WAHOO -- The shirt Bob Sloup was looking for this week could not be located on any of the thousands of shelves inside his Wahoo Warehouse. He thought he might have lost it altogether. It turns out it’d been in a box under his bed.
It was balled up on his cluttered desk Wednesday atop a couple of bumper stickers that remain from the wild Wahoo spring of 1996, when the town of 3,681 (if you go by the population listed on the T-shirt) successfully lobbied to become the fictional home office of “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
Standing in front of an empty telephone booth and a mailbox labeled “Home Office,” there’s the unmistakable caricature of Letterman. A gap the width of Lake Wanahoo divides his front teeth. He taps the ash off his then-trademark stogie with his left hand and chokes a bird squawking its last desperate syllable -- “WA” -- with his right. On the back, dozens of townsfolk wearing Wahoo Warriors blue respond to the bird’s cry with a resounding “Hoo!”
“Oh my gosh, terrible,” Don Ash, who drew this Dave, said after seeing his creation for the first time in ages. “I’ve done a lot better, believe me.”
But back in '96, people couldn't get enough of it.
“Everybody who could pull a shirt over their head in Wahoo had one,” Ash said.
Ash, 60, owned Artrageous Screenprinting back then and was running thousands of Dave tees through the press in the weeks after Letterman announced on-air that Wahoo was the new home of his "Top Ten" lists. Lookie-loos by the busload came to take pictures of the telephone booth at Fifth and Broadway, which was designated as Letterman's headquarters.
Next week, Letterman’s calling it a career after 33 years of dry humor and absurd stunts, including one most of Wahoo got in on 19 years ago.
“This means nothing at the end of the day,” Sloup said of the citywide campaign to become Letterman's home office. “It means nothing.”
But it sure was fun, he said.
The courtship began, Judy Warneke recalled, with a call to the Wahoo Chamber of Commerce from a politician of some stripe in February of 1996. The state senator -- she’s pretty sure, 19 years later, that it was a state senator -- told her he’d caught the “Late Show” that night, and Dave and Joan Collins spent a decent portion of their on-air conversation extolling the virtues of exclaiming “Wahoo.”
Then the director of the chamber, Warneke suddenly found herself with a new job responsibility -- sell Letterman on Wahoo.
Warneke, who described herself as not a funny type, found herself waist-deep in absurdity. For years on “The Late Show,” Letterman would introduce his “Top Ten” lists with a nod to the “home office,” as though a team of hilarious elves in some faraway locale wrote the thing and airmailed it to Manhattan. Sioux City, Iowa, held the title from the start of Letterman’s run at CBS until Grand Rapids, Michigan, all of a sudden became the hub in the summer of ‘95. (“Frankly, we’re getting a better tax break in Michigan,” Letterman quipped at the time.)
With Letterman saying “Wahoo” a bunch on the air, it was time for the Saunders County seat to make its pitch. Warneke sent a letter to Letterman on Feb. 7 inviting him to come out for a visit.
The same day, Gov. Ben Nelson and Wahoo City Council President Arnold Pospisil co-authored a letter taking the courtship a step further. They formally stated Wahoo’s desire to become the headquarters of a thing that doesn’t exist. They provided a few reasons to ditch Grand Rapids and head 668 miles west to Wahoo, the town he loved to say.
They promised several advantages if “The Late Show” took up Wahoo’s offer, including:
* “It would allow you to say ‘Wahoo’ each night on the program, which you have indicated is important to you."
* “The people of Wahoo and Nebraska are among the friendliest, most fun-loving people in the nation. A home office designation would let America know 'Wahoo' is more than merely a name for a town, it is an expression of the joy felt by those visitors to our fair city and state.”
They also promised to pay for any financial hardships encountered due to the move, including rewritten cue cards and a new shirt for “Late Show” bandleader Paul Shaffer.
And with that early promise to give “The Late Show” some free stuff, Wahoo residents honed their home-office pitch. They would bribe their way to glory.
“We just started calling and sending things,” Warneke said.
Everyday the post office was open, Warneke said, