Issue: Issue Spring 2011

Starline Tours - The Dream of Vahid and Fred Sapir

For nearly 100 years, the search for the most glamorous and glittering side of the American Dream has bought countless people to Hollywood. People still arrive by car, train, bus and plane in the hope of striking gold - maybe even in the shape of Oscar himself - and making it big in the home of the movies.

Only a few of those people realize their dreams, though one family has been part of Tinsel Town for over 50 years. Their success story is one that everyone who visits Hollywood knows, and may even have played their part in - if just for a few hours:

"We are the American Dream. We never thought it would happen, but with hard work and getting help from lots of people here (in America), it came true for us. You can do anything in American if you focus on what you want to do, be serious, be honest and be nice to everybody."

These are the words of Vahid Sapir. He's not an actor or producer, yet back in 1963 he saw an opportunity that was written in the stars. Born in Iran, he'd come to Los Angeles as an exchange student to study engineering. He was working as a parking attendant at Grauman's Chinese theatre when he got to know Bud Delp, a celebrity chauffeur.

Years before, Delp had been given a tip by one of his clients - Sid Grauman himself, the man behind the idea of handprints and footprints in cement outside his theatre - and from then on had driven excited tourists around Beverly Hills on what became known as the "Movie Stars' Homes Tour":

"Everything was regulated then and he had what's called a "grandfather" certificate to operate between Hollywood and the movie stars homes. Only he had the right to do a limo tour on a certain route through Beverly Hills - just him and one other competitor."

Even though it was the time of the Depression and the famous Walk of Fame hadn't even laid its first star, Bud was soon busy enough that he needed more limousines. He was also fighting some personal problems though, and Vahid became a friend:

"I helped him out. He was sick - he suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure - and he asked if I wanted to buy the tours business from him. I had graduated though, and he was very upset when I started a job as an engineer. But then the doctors said he hadn't long to live, so I bought half of it from him in cash. Bud lost the money in a few months and I said "We can't go on like this. Give me the rest of the business and I'll look after you." I paid him a salary every month until he died a couple of years later."

Vahid took out a $50,000 bank loan to buy Bud's limousines and re-named the service Starline Tours. He knew that movie fans would always be thrilled at the chance to catch a glimpse of their idols at home, so he looked into expanding Starline from day one:

"But I had no idea it would grow into what it is today. I was dedicated, had ideas, and had just the right location in Hollywood. Because I had worked hard at Grauman's they were happy to rent me the location outside so I made a kiosk, bought some limo mortuary cars, hired the right people, and it just grew and grew."

The rest is literally a part of Hollywood History. Over 75 years later the "Homes" tours still leave Grauman's throughout the day,  and over time Vahid has recruited other family members including his vice-president brother Fred, wife and CFO Noonoosh, his nephew, brother-in-law  and other nephews who "come in and out".

It hasn't all been plain sailing though. Starline may be the best-known tour operator, but today there are plenty of competitors looking to attract some of the estimated 10,000,000 visitors that come to Hollywood every year.

For a time the buses got bigger and heavier until the city of Beverly Hills imposed a maximum weight limit in the 1980s, though for the Sapir brothers this was a chance to change the game. They bought a fleet of air-conditioned mini-buses fitted with jumbo windows for the best view and these quickly became a more common sight, so much so that they've even been seen in television programs like "American Idol" and "The Apprentice".    

A few years ago Starline also introduced "topless" mini-buses so passengers could enjoy the famous California sunshine, and most recently they were behind the introduction of the iconic red London buses.

They had been seen in L.A. before of course - three buses visited here as part of a tourism Goodwill Tour way back in May 1952 - but the Sapirs tracked down some out-of-service British "double-deckers" and after having the passenger doors switched and seats repaired, they cut off the roofs to let the sun shine in.

There was also Starline's long-time competitor:

"Grayline Tours were my rivals from the beginning, and around 1970s the tour bus industry was de-regulated. I was trying to grow, but Grayline was opposing everything. They had bigger buses too."

Starline continued to be successful though, and in the late 1980s Vahid pulled off a coup when he bought Grayline Tours from their owners and merged their 80 buses into Starline's fleet:

"We became the 10th largest tour company in America at the time, and today we have 180 buses and run 30 different tours."

As for the future, Starline is also keen to take passengers Downtown, a part of Los Angeles that is rich in history and stories but was largely ignored until the recent resurgence of bars, hotels and art events made it a go-to destination.

The biggest news is that May 1 this year sees the introduction of the very latest Starline tour, an open-top paparazzi tour called "Secrets and Celebrity Hot Spots" and is partnership with popular gossip television show and website TMZ. The celeb snappers and TMZ team have designed the route so you'll pass by where their photographers hang out while waiting for that perfect picture, and see infamous celeb spots such as Winona Ryder's "favorite" department store and the legendary Laugh Factory where "Seinfeld" star Michael Richards unleashed his racist rant.

Celebs have become more wary of the countless tour buses and moved to protect their privacy by putting up high fences, installing security cameras and demanding restricted parking. Things aren't liked they used to be, but Starline has moved with the times and this TMZ tour is a kind of "Movie Star's Homes" for the internet/iPhone generation:

"Passengers may even get to be on TV and interact with TMZ figurehead Harvey Levin on the show if anything big happens while the tour is happening. Stars sometimes get on the bus to see the tour, or they come over and talk to the tourists."

The Starline office has subscriptions to all the entertainment and gossip magazines already, and since most of the tour guides are aspiring actors, comedians or writers who pass on gossip, there's now another chance that your bus trip might have a star guest. DH