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Ed Sullivan Theater

October 4, 2010

  • 1697 Broadway
  • New York, NY 10019
  • (212) 975-4755
  • Website

When J and I started planning this trip to New York, there was one thing I really wanted to do.  I wanted to see a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman.

I have been a huge Letterman fan dating back to his NBC days.  I was still pretty young, but when my parents did let me stay up, I would be glued to Johnny Carson hoping it would end soon so I could watch Letterman.  In the late night wars, I have always sided with the former weatherman from Indiana.

Unfortunately, Letterman tickets are hard to get.  Two months ago when we decided to do this, I put the ticket request in almost before I booked the hotel and plane tickets.  I didn’t hear anything until a week before we left.  Somehow, I missed a phone call from the audience coordinator.

I was crushed.  I figured we were out of luck, but they left and number and I called back and left a message.  The next day, I was working in an environment where I couldn’t take a phone call.  Of course, they called and I couldn’t take.  I texted J and asked her to call the number, say she was my wife and see if they’d give her the tickets.  She did…and got a voicemail.

She too left a voicemail and an hour later, they called back….but it’s not just the easy.  They don’t just give Letterman tickets to everyone who gets a phone call.   You have to answer a trivia question.

I wouldn’t have had much problem with it, but J’s more of a Leno fan.  Lucky for us, they asked one she sort of knew.

The question was “What is Rupert Gee’s occupation?”  They told her before they asked she couldn’t use the Internet to find the answer, but she sort of knew.  She started talking out loud and came up with convenience store owner before coming up with deli owner.  They told her it was close enough and gave it to her (the answer is he owns the Hello Deli).

The day of the show, we were told to be in line between 1:00 and 2:00.  We had guaranteed tickets, but we still had to wait in line and actually get them.

After lunch at the Carnegie Deli, we walked over to the Ed Sullivan Theater to get in line.  Of course, it was raining and I didn’t bring my rain jacket.  We got in line around 12:30 and right at 1:00, they opened up the doors and started letting people in a few at a time.

When we got to the front of the line, we were stopped at the door by a guy who checked our ID’s and checked us off his list.  We were then sent through the lobby to another stop where again, they checked our ID’s and checked our names off the list.  We were handed two tickets with red numbers on the back.  We then walked back through the lobby to the entrance area and waited for a group to form.  Once there were twenty or so people squeezed into this space, we were told to leave and come back right at 2:30.  And when they say right at 2:30, they mean right at 2:30.  If you come back at 2:20, they will, and did, tell you to take a walk around the block.  They didn’t want people congregating under the marquee.

We had a little over an hour so we went to a nearby restaurant to kill time.  Just before 2:30, we snuck back to the theater and sort of hid from the audience pages who were sending people away if they weren’t in the 2:15 VIP group.  We hid behind them then once they went inside, they qued us up according to marking on the back of the tickets.

There were three groupings at 2:30.  We were in the first group with red numbers on our tickets.   We lined up out front of the theater in numerical order and waited until about 2:45.  The took us and the two groups behind us into the lobby once again were they had ropes set up to snake people into 12 lines.  We were packed shoulder to shoulder into the lobby area where we were given audience instructions by one of the audience pages.   He just told things we should or shouldn’t do.  This took about 15 minutes then he went outside and did the same thing for the people were lined up out there.

In it’s day, this part of the Ed Sullivan Theater would have been used very differently.  The old ticket window is still there although now it’s used mainly for storage.  The windows are boarded up with just a very small area of glass still showing.  There are old pictures hanging on the wall showing what the theater looked like when it’s namesake still performed there and what it looked like 17 years ago when Dave moved in.

Just a little after 3:00, they finally started moving us into the theater.  This was a very, very quick process.  There was music already playing in the theater and the pages were pushing us down the aisles to get into seats.  Since we were right up front of the line, we ended up right up front of the theater.

Our seats were in the third row on the left side right in front of the CBS Orchestra.  The seats were surprisingly comfortable.  They are definitely not original to the building as they are padded and actually pretty wide.  If they didn’t keep the theater so cold, I could see people falling asleep…which is why they keep the theater so cold.

When we sat down, I was kind of in awe of what we were actually looking at.  I’ve seen this set thousands of times on TV, but it still didn’t seem real.  It’s not quite as big as it looks on TV and it’s actually really hard to see because they put cameras right up on the stage in front of where they need them.  There are TV screens hanging from the balcony so we could see the show that would end up on air graphics, tapes, and all.

The show started about 3:15 with the house comedian coming out and doing a quick set.  He then introduced the band minus Paul Schaffer.  They played for a little while then the band leader was introduced and they brought Dave out about 3:27.  Dave came out, picked up a mic and started making small talk with a guy in the audience.  I heard he did this and the reason is to get his first joke for the monologue.  The guy said he was from British Columbia and sure enough, the very first joke in the monologue was about this guy’s hometown.  The audience at home wouldn’t of got it, but we knew what he was talking about.

The show is taped as live.  For those of you not in TV, that means they tape like it’s airing live.  At exactly 3:30, they started to roll the intro while Dave was still on stage.  He ran backstage and put a jacket on as Alan Kalter was reading the guests for the night.  A few seconds later, he returned to the stage to do his monologue and start the show.

Being a TV guy myself, I spent a lot of time watching how the show was produced.  It was fascinating, to me, to watch a show like that from our vantage point.  They did some things that made me think, “so that’s how they do that….”

Like I mentioned earlier, there were times when you really couldn’t see what was happening on the stage.  They put cameras, a clock and a monitor for Dave, and people in front of the interview area.  We were lucky enough that we had a perfect sightline through two of the cameras to actually see the interviews happening.

During breaks, the band plays constantly and the audience pages try to keep people clapping the entire time.  They try to keep the audience energy up, but after a while, my hands just started to hurt.  We didn’t really have much of an indication as to when they were coming back live other than the band wrapping up.  Sometimes, a stage manager would start waving his hands to say they we needed to start clapping, but that was about it.

Right at 4:30, the show ended after an awful band.  Dave picked up the house mic again and thanked us all for coming then the audience pages ran back down the aisles and quickly ushered us back out of the theater.  They do two tapings on Monday and the second taping was already lining up out on the street.

Seeing a live taping of The Late Show in the Ed Sullivan Theater is a once in a lifetime experience for most people.  J and I both sat there and thought about all the history in the building.  The theater only holds about 600 people and most were tourists, so we know how fortunate we were to actually get tickets for a taping.  It was a long day with lots of waiting and we both got soaked, but it was so worth it.  We set aside most of the day for this and were so glad we did so.

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