It’s cool that Lebanon was once the home office of Late Night with David Letterman’s Top Ten List. It’s cool that our little hometown received unprecedented recognition from across the country.
What’s even cooler is how it all went down.
There was a time not all that long ago when Lebanon served as the home office of the popular television-talk show host’s nightly Top Ten List. How it came to pass is one of the most interesting and intriguing stories ever associated with the history of Lebanon, Pa.
The principal characters were a couple of Lebanon School District teachers and local residents, Jay Putt and Karl “Skip” Wolf. Putt has since passed, leaving Wolf behind to relay a story that he remembers as though it were yesterday.
Perhaps the best place to start is the beginning. The year was 1990, and the emerging Letterman was just coming into his own as a comedian and entertainer.
“I used to listen to the Tom Snyder Show on [Lebanon radio station] WLBR from 10-12 p.m. every night,” said Wolf. “Jay Putt was my friend, and he informed me David Letterman was going to be on the show. It was a call-in show, and I said, ‘Let’s call him,’ and [Putt] said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ We used a digital phone that had an automatic redial system. We must have done it 50-60 times, and each time it was busy. But eventually persistence paid off.”
Wolf said Putt was the one who came up with the question.
“I wanted to ask him something common like, ‘How did he like show business?’ But Jay said, ‘No, ask him to change the home office of the Top Ten List to Lebanon.’ It was a brilliant idea by Jay. Eventually, a screener came on the phone and said, ‘You’re next on the line.’ I heard Tom Snyder say, ‘This is Karl from Lebanon, Pa.’ I told Dave we enjoyed his show and then asked him to change the home office to Lebanon.”
What happened next stunned Putt and Wolf. But what was even more stunning was Letterman’s memory of the short event.
“I remember he said, ‘Done. It’s moving,’” said Wolf. “Jay and I were stunned that it was that easy. But we couldn’t tell anyone because we weren’t sure he’d do it. This happened on a Thursday and a week later on Tuesday, I went over to Jay’s house to watch Letterman’s show.”
About 15 minutes into the show, Wolf said, Letterman told sidekick and band leader Paul Shaffer that the home office for the Top Ten List had changed. Letterman proceeded to cross out the old home office on a cue card and write in “Lebanon, PA.”
According to Lebanon Daily News coverage from that period, the home office change was a surprise even to Letterman writers. Reporter James Mentzer stopped by the Downtown Lounge for the showing, where he talked to bartender Nanette Coleman. “It’s good to know that a big city Like New York would give a small city like Lebanon some recognition,” she said at the time. (Editor’s note: Nanette now owns the bar.)
“Henry Homan had a column in the Lebanon Daily News called ‘Up the Snitz Creek,’” Wolf continued. “I called Henry and asked him if he’d like a scoop. I told him the story and showed him a tape of the show. He was the one who told the readers of the Lebanon Daily News. At that point, things got really crazy. We were contacted by newspapers and magazines. People thought there was office space in Lebanon that was actually the home office of the Top Ten List.”
Lebanon remained the home office of Late Night with David Letterman’s Top Ten List for about two years and three months. Wolf and Putt made a number of trips to New York to see the show live, and they did everything they could think of to keep the home office here.
“To keep it going, we tried to shower Letterman with gifts,” said Wolf. “We made numerous trips to New York to see the show, but we never got to meet him. We never got word from him, not a letter or a note.
“One time we were waiting in line to see a show and we told one of Letterman’s personal assistants that we were from the home office in Lebanon, Pa,” added Wolf. “I had Shuey’s Pretzels with me and handed it to him to give to Dave. When Dave came out at the beginning of the show, he had a canned ham. He actually came down and handed me a canned ham for giving him the pretzels, but he didn’t know who I was. It went until 1992. During one show, someone said they were going to hold the rest of the audience hostage unless he changed the home office, and he did it.”
“They have gone crazy over this,” Late Night with David Letterman’s head writer Steve O’Donnell told the Baltimore Sun in 1990. “But when you go crazy in Lebanon, Pa., that’s like sending off packages of pretzels to friends and relatives.”
For a period of 30 years, Late Night with David Letterman on NBC, and then Late Show with David Letterman on CBS, had 13 different fictitious home offices. It began in Milwaukee, Wis. and then moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., but Lebanon served as Pa.’s only home office.
“It was a great run,” said Wolf. “Something else that was crazy was people thought Jay and I had some sort of inside connection with Letterman, that we could arrange personal appearances. But we never had personal contact with him. It was just to see if we could pull it off. It was Jay’s idea and his name kind of got lost in the story. I was just the one who made the call on his phone. We had a lot of fun with it.
“When you keep getting a busy signal, you think, ‘What chance to I have of getting through?,’” Wolf added. “It was just a whim. It just caught [Letterman’s] fancy. But from Thursday to Tuesday, he remembered. His writers never knew about it. They had no idea.”
Letterman retired from the late-night talk show world in 2015, after 33 years of entertaining millions of Americans. Before moving to the 11:30 p.m. time slot on CBS, Letterman’s Late Night had appeared at 12:30 a.m. on NBC.
There was a time when some insiders believed Letterman would succeed Johnny Carson when he retired as the host of NBC’s Tonight Show.
“I was a big fan of Dave’s,” said Wolf. “When he was on at 11:30, I watched his show all the time. Then when he went to CBS, I’d watch it. We just liked his humor. You had to appreciate it, because it was an odd type of humor.
“I’m proud of being from here. I’ve lived here all my life,” continued Wolf. “But we really didn’t do it for Lebanon. We just did it as a whim. We wondered, ‘Would he actually do it?”, and he did. It sort of put Lebanon on the map nationally. It happened 30 years ago, and probably many people in town don’t even know about it.”
When Wolf thinks back to that time, it is with fond memories. It also helps him remember his lost friend.
“I chuckle about it,” said Wolf. “I just hope it’s not my legacy. It was pretty neat. I just feel like Jay didn’t get the recognition he deserved. He was too shy to talk on the phone, but Jay was creative. I used to call him ‘the idea man’.
“Sometimes what you least expect to happen can happen,” concluded Wolf. “You could’ve had 25,000 people write letters to Letterman, and it wouldn’t have happened. It just caught his fancy.”
Here’s tonight’s Top Ten List, from the home offices in Lebanon, Pennsylvania…
10 reasons why the David Letterman show should be broadcast from the home office in Lebanon Pennsylvania
- Plenty of free parking for audience and crew; just watch your step.
- On moonlight nights from a pasture one can hear the words… “If Letterman comes, he will prosper”
- City police don’t use radar
- Lebanon is “hometown” for Sam Bowie of the Nets, Frank Reich of the Bills, and racing great Bobby Gerhart
- Free saunas courtesy of Weaver’s Smokehouse
- Paul and the guys can catch up on the latest polka hits at the ‘Persey’ Fire Hall
- Fans can visit the country’s oldest tunnel
- The lost art of opera fudge is still practiced here
- Guests can still enjoy stretch limo service
- On a good day you can smell the Hershey Chocolate Factory… on a great day you can smell Zook’s manure spreader.
Letterman clips courtesy of archivist Don Giller. Read a 2017 profile of Giller here.
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An earlier version of this article misspelled Skip’s last name. We sincerely regret the error.