Note to readers: Then and now, New Hampshire is the quadrennial February home of presidential candidates large, small and desperate.
There were no “social media” outlets in 1992, making TV commercials of prime importance in the battle to emerge from the Granite State with a strut instead of a limp. They remain important, especially to the bottom line of New Hampshire’s lone broadcast network affiliate, WMUR-TV. But 24 years ago, candidates showed their spots with a vengeance while viewers braved barrages of attacks and promises. Here’s how it looked back then. This article was originally published on Feb. 8, 1992.
By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
MANCHESTER, N.H. -- If candidate commercials constitute an air war, then New Hampshire residents are being saturation bombed down the home stretch to the Feb. 18 presidential primary.
“I’m sick of all of them,” said baseball card dealer John Wood, a disaffected Republican who plans to vote for consumer advocate Ralph Nader. ”I look at the idiot box, and I find myself screaming at it.”
Nader, running for president as a write-in candidate, is doing so without selling himself via 30- or 60-second TV spots. That’s something of a public service, considering that 11 candidates and some interest groups have bought hours and hours of time for their campaigns.
From conservative GOP challenger Patrick Buchanan to liberal Democrat Tom Harkin, the candidates have made the economy the dominant theme of their commercials.
So far, the eight Democrats on the air have avoided attacking each other directly. The majority of their spots mix thumbnail biographies with pledges to provide jobs and health care for all.
But on the Republican side, Buchanan has been bashing President Bush with a 30-second ad that makes fun of his 1988 “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes. The spot concludes with a small group of New Hampshire residents saying in unison, “Read our lips.”
This lone Buchanan ad, airing more than 25 times a day, is intended to be a gut-level rebuttal to the president’s more polished performance in a 30-second commercial filmed in the Oval Office.
Invariably airing within five minutes of the Buchanan ad, the spot has Bush talking up his recently unveiled economic plan. “But I need your help now, to send a real message to Congress to get this job done,” he says.
On Friday, the Bush campaign added a new spot that uses images from the Persian Gulf War to dramatize his battle with Congress.
These spots are quite different from the sharp attack ad the Bush campaign aired against Kansas Sen. Bob Dole the weekend before the 1988 New Hampshire primary. That spot, titled “Senator Straddle,” helped Bush win a come-from-behind victory.
This year, the candidates have chosen Manchester’s WMUR-TV, the state’s only network affiliate station, as their principal playing field. The station, which reaches about 90 percent of New Hampshire’s 1.1 million residents, has been airing between 150 and 200 presidential candidate commercials a day, according to assistant sales manager Julie Campasano.
But in the final week of the campaign, “upwards of 90 percent” of WMUR’s available commercial time -- more than 300 spots a day -- will go to the candidates, she said.
The motherlode of media imagery is WMUR’s one-hour early evening newscast, which runs from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday’s program was typical. Nine candidates aired 18 commercials that ran for a combined 11-and-a-half minutes. Each 30-second spot was bought for a $400 reduced rate -- which candidates are entitled to under federal law -- instead of the $700 going rate, Campasano said.
“It’s great for a campaign to come in here and be able to afford to buy television commercials, even if they don’t have a lot of money,” said Maura Keefe, state press secretary for Democratic presidential candidate Bob Kerrey.
WMUR had sold more than $600,000 worth of political commercials through Thursday. “Compared to 1988, it seems to me that we’re airing many, many more spots for less money,” Campasano said.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Bush, Buchanan, Kerrey, Harkin and Bill Clinton have been making the maximum buys -- one minute per half-hour -- on newscasts and during WMUR’s heavy lineup of daytime talk shows.
A 30-second commercial on Sally Jessy Raphael, which airs weekday mornings, costs a candidate only $25. The environment isn’t always ideal, however. On Thursday’s Sally, a Bush ad aired within minutes of the host’s conversation with stripper Toppsy Curvey.
Candidate commercials have been far less visible on the three Boston network affiliate stations that are beamed into most of New Hampshire. Those stations prohibit political ads within newscasts.
But at WMUR, “we’ve always run them on our news during the primary season,” station manager Tom Bonnar said.
After doing a live interview on Tuesday’s early evening newscast, Harkin strolled over to a WMUR monitor to watch one of his commercials. “I’m gonna make a quick call and find out why my new ad isn’t on yet,” he said.
Harkin’s latest commercial turned up the next day. A narrator touts his successful fight to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act and Harkin is pictured with his deaf brother, Frank.
Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Jerry Brown has bought a handful of 30-second spots to promote his latest half-hour program, Take Back America, scheduled to air a week before the election.
