NEW YORK - David Letterman may not be the king of late night, but he is unarguably the king of his neighborhood.
Who cares if Jay Leno's celebrity-friendly "Tonight Show" regularly beats Dave in the late-night ratings wars? Walk up Broadway from 53rd to 54th Street, past the Ed Sullivan Theater, where Letterman's show has been taped ever since the move to CBS, and proof of his absolute rule over the Manhattan block is everywhere.
At the Hello Deli on 53rd, co-owner Rupert Jee, a frequent visitor to the "Late Show," poses for nearly as many tourists' photographs as he sells sandwiches. Fans can chow down on a David Letterman (turkey, ham and American cheese).
A banner over the entrance to Da Valentino Pizza & Restaurant on Broadway promises "Free David Letterman T-shirt (per couple) with complete lunch or dinner." A life-size wooden caricature of Dave, an overflowing bag of bagels in each hand, entices hungry acolytes into the Bagel Cafe at Broadway and 54th.
And at K&L;'s Rock America, a souvenir shop that doubles as home base for television's two most popular Bangladeshis, Mujibur (Rahman) and Sirajul (Islam), "Late Show" pilgrims can buy T-shirts, baseball caps and other reminders of their visit to Dave's kingdom.
Most people working on the block agree that life under Letterman has been good.
"Dave has been a real blessing to this place," says Jee, whose willingness to do - on camera - just about anything Letterman asks has made him a bona-fide celebrity. "They've brought a lot of fun and excitement to us."
Rahman had been at K&L; about two years when "Late Show" moved its base of operations from NBC to CBS, from Rockefeller Center to Broadway. "Having Dave here has been great for this block," he says. "Before, this block was dry, nothing was here. Since he moved here, the whole neighborhood has changed. A lot of tourists come here because of the show. Everybody is doing good business."
Just how much the show means became clear earlier this year, when heart bypass surgery laid Letterman up for five weeks and shut down the theater. Merchants say they feel it in their wallets when the "Late Show" and its 550-member studio audience take even a week off; a whole month without Dave and his fans was no fun at all. Business at the Hello Deli fell about 15 percent; at K&L;'s, the souvenir trade dropped by about half.
"There's no doubt, the tourists come mainly to see Dave," says Jee, who sent flowers but resisted the urge to contact Letterman during his convalescence. "During the time when he was recovering from the operation, business slowed down. But it picked back up when he came back. It always does."
Since relocating here in 1993, almost a quarter-century after "The Ed Sullivan Show" stopped taping at its namesake theater, Letterman and the "Late Show" have added a unifying element and a party atmosphere to what had become just another block along Broadway, one tourists barely noticed as they walked north from Times Square to Columbus Circle. Dave and the gang have turned this stretch into one where visitors stop, linger and spend money.
"Before Letterman, it was different," says Joe Galvano, who's worked behind the counter at Da Valentino for 25 years. "There is no better, there is no worse, but it was different. Before David came over here, it was a family affair, a neighborhood. Dave came over here, drew a lot of people to the block, and it became more commercial."
Bruce Sherman, co-owner of the Manhattan Chili Co., says: "There's no location that I could have taken that would have been anywhere near as much fun as it is being here. I gotta tell you, it's been a delight."
From the beginning, Letterman has spread his celebrity around, turning his neighbors into stars. Mujibur and Sirajul have appeared on the "Late Show" dozens of times; their exploits have ranged from acting as the show's goodwill ambassadors on a coast-to-coast tour, to wrestling onstage as part of a mock debate. Visitors to K&L;'s, Rahman notes with a smile, are just as likely to buy a "Mujibur and Sirajul" T-shirt as one promoting the "Late Show."
And Jee has turned into a real crowd-pleaser, whether it's preparing potato salad according to Dave's secret recipe or - most famously - donning a baseball cap and acting as Dave's alter ego, walking up to people, saying and doing anything Letterman tells him (he once pretended to be a waiter and stuck his thumb in a glass of water while serving it). It's an odd gig, to be sure, but it's landed Jee quite a following.
