2012: New York

Rock Center, Radio City

Oct. 17


My first night in New York was not as good as my first day. The hotel mattress was rock-hard, and housekeeping had been unable to provide anything to soften it, not even a decent mattress pad. I slept hardly at all. Also there was no coffeemaker in the room to heat water for our morning tea. I was really starting to regret my choice of hotels.

Ah well...off to a land-based sight-seeing day. We started off with a trip to Rockefeller Center, where we would get a bird's-eye view of the city from the Top of the Rock, the observation deck on the GE building. Before going up, up, up, though, I wanted to take a look around the plaza, with its many international flags and its skating rink.

Cranberry pool. Tourist and lady farmer!

When we got there, we found something completely unexpected: the plaza fountain was filled with floating cranberries! It seemed that Ocean Spray had commandeered the fountain and its surroundings for a big infomercial, complete with cranberry farmers wearing waders. We struck up a conversation with a charming young woman -- yes, she is actually a cranberry farmer in Wisconsin -- and learned a lot we never wanted to know about cranberries and how they are grown and harvested.

You just never know what you'll find in New York.

Central Park from Top of the Rock. Lotsa tall buildings.

We got to the observation deck on the 70th floor of 30 Rock and were disappointed to see how much smog had collected in only one day; yesterday views in the harbor had been crystal-clear. The view north over Central Park was fair, but looking south to downtown, the haze really spoiled the otherwise-perfect straight-on view of the Empire State Building.

Radio City.

On my previous visit to New York, I really enjoyed taking the tour of Radio City Music Hall. The guide was excellent and I learned a lot about the history of the city itself, as well as the theater; so I was eager to share the experience with Mike. Of course, I should have known that the tour is only as good as the guide, and my luck might not hold. It seemed rushed on this occasion, and much less informative. Still, it's an impressive place to see, even without the Rockettes.

The tour begins in the gorgeous lobby, with its lavish art-deco style.

The enormous proscenium surrounding the stage is gasp-inducing, even if you've seen it before. Today, the stage is covered in equipment; the place is a beehive of activity because it's only about four weeks before the annual Christmas shows begin.

The tour guide rattles off a half-dozen statistics about what the auditorium is bigger than; I can't remember any items from the list, but I'm pretty sure a breadbox was not one of them.

The area underneath the stage is not pretty but is technically very interesting. Again, the statistics fly -- this many lifts, that many pounds of hydraulic pressure, this many Rockettes crushed and killed, etc. etc. Haha, just kidding.

The backstage area is a rabbit-warren of hallways and tiny rooms; a peek inside one of them reveals a dizzying costume display.

The walls backstage document the incredible history of this place. In one area, the history is quite literal, as a series of photographs and labels traces special performances through the years.

Other walls are covered with autographed photos and posters from a dizzying array of performers over the decades. I should have taken more photos, but as I mentioned earlier, the guide was really rushing us through.

There's a special lounge backstage where the star of the show can relax and partake of gourmet food and drink. On display is a guest book signed over the years by an impressive list of dignitaries. In my photo showing a partial page of the book, you can make out signatures of Sheryl Crow, Hilary Duff, Neil Sedaka, Elton John, John Legend, Harry Connick, Chaka Khan, Liberace, and Richard Nixon.

Near the end of the tour, we got one more view of the stage from high in the balcony.

Before we knew it, we were back outside ogling the lovely Chase Manhattan bank fountain directly across the street from Radio City. Time to move on to our next adventure.


A few weeks before our trip, I snagged a couple of tickets to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for October 17. The online tickets are free, and they give away more tickets than there are seats, so (a) there's no obligation to go, but (b) if you want to see the evening show, you need to get in line in early afternoon to secure a place. We figured we could decide what to do when the day came and we knew more about how the trip was going. As things had developed, we were a bit tired of sight-seeing and had nothing specific planned for the afternoon, so we decided to get over to the west-side studio and wait.

It's hard to miss the studio building, with its giant billboard picturing Jon Stewart. Along the front, there are smaller representations of Jon's current cohorts-in-comedy.

There were only about ten people in line before us, so as long as we stuck it out until the "real" tickets were handed out, there should be no problem getting in. Mike struck up a conversation with a middle-aged couple a few spots ahead of us; the wife was absolutely obsessive about Jon Stewart and had planned their entire New York trip around these tickets.

Around 5 p.m., they started handing out show passes to the line. We were told to come back by 6 p.m. to get inside for a 7 p.m. taping. We went looking for something more appetizing than the Subway around the corner (the sandwich shop, not the transportation), which I suspect stays in business on Daily Show attendees alone. After a quick bite, we returned and eventually were herded into the alcove outside the studio.

I knew from attending The Tonight Show and other tapings in Los Angeles how this works; you're seated by the show staff and it's completely random where you end up sitting. On some shows they put young, pretty girls up front for the cameras, but since The Daily Show audience is never on camera, I figured my chances were as good as the bimbos. As it turned out, we did incredibly well, getting seated in the third row right in front of Jon's desk. We couldn't have done better choosing them ourselves. And speaking of young pretty girls, I noticed that the entire audience skewed very young, with a few geezers like us sprinkled here and there.

A rather raunchy warm-up guy whipped up the crowd for a while, and then Jon Stewart came out to talk to us before the show. In person, he looks exactly as he does on TV, and is just as personable as you'd think. And smart. Incredibly, frighteningly smart, and well-informed. He took questions from audience members, delivering the expected funny comebacks; but he also engaged a young man from Pakistan in a two-minute enlightened discussion of what is going on in that country (this was only a week after the horrid Taliban shooting of Malala, the outspoken young Pakistani girl). I was really impressed.

The presidential election was only three weeks away; we'd learned a few days before that on the very next night, Jon's guest would be -- PRESIDENT OBAMA! But no, we weren't going to be that lucky tonight. Our show's guest was Nate Silver, the statistician who made himself and his blog famous in 2008 by correctly predicting almost every national election result.

The show itself was great fun, although as we'd learned to expect from internet posts, we didn't get any do-overs -- Stewart is so good at his job he almost never fluffs a line off the teleprompter. We did feel a bit cheated because none of Stewart's compatriots appeared that night; it would have been fun to see John Oliver or Samantha Bee standing only a few feet away from Stewart's desk, pretending to be at some far-flung location with a green-screen behind.

Speaking of which, we did notice one peculiar thing about the set. On TV, the lighting on Jon's desk and the world-map behind him appear to be bright blue, but in the studio the colors were a dull blue-green. They must use filters on the cameras that create that bright blue color.

We did get a couple of extra minutes after the show to watch Stewart record announcements specific to international coverage. Then, he waved goodbye to one more huge cheer from the audience, and it was time to spill back out into the New York night. The evening with Jon would be one of the highlights of our trip, and I'm so glad we did it. After we returned home to California, we got to relive the moment a few times on our DVR; and now every time we watch The Daily Show we remember how the studio actually looks. I hope we can do it again sometime. And next time, Colbert too. Definitely Colbert.