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CAMERA READY Forget the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. The folks who line up outside NBC's New York studios before dawn each morning are living for 'Today.'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- Of modern American society, there is one immutable truth: With a TV camera trained on them, people are capable of astonishingly goofy behavior.

Some will windmill their arms and scream "Hi, Mom!" and hold up their index fingers to indicate they're No. 1. Some will elbow for position like a fat man in a buffet line and preen. Some will giggle uncontrollably. Sometimes you wonder if the camera isn't emitting some low-level radiation that causes people to lose their minds.

All this occurs to me as I jump from a taxi into the pre-dawn darkness outside NBC's famous glass-cornered "Today" show studio at 49th Street and Rockefeller Plaza.

I am here on this cold, overcast Wednesday to be part of "Today's" open-air audience. I'm here to find out what it's like to stand in 34-degree weather for more than two hours and wave at the TV cameras and wear silly hats and hold up corny signs and beseech the winsome Katie Couric to pose for a photo and scream "Matt, I want to have your baby!" at handsome Matt Lauer (although I may not scream precisely that myself).

I am here to try to banter with Al Roker, the affable weatherman who seems so relaxed he could fall asleep standing up, and shake hands with Ann Curry, the striking and down-to-earth newswoman.

Five days a week, the granddaddy of morning news programs -- it's premiere broadcast was in January of 1952 -- attracts an outdoor audience of hundreds, sometimes thousands, to this wind-swept canyon in midtown Manhattan. The runaway winner in its time slot, it's become one of the Big Apple's top tourist attractions, surpassed in popularity, the show's PR people say, only by the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building.

In the "Today" audience, people get down on their knees and propose marriage to one another. They tearfully thank their old high school teachers for steering them the right way. They sing "Happy Birthday" to 103-year-old grandmothers in Tuscaloosa, Ala., celebrate golden wedding anniversaries and dress up as 6-foot-tall dogs and Old Navy candy bars.

I am here, at this ungodly hour, the famous Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center twinkling brightly behind me, to be a part of all that.

As my Afghani cabdriver counts out my change while chattering about his former life in Kabul, he suddenly whirls around and notices where we are.

" 'Too-dey'? Kay-tee Coo-reek?!" he shouts. "I luvv dett woo-mon!"

I promise to pass that along, and then he's gone, rocketing down 49th Street, a cloud of steam from a manhole cover engulfing the cab before it vanishes from sight.

5: 30 a.m. -- This is how early it is: The sidewalk hustlers selling $20 Rolexes aren't even up yet. Nevertheless, 15 people have already staked out their positions in front of the "Today" studio window. And we're still 90 minutes to air time!

All these people are irritatingly cheerful, too. Bathed in the digitized red glow of the overhead news ticker ("Attorney general Janet Reno defends decision not to seek independent counsel probe ... President Boris Yeltsin says Russia will reduce nuclear weapons by one-third ... ") they hoist Styrofoam coffee cups and chat excitedly about their prospects of getting on camera once the show begins.

I find myself next to Dolly Salmon and Polly Gunter, two friendly senior citizens from Columbia, S.C. They're in New York with 39 other seniors on a tour sponsored by the Richland County Recreation Commission.

At this moment, however, the 39 other seniors are back at their hotel sleeping, which to me shows uncommon good sense. But the two women have brought along their pal George Wise, who is holding a sign that says: "I'm in N.Y. with 5 women from S.C. and having a ball!"

"You have to get here early," Dolly says in a conspiratorial whisper.

"To get on camera, you have to be right here," adds Polly.

Leaning against the metal crowd-control barriers, I regard these women with awe. I need to mainline four cups of Maxwell House before I can even tie my shoes at this hour, never mind approach their energy level.

6: 10 -- The crowd has swelled to about 60 people, predominantly female, and mostly, it seems, from out of town. They all appear to be inveterate "Today" fans, bantering about their favorite past shows.

Inside, we can see the set being readied, lights and TelePrompTers being moved into position. Out here, about 20 feet behind the famous window, Julie Alford and her sister, Glenda, both 30, and Jackie Gonsoulin, 31, all from Houma, La., are stoked!

The three women, all stunning blondes with syrupy Cajun accents, say this show is the highlight of their week's vacation in New York. They show me a pink sign they plan to hold up that says: "Matt, Katie, Al, We Love You!"

To say they are huge fans is to somehow understate the point.

