Profile: Colorful Zippy Larson makes her living taking visitors around some of what she calls '100 different Baltimores,' an approach to tourism that has her so booked she no longer advertises.

THE CITY AT HER FEET

July 05, 1996|By Janice D'Arcy | Janice D'Arcy,SUN STAFF

Zippy Larson takes a dozen visitors to a desolate, garbage-strewn street in Mount Vernon, talking non-stop as she points out where Wallis Simpson, the future Duchess of Windsor, once lived "high on the hog."

Soon the grimy street teems with characters from its golden age, stories creeping out of every corner, charm flooding the sidewalks. Her visitors -- some ladies from out in the county and a handful of sales and marketing conventioneers -- listen raptly.

Zippy Larson makes manystreets in the city come alive this way. Her evocative descriptions and frenetic style have helped make her one of Baltimore's most popular -- and flamboyant -- tour guides.

On this particular day, the graying, 5-foot tall Larson is herding her visitors through "Wallis Simpson's Baltimore." She's dressed neck-to-toe in breathable beige, but the brimmed straw hat atop her salt-and-pepper curls gives away Larson's personality. The hat is adorned with enormous flowers in pink, purple and orange.

In the span of 10 minutes, she pleads with her bus driver to attempt a hair-pin turn down an alley, interrupts her "Duchess" monologue with anecdotes about famous people buried in Green Mount Cemetery, does a riff on what the initials stand for in BVD underwear, and even throws in a dirty joke about the Washington Monument.

It's vintage Zippy, whose tours focus on everything from the city's eccentrics to Baltimore's rowhouses to the role trains played in the city's growth.

No matter the topic, Larson's tours are dizzying, day-long affairs jammed with information, anecdotes, and something she refers to as "serenzippity" -- loosely translated to mean chutzpah.

"You can't just bring people from point A to point B. You have to be talking all the time -- always giving information, always entertaining," Larson says.

Her built-from-scratch Leather Shoe Safaris service is based on an unconventional philosophy in the tourism industry: The deepest nooks and crannies of the town she was "born, bred and buttered in" may not always be photogenic or welcoming, but they are always fascinating.

She figures some of the 7 million-plus people who visit Baltimore every year will be interested more about which city lunch table dominated a scene in the movie "Sleepless in Seattle" than in the more popular harbor-area sights.

"The Inner Harbor is big business for us, yes, but we're glad to see tours that focus on history. One of the things we need more of is to emphasize Baltimore's history -- like the way Philadelphia capitalizes on theirs," says Gil Stotler, the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association's communications director.

Larson is hardly the only guide to venture outside the harbor region, but her one-woman show dominates certain areas. "All About Town" tours is a sprawling company whose president, Lois Wheatley, prides herself on extensive offerings on Baltimore's history.

But even this powerhouse has conceded certain topics to Larson.

"We don't have a Wallis Simpson [tour]," Wheatley says. "Zippy does that."

That kind of forceful presence in the cut-throat tour business was hard won.

A waste of money

Born Zeporah Cohen on a date she declines to reveal ("I'm old enough not to have to answer that"), her working-class family immediately nicknamed her Zippy.

She grew up near Payson Street and North Avenue and wanted to go to college. But after her graduation from Western High School, her mother told her college was a waste of money for girls -- she should be content to sell shoes at Goldenberg's, where her mother had connections to get her a job.

Not satisfied with that future, Larson enrolled in nursing classes at Sinai and graduated at the top of her class.

The next 20 years were spent almost entirely in Baltimore and almost entirely unhappily, with a tumultuous personal life that included two marriages, two divorces, three children to whom she no longer speaks and a dismal working life in a profession she now says she endured rather than enjoyed.

"I went to nursing school to prove a point, not because I liked it," she laments.

Near the end of her second marriage, her husband's company relocated the couple to Iran -- her only years outside Baltimore. When that relationship crumbled, she returned to her hometown and finally went to college.

In 1980, she emerged from the University of Baltimore with a degree in American history and a newfound interest in Baltimore, as well. With a concentration in local history, she began to see the place she grew up in from a new perspective.

One of her teachers had taken students on tours around the city -- tours she now calls "awfully boring [because] he had no idea how to do it." But that sparked her interest in Baltimore.

"All of a sudden, it was history out of the classroom," she says. "It wasn't writing or reading or researching. It was living."

Later, when she was teaching remedial English to high-school dropouts, she began exploring Baltimore's history at night and on the weekends.

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