Tour guide sweats the details

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Carol Sorgen

It wasn’t until Zippy Larson lived in Iran for several years that she came to realize how much she still had to learn about her native Baltimore. Though she had spent her life here, she realized that the people she met in Iran knew much more about American — if not necessarily Baltimore — history than she did.

“I thought I was an educated woman,” said the former nurse, who turns 79 in October. “But I went to the other end of the world and found out that they knew so much more than I did.”

Larson’s husband had been on assignment from Westinghouse in Iran. When they returned to Baltimore, she immediately set out to rectify what she perceived as her lack of knowledge.

She began studying history, first at Goucher College, then at the University of Baltimore. When she completed her studies (as the oldest person in her class), one of her professors said to her, “Now you are a historian.”

But Larson thought otherwise. “That was just the beginning,” she said. “I started an independent study program of my own, just for the sheer joy of it.”

Larson’s independent research, which took her throughout Baltimore’s city neighborhoods — talking to people she met on the street, in diners and on Baltimore’s iconic marble stoops —eventually led her to create Zippy Tours 27 years ago.

She offers customized tours to Baltimore visitors and residents alike. (Zippy, by the way, is her nickname. Her real name is Zapora.)

In recent years, she has also begun giving talks at area senior and community centers, as well as for continuing education programs, such as Johns Hopkins’s Odyssey (a non-credit liberal arts program).

Off the beaten tourist track

What makes Larson’s tours unique is the “behind the scenes” perspective she provides, based on her years of research and her intimate knowledge of the city. “I know every inch of town,” she boasts.

That enables her to put together some rather unique tours. In fact, she said, “I don’t like to take people to places that are open to the public.”

So if you want to see Baltimore’s many museums (well worth visiting, it should be said), plan that on your own. But if you want to learn about “The Woman He Loved: The Duchess, The King and the Baltimore Connection,” Larson’s the guide for you.

She has become the go-to person for information about Wallis Warfield Simpson, the gay divorcee from Baltimore who wooed a British monarch into abdicating his throne for her.

The Duchess tour has been especially popular of late, Larson said, in part because of the film, The King’s Speech, in part because of the recent wedding of Prince William and his own “commoner,” Kate Middleton, and in part, because (as the humorist Garrison Keillor said) a good story has five elements: sex, power, money, religion and mystery.

“And the story of the abdication has it all!” said Larson.

Larson is also receiving many requests these days from British visitors who are now able to watch the Baltimore-based/filmed show “The Wire” on British television.

From Little Italy to Locust Point

Among Larson’s other specialized tours are “Horses, Hounds and Hunting,” which explores Maryland’s horse training and breeding industry; “Baltimore Gardens,” which peeks into the private gardens behind Baltimore’s row houses as well as the city’s Colonial gardens; “Hairspray in Baltimore,” for fans of the John Waters’ Broadway show and movie; and walks through such neighborhoods as Little Italy, Fells Point (where Larson herself was born and still lives) and Locust Point.

Locust Point is an especially popular tour, and Larson’s favorite as well.

“This is a neighborhood that is truly Old Baltimore,” Larson said, for several reasons. First, it is not as commercialized as, say, Fells Point. Second, generations of the same families still live within houses of each other. And finally, it retains a link to Baltimore’s industrial past through Domino Sugar, which is still headquartered there.

Larson’s tours have won rave reviews, including from the venerable Fodor’s tour guide, which says, “Energetic, irrepressible Zippy Larson is by far the city’s most engaging tour guide….Zippy’s witty, well-researched tours take you outside the tourist bubble.”

For Karen Gray, tour coordinator for the Smithsonian Associates program, Larson’s “ability to make a site or area come alive and to give people a sense of its people and changes through time is an invaluable experiential and educational gift.”

Tailored tours

She may make it look easy, but a lot of preparation goes into Larson’s tours. Not only does she design a customized itinerary, but she tests the route out herself — multiple times, if necessary.

Larson is meticulous to the point of accompanying a motor coach driver beforehand so she’ll know which lane they should be in so that members of the tour have the best vantage point to see what she is talking about.

Most people who contact Larson to design a tour don’t have any idea what they want to see. Larson believes it is her job to help them figure it out, so she asks them many detailed questions. (Only one woman has ever balked at providing so much information.)

“I want to know what your interests are, where you went to school, what did you study, why you are coming here, and much, much more,” said Larson.

When you buy a dress, she explained, you can go to a department store and purchase “off the rack,” or you can fly to Hong Kong and have a dress custom-made that will last you a lifetime.

“I’m the Hong Kong tailor of tours,” Larson laughed.