Besides his 30-second attack ad, Buchanan has purchased two half-hour slots on the eve of the primary.
Three “minor” candidates -- Republican Jim Lennane and Democrats Charles Wood and Larry Agran, the former mayor of Irvine, Calif. -- have been running more ads than Democrat Paul Tsongas.
Agran’s ad makes the most generous economic promise: in an Agran presidency, every household would receive an annual $1,850 “peace dividend.”
Kerrey’s first commercial, which the candidate himself recently criticized, showed him talking tough from a hockey rink about unfair trade. His hastily revised ad campaign is anchored by a biographical spot that depicts him as a courageous outsider for whom “politics is a cause, not a career.” Other spots emphasize his commitment to universal health care.
Clinton is relying almost exclusively on a one-minute “story of a young man born in a small town called Hope. Hope, Arkansas.”
The ad traces the candidate from boyhood -- where he is fleetingly pictured with John F. Kennedy -- to governor of “one of the poorest states in our country.”
“Against all odds,” a narrator says, Clinton improved state schools and triggered “one of the highest growth rates in new jobs in any state in the nation.”
The air wars also have included political commercials by the American Association of Retired Persons urging health care reform and a Bush-bashing ad paid for by the New Hampshire Citizens For Action.
Beginning Thursday, New Hampshire residents can critique the commercials via a hotline 00 1-900-RUN FAIR -- sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the American Association of Advertising Agencies. If enough voters sound off, the 900-line will be used in other primary states.
“We feel something has to be done to make the electorate feel more empowered, said New Hampshire League president Ginger Culpepper.
Email comments or questions to: email@example.com
An interview with former CBS News producer Mary Mapes long before Truth became a feature film reality co-starring Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett
Note to readers: The feature film Truth, starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as CBS News producer Mary Mapes, opens on Friday, Oct. 16th.
It’s based on Mapes’ 2005 book, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power. Rather and Mapes combined forces on the George W. Bush “Memogate” story that alleged he received very favorable treatment while serving with the Texas Air National Guard. Mapes subsequently was fired and Rather lost his position as anchor of The CBS Evening News. He later resigned and unsuccessfully sued the network.
This up-close look at Mapes, first published on Nov. 9, 2005, originated from her Dallas home and was her first print interview before she apprehensively began a national book tour on behalf of Truth.
By ED BARK
The past year’s short list of women scorned would be bogus without Mary Mapes.
Figuratively tarred and feathered before being fired by CBS, the Dallas-based producer of the now infamous “Memogate” report on President Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service says she’s both willing to take on her detractors and wary about how she’ll fare.
Her vehicles are the just published book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, and a companion tour of prominent TV news shows that kicks off today. After a lifetime behind the camera, Mapes will be going very public.
“I do feel a lot of trepidation about it,” she says in her first print interview. “Whenever you’ve gone through a period where you’ve been scrutinized, rejected and derided to that degree, I mean, it’s just overwhelming.
“I know there are some people out there waiting in the dark beside their computers, people who are going to zing off things about how wrong and stupid and ugly I am, how I’m a fool and a liberal tool. I fully expect that.”
Mapes, 49, talks animatedly in the East Dallas home she shares with her husband Mark Wrolstad, son Robert and dogs Honey, Mattie and Scout. Wrolstad, a reporter for The Dallas Morning News, took a leave of absence to serve as a sounding board and editor for his wife’s outpouring of printed words and rubbed-raw emotions.
In her view, “all that junk on the Internet” from bloggers and mainstream commentators “made me somebody I didn’t even recognize. I’m a feminist, but I am not an angry, communist ‘femininazi,’ sicko, mean, pinko, shrieking nag witch.”
It’s enough to make her laugh for the first of several times. Maybe it’s gallows humor, but it comes easily both in person and in print. She jokes about being punch-drunk for her scheduled Thursday bout with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor. They’ll square off after Mapes does CNN’s Larry King Live in Los Angeles on Wednesday night and then flies cross-country for an early gig on the network’s Manhattan-based American Morning.
“I’m going to talk to O’Reilly when I’ve had no sleep at the end of a long day,” she says. ”I may just collapse in a heap and confess that I did it. I shot him.”
Mapes, who grew up on a Burlington, WA farm with her four sisters, worked at Seattle’s KIRO-TV for 10 years before joining CBS News in 1989.
She became Dan Rather’s principal producer after joining 60 Minutes Wednesday in 1999. Together they collected a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award in May for an investigative report on abuses in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.
