Entertainment background gives tour guide an edge

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Talk about being an independent contractor and Martha Lanzillotti relates. Her boutique business, as she calls it, is Explore New York, and she is one of New Yorks 1,300 licensed tour guides.

A step-on guide for tour groups and a private guide for customized sightseeing plans, Lanzillotti has been in this business since 1992, but like many of her counterparts in the Big Apple, she had a first career as an actress. More precisely, she was a singer-actress with the stage name Martha Danielle (the latter is her middle name).

She was in a few Broadway shows in the 1960s and 1970s (once sharing a dressing room with Glenn Close before Close became a star), traveled for months at a time with road shows, appeared in advertising (she is a former Tupperware girl and a former Lotto girl) and, for 13 years, performed in the industrial theater. In that world, she sometimes shared the bill with the likes of Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon.

Corporations that sponsored industrial events used familiar shows and music to convey their own messages and sell products, and Lanzillottis assignments could range from a car show in Detroit (she once did one of those dressed in car upholstery fabrics) to fashion week in New York.

From 1987 to 1992, Lanzillotti worked on cruise ships, mostly Ocean Cruise Lines, doubling as an entertainer and hostess, summering in Scandinavia and wintering in South America.

She said these experiences were great background for a tour guide, particularly for someone in New York, Americas theater central, because she can name-drop to her clients content and she is once again on stage reading her audience.

Guides, after all, are not just books on legs, she said. Information is very important, but its also about your personality and about being spontaneous, she said.

Her first by-the-book obligation is to provide what was promised in printed itineraries or prepare custom itineraries to the customers specifications. Beyond that is her chance to be creative with each client or group. She offers options for add-ons or alternatives, depending on customer interest.

Part of her job, too, is helping out-of-town coach drivers navigate the city, do drop-offs where permissible and locate parking. The drivers can be quite nervous, literally with shaking hands, she said.

A New Yorker from birth, Lanzillotti was thrilled to study (using the recommended Michelin guidebook) for her 1992 licensing test because she learned a great deal about her hometown and took herself all over town for a month. But she is constantly updating her material. For example, some teens want to know where certain basketball courts (seen in movies) are located.

Or, she has to be ready to talk about the most obscure things when a coach is stuck in traffic. Thats why Lanzillotti knows that the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, an Anglo-Catholic church in the theater district, is the first church in the world to be built on a steel frame. Who knew?

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to Nadine Godwin at [email protected].

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