May 31 2011

A Long-Standing Piedmont Tradition Continues

The Letterman Trip

by Larry Kelley

Located on 54th and Broadway in Manhattan, Dave Letterman’s Late Nite Show emanates from the former home of the Ed Sullivan Theater. When I was the age of today’s Piedmont bird callers, most American families gathered around their television sets on Sunday nights wanting to vicariously feel what it was like, for that moment, to be a national icon, to be big enough to be on Ed Sullivan. We watched for another reason; because we wanted to see the big stars and American cultural history being made.

Remembering the greats of that era, the larger-than-life stars who strode out on that stage, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Sinatra, Red Skelton, the 27 Czechoslovakian plate spinners, and of course, the Beatles—no one of my era will ever forget that benchmark in history, I waited for my son and Piedmont’s cohort of bird callers to be announced. And I understood that I had somehow made a pilgrimage to a shrine of my bygone youth. Yet there was something about the shrine that was at odds with my memory. The theater was much smaller than it looked from my family’s TV room decades ago.

As we awaited, my wife, Debbie, and I sat in the mezzanine which contained only six rows.  The ground floor was perhaps only double that size.  The stage which included Letterman’s band, his guest chairs and his desk seemed no larger than the average Piedmont living room.  Similarly, when we entered the studio on the day of the broadcast, we found that the “green room” where the stars wait to go on stage and the other backstage areas were tiny and cramped like the living quarters on a submarine. Shrines, when actually visited, seem to have a way of shrinking.

Our pre-performance handler, Ryan, was a Buddy Holly look-a-like and a convivial chap with an agenda.  He coached the Piedmont callers on how to carry themselves on stage.  In our backstage and onstage rehearsals, he made it abundantly clear that the callers’ job was not to perform but to conform to expectations, that being, to be wholesome energetic teenagers interested in birds. The unspoken message was that comedy was Dave’s job. The spoken message was that they didn’t want to do anything on stage that would “break the Letterman Show’s commitment to future Piedmont bird callers.”  And I thought that Ryan was exemplary in the diplomacy with which he drew that line in the sand.

As a former MC of the Sixth Annual Leonard J. Waxdeck Bird Calling Contest, I felt qualified to conclude that our good biology teacher smiled upon the 46th annual winners.  I was sure that their performances went off exactly as the great one envisioned decades ago.

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