everybody knows about it."

The 10 tourists and I soon knew a lot about Donnelly, too, who is not squeamish about sharing personal information. He leads a kind of ascetic life of celebrity-obsession, without car or cable. He collects cookbooks, books on the JFK assassination and books of old Hollywood photography (several of which were passed around the bus) and, though Irish, is currently reading "The Joys of Yiddish." He prefers tea to coffee and has been in a Starbucks only once but eats at the Stinking Rose every two months. He has a big thing for Stockard Channing ("If we see her, I'm pulling over, that's it -- tour's over!"), thinks Jay Leno is really nice but doesn't like David Spade. He has an ex-wife in Orlando, Fla., whom he dislikes as much as he does Spade and to whom he refers often. He's been a contestant on "The Weakest Link," and he talks to his mother on the phone a lot ("She says 'chichi froufrou' instead of 'fancy' now, and I've picked it up from her," he said, after describing a store on Rodeo Drive as "chichi froufrou").

From Yamashiro we descended into West Hollywood, where we checked out a number of unassuming spots: Bob Barker's longtime residence, the synagogue where Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher were married ("She's currently single and looking -- just like me!") and the house where James Dean first lived when he moved to Los Angeles. Last year Donnelly, whose devotion to his riders is evident in his willingness to flout local ordinances and minor traffic laws, happened upon an open house there. He herded his entire tour group in, to the real estate agent's astonishment. (The house later sold for $790,000.)

"If you see a celebrity, shout it out!" he said, as we turned onto Sunset Boulevard. "If you just think you see a celebrity, still shout it out! Better safe than sorry. Whadya gonna do!?"

Donnelly is versed in the seedier side of Hollywood geography and immune to its misinformation. He pointed out the Bank of America on Sunset where Hugh Grant withdrew cash before giving a prostitute that famous lift and then handily dispelled the rumor that Lana Turner was discovered in Schwab's drugstore, which once sat where the Virgin Records store now does. (She was discovered at a drugstore nearer Fairfax Avenue.) Thank goodness that was cleared up.

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