The idea for Diversions, Inc. was born six months after Lenore “Lenny” Shapiro, her friends Carole Sibel and Gloria Myers and their husbands took a “disaster” of a trip to The Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, in Washington, D.C. It was rainy, they couldn’t find the entrance and were late for the performance.
“On the way home, Morty declared, ‘That’s it. Next time we go to the theater, I want a full meal, including hors d’ouevres,’” Shapiro said of her late husband, who died two years ago. Out of that experience, “We designed the first trip to New York. We wanted to create a memorable experience for other theater goers.”
And so travel company Diversions was born in 1978, founded by Shapiro, Sibel and Myers. The business’ 40-year run just came to close when it ceased operations on Dec. 31.
At 85, Shapiro retires, “grateful for the experience, for the members who made it possible and for the women who worked with me,” she said, including Antonia Blucher and Susan Snyder, who both worked with Shapiro for more than 36 years.
Shapiro, a Pikesville resident, likes to think of this chapter as one of “retiring, not closing,” she said. She is ready to “smell and enjoy the roses, maybe take a class or volunteer reading to children.”
Sibel, who lost her battle with cancer in 2015 and was known for her philanthropic work, left Diversions after a year, as did Myers.
“The business was all-consuming,” Shapiro said, “and they both wanted to do other things. Carole and I were joined at the hip. We had taught dance and dramatics at a local day camp for five years.”
Shapiro prided her company on customer service, thorough pretour preparation and insider connections, whether it was travel to top Broadway shows with the best seats, tours of museums in Washington, homes and gardens in Connecticut or trips to Europe, China, Russia, New Zealand, Australia and Cuba.
Jill Dudley Cohen, who worked for an interior design firm in Baltimore when she began traveling with Diversions 14 years ago, said she’s seen almost every Broadway show with Shapiro.
“She made the inaccessible accessible. These experiences Lenny created were larger than life, with her connections, the thought and intelligence behind each tour,” she said. “I feel exceptionally lucky to have had the experience I’ve had with Diversions. It’s shaped me into the person I am now in better appreciating art and culture.”
Of her access to Broadway, Shapiro said, “Luck is where opportunity meets preparation,” sharing that she and six of her guides were having lunch at Sam’s on 45th and Broadway, when the late Jerry Schoenfeld, the chair of the Shubert Organization who was known as “Mr. Broadway,” walked over to say hello. Shapiro met with Schoenfeld the next day, and thereafter had access to the best shows.
The meeting with Schoenfeld, who died in 2008, opened Broadway up to Shapiro. She laughed as she recalled that after she purchased tickets for nine performances to “Miss Saigon,” “dead-center … my husband was close to divorcing me, but they were quickly sold.”
She instituted memberships. “We went from 100 members in the first year to 400 in five years to 1,400 members at closing time.” Selling tickets to the best seats and the best shows on Broadway was never a problem. A trip to New York to see Misty Copeland perform in “Romeo and Juliet” during the summer of 2016 was so popular that it sold out in four days and Diversions had to get a second bus.
Debbie Friedman Lurie, an Owings Mills attorney who worked as a guide with Diversions, said she “fell in love” with Shapiro on their first trip.
“She was such an inspiration, she had spunk, and you could tell this was her passion,” she said. “I have seen Cher, ‘Hamilton’ twice, it was just an amazing experience.”
As her reputation grew, Shapiro began to lead tours to museums in France, to the Hermitage in Russia and even hosted guests for a meal at Highclere Castle in England, the filming location of “Downton Abbey,” not long after the series debuted in England in 2010.
Retired Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Barbara Kerr Howe began traveling with Diversions in 1985 with New York trips. In 1999, she went to Australia and New Zealand with the company.
“It was a fabulous trip,” said Howe, a Towson resident. “One of the most memorable things we did was the dinner under the stars. … Before the moon rose, a woman astronomer traced the sky with a light and in her beautiful voice, she described what we saw. I have never again seen so many planets and stars in our sky.”
Asked about her next venture, Shapiro replied that for the holidays she gave every staff member a copy of Michelle Obama’s “Becoming,” saying wistfully, “We are, through the different stages of life, becoming.”
Haydee M. Rodriguez is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.