By that time, she already was an ex-CBS News employee and he’d stepped down as anchor of the CBS Evening News a year earlier than planned.
Their downfalls were a 2004 report that questioned how George W. Bush got into the largely noncombat National Guard during the Vietnam era and whether he fulfilled his obligations before his 1973 honorable discharge.
The authenticity of military documents used in the report was called into question by bloggers who contended that the typeface used in them didn’t exist yet.
On Sept. 20, 2004, CBS News president Andrew Heyward apologized for the report, as did Rather on the air that same night.
Mapes eventually found herself on the receiving end of a more than 200-page report from a panel commissioned by CBS and headed by former Republican attorney general Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press president Louis D. Boccardi.
The panel said it “had not been able to conclude with absolute certainty” whether the documents used in the report were “authentic or forgeries.” Nor did it find evidence of “liberal bias.”
But in the quote’s most quoted passage, CBS News was faulted for its “myopic zeal to be the first news organization to broadcast what was believed to be a new story.” The rush to judgment resulted in questionable reporting, the panel said.
Mapes was fired. Three higher-level CBS staffers were asked to resign and since have.
Her book leaves no doubt that Mapes still stands by the story and resents taking the fall for it.
“CBS’ handing of it was so divisive,” she says now. “They decided early on that to save themselves, this was going to be a death penalty offense for somebody.
“They were in complete panic . . . If we could have held it together and maintained some dignity, I think we could have gotten through it. But they weren’t used to this, and they didn’t know what to do. And they chose a road that was really brutal and very hard on the people that worked there.”
Linda Mason, CBS News’ vice president of standards and special projects, says the network commissioned the independent panel “at tremendous cost to ourselves” after determining that an in-house investigation “wouldn’t be believed.”
“We opened up every nook and cranny,” she says by phone. “It was very painful, but we felt that we had to come totally clean in order to restore the integrity of CBS News. In hindsight, we probably stood behind the (story) for too long.”
The Bush-National Guard story, which been an off-and-on project for several years at CBS, might have benefited from being held for an extra week, Mapes says.
“But you hit a threshold where you say, ‘I think it’s ready to be presented to the public and have them make a judgment.’ I’ve never done any perfect stories -- any. And there are things that I would change about this one in terms of wording and nuance and things that were included and excluded. But the hub of the story I think was OK . . . Our team did the same kind of diligent work on this story that we did on Abu Ghraib.”
Rather, with whom she remains close, is still standing as a 60 Minutes correspondent after CBS dropped Wednesday’s edition last spring. Mapes doesn’t agree with Mike Wallace’s contention that Rather should have resigned in solidarity with his team.
“I don’t feel any resentment or disappointment in him in that way at all,” she says. “He’s been a wonderful friend. He’s terrifically loyal, and I think the world of him.”
For better or worse, she and her book (“I feel like I’ve given birth to a whale”) now will be on their own.
“I may just be walking into a helicopter blade,” she says. “I’m sorry this happened. Given my druthers, I would go back to the security that I had, having my reputation intact.
“But I have to make peace with myself by believing that everything does happen for a reason. Maybe it was time for me to stop. I’d been on and off planes for 15 years, and there’s a real knot-in-your-stomach quality to that kind of life.
“But you also get addicted to that adrenaline. And it’s very hard to be pulled off the support system.”
Email comments or questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Note to readers: Born in Austin and educated at Texas Christian University, Bob Schieffer, 78, is retiring from CBS News this Sunday after 46 years of reporting, anchoring and analyzing.
He’ll say his goodbyes on Face the Nation, which Schieffer has helmed since 1991. We bid him a fond farewell with three stories from the vault. They cover his graceful exit from anchoring the CBS Evening News, a day spent with him -- and Donald Rumsfeld -- at Face the Nation and a memorable experience at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, at which Michael Dukakis became the party’s presidential nominee after a very prolonged set-up speech by then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
By ED BARK
(Originally published on July 21, 1988)
ATLANTA -- At a declawed Democratic convention held in a cramped arena, a network floor reporter’s lot is lots of pleasantries and not a lot to do besides scrunch or be scrunched.
“We took several pictures of Dan Rather’s rear end” when he bent over in the overhead anchor booth, a jovial female delegate from Ohio informed CBS’ Bob Schieffer 15 minutes before the network began its prime-time coverage Wednesday. “Would you like to buy the negatives?”
Schieffer, born in Austin, raised in Fort Worth and nearing 20 years’ service with his chosen network, was assured of a hearty laugh that might have served to calm any pre-show jitters or tension, were there any. But Schieffer earlier had described this convention as “kind of like a boat or a car show, where you roll out the new model,” namely the party’s nominee.
