Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Brush with Greatness - Or, the Day I Sat at Dave's Desk.
Ok, first things.
Are we really on the set of the Late Show with David Letterman, and is that really me sitting as his desk?
"How in the world did you get to do that?"
While it all started a very long time ago when I was at Asbury, for our purposes, let's pick up the story in March, when the family spent spring break in Orlando.
While there, we caught up with an old friend from the Asbury days who lived in the area. Jan was very much a part of our early days in ministry. She and her husband, Reid, worked with the youth. Their son, Deuce, was a part of the group. Jan and Reid babysat, almost newborn, Andrew, almost exclusively. He was our son, but he was her baby.
A job opportunity moved the family to Dallas, and shortly thereafter, I moved to Bemis. A tragic car wreck killed Reid ( a bear of man in stature, but as tender a heart as you'll ever find). I returned to Memphis to participate in the funeral.
Jan and Deuce stayed in Dallas until he was preparing for college, and the program he was pursuing was in Florida, so there she moved. We only sporadically kept in touch with each other over the years. When Jimmy died, she showed up one day at Saint John's just to hug me, talk with me and see if I was o.k. She and I have always had a bit of a connection.
Fast forward to Orlando in March, we went out to dinner, and she told me that Deuce, who was now working in NYC with a theatrical production, was getting married--and would I do the service.
She's among that handful of folks in my life that if they ask it, I'm pretty much going to do it. You build up that kind of capital with folks with whom you've weathered life's storms. But I said, "I will, but he's got to ask me," I've got to be back for worship, and, "What are we going to do about pre-marital counselling, because that's a non-negotiable for me?"
Well, the upshot was this--he asked, I said yes, and we did our counselling via Skype. Am I hip, or what?
The second weekend of June was the appointed date. Kristy and I would take flight to NYC, enjoy some time away, I would preside a wedding for a young man I love deeply, a beautiful young woman I was coming to know, and share time with a family that had meant much to me over the years.
During my last "Skype" session I asked Deuce, "Hey, since you're up there in show biz, why dont' you see if you can wrangle me up some Letterman tickets."
His response was, "let me see what I can do."
I didn't think much of it. I wasn't going up there for that, but thought, why not?
Feel free to check my Letterman fandom on this blog. There are posts aplenty.
Deuce called me the day before we were to fly out to ask me what time I was getting to the city. I told him early afternoon. He said that was perfect because I had to be at the corner of 53rd and Broadway at 3:00 p.m. to go to the Letterman show.
Now, here's the cool part.
We get to La Guardia, taxi into the city - nice hotel, the Fitzpatrick on Lexington between 58th and 59th. Meet Jan, see Deuce, who gives me a piece of paper on which is scribbled a phone number, and the name of "a guy."
We walk the blocks west to the appointed place. I make the call. Goes to voicemail, except it says his voicemail is full, so I can't even leave a message.
We call again. The same thing.
Just down the block is where The Ed Sullivan Theater is located. The was a gathering of folks in front, the audience for the day, and a Late Show staffer wearing her Worldwide Pants jacket, with a clipboard seeming to check off names.
Surely we're on the list. I approach. Gave her our names. Nope.
I showed her the piece of paper with the name and number on it.
"I'm sorry, sir, you're going to need more than that if you think you're going to get in."
Oh well, I thought. I'm this close. It's still cool. This is just not going to pan out.
I called Deuce, told him my problem. He told me to stand by.
Few minutes later, I see a guy walking toward us on his phone. We must have looked like frustrated fans.
"You Johnny?" he asked.
"Yes, I am. And this is my wife, Kristy."
"Nice to meet you," he said. "My name's Martin."
Martin's the name on the slip of paper. "Sorry I couldn't get your call. We don't get good signal down in the control room."
"Oh," I said. "I tried to see if we were on the list to go into the theater, but the lady told me it was a no-go."
Martin said, "We're not going in that way...follow me."
We walked to the corner, turned onto 53rd, in that area where they drop stuff off the roof, across the street from the revival of "Promises, Promises," starring Sean "Just Jack" Hayes and Christen Chenoweth, featuring the powerful music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
As we're walking to the side door I asked, "So, how do you know Deuce?"
Martin said, "I don't. We just watch out for each other and do favors. One day he'll be working on a show that I'll have someone who wants to see and I'll give a call. That's how it works around here."
Wow, I thought.
And Martin was the consummate host. As we walked in, the band was rehearsing. There's Paul and crew, working on the day's special music (with Peter Wolf). Technicians and staffers roaming all over the stage.
I was standing in The Ed Sullivan Theater. And that lady who wouldn't even give me the time of day? Still standing outside with the audience. It's about 3:10 p.m.
Martin takes us downstairs to the control room. That's where he works. His job is engineering the stationary lights in the theater. Certain lights come up at a certain time...stuff like that.
Saw the director at his post. They were going through several practice things. And then, they started taping the night's Top 10. It was an on location shoot of Washington Nationals pitcher, Stephen Strasburg. They record it early and Dave is reacting to tape...who knew?
Walking back up from the basement we'd pass these suited guys with secret service looking communication devices, "Dave's private security...he's had a pretty rough year."
We walked up to the balcony, where at the very top was a station for the motion light engineer. Next to him was two seats behind a table..."you all will sit there."
And there we were, not in a regular seat, but with the crew. Very cool. Our view from the top was actually more appealing than a floor seat because once the show starts, the cameras and other equipment block the view from below.
By this time, it's about 3:40 p.m. "Can I get you all anything?" he asks. "No, we're good."