"I named my daughter after Katie Couric," Gonsoulin says. "When she was born, we were trying to figure out a name for her. The 'Today' show was on and I said: 'Hey, there's Katie! She's worth $4 million a year. Let's name her Katie!' "

The three women -- all married, stay-at-home moms -- also report a "thing" for Matt Lauer and hope to sweet-talk him into interviewing them on the air.

This, they say, would be considered a very big deal back in Houma.

7: 01 -- Showtime, baby! The first streaks of light brush the sky as Katie Couric's voice booms over the bank of speakers before us: "Good morning! And the tree is lit!"

A huge roar goes up from the crowd, about 300 strong now. As if on cue, we all start smiling and waving furiously in the direction of the set. The only problem is, Couric and Lauer aren't on the set.

Instead, we find out they're about 100 yards to our right, at the foot of the huge Christmas tree, which is being displayed for the national TV audience in a dazzling aerial shot.

Bummer. We're not on camera.

As Couric and Lauer throw it to Ann Curry for the news, Richie Finnegan, a retired detective with 30 years in the New York Police Department who's now a "Today" security man, explains that the two anchors travel via an underground tunnel from the set to the tree in Rockefeller Center.

To me, this smacks of Batman and Robin in the Bat Tunnel. But there is a palpable emotional letdown in the audience. We feel somehow used, cheated. Thirty seconds of vigorous, primo waving and for what?

For nothing, that's what.

7: 04 -- This is it! Al Roker is headed my way! He's wearing a brown hat, green topcoat, red scarf and his trademark amused grin as he prepares for the first of his four daily chats with the audience that lead into the weather forecast.

But it's another downer for me when he stops about 20 feet to my right and talks instead to a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

Behind me, 20-year-old Mairead Gallagher, from Melbourne, Australia, unfurls an Australian flag. She's here with her cousin, MaryAnn Berry of Beach Haven, N.J. This is Gallagher's first visit to the States.

"I watch this show at 2 a.m. back home," Gallagher says.

That alone ought to get you some face-time with Big Al. But no, already he's off doing the weather, riffing about a low-pressure -- system sweeping down from somewhere.

7: 35 -- Watching on monitors, the wind chill index hovering around 30 degrees, we can see Couric and Lauer conducting heavy interviews inside: Lauer on the Unabomber and the death penalty, Couric on a rare celestial phenomenon involving eight planets aligned across the night sky.

Zzzzz. For those of us in the audience, this is Snore City. We're freezing out here, and we want some action!

Suddenly, here comes Al Roker out to chat with us again!

In a shameless bid to get on camera, a man to my right holds up a sign that says: "Happy Birthday, Nanny T! 106 today!"

But Roker, apparently operating on the theory that you talk about one 106-year-old grandmother, you've talked about 'em all, stops instead in front of George Wise, the South Carolina man flaunting his New York trip with five women. With the camera on him, Wise undergoes an amazing transformation: He loses the folksy Southern accent and comes across as something of a boulevardier.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to worm my way into the shot, but without much success. Maybe it's my sign: a yellow piece of construction paper with a bit of existentialist fluff: "What is the point of it all?"

But, hey, I got family watching at home, too, y'know!

7: 45 -- As Roker heads back inside, I leave the crowd and introduce myself. I tell him I'm doing a story on the crowd. He's gracious and consents to a quick interview.

"You know what I loved about Baltimore?" he says. "Polack Johnny's. How's he doing, anyway?"

"Not so good," I say. "He died a while ago."

"Oh," says Al Roker, as we walk into the studio. "Geez."

In a second-floor room above the set, Roker, who is also a local weatherman in New York, talks enthusiastically about how much he loves his 1-year-old job as the glad-hander on "Today."

He credits his predecessor, Willard Scott (whom he calls "the Master") for instilling the philosophy that has become his credo: Always be yourself, never give up your day job.

"This is interactive TV!" gushes Roker. "You go out and talk to people and they talk back! I consider the audience our fifth cast member, as important to the show as any of us."

A few years ago, when NBC decided to bring back the glassed-in "Today" studio along with the outdoor audience, the move had its internal critics.

"They thought it was gonna be corny," Roker says. "But I knew it was going to be wonderful! People still want to be on TV."

And Roker, a big, gregarious guy, wants to chat them up. He knows this isn't breaking rocks in the hot sun; "work" was what his dad did, driving a bus eight hours a day.