“We could have had an enormous story here,” he said of earlier expectations that Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson might bang heads. “My sense of it is it’s just as good a story that it didn’t fall apart, but it’s not nearly as hard to report.”
Schieffer’s principal responsibilities during CBS’ prime-time coverage were the Texas, Ohio and Massachusetts delegations. A reporter following his every move from 7:30 p.m. until Dukakis’ name was put in nomination at 9:10 p.m., came away with an appreciation of Schieffer’s unfailingly good nature and an understanding that crash-bang convention floor reporting is the stuff of which nostalgia is made.
Schieffer, accompanied by producer Janet Leissner, was joined by his wife, Pat, shortly after he took the floor. She had mysteriously obtained credentials and intended to take her husband’s picture a few times. The Schieffers’ daughter, Susan, now a CBS page, was born nine months after the raucous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.
“It just goes to show,” Schieffer said, “that there was more than fighting in the streets that night.”
Climbing the concrete stairway dividing the Texas and Ohio delegations, Schieffer vigorously shook hands with former Texas Gov. Mark White. He otherwise was having a minor problem hearing the instructions coming over his headset from a CBS producer stationed in the network’s anchor booth.
“Do what, do what?” he shouted before asking Leissner, “Turn me up, will ya?”
She reached behind his suit coat to adjust a knob on a battery pack worn around his waist like a corset.
Schieffer next encountered the woman who photographed Rather’s posterior for posterity.
“I’ll ask you a question,” she said. “”What does a ‘media circus’ mean to you?”
“I don’t know,” said Schieffer, “but I must be in one of the rings.”
Schieffer’s first assignment was a “mood piece” at 8:04 p.m. He told Rather that a congenial deal had been made that would allow California to put Dukakis over the top in return for Texas doing likewise for Lloyd Bentsen during Thursday’s balloting for vice president.
After that report, Schieffer inched his way to the front of the Texas delegation to double-check the deal.
“Bob, whatever it is, you’re right,” Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby told him.
Schieffer shook hands with Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and Houston congressman Mickey Leland before ensuring that Leland would be available for an interview when Jackson’s name was put in nomination.
“I’ve made a career out of making Mickey stand by,” Schieffer said, laughing.
When the moment came, it was a nice moment. Leland had tears in his eyes as delegates chanted, “Jesse -- Hope Alive!”
Schieffer then found himself frozen in place, on a stairway behind Rep. Dick Gephardt and his wife, during an elongated 35-minute nomination speech by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Gephardt had refused to be interviewed until the speech ended.
“Get the hook out,” Schieffer said as the convention waited for Clinton to at long last put Dukakis’ name in the hat and trigger a delegate demonstration.
Schieffer got Gephardt’s reaction in an on-camera interview and then turned around and shrugged, indicating it was nothing special.
With that, he was plowing ahead again, searching for another angle at a convention without many.
By ED BARK
(Originally published April 3, 2004)
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Presenting a microcosm of a Sunday morning public affairs show, where the rules of combat can be both velvet-gloved and iron-fisted.
The atmosphere initially is collegial, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Face the Nation anchor Bob Schieffer happily exchanging pleasantries and swapping old stories before soberly assuming their positions as newsmaker and newshound.
A half-hour later, Rumsfeld is leaving briskly and somewhat brusquely on this chilly March morning. His 13th appearance on the program has been a bit unsettling for him. Not so for Schieffer, who later remarks, “I think we made some news today.”
Rumsfeld at first bristles when asked about charges made by the Military Officers Association of America. The organization complains that the Bush administration has found a “back-door way to reinstitute the draft” by telling soldiers that their previously agreed-on tours of duty have been extended.
“Everyone serving on active duty is a volunteer, and they volunteered knowing precisely what the rules were,” Rumsfeld says after extended verbal sparring.
Minutes earlier, the defense secretary had told Schieffer that “you and a few other critics are the only people I’ve heard use the phrase “immediate threat” with regard to Iraq under Saddam Hussein . . . It’s become kind of folklore that that’s what happened.”
But Rumsfeld is then read one of his previous quotes: “No terrorist state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people and the stability of the world than the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.”
He initially stammers in response before asserting that weapons of mass destruction might still turn up in “a country the size of California.”
This particular sound bite made its way to Wednesday’s premiere of The O’Franken Factor liberal radio show as an example of administration duplicity. But Schieffer takes no joy in playing “gotcha.” In the 50th year of Face the Nation (and his 13th as its anchor), he remains intent on playing the Washington game under gentleman’s rules.
