Launching Dave


IN THE much-hyped battle of the late night television stars, I've never doubted whose side I am on -- David Letterman's. I've been a huge fan ever since the days of his short-lived morning talk show; when "Late Night" debuted in 1981, my family bought its first VCR so we could tape the program each night.

So when it was announced earlier this year that Mr. Letterman would be moving from NBC to CBS, I thought it would be fun to attend a taping of the new show in the lavishly refurbished Ed Sullivan Theater. Tickets to the program are free, but difficult to come by; they're doled out to winners of a ticket lottery, which you enter by sending a postcard to the network. I mailed a couple of cards to CBS back in June and hoped for the best.

About three weeks ago, I could hardly believe my luck when two tickets to the very first "Late Show With David Letterman" turned up in my mailbox. Attending the Aug. 30 taping would mean cutting my vacation short, but that seemed a small price to pay to see my favorite star's CBS premiere.

Mr. Letterman's program, seen locally on WNUV-TV 54, airs at 11:30 p.m., but it is taped in the late afternoon. Early birds get the best seats, so I arrived in New York City around 1, and immediately joined the rapidly growing line outside the theater. The two women at the very front, who had come from North Carolina just to see the show, had been waiting since 7:30 a.m.

Occasionally, "Late Show" staffers, familiar from their appearances on the NBC telecast, would walk by, greeted by cheers and applause -- producer Robert Morton, announcer Bill Wendell, Mr. Letterman's assistant Laurie Diamond. Musical guest Billy Joel and his wife, model Christie Brinkley, stepped out of a long white limousine and obligingly signed a few autographs.

Television crews from CBS stations as far afield as Chicago, Los Angeles and Tampa were also on hand, interviewing the ticket holders in the queue. "They've been waiting here for hours, but they don't mind!" announced one reporter taping his on-the-scene report. Policemen milled around, setting up blue barricades as the line grew longer. Eventually, a crowd even formed across the street, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mr. Letterman or one of his celebrity guests.

We were finally ushered into the theater at 5 o'clock. One of the show's writers came out to address the audience, exhorting us to cheer and clap as loudly as possible and pointing out the lighted "applause" signs suspended from the ceiling. The crowd didn't need any prompting, however; since Mr. Letterman had kept out members of the press and the CBS brass who'd shelled out $14 million for his services, all the seats were filled with die-hard Dave fanatics.

After a couple numbers from Paul Shaffer and the band, the show started. Mr. Letterman launched the expected zingers against his former bosses at NBC, but there were plenty of surprises, too -- Paul Newman turned up in the audience, seated just one row behind me, and anchorman Tom Brokaw appeared in order to seize a couple of cue cards, claiming the jokes written on them were "the intellectual property of NBC."

First guest Bill Murray delineated his plans to introduce Mr. Letterman to the millions of Americans who'd never stayed up to watch him in his old 12:30 a.m. slot. After spray-painting "DAVE!" on his desk and slapping a 'Hello, My Name Is" badge on his lapel, Mr. Murray dragged Mr. Letterman into the audience to bring him closer to his fans. They headed straight to the section where I was sitting, so I stood up, reached out, and shook Dave's hand.

After the taping, departing audience members were surrounded by a swarm of TV crews and reporters from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and dozens of other publications, all waiting to hear our reactions to the show. What was it like? How was the new set? How would Mr. Letterman fare in his new time slot? "He's going to crush the competition," the man who'd been seated next to me predicted confidently to a correspondent from "Entertainment Tonight."

I arrived home in Baltimore just in time to watch myself shaking hands with Mr. Letterman -- my network television debut. My five seconds of fame were over, but I was delighted to have played a tiny part in this bit of late-night TV history.

Susanne Trowbridge writes from Baltimore.

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