On April 25, the Piedmont High School bird callers will appear on "The Late Show With David Letterman" for the 18th and possibly final time.
That's because Letterman announced his retirement earlier this month. And nobody was more stunned to hear it than history teacher Ken Brown, the faculty sponsor of the Piedmont Bird Calling Contest. Letterman's specific retirement date has not been set, but his contract ends near August 2015.
"I was caught by surprise," he says. "I know Letterman hinted at it a few years back, but now there seems to be a more definitive timeline." So where will the bird callers appear next? Brown vows the contest will go on forever, TV or no TV. But it's hard to believe that one of the many talk shows currently proliferating on the air won't pick up the bird callers.
Things looked much bleaker in 1994, when Johnny Carson, who hosted the bird callers on "The Tonight Show" for 17 years, retired. Leonard J. Waxdeck, the biology teacher who had founded the contest as a class project in 1963, approached Carson's successor, Jay Leno. But Leno wanted to carve out his own persona and wanted nothing to do with anything that reminded people of Carson.
So the students appeared on "The Arsenio Hall Show" for a year while Waxdeck tried to figure out what to do next. But Waxdeck suddenly died a year later. And without him, everyone wondered whether the contest would survive at all.
But the people of Piedmont refused to let it die. A coalition of students, former students and parents resurrected the contest, and the winner's trophy was renamed after Waxdeck. It was the Bird Calling Contest's second most shining moment. (I'll tell you what was number one later.) The next step was getting back on television. They approached David Letterman, whose admiration for Carson verges on hero-worship, and he was only too glad to have the kids on his show. Their first appearance was in 1996, and they've been an annual "Late Night" staple ever since.
But for all his generosity, Letterman had one unfortunate quirk: unlike Carson, who let Waxdeck choose who would appear on the show (he always chose the first-, second- and third-place finishers in the contest, plus the graduating seniors), Letterman insisted on choosing the acts himself after viewing a tape of the contest.
That meant the winning acts sometimes didn't get picked. Worse yet, Letterman would bring four acts back to New York, but only three would appear on the show. He -- or his producer -- would give one of them the ax just before curtain time. The kids who got cut were always good sports. But it's still a mean thing to do to young people, no matter how brave a face they put on it.
But then, in 2005, Piedmont High got a new principal named Randall Booker (he's now an assistant superintendent of schools). And one of his first acts was to politely but firmly tell Letterman it's all or nothing.
It was a big risk because Letterman easily could have replied, "Fine, take a hike." But Letterman didn't.
And ever since, three acts have flown back to New York, and all three have appeared on the show. And they've been the three winners the judges chose at the contest, too. And THAT was the Piedmont High School Bird Calling Contest's finest moment.
Reach Martin Snapp at firstname.lastname@example.org.