Saturday, January 23, 2010

This Week: New York City, New York

Late Nite with Conan O'Brien

At 3 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, 1996, my mom and I walked into 30 Rockefeller Center. We had two tickets for Late Nite with Conan O’Brien on NBC. My New York City guide book said to arrive around 3 p.m. to make sure we were guaranteed a seat. Already a number of people were sitting on the floor at a roped off elevator entrance. As we sat down on the floor, my mom overheard a girl in front of us say something about Canada so she asked her where she was from. Turned out she was one of five college students from Toronto who got up before dawn, packed in a car and drove down to NYC just to see their favorite Canadian band, Barenaked Ladies. Since we didn’t know who the guests were, I was thrilled to learn they would be on the show. "If I Had a $1,000,000" was one of my favorite songs. My mother, who only listened to country music, was absolutely mortified that a band would call itself Bare Naked Ladies. I had to reassure her they were not obscene. As we sat there on the floor and waited, we watched the group of people behind us grow larger and spread across the lobby.

After an hour of sitting on the floor bored out of our minds, an NBC page finally rounded us all up. In small groups we were herded into the three elevators that took us up to some unknown floor. We walked out into a labyrinth of offices and filing cabinets. Several NBC pages pointed us through a maze of several hallways and finally through some large metal doors. Even though we were one of the first people to show up to 30 Rock, sadly we ended up in the back row of Studio 6A.

The stage set was very blue, a deep blue, like the nighttime sky, appropriate for a show that airs around midnight. In the left corner was the band section and a drum kit on a raised platform. At the back wall of the stage on a blue platform were musical instruments, which I assumed belonged to the Barenaked Ladies. Next to the stage was Conan’s wood desk and two chairs for guests. Behind the desk was a window facade of the nighttime NYC skyline. On the far right were fire doors that were open with people going in and out. Three large TV cameras were positioned opposite the set. There were already several people working around the cameras and moving wires behind them. Above us televisions hung down from the ceiling rafters. Below each TV was a white sign that said “Audience” in red letters. These TVs would broadcast the show to us as it happened. Since we were sitting in the last row with the stage far below us, those TV’s would come in handy.

Just as we were about to fall asleep waiting for something to happen, a stage manager, clipboard in hand, introduced a comedian. He said the comedian had been on Seinfeld, but I had never heard of him. He told a few jokes, but nothing particularly entertaining. Finally an announcer, who we couldn’t see, got things rolling by introducing the Late Nite Band, The Max Weinberg Seven. He introduced Max first and Max ran out through the open doors, across the stage to the drum kit, jumped onto his stool and began banging away. Better know as the drummer for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, he played a fast jazzy beat with a goofy smile on his face. One by one each band member was introduced and then came running out to his place in the bandstand. When they arrived at their place, they picked up their instrument and began playing, each member building on the previous sound. With all seven band members introduced Weinberg kept things moving with a frenetic swing beat while the horn section blared away. Most impressive was the trumpeter who blew a continuous note for one whole minute.

With the pre-show off to a bang, Conan sprang through the fire doors. Upon his introduction, he not only came out onto the stage, but ran up the first few steps into the crowd and sang a rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love” with the band backing him. His 6'4" frame towered over a woman in the third row as he serenaded her with "hunka hunka burning love!" She shriveled away from him, laughing hysterically. His performance was amazing and the crowd roared with applause when he finished. Finally some real entertainment!

As Conan settled on the stage receiving a touch up of makeup, the stage manager explained how the show would work: The show was shot in real time including commercial breaks and that every time the red light above the TV was lit, the show was live. Also when the audience sign lit up, we should be as “exuberant” as possible. Lastly, we were to have lots of fun. Then the countdown was on…four, three, two, one.

Simultaneously the red light and audience sign lit up and the Max Weinberg Seven began playing. We yelled and clapped as loud as we could, even though we still had no idea who Conan’s guests were. Then the unseen announcer began:

“It’s Late Nite with Cooooo-nan O’Briiiiii-eeeeen! And the Max Weinberg Seven! Tonight’s guests are Scott Thompson and from Saturday Night Live, Molly Shaaaaaannon. Musical guest, Barenaked Ladies!”

We continued “exuberantly” clapping and hollering until Conan asked us to stop so he could deliver his monologue. Conan went through his jokes, which were quite funny, and then the show went to the first commercial break as the band played. They played through the entire two minutes while Conan had his make up touched up some more. During the commercials, there was a countdown clock on the TV monitors so we would know when to be “exuberant” again.

The first guest was Scott Thompson, who was hilarious, expletives and all. One benefit of being in the studio audience was hearing the inappropriate words that would get edited out later, like being in on a private joke. Thompson was on the Larry Shandling Show at the time, but was probably better known for being a member of “Kids in the Hall” with Dave Foley. Conan and Thompson took the time to celebrate the Central Time Zone New Year (since the middle of the show occurs at midnight in the Central Time Zone) complete with confetti and balloons and the band playing Auld Lang Syne, which we all sang.

After another commercial break the next guest was Molly Shannon. At the time she was a new member of the Saturday Night Live cast. She spent most of her interview telling a terrible story about her encounter with actor Gary Coleman in Los Angeles. The story was awful and so outrageous, I had doubts it was even true. Before the show went to its final commercial break a bright light came on behind my mom and me. Surprised, we turned around to find a camera in our faces. We were on TV!

The Barenaked Ladies provided the finale for Late Nite by playing their song, "Brian Wilson." The song’s refrain was “I’m lying in bed, just like Brian Wilson did…” My mom leaned over and whispered, “Are they saying ‘Brian Wilson’?” I told her yes. She said she thought so. I waited for the next question (why are they singing about Brian Wilson?), but it never came. Good thing too because I had no idea how I was going to explain that.

The show ended around 6 p.m. so we had plenty of time before midnight and Times Square. We ate dinner at a restaurant nearby thinking we were close enough for the New Year’s Eve ball drop, but we were wrong. We didn’t get within ten blocks. The streets were packed with people or closed off by police barricade. Several hours later after squeezing ourselves between as many people as we could, we managed to see a tiny white dot sink between two buildings and heard cheering in the distance, so we assumed it must be midnight. Feeling rather anti-climactic we squeezed back through the crowd and then walked down Broadway toward our hotel. Just as we approached the southwest corner of Central Park, a firework show began. Pleasantly surprised, we enjoyed a 15-minute firework show that was far more exciting than being squished between thousands of strangers watching that tiny little dot.

When the fireworks show ended, we went back to our hotel arriving just in time to watch the NBC broadcast of Late Nite on television. The show was even better on TV then when we were in the studio. The crowd sounded louder and the jokes were still funny. The best part was seeing us on TV when the crowd shot was shown before the last commercial. And we thought sitting in the back row was bad thing!


You too can be a member of a studio audience - You can find information about tickets for all kinds of TV shows either through their website or through the website of the network on which they appear. However, keep these things in mind: Be sure to request your tickets far in advance of your visit to guarantee you get tickets in the first place. To ensure a full house, TV shows give away more tickets than they have seats, so you must arrive several hours before taping, tickets in hand, to guarantee your spot. Be aware most TV shows don’t even tape during holidays, when most of us regular people do our traveling (TV people need vacations too!). The best months for seeing major celebrities on a talk show are the “sweeps” months of November, February, May and July. No recording devices of any kind are allowed (that's why I have no photos of Conan to show you). It’s interesting to see how TV shows are made and if you have the opportunity to get into one, go for it. Remember to be flexible, patient and, most importantly, exuberant!

If you are in New York City, something else that’s fun to do is wave to the cameras at the Today Show, which we did the day before New Year’s Eve. The studio is on the corner of 49th and Rockefeller Plaza. Be sure to dress for the weather. Back then, the Today Show was only two hours long; it’s now four hours long (that’s a lotta standing). We got up at 4 a.m. and arrived at Rockefeller Center around 5:30 a.m. We were nervous about walking around while it was still dark, but there were several shops already open (we bought orange juice and bagels on the way). There were several homeless people sleeping on the streets, however, police officers came around and woke them up telling them to move on. Shop keepers were washing off the sidewalks with hoses and garbage trucks were picking up garbage bags. The city was being cleaned up as we watched, homeless and all. At the time, I thought standing at the Today Show was the silliest, most touristy thing I had ever done, but I had fun. I admit I even made a sign for the cameras. After the show was over, we got a photo with Matt Lauer and his autograph.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

This Week: Aspen, Colorado

The MotherLode

“So you goin’ to the 'Lode?” I was subbing on a volleyball team when one of the players asked me this question. I said I’d never heard of it and asked him to explain. This was my introduction to the MotherLode Volleyball Classic back in the summer of 1997. Held in Aspen every Labor Day weekend, the MotherLode was one of the largest pro-am tournaments in doubles volleyball in the country. After several years of playing in the tournament, I wanted to find out about its roots and why people continue to go back every year. I talked to Leon Fell, Tournament Promoter since 1981, and the MotherLode’s biggest fan. He told me a story about a backyard Bar-B-Q.

In 1972, two transplants from Newport Beach, CA, Howard Ross and Gordon Whitmer, co-owners of The MotherLode Restaurant, missed playing volleyball on the shores of the Pacific. For a little fun, they decided to organize a barbecue at Wagner Park complete with food, a keg of beer and volleyball nets. Fourteen teams showed up and they had so much fun they did it again the next year…and the next year…and the year after that. Each year more teams showed up. During those early years, the restaurant’s bartenders took registrations and one of the waiters designed T-shirts. Simply through word of mouth, the message got out that Aspen was the place to go for volleyball Labor Day weekend. Soon they had over a 100 teams and almost half were from out-of-state, more than they could handle.*

In 1981, Ross and Whitmer brought in local event promoter Leon Fell to coordinate the tournament. Fell had produced a series of events for the Subaru/Aspen Winternational World Cup Skiing Week held in Aspen that year so he definitely had some experience. Fell asked them if they were interested in doing what it took to take the MotherLode to the next level. They said yes, but didn’t really think anything would come of it. Fell, a self-admitted industrious fellow and not the type of person who did anything half-heartedly, immediately set up a marketing and promotional group called MotherLode Volleyball Productions. Thinking big, he had the goal of making the MotherLode the country’s most popular doubles volleyball event. He more than succeeded.*

Fell said one of the toughest parts of creating the MotherLode each year was keeping the experience similar the first tournament over 30 years ago.

