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Hollywood tour bus driver always hopes the stars are out

Don Baisa, a 61-year-old veteran of the tour bus scene, knows what his passengers want during their journey through Hollywood and Beverly Hills: celebrity sightings.

June 24, 2012|By Danielle H. Paquette, Los Angeles Times
  • Hollywood tour bus driver Don Baisa poses with some of his Tinseltown memorabilia at his one-bedroom duplex in Altadena. His wife left him nearly a year ago. ”I lost her to Hollywood,” he says, refusing to elaborate.
Hollywood tour bus driver Don Baisa poses with some of his Tinseltown memorabilia… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Behind the wheel of his tour bus, Don Baisa prays.

Please. Give me George Clooney today, he thinks as tourists scramble aboard the 12-seat, open-top van marked "City Tours!"

Or Charlize Theron. Or Jennifer Aniston.

Will Ferrell. He'd take Will Ferrell.

Baisa, a 61-year-old veteran of the tour bus scene with a neatly groomed, salt-and-pepper mustache, knows what his passengers want during their two-hour journey through Hollywood and Beverly Hills.

Spotting stars means big tips. One day, after Ryan Seacrest stopped to chat with Baisa's busload of Girl Scouts, an adult chaperon dropped a $100 bill in his Dodgers cap.

On this afternoon, as his tour winds through Trousdale Estates, Baisa gets lucky. "Look, everyone!" he says, pausing outside Courteney Cox's sprawling home. "It's David Arquette. Hi, David!"

Arquette, unsmiling, waves. He pulls a white Avanti convertible into a gated driveway.

"Oh my God!" one Australian tourist gushes. "Hi, David! Hi, David!"

"Yes, this is Hollywood, folks," Baisa says amid the heightened chatter and iPhone camera flashes. "Where the stars live, work and play."

For the last five years, Baisa has guided his bus through these exclusive neighborhoods, giving tourists a glimpse of the dream. It's a demanding life, he says, an adrenaline rush, a frenzy of pickup, drop-off and bus changes. The days are never slow, and the competition is fierce.

No tourist wants to pay $45 for what ends up being little more than a pretty drive, he says. But celebrities are rare sights. He sees maybe five per month, working full time.

So on slow days, he embellishes.

He'll scan the palm-lined streets, hope for the best and point to random blonds: "Britney Spears!"

::

The tour bus is Baisa's stage, the only niche he managed to carve out in Hollywood.

A nonstop talker, he goes by "Donnie Dangerfield" so passengers won't forget his name.

"Hollywood is like a diamond," Baisa says, driving from Quentin Tarantino's mansion on Woodrow Wilson Drive to Spears' former home, hidden behind some trees off Mulholland Drive. "She throws different light from every angle, depending on how you look at her."

As for Baisa's one-bedroom duplex in Altadena, it is a shrine to his obsession.

Photos of Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Jim Carrey, Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack and the cast of"Seinfeld" decorate off-white living room walls. A 5-pound faux Oscar, which Baisa bought from a Hollywood Boulevard novelty shop, sits atop a wooden mantel, catching light from open windows.

He has lived alone, surrounded by movie memorabilia, since his wife left him nearly a year ago. "I lost her to Hollywood," he says, refusing to elaborate. His daughter (a pet shop clerk) and two sons (musicians) live with her in Highland Park.

His life is Hollywood now — looking in from the outside.

For that, he blames his father. Robert Elgin acted at the Pasadena Playhouse. Baisa remembers the curtain, the applause, the man he idolized taking long, sweeping bows. He loved to watch his father sing, dance and deliver Shakespearean soliloquies in a booming baritone.

Baisa keeps Robert's head shots in a manila folder and slides them out some nights, when nostalgia strikes.

They entertained each other with impressions — one of Baisa's favorite childhood memories. He studied "East of Eden" and practiced the way James Dean raised his eyebrows, just to make his father laugh.

Dad could have made it big, Baisa says. But he drank most nights, left for days at a time.

As a child, Baisa would ask, "Where are you going?"

"Crazy," Robert always replied. "Wanna come?"

The alcoholism, the absences — his father was aware of the pain it caused his family but never tried to fix it. Rather, he told his son, "Never become an actor. Be a doctor or something instead."

After high school, Baisa obliged his father's wishes.

He joined the Navy, and afterward, tended bar, sold coffee, drove delivery trucks.

None of the jobs lasted long — until 2007, when he saw a Craigslist ad: "TOUR BUS DRIVERS WANTED."

Hollywood beckoned from his computer screen.

::

Ascending into the hills, Baisa plays Bob Seger's "Hollywood Nights" and recites some slightly altered lyrics: "On these Hollywood nights. In these Hollywood Hills. We were feeling all right, folks. We were looking for thrills."

It's a part of his spiel before he launches into personal insights, which he writes on 3-by-5 index cards. He tapes them on his fridge, memorizes them for use during stretches of silence between stars' homes.

"Hollywood is like a glamorous vixen," he yells. "She'll always leave you for a richer man, the next big thing."

Passengers, heads swiveling, barely notice.

Baisa drives from 8 a.m. to sundown, cruising through Hollywood, by the famous "Sister Act" church and the finest real estate — his tour description boasts "46 celebrity homes" on the way — and back through Beverly Hills. On a good day, he makes $200, salary and tips.

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