At the Ed Sullivan Theater, herding sheep, making Martin Short fly and lifting a Beatle to new heights were all in a day’s work for this Letterman pro.
Until David Letterman stepped down from Late Night this past May, Jerry Foley was the show’s longtime director and supervising producer.
He began in 1990 as technical director on the comedian’s 12:30 a.m. show at NBC and moved with him to CBS in 1993. Two years later he became director and in 2003 was named supervising producer.
As for the Ed Sullivan Theater, Foley knows every nook and cranny. Here he reminisces about his more than two decades at the historic studio:
“Talk about a guy who got a big train set to play with! This was a cool, special place to work. You walked through the house or across that stage and couldn’t help but think about the Grand Ole Opry or Yankee Stadium or any other iconic venue.
“Dave will tell you how much he’d come to appreciate the versatility of the theater. For instance, we were ready whenever he spontaneously got up and ran out onto 53rd Street. Electronically, the theater was designed to serve whatever Dave was up to.
“Some of the things we did over the years stretched the theater, to produce more of a Broadway presentation than a TV show. When we had scenes from Pippin and South Pacific on the show, it was a reminder that the theater had a great Broadway tradition.
“Every Christmas we did a big holiday presentation. Last year we had a large choir and orchestra, with snow falling.
“We also did lots of aerial work: we flew Martin Short, Bill Murray, Richard Simmons, Sean Connery over the stage; we had circus people hidden up in the grid who came down on silks.
“Musicians performed on the roof: the New York Philharmonic, Dave Matthews Band, Jay Z, Eminem. Paul McCartney sang while standing on the theater marquee. We reinforced the marquee with temporary trusses for his performance.
“We also turned a fire escape into a stage for some performances. We dropped things off the roof onto 53rd — bowling balls, watermelons, eggs, umbrellas, paint-filled balloons. We dropped marbles, too, but found out they went into the sewer system. We received a phone call from the city on that one.
“The top-10 list always started out with maybe 100 entries. Picking the funniest 10 went on all day. Then the jokes had to be entered electronically, often on a tight deadline. The show could be starting, and Dave would be rewriting a joke or changing a word.
“When the studio converted to color [in 1965], The Ed Sullivan Show had some problems because the subway power-station transformers next door would sometimes drain the color. They had to cover the wall with shielding to keep the electromagnetic field from leaking into the theater. This was addressed by CBS when they renovated the theater for Dave. But occasionally we saw the color shift on a couple of monitors back in that area.
“Ed Sullivan had circus acts on his show and constructed four big wooden columns in the basement to reinforce the stage. They’re still there. We, too, brought in a number of animals. A few years ago we herded a flock of sheep down Broadway.
“We had one night from hell: a guest’s plane was delayed, and, to kill time while we were taping, Dave decided to play catch with Biff [Henderson, stage manager]. Biff went down the steps toward the audience, caught the football and tore a muscle in his thigh. He was laid out, completely immobilized. We stopped taping.
“At about the same time that night, there was an accident backstage — a technician took a nasty spill on the stairs and cut open his chin. The ambulance crew that responded returned a short time later to tend to Biff. This whole time Sandra Bullock was kept waiting in her dressing room. We still feel bad about that.
“The Ed Sullivan Theater is one of my favorite places in the world. I can’t tell you how much it has meant to me. My 22 years there were a privilege.”