CBS Drops Small Businesses from Letterman Lineup
BY Jerry Useem
Neighborhood business people tell what happened on their block when David Letterman and his Late Show moved in.
On The Road
NEW YORK CITY. It was the kind of business opportunity she could never have planned on, yet Fern Chapnick knew exactly how to react: she quickly began photocopying various parts of her body.
Chapnick owns the Longacre Copy Center, until recently one of several struggling retailers surrounding the Ed Sullivan Theatre, which CBS revived three years ago to house its new Late Show with David Letterman. When the show started, Chapnick was only too willing to go along with Letterman's pranks--blithely photocopying her kisser for a national audience--hopeful that her business would benefit from the influx of visitors and TV cameras. "I was very excited," she says. "I thought there would be a lot of hype for me and the neighborhood."
She was absolutely right. Not only did CBS make this once-dismal stretch of Broadway "cleaner, brighter, safer, nicer"--as one satisfied restaurateur puts it--but Letterman's on-air visits turned his neighbors into minor celebrities and their businesses into tourist destinations.
Down the street, trinket salesmen Mujibur Rahman and Sirajul Islam parlayed their Late Show exposure into bit movie parts, turning their employer, K&L's Rock America, into a mecca for stargazers. And the adjacent Bagel Cafe flourished after Letterman's mother, Dorothy, was captured on film stopping in for a nosh. "I think the show is a beautiful thing," says owner Nick Glendis, beaming. He has leveraged his Letterman cachet by renaming his two other establishments Bagel Cafe. (But since Glendis neglected to register the name, impostor Bagel Cafes have also sprouted up.)
With fame came fortune: average sales on the block climbed a much-needed 20%, and some stores raised their prices. At his tiny Hello Deli, Rupert Jee's specialty switched from stuffing turkey subs to signing T-shirts emblazoned with an enormous likeness of his head. Jee reports that business is up more than 30% since Letterman first wired him up into a kind of life-size ventriloquist's dummy, instructing him through a tiny earpiece to commit such indignities as ordering a "five-pounder" at McDonald's. "In a sense I have two careers now," he reflects with a detached amazement. "It's really weird."
The modest and agreeable deli owner, who collects $300 for every TV appearance, says he has decided against hiring an agent to represent him. "You lose the fun of the whole thing if you do that," he reasons. "Dave made me popular, and I think that's as far as it'll go. I have no talent for show business."
Even so, Jee is reminded daily of the benefits of appearing on the tube. "The power of television," he says, standing on the sidewalk in front of his shop, "is something I really underestimated." No sooner has he finished speaking than Naomi and Jocelyn Joyce, ages 16 and 18, timidly approach him to request autographs. "We watch you in Nebraska," ventures their father, Tim Joyce, who has brought his family on vacation from Wilcox, in that state. Jee dutifully poses for a picture. It's a scene he repeats as many as 30 times a day.
Says the owner of Martini's Restaurant, Richard Krause, whose waiters were dragged onstage to have their tuxedo pants cut into shorts: "The smallest, most ordinary neighborhood businesses--places that were slightly run-down, slightly dingy--are the ones Letterman has been most generous to."
Well, yes. Except that as Letterman has settled in, CBS has begun aggressively developing the block, looking to recoup some of its investment in the show. Ironically, the very ordinariness that made the indigenous businesses such rich comedic material has now made many of them targets.
"The bastards terminated us," spits McGee's Pub owner Pete Fitzpatrick, whose new, involuntary location two blocks away includes a wall of news clippings chronicling his eviction--a bitter monument to the fickleness of show business. CBS booted Fitzpatrick's workaday pub from the space it had occupied since 1982, replacing it with a swanky $1.5-million television-theme restaurant called Sullivan's.
"I found CBS very hostile," Fitzpatrick says, unleashing a stream of not-for-prime-time epithets to describe the network officials who engineered his departure. "They were playing along with us at first, but I think they wanted us out as soon as they took over the place. It was almost bully tactics."
Chapnick, too, was forced out of her Broadway storefront last year in favor of a CBS shop that competes with local merchants in selling Letterman paraphernalia. She has relocated nearby to 56th Street but says that sales have dropped about 25%. "I almost had a nervous breakdown," Chapnick laments. "My corner on Broadway was what I needed. My walk-in traffic here is nil." The network offered her landlord $11,500 a month for the space, she explains, an amount that easily trumped her $7,300.
At CBS, the attitude echoes its most famous news anchor's signature sign off: That's the way it is. "I think we did what any prudent landlord would do," says Ken Cooper, vice-president of facilities operations. "We found the best tenant."
Indeed, the remaining tenants now realize that although CBS shares their block, it doesn't share their agenda. The revitalization that the area's entrepreneurs wanted is under way, but it's following a blueprint they don't like.
"These small family businesses have been here for years and have a right to stay," protests Bart Dadon, manager of Academy Tuxedo. Adds Joe Galvano, manager of Da Valentino Pizza: "This block was like a family affair. Now it's about money--money, money, money. We didn't care about money before. We just wanted to make a living."
Even Jee is jittery. The lease on his deli expires in four years. "If Rupert didn't have that long lease locked up, guaranteed he would have been gone," claims Fitzpatrick. So Jee is already thinking about buying another business as a hedge, in case he suffers the same fate as Chapnick and Fitzpatrick.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the same thing happened to us," he says. "It's a double-edged sword. Sure, you'll get more business from the show, but with big corporations, there's no such thing as loyalty."