“I’ve been a guest in his home; he’s been a guest in mine,” Schieffer says of Rumsfeld. “In fact, I really like him. He’s fun to be around. But this is major league baseball. He doesn’t expect me to throw him a softball. He expects me to throw him my best stuff.
“Every Cabinet officer that comes on this program knows that’s what the deal is. It doesn’t mean we can’t do it in a civil way. There’s a difference in being aggressive and antagonistic.”
Schieffer says he was surprised, however, that Rumsfeld “seemed unfamiliar” with the Military Officers Association of America, which has a membership of 300,000 retired and active-duty officers. He gave the defense secretary some literature on the organization as he left the studio.
Rumsfeld also had been unfamiliar with The Fog of War, which focused on the Vietnam policies of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and recently won an Oscar as best documentary film. Its director, Errol Morris, then denounced the Bush administration’s Iraqi war policy before a worldwide television audience.
“What is it, a movie or something?” Rumsfeld wonders when Schieffer mentions The Fog of War just before the Face the Nation cameras roll.
“These fellows work awfully long hours. I’ll give him some slack on that one,” Schieffer says after the program. Rumsfeld “works from dawn until well past dark every day. So he probably doesn’t get to see too many movies.”
Face the Nation is still running a solid second in the Sunday morning public affair show ratings wars. It’s doing so despite getting only half the air time of its hour-long competitors -- NBC’s front-running Meet the Press, ABC’s third-place This Week with George Stephanopoulos and fourth-place Fox News Sunday.
“My fondest wish is that someday somehow,we can get another half-hour. If we could, we could really compete,” Schieffer says. “We have the smallest staff in all of network television. We don’t have bells and whistles, and we’re not going to put bells and whistles on. We’ve found that people just don’t want that. They want it straight.”
That means no “food fights,” as he calls it, but ample nourishment. At age 67, the Austin native is too old -- and too smart -- to know any other way.
“We don’t put people on Face the Nation just to see how loud they can scream or because it’s quote, ‘good television,’ “ he says. “We’re trying to get information from a newsmaker involved in a big story of the week. That’s my job. I’m here to keep it like it is.”
By ED BARK
(Originally published Aug. 31, 2006)
His anticipated short chapter as the CBS Evening News standard-bearer turned out to be far closer to a full-length novel. Its happy ending comes tonight, when Bob Schieffer steps down after nearly 18 months as acting anchor.
“It’s been the greatest adventure, I think, of my life,” the Fort Worth-raised newsman says in a telephone interview. “I had no idea this was going to happen And then to have it happen as it did and come out well . . . I still don’t believe it. I got here at a pretty tough time for CBS News.”
Schieffer replaced embattled Dan Rather on March 10th of last year for what was supposed to be a wink, blink and nod. But the search for a permanent anchor kept stretching out like a cheap T-shirt.
CBS clearly had zeroed in on Katie Couric after newly appointed news president Sean McManus found in-house candidates wanting and others not of sufficient star quality. But it took extra time and money to pry her from NBC’s Today.
So Schieffer stayed the course while the third-place Evening News’ ratings steadily inched upward. Last week, the gap between CBS and ABC’s second-place World News with Charles Gibson was just 190,000 viewers. The NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams still led the pack with 1.08 million more viewers than Schieffer’s newscast.
“I don’t mind saying it. Expectations are going to be the difficult part for her,” Schieffer said of Couric’s debut on Tuesday. “To be quite honest, there were no expectations for me. When the ratings went up just a little bit, people said, ‘Wow.’
“She’s literally going to have to jump over the moon or somebody is going to say she isn’t doing as well as they thought she would. And that’s unfair to her. I think she’s going to attract an enormous audience on the first night, and then it will dial back.”
Couric’s opening night wardrobe will be among the many points of interest. Male anchors generally aren’t at the mercy of such scrutiny. As Schieffer notes, “I don’t even know if Walter Cronkite knew what tie he had on as he sat down to do the news. But television is television, and people are going to ask those questions.”
Schieffer wore a purple tie on his first night in honor of alma mater Texas Christian University, whose journalism school is named after him. So what might he do for an encore tonight?
“I was actually thinking of asking Katie if I could borrow one of her outfits,” he says, laughing. “Maybe behind that desk nobody would know. I could wear a little skirt.”
Couric will appear on tonight’s Evening News as a reporter. Her assignment is a farewell story on Schieffer, who says the uptick in the program’s ratings dovetails with its improved quality.
