Era ends as 'Boogie' Weinglass retires from Merry-Go-Round

January 19, 1995|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Staff Writer

Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, the Baltimore street kid who built a billion-dollar fashion empire through the fickle tastes of U.S. teen-agers, retired yesterday from his now-faltering company, Merry-Go-Round Enterprises Inc.

The pony-tailed local hero and one-time bidder for Baltimore sports franchises resigned as Merry-Go-Round chairman and director, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. His ties to the Joppa-based retailer that he co-founded 26 years ago are now limited to a 9.5 percent block of stock, worth about $8 million at yesterday's prices.

"It's been a hell of a ride on the Merry-Go-Round. It's very emotional for me for it to end this way," Mr. Weinglass, 53, said yesterday from his "Boogie's Diner" restaurant in Aspen, Colo. "It's too painful for me to stay on that board."

The exit wasn't a complete surprise. Merry-Go-Round's creditors are expected to take ownership control of the retailer later this year, the result of bankruptcy proceedings that started last January. They'll probably pick their own directors and chairman.

But many expected Mr. Weinglass, who resigned as chief executive two months ago, to stay on as chairman until the reorganization is completed.

Mr. Weinglass and people close to the company described his exit as voluntary. But the departure gives more stature and control to two executives hired in November to reverse Merry-Go-Round's multimillion-dollar losses.

Thomas Shull, hired as chief executive and president two months ago, is now chief executive and chairman. James Kenney, hired as executive vice president, is now president. Both get directors' seats.

"In order for Tom Shull to do a successful restructuring, he needs to be free of Boogie's direct involvement," said Otto F. Grote, a retail analyst with Derby Securities in New York.

Merry-Go-Round's future aside, Mr. Weinglass' departure is a milestone of retailing and Baltimore pop culture.

Mark Millman, a local retail consultant, thought it appropriate that Mr. Weinglass resigned on the same day that Gov. William Donald Schaefer did. "Boogie was the governor of retail," said Mr. Millman, president of Millman Search Group Inc., an executive search firm. "He's still going to be like a folk hero."

With late co-founder Harold Goldsmith and longtime Merry-Go-Round President Michael Sullivan, Mr. Weinglass built the chain from one Atlanta boutique in 1968 into a 1,000-store business powerhouse by the early 1990s.

For years, Merry-Go-Round made millions by correctly reading the shifting tastes of teens and young adults. When Madonna made bustiers de rigeur, when leather jackets were big, when obscure blue-jean brands briefly bloomed, Merry-Go-Round had them.

"How many chains have you seen that were built in the time Merry-Go-Round was and made the amount of money they did? Not very many," said Howard Davidowitz, a New York retail consultant.

Mr. Weinglass was the fashion talent at Merry-Go-Round, ceding the grittier details of renting stores and making payroll to other executives. He gained nonbusiness fame in the early 1980s when his youthful exploits in Northwest Baltimore were portrayed by actor Mickey Rourke in Barry Levinson's film "Diner."

Even after Merry-Go-Round issued public stock in the 1980s and Mr. Weinglass became immensely wealthy, he retained the pony tail, which gradually grew silver, and dressed in jeans and T-shirts. Although he has lived in Aspen in recent years, Mr. Weinglass remained a Merry-Go-Round director and maintained close local ties, vying to buy the Orioles, then withdrawing, and later unsuccessfully seeking a football franchise for Baltimore.

Things soured two years ago, as teens started spending less on apparel generally and Merry-Go-Round found itself stuck with outdated fashions. Mr. Weinglass returned to day-to-day operations as chief executive in late 1993 to try to engineer a fix, but he ended up putting the company into Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings last January.

The hope was that Merry-Go-Round could quickly solve its problems, but that hasn't happened. The company lost $72 million on revenue of $544 million for the nine months ended Oct. 29, as sales continue to suffer.

Mr. Weinglass expressed confidence in Mr. Shull and Mr. Kenney, as well as in Frank Tworecke and Lou Spagna, top merchants who joined Merry-Go-Round last summer.

"It's time to step away and let the people I hired take over," he said. Still, he added, "It hurts. It's been a part of my life."

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