Monday, February 24, 1997
When Jerry met Dave
'Late Show' staff pulls out the stops to give
prolific Covington 'letter man' a birthday dream

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jerry Scales looks over 'Late Show' souvenirs with his wife Gail.
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NEW YORK - ''I can't believe it! Jerry Scales is here!'' exclaimed Mark O'Keefe, a writer for David Letterman's Late Show.

''Jerry Scales is here?'' shouted writer Jerry Mulligan as Covington's prolific letter man walked into Late Show offices on the 14th floor of the Ed Sullivan Theater building.

The assistant manager of a Fort Thomas hardware store, who celebrated his 40th birthday Thursday with his first visit to the Late Show, was greeted like a long-lost cousin by staffers. In the past year, they have received more than 500 hand-printed letters from Mr. Scales for the weekly ''CBS Mailbag'' segment.

''I feel like I know your handwriting better than I know my own,'' said Tim Long, the writer who assembles the Friday night viewer mail segment.

''This is awesome. We're living the dream!

So were Mr. Scales and his wife, Gail. Before the Scales' day was over, Mr. Letterman:

  • Greeted Mr. Scales in the audience on Friday's telecast and asked him to take a bow.

  • Handed Jerry a gag gift (a bucket of green roasted chicken).

  • Met with him privately after the program's taping.

''You make our job easier with your letters,'' Mr. Letterman joked with him in his office. ''We have no writers. We'll take anything we can get.''

The comedian gave Mr. Scales a regulation NFL football signed, ''To Jerry, Thanks. David Letterman.''

Mr. Scales presented the Late Show host with a Cincinnati Reds jersey with ''Letterman'' and No. 15 on the back (for his 15th anniversary on late-night TV) and proclamations from Covington and Cincinnati.

Instantly the Indianapolis native, who rode the train with his father to Reds games at Crosley Field in the 1950s, put on the shirt.

''Wow!'' he said. ''Is that a beauty!''

Jerry and Gail's Excellent Adventure started at 10 p.m. Wednesday, when the couple packed up their Dodge Caravan and began their 11-hour overnight drive to the city that never sleeps.

Months ago, Mr. Scales determined to turn 40 at the Late Show. He secured seats through head writer Joe Toplyn, who had responded several times to his letters.

He began collecting Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky hats, T-shirts, postcards and mugs to further The Enquirer's campaign to bring Mr. Letterman's show to Cincinnati and promote his plan to move the Late Show ''home office'' to Covington from Wahoo, Neb.

With a two-wheel hand truck borrowed from his Hader Hardware boss, he hauled five boxes of Tristate trinkets to Mr. Toplyn's office at 1 p.m. Thursday.

Entering the Ed Sullivan Theater on 53rd Street, Mr. Scales introduced himself to Late Show stage manager Biff Henderson, who had sent him an autographed photo last year.

''Jerry Scales? I've heard your name all over the place,'' Mr. Henderson said as he posed for a snapshot.

After meeting with Mr. Scales for a half-hour, Mr. Toplyn gave the Scales a guided tour of Mr. Letterman's neighborhood.

First stop was Rupert Jee's Hello Deli next door. Then he took them around the corner to K&L's Rock America to meet Mujibur Rahman, half of the famous Mujibur and Sirajul duo.

While Mrs. Scales and a news photographer snapped photos, someone asked Mr. Toplyn about the commotion.

''They think you're an actor, Jerry,'' Mr. Toplyn said.

Tourists may have been disappointed, but not the Late Show staff arranging appearances that day for Julie Andrews, Tony Randall, Jerry Springer, Doug E. Doug, Oscar-nominee Juliette Binoche and David Brenner.

''I've never done anything like this (personal tour) before,'' Mr. Toplyn said. ''But this is Jerry Scales!''

Five bundles of viewers' letters, each an inch thick, sat on the corner of Mr. Toplyn's desk.

''We get these mail packets here, and sometimes two-thirds of them are your letters,'' he explained to Mr. Scales.

Staffers thumb through the correspondence looking for queries that inspire a sketch, sight gag or some silliness. Five to 10 comedy bits will be produced, but only four will air on Fridays.