“It came out well for the right reasons. We just put on a better newscast,” he says. “We decided to make the correspondents the stars, and we did that.”
He cites Lara Logan, Byron Pitts and Lee Cowan as underused younger reporters who flourished in more visible roles. All have spent considerable time talking to Schieffer on camera after finishing their dispatches.
“Most people didn’t really know who they were,” he says. “My feeling is that the first step toward credibility is familiarity.”
Schieffer, a cancer survivor, turns 70 on Feb. 25th. He’ll continue to host Sunday morning’s Face the Nation from Washington D.C. while acting as a commentator on Wednesday editions of the Evening News. Analysis on major Washington stories also is part of his post-anchor regimen, but he otherwise won’t regularly cover the nation’s capital. A previously planned retirement at age 70 likely will be pushed back at the network’s request.
“My plan, as of today, is to stay until the (presidential) inauguration in 2009,” he says. “I’m 95 percent sure that’s what I want to do.”
Rather, his old CBS News colleague, is primed to explore new horizons at Mark Cuban’s Dallas-based HDNet. His weekly news program tentatively will premiere in October.
“I think everybody was surprised, but Dan is a great reporter,” Schieffer says. “I think he still has some good stories in him. It doesn’t matter anymore if something doesn’t have a great circulation. If you make news now, it gets picked up by everybody.”
Email comments or question to email@example.com
Note to readers: The early years of CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman were marked by frequent remotes that took viewers to various venues in the vicinity of the Ed Sullivan Theater. Mujibur and Sirajul’s Rock America store and Rupert Jee’s Hello Deli were frequent founts of comedy gold. But there were other regulars, too. I visited them all during the show’s first year. Damn, that was fun. (This article was first published on June 13, 1994.)
By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
NEW YORK -- Behold the official Letterman Hoagie, available only at the hole-in-the-wall Hello Deli. Its ingredients are listed on a plastic plate displayed next to a head shot of the man himself: turkey, ham, cheese, lettuce, tomatoe (sic) sweet peppers, oil and vinegar. Proprietor Rupert Jee has just fixed one for Michelle Riley, a Baylor University student and member of the touring THEE Power & Light singing group.
Michelle and three friends from the group are patronizing the Hello Deli solely because it has become a bread-and-butter attraction on CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman. They can’t leave without having their picture taken with the famous Rupert.
“Yeah, why not?” he says, agreeably sandwiching himself into a group shot.
Although it’s drizzly and muggy, this is yet another beautiful day in Mr. Letterman’s one-block Broadway neighborhood, where cash registers ring whatever the weather. Most business near the Ed Sullivan Theater have become part of the act since Letterman began taping his show here last August. Hello Deli, K&L’s Rock America, the Longacre Copy Center, Academy Clothes, Flash Dancers -- they’re all bit players in Letterman’s ad hoc repertory company.
All of this seemed scary at first, at least to the show’s producers. For 11 years at NBC, Letterman’s Late Night neighborhood was 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where the fellow tenants were the stars of Today, Donahue, the NBC Nightly News and Saturday Night Live.
“When we moved here, we at first felt isolated and we were quite concerned about it,” says co-executive producer Robert Morton. “What was the show going to be like without having Dave go out and harass the anchorpeople across the hall or steal a guest from the Donahue show?”
Late Night also would be without famed commoner Meg Parsont, the Simon & Schuster Pocketbooks publicist who worked out of an adjacent high-rise office building. Meg did Dave’s bidding on more than a dozen of the old shows.
“We were worried when we lost Meg,” says co-executive producer Peter Lassally. “What were we going to do? Now we don’t even think about Meg anymore. Poor Meg. She had her 15 minutes of fame.”
Late Show’s new star attractions -- souvenir shop workers Mujibur Rahman and Sirajul Islam -- recently began selling T-shirts emblazoned with their pictures and the K&L Rock America logo. They also have been featured in People magazine and have had to join an actors union because of their frequent appearances on Late Show. Each earns between $500 and $1,000 per “guest shot.”
“It just evolved naturally here,” Morton says. “The guy next door at the sandwich shop (Rupert) was quite a character, and then we just hit gold with Mujibur and Sirajul. They were terrific, and the audience just warmed to them instantly. We’ve been very lucky. The neighbors have been very nice to us, and I think we’ve been pretty good to them.”
(Very, very good to Mujibur and Sirajul, who on Monday will launch their series of summertime Coast to Coast reports from America’s “most famous sites, historical landmarks and natural treasures.” The first stop is Niagra Falls.)
