Twenty-two years ago, on a soupy August evening, a Newsday reporter braced himself in front of the closed doors of the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway. Those doors were about to open.
The reporter needed to get someone, anyone, who came out. Didn't matter who -- as long as this person had seen the first taping of the first edition of the first "Late Show with David Letterman."
This person would then be forced to tell this reporter what had happened inside -- who was the guest? What was Letterman like? Remember any jokes?
Those were innocent times, reader, when a new late night talk show and someone named Letterman were big news. You've heard the old line about "whatever sells newspapers..."?
Letterman sold newspapers.
The doors opened, and a flood of chilled air poured into the night. The first guy out the door was Ken. How very lucky for this reporter ( that was me, by the way, if you haven't figured this out by now): Ken was then and is now Long Island's biggest David Letterman fan.
At least over the years, that is how I have considered him.
Of gentle demeanor, blessed with a ferocious memory, and balding -- or more politely "follically challenged" -- Ken looked then like an accountant, or financial analyst. In fact, Ken was a financial analyst. He was born and raised in Syosset 57 years ago.
Ken likes to tell a story: When his mom had to run to the Dairy Barn on Woodbury Road, she would tell him and his sister to go next door to "Burt's [Evans] house" while she was gone. Burt had a basement where a band turned up regularly. It was called The Hassles. To this day, Ken jokes, "My first babysitter was Billy Joel.'"
Ken is mindful of that old few-degrees-of-separation line, or The Universe Moves in Mysterious Ways: Billy Joel would also be the first musical guest on "Late Show."
Back to that long-ago night: I told Ken I was in a big rush. Deadline was less than an hour away. "Mind sharing a cab back to the Two Park Avenue -- New York Newsday headquarters -- and tell me what happened?"
So Ken Waldmann of North Bellmore and his lifelong pal, Larry Wagner, of Huntington, who also attended that first taping, and I shared a ride back to the office, and spent much of the next hour talking about the very first edition of the very first show.
Long Island's biggest David Letterman fan remembered every single detail. The story in the paper the next day quoted Ken: "...audience members stressed that the same old Dave showed up. 'You can take Letterman off of NBC, but you can't take the humor out of him," said Ken Waldmann of North Bellmore, who, like the others who attended, wrote for his ticket in January...."
Ken and I stayed in touch over the years, and I spoke with him earlier Friday. Ken attended the very first taping (which would actually air two weeks later and so was therefore not technically the first edition). But Ken also attended one of the very last tapings -- Wednesday's show, with Julia Roberts.
He has watched over 5,000 editions of "Late Night" and "Late Show." He has a "Late Show" sponge in his kitchen. He has a "Late Night" sweatshirt and a "Late Show" T-shirt. He hopes to get to a taping next week too.
Ken is not remotely what is known as a "disturbed" fan. You know what they are. They are scary. He's just a good fan who found joy, and a few thousand laughs, from this host over the years. Laughter is therapeutic, so think of Dave as Ken's therapist.
Ken is vital to the enduring success of David Letterman. Without Ken -- and a couple million other Kens -- Letterman would have disappeared years ago, perhaps have ended up as a top salesman for a siding company. Without Ken, Dave would be getting his gold watch next week. Or is it silver after 22 years?
Viewers, or at least good, loyal, dedicated viewers, are the lifeblood of a show. They are also chattel to the networks, of course, or, more specifically, just numbers in a Nielsen book. Networks don't actually want to MEET viewers. They just want to make sure there are a lot of them.
But why do viewers view? Why have they viewed Dave?
"The best thing about Dave is, he's the same," Ken told me. " The word 'original' comes to mind too. I always liked that he was never afraid to take a chance. He was himself. What you saw, what you got. He loves his mother [Dorothy Marie Mengering -- "Dave's Mom" -- will turn 94 this July]. Halfway through this run, [son] Harry was born. Obviously that changed him. So did 9/11. But his relationships stayed the same. His love for Johnny [Carson].. His love for George Miller or Warren Zevon [who died in 2003 and was a frequent musical guest; also the very first musical guest at "Late Night," while "Late Show" devoted the full hour to Zevon on October 30th, 2002]. The extortion scandal, the heart surgery, bringing the doctors, nurses on stage...He made you feel a part of [these milestones]. We've grown up with him. We've stayed with him. We're loyal."
I asked Ken how things had changed between the first taping in 1993 and the last one he just saw (Ken's been to a half dozen tapings). With a few key differences, they haven't changed all that much, he says.
The audience settles in -- first come, first served, but the ushers fill the first row, then second, and so on. Couples or friends won't be split up, so that means there may be a gap. A person on standby -- who may have just picked up a ticket minutes before -- could end up the first row, then be on national TV six hours later.
As Johnny might say, "...wild."
Then Alan Kalter comes out. He's the announcer. Bill Wendell was the announcer 22 years ago. Wendell had a falling out with Dave. He left long ago.
Then a tape rolls on a screen. Alec Baldwin stars in this. It's the "Late Show's" version of those things you see in the local duplex before the movie starts -- don't talk on your cell phone, etc.
This one is different. Baldwin says that if people misbehave, they will be tossed out by security. Cue to the re-enactment -- belligerent guests are badly roughed up by the even more belligerent security crew.
It gets a laugh.
Letterman then comes out. He doesn't wear a suit jacket. He warms up the audience, which needs warming because -- as you know --the studio is a refrigerator. Letterman is the only late night talk host who does this. Most hosts have a warm-up comic beforehand.
Why Letterman does this is part of his mystique, or mystery. This is a host -- mind you -- who dislikes human interaction so much that he will literally have the "Late Show" office elevators and corridors cleared of staffers before he comes down to the studio for each taping.
No chance of chitchat, or of someone asking, "How's your day going, Mister Letterman?" or "David, did you see the Rangers last night?"
He'll save that stuff for the audience. Letterman finds comedy in these audience encounters. "Found" comedy is of course his specialty. At the Roberts taping Wednesday, someone in the crowd jokes that he can't find a "Late Show" jacket size Double X. (After the show starts, a staffer -- of course -- finds a Double X and Dave gives it to the person. Big laugh.)
Taping begins. The CBS Orchestra cues. The host goes into a dead sprint from one side of the stage to the other side...
Everyone always asks why Letterman does this. Here's why: Years ago, when the show was about to start, he was caught out of position. He ran across stage to get in position, while taping was underway. It was a gaff, a bad one, but Letterman liked the absurdity of it -- a host sprinting across stage. His version of Johnny's "golf swing" was born.
After the taping ends on Wednesday, Ken and Larry -- his pal and fellow Letterman traveler --head out into the dusk, and the surge of people and traffic on Broadway. The words on the marquee above him -- "Late Show with David Letterman" -- will be gone in a few days. Thirty-three years of Ken's viewing life -- happy years -- seem to pass by in an instant.
At least he has something to remember the years by: As luck would have it, Ken had run into the bandleader, Paul Shaffer,on the street before taping. A selfie was born.
I ask Ken how he'd sum up his 33 years of watching Dave.
"It's kind of like going to the anniversary party of someone who's been married 25 years, and you're asked to sum up the marriage at the party. But no one can capture exactly what that couple has gone through over all those years or is still going through.
"This is the same thing. You try to remember as much as you can, you try to remember the good -- and that he was a great ambassador for New York. You take that as the base, and try to hold on to it.
"That's what I do."