Return of ‘The Sopranos’: Fuggedaboudit? Never

As a tour bus leaves Manhattan through the Lincoln Tunnel, surfacing four minutes later in a pleasant New Jersey suburb, 53 excited passengers hear the familiar opening theme of the wildly popular television series "The Sopranos," which resumes its sixth and final season on HBO this Sunday.

"I can't wait to see all those places in the show," exclaimed Jennifer Tendler of Philadelphia to her 20-year-old daughter Sharla, both diehard fans of the series.

At one time, two competing tour companies were vying for "Sopranos" fans and, in a strange twist of fate, the real-life situation seemed almost like a scene from the HBO drama, with one company even taking the other to court.

The original company, On Locations Tours, Inc., was started in 1999 by Georgette Blau, born in Australia and transplanted to New York. Recognizing the obsession with celebrities in this country, she realized that no tour showed her famous New York movie and television landmarks. One day, walking past the apartment building featured in "The Jeffersons," she decided to start a tour company to visit sites of the popular "Sex and the City" television series.

After the initial success, Blau went on to offer other tours of famous New York sites, but acknowledges that these days, "our 'Sopranos Tours' every Saturday and Sunday are very popular, particularly with the anticipation of the final episodes to start" on Sunday. (Still, the most popular program is the "Sex and the City" tour, even though the series ended its HBO run; reruns are on TBS, and the show is also available on demand to Comcast viewers. Foreign visitors, especially, like to see the sites showcased in the series.)

Tour guides are usually actors and actresses, who augment their incomes, and often don't work on weekends.

When one of Blau's original tour guides, Chris Lucas, a New Jersey native, decided there was a need for residents who wanted to board a tour bus in New Jersey rather than New York, he started the "New Jersey Sopranos Tour," which begins at Meadow Plaza in Secaucus.

"When the demand is high, on Sundays, we offer pretty similar tours as On Location Tours," says Lucas. "Our bus holds 40 passengers."

Lucas has a recurring role on daytime-television's soap opera, "As the World Turns," and he sometimes works as an extra on "The Sopranos."

A few years ago, when Blau started a lawsuit against Lucas' company, it was eventually settled amicably; now, passengers have the choice of both New York and New Jersey locales.

Meanwhile, at On Location Tours, a sense of excitement flows through the bus as guide Marc Baron, also an actor, explains that he occasionally plays a minor role or acts as a stand-in on "The Sopranos."

Early in the series, Baron was a bartender at the Vesuvio restaurant. "We will visit about 40 sites you see on the show, and you can get off the bus at about five different sites," he begins.

Among the places viewed are Satriales, Tony's meat-market hangout (where he conducts business with cohorts Paulie, Heshie — the Jewish member of this gang, played by Jerry Adler — and Silvio); the steps of the diner where Chris was shot; A.J.'s high school; Father Phil's church; Pizzaland; and the famous, or infamous, nightclub Bada Bing, which is actually a real club named Satin Dolls in Bergen County, N.J.

Hey, Mangia This!

Passengers even get to visit a local bakery, and then enjoy a cannoli on the bus while listening to behind-the-scenes trivia from the knowledgeable guide, who also conducts a "Sopranos" trivia contest.

Most agree that, love 'em or hate 'em, Tony, played by superb actor James Gandolfini, remains their favorite. Before the cult anti-hero became America's favorite "gangsta," he worked as a New York bouncer, a nightclub manager and, at one time, drove a delivery truck for a seltzer company.

Cynthia Bass from Merion said that her favorite is Tony's nephew, Christopher, played by Michael Imperioli: "He's so charmingly evil!"

Frequently, to the delight of the passengers, Joe Gannascoli, who played Vito on the show, hops on board to chat with the fans, sign autographs and pose for photographs. Forget that he was "whacked" a few episodes ago; he's still a well-liked character. And in real life, he recently lost 150 pounds!

Many of the visited sites are outdoors. Most of the interior scenes are filmed at Silvercup Studios in Queens, where a series of nondescript buildings are located in the shadow of the Queensborough Bridge. But there are several interior locations that can be entered where shooting occurs in the scripts.

Tony Soprano's home cannot be visited; the actual house rests in a gated community in North Caldwell, N.J., and upscale Essex County does not welcome tour buses. However, a replica of the home was constructed.

Now, fans anxiously ponder endless questions: Will Tony and Carmela stay together? Who will really run "the family"?

In the meantime, the tour companies suggest: "If you are old enough to watch the show, you are old enough for the tour."

For information on the On Location Tour, call 212-683-2027; for the Chris Lucas tour, call 212-874-5300, Ext. 1434.



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