And we sat there, watched the band finish rehearsal (they are a great band), crew was rushing around.
Audience entered little after 4:10 p.m. and everyone's pretty much seated by 4:15 p.m. As they walked by us to take their seats I think they thought we're with the production. Kinda funny.
After a few minutes of sitting with our newest friend, Kristy says, "Is that a space heater I smell?"
Sure enough, this guy had a little space heater at his feet.
"Dave likes it cold." I had heard that before. So I asked, how cold is it?
"49 degrees, always."
You've got to be kidding. Now being up top it wasn't that cold, but it was chilly.
Warm up comedian came on and tried to be funny. He introduced the band and they come on stage one at a time. It's about 4:27 p.m. when Dave is introduced. He runs across the stage, grabs a mic, says hello, yucks it up the crowd. The clock is seconds away from 4:30 p.m. He abruptly says he has to go, runs off stage and the theme hits right at 4:30 p.m.
The experience is very different, as I would have expected. It's a very technical thing, a television production. It's the necessary work that happens never seen on the television that makes all things appear fluid, natural and entertaining. Lights, applause signs, watching what the band is doing when they are off camera--watching what Dave is doing when he's off camera.
But it was such a kick. Up high in the theater was really the best view. Harry Connick, Jr. was a guest. Jayden Smith was as well, and I found him a disrespectful - not like his dad at all. Peter Wolf was the music guest and by the time he came on and did his number, I could have done it along with him, because we heard it rehearsed before air about 5 times.
Some observations about Dave - when he's not on camera, he is out of his jacket. Takes it off and throws it. One of his little minions has to keep up with it and make sure he has it back on before he back on camera. While he talked with Harry during the commercial, at other breaks he was away from the desk and talking with what looks like a team of 4 or 5 writers.
He's on stage and at his desk not once second longer than the camera demands. At the close of the show when he says, "good night,everybody,"the band hits the theme and only plays about 15 seconds of it until camera is off. Dave was handed a house mic and said, "Thanks for coming, enjoy New York, we'll see you next time," and that was it, he was gone.
I imagined the words, "Ladies and Gentlemen, Dave has left the building."
The show was over, and pages were escorting the audience out of the theater rather quickly. Folks were polite and didn't seek to linger.
But Kristy and me? We were with the production, don't you see, so we stayed right where we were.
After the audience filed out our secondary host said, "I'm going to take down to Martin, he's on stage."
You know that circular staircase that's one Dave's left as he sits as his desk--we came down it.
And then in one defining moment, there we were, on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater.
Just standing there like we were meant to be there. That stage, in Dave's care now, but much bigger than Dave.
I thought about the people who've stood on the very spot I was standing--giants in the entertainment business.
Every comedian of note from the 50's forward.
Every singer and band of note from that time forward.
I'm telling you, surreal doesn't capture this. I wasn't expecting this at all, and I went from getting up one morning in my own bed in Memphis, to standing on the stage of The Ed Sullivan Theater that afternoon.
And while I standing there, Alan Kalter's hanging around yucking it up with a couple of his guests, Paul's still at the keyboard working on something. The stage is not that big, it's actually a pretty small theater as theater's go. And there I am, like I'm supposed to be there.
"Go over to the desk," Martin said, "and I'll take some pictures."
My phone was dead. I didn't bring a camera--didn't know all this was going to happen. So the picture you see if from Kristy's phone. I'm not sitting in Dave's chair. Nobody does but Dave. It's taking away and covered right after the show. It's just a basic office chair, and it's set for him at the desk on camera.
What about Dave's desk? Not really a desk, no surprise, more like an L-shaped table.
Underneath to the left is Kleenex, a gallon pump bottle of Purel, a trashcan and other miscellaneous things. Pretty utilitarian, actually.
The desk mic is real. I picked it up, looked at it. Put it back. Nobody yelled at me.
"Where's Dave's pencils?" Kristy asked. There were not any on the desk.
"Just a minute," Martin said, and he walked over the where the Producer's station was, grabbed a handful, and handed them to her.
You know what they say on them?
"The Late Show" No. 2
We sat at the desk several minutes before getting up.
Kristy talked with Alan Kalter a bit, seems like a really pleasant guy--you know, like a guy who's really glad he's got a gig.
And let me tell you...it was COLD.
"Man, it really is cold down here."
"Yeah," Martin said. "Dave doesn't like to be hot. It's 49 all the time whether we're dark or on the air. When the lights aren't on you can see your breath."
I believe it.
"He didn't really seem to interact very much with the audience," I said.
"Dave doesn't like people very much," Martin replied.
I can see that.
Anyway, we walked backstage where just offstage by Dave's desk is Dave's coffeepot. Coffee just for him, brewed from a Mr. Coffee like in anybody's home.
Backstage looks more like a theater backstage than a studio, and that's what it is.
He shared some of the challenges of retrofitting a theater for television production. Kinda cool.
We walked around a bit more, passed Sid McGinnis, guitarist--head nod was all that was necessary being the cool musician he is, I dig it, then out the backstage door.
Alan Kalter hung around to shake some hands and chat up the lingering fans and then looking up to the sky he said, "wow, what a beautiful day," and then headed west on 53rd on foot. It's New York.
I shook Martin's hand and thanked him profusely for his hospitality.
I'll never see this guy again. And I'm here to tell you, this guy modeled hospitality and graciousness to people he'd never seen before better than any church I've ever served or been in.
It was extraordinary.
And all because of this unspoken "code" between folks in productions in NYC.
There's a sermon in there somewhere, and it's not too hard to find.