In fact, Dave's been touting his neighbors from the start. Within a few days of the first CBS broadcast, "Late Show" cameras were out visiting the neighborhood, convincing Fern Chapnick at the Longacre Copy Center to photocopy her face; taking a jet-pack worn on stage by Sean Connery and displaying it in the window of a neighborhood electronics store; convincing the waiters at Martini's Restaurant to come onstage and have their tuxedo pants made into shorts. Dave's visits (or rather, Dave's camera's visits; Letterman almost always remained onstage, behind his desk) were as unexpected as they were funny.
"Ever since my school days, I've always been afraid of being in front of an audience," Jee says.
"When I heard they were going to be doing this 'Visit the Neighborhood' segment every week, I was hoping they'd forget about me and visit the other neighbors. The camera just came in one day, and boy, was my heart racing. It was probably the scariest moment of my life."
Not that the newfound fame doesn't have a downside. As much as Jee and Rahman insist otherwise, it must get old, constantly posing for pictures, watching as tourists point and stare at them from the sidewalk. "Most of our fans are very nice and very polished, decent people," Rahman says. "There are some people who act negatively, but I just ignore them."
Rumblings of discontent surface occasionally. Not all the block's businesses seem enthralled with their roles as Dave's foils; employees at an electronics store south of the theater, for example, simply refuse to talk about their famous neighbor. And Letterman's relationship with Mujibur and Sirajul, whose unfailing politeness and broken English have been used to great comic effect, have brought criticism from those who claim the show is playing on ethnic stereotypes. Rahman, however, dismisses such talk as jealousy.
"Who knew about Bangladesh?" he asks. "Because of the Dave show, now all over America, all across the country, all over the world, Bangladesh gets good promotion. Before, Bangladesh means cyclones, poverty, people dying, killing each other. Negativity. Now, people all over the country and all over the world, they have a positive image."
Prosperity, too, has its price. CBS, which owns much of the block, and other landlords have raised the rents several times, attracting upscale tenants but forcing many old-timers out. In 1995, Chapnick and her copy center were among the first to go, replaced by a personality-free CBS store. McGee's Pub, which had operated just north of the theater entrance since 1982 in a neighborhood bar that once counted Lucky Luciano and Jackie Gleason among its customers, was forced out the same year; the space, since gutted and enlarged, is now home to the Manhattan Chili Co. Remaining tenants whose long-term leases will soon be up for renewal, including Da Valentino and even Jee's Hello Deli, are unsure they'll be able to afford to stay.
"The landlord got very greedy," says Da Valentino's Galvano. "Because they were next door to David Letterman, the rent went higher. And a lot of people got pushed away. We're here now 25 years, and maybe we're getting pushed away."
Even fan-favorite Jee, who says he's got "a few years" left on his lease, doesn't know if he'll be able to afford to stay. "That's a sad fact of business," he says. "You just try to make the most out of it, I guess."
Still, life seems pretty darn good here on Broadway. Tourists steadily plunk down cash for souvenir T-shirts. Diners at the Bagel Cafe eat under a "Late Show" skylight. Popular sandwiches at the Hello Deli include the Paul Shaffer (chicken cutlet and American cheese, named for the show's bandleader), the Maria Pope (roast beef and muenster on a hero, after the show's producer), and the Biff Henderson (sauteed roast beef and American cheese, for one of the show's stage handlers and frequent on-camera presence).
And you never know what part of the show is going to spill out onto the surrounding street. One hot afternoon, Dave may douse the crowds gathered outside with water. The next day, 53rd Street may be blocked off for a bowling exhibit or a performance by Bon Jovi. Maybe an NFL quarterback will be standing on Broadway, trying to toss footballs into moving taxicabs.
"This used to be a very bad neighborhood," says Juan Fernandez, managing partner of the Ranch 1 Restaurant ("The best grilled chicken sandwich on Earth"). "Then Mr. David Letterman came in with his show, and all of a sudden it was a very hot spot. Business has improved a lot. What else can I say?"