LARRY OBERMAN MUST BE mellowing with age. On the morning of last year's annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., he arrived at the auditorium by 5, determined to be first in line when the doors opened to get a prime seat near Berkshire chairman Warren Buffett. But on last week's pilgrimage to hear the Oracle of Omaha speak - Oberman's fifth trip - the 32-year-old Chicago investment manager didn't show up until 5:15, and cheerfully settled for fourth place in line. Blame the late arrival on his girlfriend, Debbie Cohen, a first-time attendee who's not as enthusiastic as her beau. ""We used to fool around,'' she says. ""Now he just wants to go on America Online to talk about Berkshire stock.'' Oberman pleads guilty. ""We're like a cult,'' he says proudly. ""Warren just hasn't told us to take the poison yet.''

It's one of Wall Street's strangest phenomena: the deification of this bushy-browed 66-year-old investor. For most of the year Buffett, worth $18 billion at last count, zealously guards his privacy. No interviews, no autographs, no entourage as he drives his Lincoln Town Car to work. But at Berkshire's annual meeting a weekend-long event Buffett calls the Woodstock of Capitalism - he lets his flock worship at his feet. There's much to celebrate. Berkshire, the former textile company Buffett runs as a quasi mutual fund, outperformed the S&P 500 last year for the 16th consecutive year, and many of the meeting-goers have made millions riding its soaring stock. Admirers wait for hours to shake Buffett's hand as two beefy bodyguards keep watch. Shareholders keep their kids home from grade school to hear him opine about market valuations. Isn't it all sort of . . . scary? ""Not at all,'' Buffett told NEWSWEEK as he signed $100 bills for fans. ""They're all just here for a good time.''

For diehard fans, the good times start on Saturday. A half dozen of the regulars on the America Online bulletin board devoted to Berkshire have agreed to meet at a pub. The meeting was arranged by an Omaha woman who recently appeared on their AOL board using the screen name ""Doshoes.'' As the AOLers sip Cokes, Doshoes wanders in . . . with Buffett beside her. Doshoes, it turns out, is Buffett's daughter Susie, who's been quietly monitoring their chatter and giving printouts to Dad. Their hero spends a few minutes shaking hands before heading to Rosenblatt Stadium to throw out the first pitch (it's low and outside). In the stands, AOL devotee John Gartmann stands in a long line to meet Buffett a second time. Complains his girlfriend: ""They're like groupies around a rock star.''

The next morning the action moves to Borsheim's, a local Berkshire-owned jewelry store. Shareholders fill the aisles while Buffett draws crowds outside. (Some disclosures here: among the attractions at Borsheim's was a book signing by Katharine Graham of The Washington Post Company, NEWSWEEK's parent. Berkshire owns 16 percent of the Post Company, and Buffett serves on its board.) Outside the store David Tunnell and four classmates from Harvard Business School are restless. For them the weekend is a sort of spring break for finance fanatics before they get their M.B.A.s next month. They hop into their minivan and cruise to Farnham Street in search of Buffett's house. Pretending to be deliverymen, they ask neighborhood girls where the guru lives. They circle the block, eying the big brown house on the corner. Next stop: Buffett's office building, where they pose for pictures before heading for cocktails.

A few hours later they're at Gorat's steakhouse. Shareholders ogle while the Buffett family munches T-bones and onion rings. J. P. Tann, a Singapore investment executive, has flown around the globe to meet his idol. Now he sits holding a menu just a few feet from Buffett's table. ""I'm overwhelmed,'' he says. A waitress interrupts his reverie to take his order. ""I'll have Mr. Buffett's favorite,'' he says, ordering the T-bone. ""How do you want that done?'' she asks. ""How does Mr. Buffett have his done?'' After dinner a crowd gathers in the lounge to debate. How much will Berkshire stock drop when Buffett dies? (Twenty percent is a common guess.) How long will Buffett live? (Sixteen years, says one fan who's consulted an actuary.) Last year the talk centered on a rumor that Buffett had cancer. ""His doctor says he's got the body of a 22-year-old,'' insists daughter Susie, who also denies a rumor that Dad recently had a face-lift.

The only health scare this weekend is Buffett's voice. By Sunday night he's hoarse from too much schmoozing with shareholders. On Monday morning before the annual meeting, his staff stockpiles the podium with hot cider. At 8:30 the Berkshire love-in begins. Giant-screen TVs blare ads for the companies that fill Buffett's portfolio - Coca-Cola, Disney, Dexter shoes - along with funny filmed tributes from pals like Bill Gates and Tom Brokaw. In the lobby investors can shop for Ginsu knives, Geico car insurance and other Berkshire wares; outside the gate pro-life protesters gather to show opposition to Buffett's donations to Planned Parenthood. At 9:30 Buffett and his vice chairman and sidekick Charlie Munger hit the stage to a standing ovation. For the next six hours they munch chocolates, sip Cherry Coke and answer questions from 7,500 investors.

Never mind that everything Buffett says is pulled straight from the gospel he's laid out in 20 years' worth of annual letters to shareholders, which Berkshire now sells in $15 bound volumes. Shareholders hang on every word as he repeatedly explains how he searches for undervalued companies with unassailable market positions. There are a few headline-making comments: Buffett says he's against lowering the capital-gains tax rate and that he wouldn't mind if the Dow dropped 3500 points. By midafternoon the crowd thins as Buffett launches into a windy explanation of the catastrophic-insurance business. Nobody bothers the tall fellow in the Mickey Mouse tie who wanders out to stretch his legs. (Isn't his name Eisner?) The Harvard guys get restless and drive to the airport to find Buffett's famed corporate jet, The Indefensible. Larry Oberman and Debbie Cohen depart for another spin through Borsheim's to look at engagement rings. (They don't buy.) Back at the auditorium the rest of the disciples disperse, their appetite for wisdom sated for another year. The lights go dim. Buffett has left the building.