When Sioux City’s CBS affiliate decided not to air “The Late Show with David Letterman” in 1993, the snarky talk show host didn’t retreat. He turned to his staff and said, “How can we make this funny?”
To keep the conversation going – and get a jab in at KMEG, the station that chose “Star Trek” and “Cheers” reruns over his talk show – Letterman decided to name Sioux City his first CBS “Home Office.”
“It was Aug. 30, 1993,” says Mike McIntee, a longtime “Late Show” writer and keeper of the Home Office keys. “It was Dave’s way of saying, ‘Let’s have fun with this.’”
The move resonated. Sioux Cityans didn’t want to be left out of the conversation, so they got involved.
Or, rather, I got involved.
Talking to Journal editors, I thought we could have fun with it – a Top 10 list that could show we had a sense of humor, or a petition that might convince Bruce Lewis, KMEG’s station manager, to change his mind.
Quickly, the idea mushroomed. The Convention Center Auditorium and Tourism Board (of which I was a member) got on board. The Siouxland Chamber of Commerce and the City Council did, too.
Sioux City wasn’t just going to drink lemonade – it was going to MAKE lemonade.
On that first night of the “Late Show,” Sioux Cityans watched on a cable access channel, got the dubious publicity and made plans for a news conference later in the week.
Like Letterman, “we wanted to have fun with this,” says Jim Wharton, mayor at the time. “I didn’t really care one way or the other what happened. But I thought we could make a little noise here.”
Sept. 3, 1993, on the steps of the 97-year-old City Hall – which was vacated for safety reasons – Wharton, city officials, Lewis and I gathered to declare the building the official “Home Office.”
CBS publicity officials sent a life-sized photograph of Letterman waving, which was mounted and positioned in the doorway, just under a sign that said, “The Home Office.”
I made my pitch; Lewis made his and everything appeared to be at a standstill – except the designation.
“I’m not convinced (Letterman) is going to do as well at 10:30 as he did at 11:30,” Lewis said. “But we’ll watch what happens nationally. I have nothing against Letterman. This is just a business situation. A popularity poll was taken three times and Letterman lost badly.”
Among his most stinging salvos: “We had a lot more people call when we dropped ‘The Bold and the Beautiful.’”
A good sport, Lewis gamely played along.
Meanwhile, the “The Late Show” juggernaut grew. In October, the Convention Center held a rally. Wharton proclaimed Letterman an honorary citizen, local businesses filled boxes with gifts for Dave, and Diana Wooley, a Sioux City teacher, actress and singer, introduced “Sioux City Dave,” a twist on “Sioux City Sue” that referenced the comedian and his show.
“It was kind of kitschy,” Wooley says now, more than two decades later. “But it was exciting. It was wonderful to have that focus on Sioux City.”
The rally, she adds, was “a communal experience. It brought people together.”
It also attracted tourists.
Even though City Hall was closed, residents noticed a number of people stopping by every day, just to have their photo taken near the Dave cut-out under the “Home Office” sign.
“Some tourists from Colorado came into the city and they recognized me from (the original rally),” Wharton says. “We definitely saw an uptick in tourism. People constantly called asking where it was.”
Nightly, McIntee says, the blue cards with the Top 10 List printed on them also contained eight words: “From the Home Office in Sioux City, Iowa.”
At The Journal, we got plenty of phone calls, requests for interviews – even attention from a documentary film crew looking to make something of this odd honor. We made T-shirts and hats, too, and competed with others to see who could move more. (Councilman Bob Scott and his brother, Jim, were among our competitors.) Since an official “Home Office” had been designated, there was also a rush to be official “Home Office” other things as well. The Journal, for example, was the “official news source.” Other businesses followed suit. Billboards cropped up; Top 10 Lists were everywhere.
And yet, the pleas continued to fall on deaf ears.
When a federal law prohibited the cable company (then called Sooland Cablecom) from airing delayed broadcasts from Sioux Falls, efforts escalated.
“After Oct. 5,” I was quoted in a Journal story, “We’re going to play hardball.”
Joining the fray: The Sioux City Explorers. The team’s owners said their first promotion of the 1994 season would be “Letterman Night.”
Wharton and Scott, meanwhile, made a trip to New York and went to see a taping of the show. “I did not get to meet Letterman,” Wharton recalls. “But Bob did. I was off the City Council at the time and I told Bob, ‘Wait a minute, I carried you.’”
Scott, who's the current mayor, remembers the situation a bit differently. "I got to shake his hand," he says. "But there wasn't a meeting."
Back home, visitors were arriving from all over the world, just to see the Home Office.
Change of heart
In July – less than year after the designation – Lewis, who is now deceased, relented. “We didn’t pick up Letterman last year because of business decisions,” he told The Journal. “And now we have made another business decision. Our job is to please the most people possible. In August of 1993, it didn’t make sense.”
Among his caveats: “We don’t want to lose the Home Office status.”
One month later, Calvert DeForest, an actor who played Letterman’s sidekick on the show, and Mujibur Rahman, a New York clerk who made regular appearances, traveled to Sioux City to appear at the Explorers’ ball park. Rahman, a Bangladesh native, was signed to pitch – for one night. The ball park was packed.
“I love Sioux City,” DeForest told the crowd at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. “I think I’ll come back and run for mayor.”
Lewis, meanwhile, was surprised by all the attention. “In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined this,” he said. “If we sit back and rest on our laurels, what we have done will be forgotten.”
The Office term ends
Sioux City still got the nightly mention for nearly a year.
“He was on Larry King’s show and someone called in and asked if Grand Rapids could be the Home Office,” McIntee says. In no time at all, the designation switched. (“Frankly, we’re getting a better tax break in Michigan,” Letterman joked.) Grand Rapids had the honor for a similar period of time and then it switched to Wahoo, Neb.
“Wahoo wanted to be the Home Office and they started sending stuff as a bribe,” McIntee says. Grand Rapids responded, “and we made hay out of that. It was a great way to get stuff. We had two big bins where we put stuff that (residents from the two towns) had sent. The clincher was Wahoo sent two kids. Wahoo has had it ever since.”
McIntee, who writes a daily online update called the Wahoo Gazette, says there’s always a chance that Sioux City could regain its status before the show ends this month. “I can hint around,” he says, teasingly.
Blue cards – that bear the Top 10 List and “from the Home Office in Sioux City, Iowa" still exist, the staffer says.
In Sioux City, the life-sized Dave has gone missing. Convention Center officials used it for promotional purposes but lost him after a tourism meeting. City Hall was replaced by a new building. Billboards have been papered over many times.
Wharton, though, continues to use a photograph of him and the Dave cutout as his profile picture on Twitter.
Citing the city’s airport designator – SUX – as another example, he says, “You can whine and scream all you want about these things or you can have fun and see where it takes you. We did and I think it showed Sioux City has a great sense of humor.”
Scott agrees. "It was good for Sioux City," he says. "It got us a lot of good attention. What's wrong with that?"