But sometimes, the job does test you. Roker remembers interviewing a young man in his early 20s last Valentine's Day as part of the crowd segment.

The kid tells Roker he wants to propose to his girlfriend back home in some tiny podunk town in the Midwest. A cellular phone is produced. With a national audience watching and listening intently, the kid calls the girlfriend.

"Emma, will you marry me?" the kid says, or something like that, and now everyone is waiting for the inevitable "Yes! Absolutely! Love to!"

Because who would shoot down ol' Huck Finn here on national television?

"No," Emma says instead, the word dropping on the kid like a boulder.

"The audience went 'Awwwwwww,' " Roker recalls, his eyes widening at the memory. "And you could just see this guy's heart being ripped out. He had a look on his face ... like the look on Lee Harvey Oswald's face when Jack Ruby shot him."

Oooh. As I recall, that was not a good look.

8: 11 -- Back outside, the crowd is restless again. Lauer has just finished an interview with singer Janet Jackson, who's flacking her seventh album. Jackson is much less manic than usual and manages not to bring up such appetizing topics as "colonic cleansing," as she does in nearly every other interview.

Suddenly, Al Roker, who has just concluded another weather spot, yells at us: "Katie and Matt will be out at 8: 30!"

We all brighten. Another shot at on-camera fame and glory! And this time with the show's heavy-hitters!

But apparently we have not red-lined the enthusiasm meter enough to suit Roker, who starts waving his arms and yelling: "KATIE AND MATT WILL BE OUT AT 8: 30! OH, MY GOD!"

"OH, MY GOD!" we yell back.

Now I know what one of those trained dolphins at Sea World feels like.

8: 29 -- Matt Lauer comes out for a quick stand-up with Couric -- and the women go nuts! There are hoots, wolf whistles and Meet-the-Beatles squeals. A young woman in back of me appears to be practically salivating as she holds up a sign: "Ohio U and me, Matt baby!"

Lauer, wearing a sharp-looking green trench coat, grins softly but otherwise doesn't acknowledge the crowd. In fact, he doesn't even look at the crowd, hustling instead to his on-camera position.

8: 30 -- But wait, here comes Katie Couric, followed by Ann Curry. Lauer finishes his stand-up with Couric, then hustles back inside to get ready for another segment, again without acknowledging the crowd. But Couric and Curry, both smiling broadly, walk along the fringe of the audience, exchanging pleasantries and cracking jokes.

Couric stops to talk to the Barbies from Louisiana, who give her pink flowers and cajole her into posing for a picture with them. Then she disappears back inside.

L The Barbies high-five each other and seem to literally glow.

"Katie was wonderful!" Jackie Gonsoulin tells me seconds later. "But I wasn't impressed with Matt at all. We know he's cute. But he could have waved. I'm very disappointed."

I don't know, maybe he's having a bad day. Listening to Janet Jackson and her Planet Klingon pronouncements could bring anyone down.

8: 43 -- Couric interviews veteran celebrity shrink Dr. Joyce Brothers on loneliness during the holidays.

You know how all of us seem to shrink as we get older? In the considered opinion of the audience, Dr. Joyce now appears to be approximately 36 inches tall.

8: 53 -- Inside, Lauer is conducting the obligatory cooking segment. A woman named Marion Scotto is whipping up a traditional Italian Thanksgiving dinner, which looks as if it could feed the New York Giants.

8: 58 -- Well, it's all over but the crying. Katie, Matt and Al are still chitchatting on the couch for the show's close, but most of the audience is already drifting away as the technicians light up cigarettes and pack up the outside equipment.

But as soon as the show is off the air, Katie Couric emerges, sans coat, into the chill wind and heads straight for the crowd again. There are maybe 60 die-hards still lined up, and for the next 10 minutes, she chats and poses for pictures.

Finally, after everyone is satisfied, she retreats back inside with a shivering wave and a smile.

It's a tired smile, the smile of the last politician at the fund-raiser bTC making her way to the door while they're putting up the chairs and vacuuming the carpets.

But it's still a hell of a smile, a full 150-watt glow and the crowd seems utterly charmed. If you love the show, this is why you show up at 5: 30 in the morning and stand on a frozen piece of asphalt for the next 3 1/2 hours, waving as if you're insane.

As I head up 49th Street, I think about my Afghani cabdriver friend. He would have liked this.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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