Ten times in 10 months - including two Friday - Mr. Letterman has read a letter penned by the Covington Holmes High School graduate.

''It gives me something to look forward to each Friday. I live for Fridays,'' said Mr. Scales, who sends at least 10 letters a week to the Late Show.

''So the various rhythms of your life are determined by the 'CBS Mailbag?' That's a bit disconcerting!'' Mr. Toplyn said, laughing.

He turned serious.

''It really does help to have fresh material coming in all the time. We appreciate your support. Your letters really help out,'' he said.

Then he handed an envelope to Mr. Scales - a surprise birthday card that his children, Angela, 16, and Sean, 11, had sent in care of Mr. Toplyn. (Angel skipped the trip to keep her 10-year perfect school attendance record intact. The children stayed with family friends.)

These two letters read Friday tied Mr. Scales with a woman who had 10 letters read on Mr. Letterman's old NBC Late Night:

  • ''I never miss the Late Show. Sometimes I can't go to sleep after watching. Can you help me.'' (Mr. Letterman suggested he call the new ''1-600-Dave Chat'' line.)

  • ''I've got one hell of a cold and I just can't shake it. What should I do?'' (Mr. Letterman pulled out a bucket of KFC's new green ''Nyquil-roasted chicken.'')

Mr. Scales had tickets to both shows taped Thursday, the 5:30 p.m. show that aired Thursday and the 8 p.m. show for Friday broadcast. He figured something was up when Mr. Toplyn asked him not to attend the 5:30 show, explaining he didn't want to ruin the spontaneity of the 8 p.m. show.

A Late Show audience coordinator later explained: ''David is a very eccentric individual because he knows every face in the audience. He doesn't want somebody in the audience two straight shows. He wants a fresh crowd for each show.''

The Covington couple ended up watching the first show on TV in a Late Show conference room seven floors above the theater's marquee - and down the hall from the Wardrobe Room and Mail Room that receives his letters.

A Late Show staffer popped out of the Wardrobe Room and asked, ''Are you Jerry Scales?''

The Beatles! Right here on this very stage, Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles to America in 1964.

On this stage have stood Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Barbra Streisand, Jack Benny, David Letterman.

And Jerry Scales.

An hour before the 8 p.m. taping, Late Show executives let Mr. Scales, his wife and a reporter sneak onto the polished Ed Sullivan Theater stage.

Mr. Scales inspected the backdrop of fake Manhattan bridges and highways, which he has tried to replicate in his basement Late Show shrine.

He stood on the red dot at center stage, Mr. Letterman's monologue mark. He didn't notice guest comic David Brenner walking past asking, ''Is that the red dot?''

Mr. Scales was in awe.

''I didn't expect to be able to do this,'' he said.

It was a historic moment, according to Late Show publicist Rosemary Keenan, who has worked with Mr. Letterman for more than a decade.

''In all my years, we've never done something like this,'' she said, as Mr. Scales wondered around the stage before the show.

''But nobody else has written as many letters to the 'CBS Mailbag,' '' she said. ''He's Jerry Scales!''

In 24 sleepless hours, the adventure was over. At 10 p.m. Thursday, Jerry and Gail Scales arrived back at their hotel after nine hours in Lettermanland.

They met more Late Show staffers in executive producer Rob Burnett's office while waiting to be escorted to Mr. Letterman's inner sanctum.

''I like your stuff,'' writer Rodney Rothman said as he munched on Walnut Street popcorn from a Cincinnati Reds tin. He was referring to Mr. Scales' letters, not the popcorn and postcards and other items in the Cincinnati stash.

Throughout the day, the Late Show writers were curious what Mr. Scales did for a living.

''I work for a hardware store,'' he'd say. ''Come by, and we'll make you a free key.''

The birthday boy didn't go home empty-handed. He carted off a couple of Late Show cue cards, publicity photos, the show run-down sheet, the football and the bucket of green chicken.

No Big Ass canned ham but no regrets. After all, he's the famous Jerry Scales.

''Jerry,'' said his wife as they waited for the hotel elevator, ''your dream came true!''