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Sirajul is selling Late Show T-shirts at $19 a pop while a fellow employee, unheralded, stamps price tags on miniature Statues of Liberty. “They give limousine, they give hotel. Everything,” Sirajul says of the pair’s recent Late Show excursion to Los Angeles, where they received a standing ovation when Letterman brought them onstage.
Tourists eagerly snap up T-shirts -- the Mujibur-Sirajul edition is the cheapest buy at $16 -- and share the excitement of posing with the Bangladesh-born celebrities. “Next,” says Sirajul, smiling broadly.
“Basically, before David Letterman, this neighborhood was almost like a jungle,” says Mujibur, who has worked at Rock America for three years. “We had a lot of problems. People tried to rob. Muggings. After he moved here, the neighborhood got clean. No more hassling. No more problems here. It is very peaceful and quiet. A lot of decent people come from around the country.”
Rock America is owned by a longtime friend of Mujibur’s. He doesn’t begrudge her the store’s sudden profits.
“She treats me well. I don’t mind working for her,” he says. “It’s too much pressure to have your own business.”
The storefronts of Rock America and other nearby businesses are testaments to Letterman’s most-favored-neighbor status.
The “Top Ten Reasons to Shop at Academy Clothes” include, “Our jackets are well hung” and “Dave window-shops here.”
At the Longacre Copy Center, 15 identical pictures of Letterman’s Xeroxed face are labeled, “The More Daves the Merrier.”
Santino Photo Electronics’ “Famous Wall” includes pictures of Letterman, band leader Paul Shaffer, Sylvester Stallone, Billy Crystal, Michael Jackson and John Forsythe. All are tastefully displayed above a “New York MAFIA” license plate.
“In the beginning we didn’t like him,” Santino employee Joe Russo says of Letterman. “We thought it was gonna hurt the business and everything. He wasn’t doin’ much for us. But it turned out OK. We got no complaints against him. He comes down here and does gigs and stuff. He’s fun to work with, yeah.”
Elliot Chapnick, owner of the Longacre Copy Center, has watched his wife, Fern (“The Copy Lady”) become one of Late Show’s supporting cast. She’s at home this day, but her husband has become practiced in telling how it all began.
“Dave wasn’t actually in the store, but he was talking through the camera. He asked, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ and I pointed to my wife. Since then I haven’t been on the show. My wife really enjoys this stuff, but I get nervous and upset when I have to appear on camera. The reason I tolerate this and do it at all is because my wife gets a kick out of being on TV. It really hasn’t done anything at all for our business. But the area is more active, and they certainly take care of the streets a lot better now. In the winter I don’t have to shovel the sidewalk anymore. Dave’s guys do it for me.”
Across the street at the Flash Dancers strip joint, uniformed doorman John Stancil was first targeted when Letterman had a pizza delivered to him. He since has been given a manicure while on the job and has played himself in a taped “Strongman, Fatman, Genius” sketch. At age 38, Stancil still has ambitions of becoming an actor or songwriter. But first things first.
“My next kind of little goal is to do either People magazine or Playboy or something like that,” he says.
Stancil says he has written a letter to Late Show suggesting “stuff I think would be cool to work with me on.”
“It would be nice if I could be used away from the club in a (Larry “Bud”) Melman-ish type of way. That would probably give me a new career, ya know? That’s my dream, because to be just a doorman at a topless bar the rest of my life isn’t what I aspire to.”
Stancil’s dream is quickly dashed by Late Show’s Morton.
“That’s the biggest danger,” he says. “When you hear that, that kind of queers the deal. It’s very nice when there are two guys who are very happy just working at the T-shirt shop and don’t pretend to be anything else.”
Lassally laughs at a strange set of circumstances in which people with low-paying or dead-end jobs suddenly are faced with “career decisions” about whether to quit or continue being Late Show regulars. Mujibur, for instance, had thoughts of returning to school and becoming a lawyer. Such plans are on hold, he says because “people like us. People want to wave the hand. And Dave is always nice to us. The whole thing is very exciting.”
Morton says the Late Show neighborhood has “limitless” comedic possibilities. “Anything can happen in New York City. There’s always something going on outside these doors.”
Some doors have been broken down. Being on Late Show in particular and television in general isn’t the intimidating big deal it used to be, Morton says. Witness the college student whom Letterman recently summoned off the street to co-host the show with him. She not only survived, but came off as a personable, seasoned pro. The latest word is that MTV wants to make a VJ of her.
