Thursday, June 9, 2011
(Above: Caitlin, Theo and Austin performing their winning call)
Austin Kelley, Caitlin Baldridge, Theo Quayle, Jermy Kruger, Augie Grahn, Andrew Gage, Zach Piser, Andrew Moorhead and Tlalli Moya-Smith are back home in Piedmont after flying to New York on May 24 to appear on "The Late Show With David Letterman."
They were the winners of the 46th annual Piedmont High School Birdcalling Contest. Austin, Caitlin and Theo took first place for their mating call of the American Coot; Jeremy, Augie and Andrew placed second for the Trumpeter Hornbill; and Zach, Andrew and Tlalli won third place with their call of the Wood Stork.
It was business as usual, including the stern don't-try-to-be-funny-let-Dave-make-the-jokes lecture from one of the producers before the show. Letterman flirted with the girls and bantered with the boys, as he always does.
While talking with Tlalli about her upcoming jaw surgery, he got into one of his obsessive "Oprah-Uma" moods, when he just can't let something rest. But Tlalli took it all in stride.
And the banter with Augie got so heated, the producers worried that it might look like Letterman was picking on him. So they cut the bit when the show aired - much to Augie's disappointment.
Afterwards, the kids explored Manhattan - turning down a guy who tried to sell them fake Rolexes - bought souvenirs and ate overpriced food.
"Twenty bucks for a burger?" Theo says incredulously.
They flew home with free "Late Show" T-shirts, some unforgettable memories and $200 checks.
The winners' names will also be inscribed on the Leonard J. Waxdeck Trophy, named after the biology teacher who created the contest as a class project in 1963 and guided it until his death in 1994.
The contest went big time in 1975, when Johnny Carson had the kids on "The Tonight Show," beginning a yearly tradition that continued until he retired in 1992.
Waxdeck asked Carson's successor, Jay Leno, to continue the tradition. But Leno was so anxious to get out from under Carson's shadow, he wouldn't touch anything associated with Johnny.
Fortunately, Letterman, who worshipped Carson, was delighted to have the birdcallers on his show. They made their first appearance in 1993, and there they have appeared every year since.
But the rules were a little different. Carson had let Waxdeck decide who would be on the show, and he invariably picked the first, second and third place winners, plus the graduating seniors.
But Letterman insisted on making the choice himself. After viewing a tape of the contest, his producers would select four acts to come to New York. Some years, none of the contest winners were chosen.
Even worse, after the dress rehearsal the producers would cut one of the acts. The kids always put a brave face on it, but they must have been brokenhearted.
But six years ago a new principal named Randy Booker took over at Piedmont High. And one of the first things he did was tell Letterman's producers that from now on, it would be all or nothing.
It was a gutsy thing to do because they could have told him to get lost. But instead, they blinked. And ever since then, the contest winners have been chosen to go to New York. And they all have appeared on the show.
Big props to you, Randy Booker!