NEW YORK -- The crowd of 1,000 strong who pressed into Rockefeller Plaza yesterday for Katie Couric's last morning as host of the Today show couldn't decide whether this was a wake or a party.
There were tears, but there was also champagne. There were mournful tributes, but there was also laughter. Couric's fans made one last pilgrimage to NBC's concrete studio in midtown Manhattan, bearing signs, flowers and even a sheet cake.
"It's kind of like a death in the family. She's such a friend to you," said David Lawrence, 48, a restaurant owner who drove through the night from Boston to bid farewell. "It feels like someone going away who you'll never get back again."
Couric will be back, though, this fall as anchor of the CBS Evening News. Many of her fans in Rockefeller Plaza yesterday said they will tune in at night, but after watching Couric on Today for 15 years, they said their mornings won't be the same.
"I can't get up and get to work without my Katie fix," said Malinda Chrisman, 56, from the Chicago suburbs. She and her husband were in New York for two weeks, with plans to take a cruise around Manhattan and see Broadway shows and the Empire State Building.
"But this is my highlight," Chrisman said, a pink Today cap atop her head. "I hope I don't cry."
Two hours into the show, an elderly woman who had fainted was seated on the plaza and receiving oxygen from New York Fire Department paramedics. She was fine after a few minutes. You couldn't blame her. It was just that kind of morning.
Since Today moved to ground-floor Studio 1A in 1994, crowds have gathered in the plaza outside to wave signs and mouth hello to Mom. Yesterday was the same, only more so. The crowd was larger than usual, and the line to enter the plaza began forming at 11:30 Tuesday night.
Pulling an all-nighter
First in line were Sarah Lidstone, 20, and her three friends from Ohio. They drove straight from Youngstown to New York, parked the car and got in line. "For five hours, it was just the four of us, and at 4 o'clock the rest started coming," Lidstone said.
Before the crowd was let into the plaza, their bags were searched and they were swept with metal-detecting wands. Today show personnel even looked at each sign, presumably to screen for offensive content. "Signs with mistakes will not be let in!" shouted the man checking the signs.
By 6:45 a.m. - 15 minutes before showtime - Tony Bennett took the stage, looking dapper in a gray suit and red pocket square, to rehearse "The Way You Look Tonight," which he would sing to Couric during the show.
"Who is that?" asked someone in the crowd as Bennett rehearsed.
"It's Regis!" someone else answered, thinking of that other ubiquitous granddaddy of show biz, Regis Philbin. Meanwhile, the sound system in Rockefeller Plaza treated the crowd to mawkish songs such as "For Good" from the Wicked soundtrack ("Because I knew you, I have been changed for the good").
Shortly before 7 a.m., the monitors in the plaza came to life, showing Couric seated at the anchor desk, a flurry of hands reaching into the frame to brush her hair and touch up her makeup. Outside, a flurry of cell phones came to life.
"I'm watching Katie Couric right now!"
"Call me when you see me."
"I'm standing right behind the red sign."
One man simultaneously operated a cell phone and a digital video camera. The signs came out: Oklahoma and Tennessee will "miss Katie." Ripley, Mo., loves Katie. North Dakota wishes Katie good luck. One woman proudly held a sign toting up the cost of her trip:
Tickets to NY: $425
Hotel for 3 nights: $750
Food & Beverages: $600
Seeing Katie on Her Last Day: Priceless
'This is history'
"I think she's a monument, and this is history," said Peggy Orten, 70, who came from Farmerville, La., with eight friends and relatives. Orten said she lost her husband in 1998, a few months before Couric's husband, Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer. "She was courageous about it. I felt connected to her, and I could really cry for her because I knew how she felt."
Her daughter, Judy Orten, added, "She seems to be everyday folksy - a little bit corny, a little bit cheesy, but real."
Couric - who was dressed in a white jacket, a navy, red and white skirt and high heels - occasionally visited with the crowd during the three-hour broadcast. To the women who brought the sheet cake, with a giant heart made of pink icing, she said, "Thank you so much. I'll be right back, OK?" She did return later for a photo, but left the cake untouched.
Much of yesterday's show was spent outside, where NBC has laid claim to the block of Rockefeller Plaza between 48th and 49th streets. Two stages were set up at either end of the block, and in the center a platform served as an outdoor studio. Couric greeted Today alums Willard Scott and Gene Shalit and chatted with Joan Rivers, who was wearing a green suit and more makeup than the cast of X-Men.
Sometimes, the sounds of New York intruded on the proceedings. A helicopter buzzed overhead. Police sirens wailed. ("CBS is coming a day early," said Al Roker, always the joker.) And construction noise from across 48th Street made the show hard to hear.
Pat Tingo, 48, a plumber working on that job site, watched the crowd forming at 6:30 a.m. He didn't mind the commotion. "It's nice to see people out this early in the morning," he said. "This is a big day."
As if to confirm it, at 10 a.m., after Couric had said her last goodbye to the crowd and ducked back into the studio for good, the NBC News ticker above Rockefeller Plaza noted this development: "Katie Couric leaves Today show after 15 years as host ... Starting this fall, Katie Couric will anchor the CBS Evening News ... "