Thursday, October 29, 2009

David, Rachel & me

This was originally published in The Record.

Stories sometime take on a life of their own.

I mentioned to Lisa Lewis, our editor, on Sept. 30 that my next column was going to recount how a newsroom effort I contributed to very early in my career turned into a staple of late night television in the 1980s and early 90s. If you think you know where this tale might be going based on recent headlines, you’re right. Two words: David Letterman. Later that evening the subject at the heart of my idea became the biggest story of the week after his on-air confession that he had affairs with members of his staff.

So I pondered, do I write the column or not? A chance sighting last weekend of a daytime celebrity talk show host convinced me to go for it.

Back to the beginning: I was a reporter at the Wellsville Daily Reporter when, on an Indian summer day in 1982 - much like the day I am writing this - my then-editor Matt Leone and I were sitting around musing about how people from small towns enjoy telling stories about famous people they and, or their friends and family have met. We shared a few stories, elicited some more from throughout the building, and Matt, being the columnist at the time, wrote them down and published them in the paper.

This created what today we would call great water cooler talk locally. And, in an era before office water coolers replaced the drinking fountain, in a town where most days were a slow news day, and the only famous former resident was a semi-pro baseball player-turned-actor named Gabby Hayes, a sidekick to leading actors in a number of Western movies including Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, we made the most of it. We invited readers to send in their tales for publication, too. We called the two-part series “Touched by Greatness”.

Matt – a serious news guy who nonetheless enjoyed these types of features immensely – sent our efforts off to journalism school buddies working in Ithaca and Rochester, and they in turn decided to publish similar efforts in their newspapers that fall. The idea really gathered steam in those larger markets with many reader contributions; the one that has stayed with me all these years was a reader who told the Rochester paper he was living in California in the 1950s when his dog urinated on the leg of a man that went on to be the 37th president of the U.S., Richard Nixon.

Fall turned to winter and it all might have been forgotten about if a staffer from the then-fledgling “Late Night with David Letterman” show hadn’t called Matt and told them they saw the Ithaca incarnation of “Touched by Greatness”, had called the paper, and editors there credited us with the idea. A few questions were asked of Matt and then he was told when a segment inspired by us would air, and that we might get a shout out. A group of us gathered, staying up past our bed times, and watched the show. There was no on-air mention but it was fun seeing our idea in Technicolor.

The skit might have again been relegated to the back of all of our minds if Letterman hadn’t added what he dubbed “Brushed by Greatness” to his rotation of ongoing routines, and the repeat exposure inspired many morning a.m. radio shows to make it a staple of their programming. At the time it seemed at least one call-in show in every city was soliciting listener “Greatness” anecdotes over the airwaves.

Ironically, the routine reached popularity at the same time as entertainment news emerged. The success of the syndicated “Entertainment Tonight”, just a year old when “Greatness” debuted, would spawn the era of the paparazzi and ensure Andy Warhol prediction that“everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes" would come true. These developments also ensured the “Greatness” idea would be quaint within a decade.

Today the average household has evolved from getting just three TV channels to 114 – somebody has to “star” on all the programming on all of those outlets. Even the absolutely talentless – at least when it comes to singing and acting - are becoming renown; all one has to do is be clever for 5 minutes to be seen by millions on YouTube, or be impudent enough to endure a few weeks of humiliation for reality TV stardom. And that’s just television; more authors do more book tours to U.S. cities today, more businesspeople become celebs via the growth in business reporting and event marketing, and there has been a proliferation of ‘experts” in politics and virtually every segment of culture to fill airtime on around-the-clock broadcast news outlets. Even rock acts such as John Mayer and Sister Hazel spend a few days on cruise ships with fans, while lesser stars schlock merchandise at pre- and post-show “meet-and-greets”. So, it seems, everyone who has yet to be famous is tripping over someone who is, and Twittering about it and posting pictures to Facebook.

My entire 15 minutes is still on the clock. The Letterman connection never produced so much as two tickets to sit in the show’s audience despite my trying to snag some through the show’s lottery process every time I headed to New York over the years. And, for a long time, I have also been the odd man out in swapping “Touched by Greatness” stories.

At the time of original incarnation back in Wellsville, I had met no one famous except a few athletes such as Joe Namath at a football camp I attended, and I didn’t think those counted because of the circumstances. (I did have a few stories about folks such as Babe Ruth and former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Sam Rayburn which my parents contributed.) Since then, I have got to interview a couple famous folks as a reporter, from country music’s Boxcar Willie to a guy named George H.W. Bush. And a cousin was a finalist on one of TV’s earliest reality shows, Fox TV’s “Married By America”. Yet, I can still count all my celebrity sightings on one hand with fingers left over: I shared an elevator once with rapper-actor-model Queen Latifah in Chicago, and I saw an actor from “General Hospital” in a London airport. (It seems you gotta be in big cities to increase your odds of bumping into these people.)

But maybe my fortune is changing. After more than a decade of drought in celebrity sightings, my latest happened last Sunday as I was debating whether to finish this column, and the irony is I almost missed it. I was at a wine store at a Washington County apple orchard patiently waiting for a tasting behind a woman who eventually established eye contact with me to, well, let me know I had to move so she could retreat to leave. It wasn’t until she walked out the door my wife (and the buzz around me) informed me that I just been, quite literally, “brushed’ by greatness in the form of one TV star, Rachel Ray.

My wife enjoys pointing out to anyone who will listen – this will be come her own “Greatness” story – that I, a big Ray fan, was clueless to her presence for the better part of a couple minutes. Which brings up my last point about this whole phenomenon: Keep you eyes open because you never know when “Greatness” is going to happen.

Maybe “Greatness” still has some legs at the office and parties as long as some of us remain anonymous. And next time I go to New York? I will test my luck and put my name in the drawing to be in the audience of the Rachel Ray Show instead of Letterman.

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