Originally created 03/12/06

For some, 'Sopranos' tour showcases hit sites



KEARNY, N.J. - As the tour bus curves out of the Lincoln Tunnel into New Jersey, Marc Baron prepares his guests for what they're about to see: what Tony Soprano sees during the opening credits of "The Sopranos."

"Get your cameras ready," he tells the group of 51 people as they pass the glorious Manhattan skyline. "Welcome to New Jersey."

One of the biggest stars in "The Sopranos" - which returns to HBO this Sunday after a nearly two-year hiatus - is New Jersey itself.

The state will be in the spotlight when the first of 12 new episodes airs this weekend.

A New York company has capitalized on the show's popularity, offering a four-hour "Sopranos"-themed tour of northern New Jersey. For $40 a head, fans visit the real home of the Bada Bing (a strip club called Satin Dolls) on Route 17 in Lodi and the fake storefront of Satriale's, where Tony and his crew often talk shop, in Kearny.

Film crews are regularly spotted around New Jersey, where fictional mob boss Tony Soprano and his family live and work. The show, which began in 1999, filmed scenes in downtown Newark and Clifton last month.

The company called On Location Tours, which also runs bus tours of "Sex and the City" sites in Manhattan, has taken about 20,000 fans around Jersey since the trips to the Garden State began about five years ago, said company owner Georgette Blau.

"This is the new literary landmark tour," she said.

A spokeswoman for HBO declined to comment on the tours, which are not affiliated with the cable network.

No matter to "Sopranos" fans, who are shuttled to about 40 different locations.

Some sites are clearly recognizable: the Pizzaland shack and the 25-foot-tall statue of a man holding a roll of carpet during the show's opening credits.

Other less-important "real" sites from the show are quickly pointed out as the bus rolls through the towns of Harrison and Kearny: the auto body shop run by Sal "Big [filtered word]" Bonpensiero, the newspaper box where Christopher Moltisanti steals papers with his name in it, or the high school Anthony Junior vandalizes.

June Gregory, visiting from Philadelphia, stood in front of the diner under the Pulaski Skyway, where in one episode of the show, Christopher was shot.

She decided against taking a photo, but other stops were worthy of pictures by some of the tour participants, who came from far (England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Australia) and near (Brooklyn and Long Island).

Gareth Edwards, visiting from Wales with his wife, said the tour was a highlight of their five-day trip to New York City.

"I'm a big fan of 'The Sopranos.' We've got all the DVDs," he said.

They ranked the tour as important as tours of other New York landmarks they visited, including the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and ground zero.

"It's better than a museum," added Edwards, 34.

Cameras clicked at Satriale's, which of course wasn't open, but props were visible inside. Baron said HBO holds a lease on the small building.

As he peeked inside, Jim Washer said the show enjoys a cult following in London, where he lives.

Baron, an actor, talked about the show and shared biographies of the actors. He also gave prizes for answering "Sopranos" trivia questions. Many people on the tour knew the answers immediately.

One question: What are three kinds of animals killed on the Sopranos? The answer: Adriana La Cerva's dog, a deer in the famous "Pine Barrens" episode, and Tony's race horse.

As the bus snaked through downtown Newark, Baron pointed out Washington Park, where a group of American Indians protested Christopher Columbus in an episode from the fourth season, and the former insurance building now owned by Rutgers University that fronted as a court building for the show.

But perhaps the highlight of the trip was the last stop: a visit to the strip club that serves as home base for the organized crime operation run by Tony and his "capos."

Inside, the purple lights are the same, but the room seems smaller. Dancers wore tops - unlike in the show - as they preened around two poles.

"I was surprised they had clothes on," said Stacey Thomson of Fort Lauderdale.

Participants were taken to a back area where they could buy hats, T-shirts, shot glasses and other trinkets bearing "The Sopranos" and Bada Bing logo.

Baron also pointed out how several buildings near the strip club have been used in the show, including a party store where Bonpensiero meets an FBI agent.

The tour was "something different" for London residents Michael and Victoria Nicholls, both 60, during their first trip to New York.

Even though he couldn't answer any of the trivia questions on the bus, Nicholls said he enjoyed the tour.

But the big fans said they enjoyed seeing the New Jersey spots where Tony, Paulie, Silvio and their favorite characters hang out.

Thomson and her husband said they are already preparing to have friends over for dinner Sunday to watch the show when it resumes. She'll be making ziti with marinara sauce and Italian sausage.

"We'll be taking the phone off the hook," she said. "We won't be answering the door."

On the Net:

http://www.hbo.com