Forget the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. The folks who line up outside NBC's New York studios before dawn each morning are living for 'Today.'

CAMERA READY

December 21, 1997|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff

NEW YORK -- Of modern American society, there is one immutable truth: With a TV camera trained on them, people are capable of astonishingly goofy behavior.

Some will windmill their arms and scream "Hi, Mom!" and hold up their index fingers to indicate they're No. 1. Some will elbow for position like a fat man in a buffet line and preen. Some will giggle uncontrollably. Sometimes you wonder if the camera isn't emitting some low-level radiation that causes people to lose their minds.

All this occurs to me as I jump from a taxi into the pre-dawn darkness outside NBC's famous glass-cornered "Today" show studio at 49th Street and Rockefeller Plaza.

I am here on this cold, overcast Wednesday to be part of "Today's" open-air audience. I'm here to find out what it's like to stand in 34-degree weather for more than two hours and wave at the TV cameras and wear silly hats and hold up corny signs and beseech the winsome Katie Couric to pose for a photo and scream "Matt, I want to have your baby!" at handsome Matt Lauer (although I may not scream precisely that myself).

I am here to try to banter with Al Roker, the affable weatherman who seems so relaxed he could fall asleep standing up, and shake hands with Ann Curry, the striking and down-to-earth newswoman.

Five days a week, the granddaddy of morning news programs -- it's premiere broadcast was in January of 1952 -- attracts an outdoor audience of hundreds, sometimes thousands, to this wind-swept canyon in midtown Manhattan. The runaway winner in its time slot, it's become one of the Big Apple's top tourist attractions, surpassed in popularity, the show's PR people say, only by the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building.

In the "Today" audience, people get down on their knees and propose marriage to one another. They tearfully thank their old high school teachers for steering them the right way. They sing "Happy Birthday" to 103-year-old grandmothers in Tuscaloosa, Ala., celebrate golden wedding anniversaries and dress up as 6-foot-tall dogs and Old Navy candy bars.

I am here, at this ungodly hour, the famous Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center twinkling brightly behind me, to be a part of all that.

As my Afghani cabdriver counts out my change while chattering about his former life in Kabul, he suddenly whirls around and notices where we are.

" 'Too-dey'? Kay-tee Coo-reek?!" he shouts. "I luvv dett woo-mon!"

I promise to pass that along, and then he's gone, rocketing down 49th Street, a cloud of steam from a manhole cover engulfing the cab before it vanishes from sight.

5: 30 a.m. -- This is how early it is: The sidewalk hustlers selling $20 Rolexes aren't even up yet. Nevertheless, 15 people have already staked out their positions in front of the "Today" studio window. And we're still 90 minutes to air time!

All these people are irritatingly cheerful, too. Bathed in the digitized red glow of the overhead news ticker ("Attorney general Janet Reno defends decision not to seek independent counsel probe ... President Boris Yeltsin says Russia will reduce nuclear weapons by one-third ... ") they hoist Styrofoam coffee cups and chat excitedly about their prospects of getting on camera once the show begins.

I find myself next to Dolly Salmon and Polly Gunter, two friendly senior citizens from Columbia, S.C. They're in New York with 39 other seniors on a tour sponsored by the Richland County Recreation Commission.

At this moment, however, the 39 other seniors are back at their hotel sleeping, which to me shows uncommon good sense. But the two women have brought along their pal George Wise, who is holding a sign that says: "I'm in N.Y. with 5 women from S.C. and having a ball!"

"You have to get here early," Dolly says in a conspiratorial whisper.

"To get on camera, you have to be right here," adds Polly.

Leaning against the metal crowd-control barriers, I regard these women with awe. I need to mainline four cups of Maxwell House before I can even tie my shoes at this hour, never mind approach their energy level.

6: 10 -- The crowd has swelled to about 60 people, predominantly female, and mostly, it seems, from out of town. They all appear to be inveterate "Today" fans, bantering about their favorite past shows.

Inside, we can see the set being readied, lights and TelePrompTers being moved into position. Out here, about 20 feet behind the famous window, Julie Alford and her sister, Glenda, both 30, and Jackie Gonsoulin, 31, all from Houma, La., are stoked!

The three women, all stunning blondes with syrupy Cajun accents, say this show is the highlight of their week's vacation in New York. They show me a pink sign they plan to hold up that says: "Matt, Katie, Al, We Love You!"

To say they are huge fans is to somehow understate the point.

"I named my daughter after Katie Couric," Gonsoulin says. "When she was born, we were trying to figure out a name for her. The 'Today' show was on and I said: 'Hey, there's Katie! She's worth $4 million a year. Let's name her Katie!' "

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