“This is a generation that is used to performing before the video camera,” Morton says. “My nephew watches the show, and he looks at Letterman as if he’s just another one of his friends. It’s the same feeling he gets when he watches his birthday party video. Young people just have that camera savvy that our generation didn’t have.”
Indeed, 37-year-old Rupert Jee of the Hello Deli has “kind of lost count” of how many times he’s done Late Show. He has gracefully become an unassuming Somebody making Letterman hoagies and other sandwiches named after the show’s personalities. Interviews with reporters, autographs and picture-posing have become the new side orders of his profession.
“I wouldn’t say it’s disruptive,” Rupert says. “Dave has done a lot for this neighborhood. And the least we can do is reciprocate.”
Email comments or questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Note to readers: David Letterman does press conferences about as often as Donald Trump admits a mistake. In other words, they’re an extreme rarity. But he flew coast-to-coast in mid-summer 1993 to talk about his big, bold move from NBC to CBS after Peacock execs gave The Tonight Show to Jay Leno. Here’s the way it was at a time when the fates of “Stupid Pet Tricks” and Letterman’s nightly “Top Ten List” remained in the hands of corporate lawyers. (This article was first published on July 20, 1993.)
By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
LOS ANGELES -- David Letterman, cigar in one hand and CBS in the palm of the other, stepped to the forefront of the late-night television battle Monday night.
“I don’t find myself in kind of a cloud of anxiety over this,” he told about 150 television critics gathered on a sound stage at CBS Television City. “Of course, I’m full of gin.”
There is a cloud of uncertainty over whether Late Show with David Letterman, which premieres Aug. 30th, can transfer the titles of hallmark comedy segments from his old show on NBC. The network has said it might take legal action if he uses “Stupid Pet Tricks” or “Top Ten Lists,” which NBC claims to own.
Letterman said he plans to do both, but “if they (CBS lawyers) say don’t do it, then obviously we won’t do it.” He expressed confidence, however, that both sides will “find each other all together on the high road.”
“The whole thing has struck me as being silly,” he added. “But if NBC is adamant and holding firm, it’s not gonna break my heart.”
There will be at least one casualty. The name Larry “Bud” Melman, a character played by Calvert DeForrest, is owned by NBC and will have to be changed, Letterman said.
Letterman took the stage with bandleader Paul Shaffer, uncustomarily dressed in a suit and tie, and producers Peter Lassally and Robert Morton. He is being paid $14 million by CBS, a figure he did not dispute, to battle NBC’s Tonight Show this season.
“I’m certainly not worth that kind of dough,” he said.
Letterman, 46, stood with a towering mockup of the New York City skyline behind him and with brightly lit “HOLLYWOOD” letters staring him in the face. A spangled CBS Eye logo hung behind him. Seldom willing to be interviewed during his NBC years, he alternately joked and answered questions seriously for one hour. Letterman even extended the interview session an extra 15 minutes after a CBS publicist tried to end it.
Letterman’s new home base will be the historic Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City. Noting the “clouds of asbestos” permeating the theater, Letterman joked, “I just think it might have been easier to renovate Ed Sullivan than the theater.”
Letterman said he wouldn’t alter his irreverent style to fit an earlier time period. “It’s going to be the same show,” he said. On the NBC program, “I tried not to offend people, but it kept happening.”
CBS began promoting Letterman’s program during last Tuesday’s All-Star baseball game. The tag line is “Same Dave. Better Time. New Station.” The pitchman is Dave himself in more than 80 different on-air spots.
George Schweitzer, the network’s vice president of marketing and communication, calls it “straight-ahead Dave.” Some samples: “Love songs. Nothing but love songs.” “You might remember me as The Fonz on television’s Happy Days. Well, I’m all grown up now.” “Don’t you think that CBS Eye thing is kinda creepy?” “Here’s the good news. We’ve been saving the funny stuff.”
The disquieting news for CBS is Letterman’s late-breaking starting time on one-third of the network’s affiliate stations, including KDFW-TV (Channel 4) in Dallas. Late Show will go head-to-head with NBC’s Tonight Show in only 67 percent of the country.
In the Dallas-Fort worth viewing area, Letterman’s program will begin halfway through Tonight at 11:05 p.m. Channel 4 plans to air reruns of Murphy Brown immediately after its 10 p.m. newscast. The station bought the rights to Murphy more than a year before CBS landed Letterman.
“David Letterman will start with a significant handicap in terms of (station) clearance,” said David Poltrack, CBS’ vice president of planning and research. “Eventually, by year two, it will be a case of the best man winning -- and that will be David Letterman.”
Email comments or questions to: email@example.com