“It was just a few of people who wanted to have a good time and play some good volleyball,” he said. “It’s not about the prizes or the money. People, professionals, come here because they have a good time.” No one knows how to have a good time like volleyball players. Just walking down the streets of Aspen during Labor Day weekend you see bars and pubs overflowing and hear music from every hotel room. A Players’ Party is held on Sundays, which is free to all participants and has plenty of food, drink and live entertainment until the wee hours of the morning.

Fell was most proud that he had been able to maintain this atmosphere all these years. Although the prize purse was bigger and the names of the players who participated better known, that was not why people came. For example, Fell pointed out there were only two small sets of bleachers set up at Koch Park for the Open events. When the bleachers filled up, people had to sit on blankets or chairs in the grass surrounding the courts. He purposely did this because he didn’t want all the craziness of a professional tournament like you would see on TV. Spectators sat right next to the courts heckling players and always cheering for the underdog teams.

The volleyball tournament is two-on-two volleyball. Everyone is welcome to play with divisions for men, women and co-ed teams, from recreational players to Association of Volleyball Professionals. FIVB/AVP rules apply, such as rally scoring. The divisions include Men’s and Women’s Seniors (age 45/50 and over), Men and Women’s Masters (age 37/35 and over) played on Thursday, and co-ed play for Open, A, BB and B on Friday. Men’s and Women’s Open, A, BB, and B play Saturday/Sunday. The matches are held in parks all over town. The Open divisions play on the sand courts at Koch Park. All other divisions are on grass courts at various other locations. These include Wagner Park in the center of town, Rio Grande Park on the north edge of town, and near Aspen High School just outside of town at Islip and Rotary Parks.**

Doug Jones of Denver, CO, had been volunteering for the MotherLode for over 15 years. He started out as a player in 1979. As bad knees slowed him down, he started helping out with the tournament. Then in 1988 he volunteered full time. It was a little easier on the wallet as well.

“Volunteers get a place to stay, which was great incentive and I’ve stayed at some pretty nice places.” He said it wasn’t the only reason, however.

“I’ve been running the Women’s BB for so many years now that everyone’s become a regular. They’re like my girls,” he said. “I've seen moms whose daughters have grown up and are now playing. There are families from Chicago and all over and I get to see them every year.”

“And then of course, it’s Aspen,” he continued. “The view from Rio Grande (Park) being in the valley with mountains surrounding you or watching the open courts when the para-gliders start coming down off the mountain. It’s just beautiful.”

More than just volleyball, the MotherLode has many events going on including a Bar-B-Q and beer garden at the sand courts. The Town of Aspen is welcoming to all with fall sales in the stores and special happy hours at the bars and if you just can’t stand to see anymore volleyball, you can enjoy the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival in nearby Snowmass featuring nationally known music acts.

I met my husband at the MotherLode back in 2000. I recognized him and his partner as players from Denver and when I said hello, he said he couldn’t focus on playing volleyball anymore. He had brought his dog, Jasmine, with him and I was instantly in love…with Jasmine. We married in 2002. My cousin from Omaha, NE, proposed to his girlfriend (and my volleyball partner), on their first trip to the MotherLode in 1998. They now have two kids. These weren’t the only stories of love at ‘Lode. A woman on a team I played against invited everyone at the park to her wedding atop Aspen Mountain that Sunday. She and her fiancĂ© decided after they arrived that they wanted to marry in Aspen and called a Justice of the Peace. Because of the impromptu nuptials, they invited everyone at the MotherLode as witnesses. Their service was at sunrise, which was a little too early for this volleyball player, but the thought that she extended my partner and I, complete strangers, an invitation was something I never forgot. According to Fell, there have been many “marriages made in Aspen.” He was glad to have been a part of it.

Registration for 2010 is already open. The dates are Thursday, September 2, through Monday, September 6. Pre-registration for the MotherLode ends Friday, August 27. The fee is $60 ($80 for Open). Late registration is $80 ($100 for Open).

For more MotherLode information, visit
For lodging information, visit
For Jazz Aspen Snowmass Festival, visit

WRITER’S COMMENTS – Original article written in 2003, however, this has been updated with 2010 MotherLode information. I hope Leon remembers I interviewed him for this story back in 2003. The story was turned down by Volleyball Magazine a few weeks later. I was told by the editor that they were sending their own writer to cover the event for that year. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not played in the MotherLode since 2003. However, if anyone needs a B, BB or Master Women’s partner, I’m available. Email me!

*Information obtained from the MotherLode website. Leon gave permission back in 2003 to use that information for the VM article. I hope he remembers that as well. Thanks Leon!
**Rules are always subject to change so be sure to check tournament website, entry forms and/or your division director for full information.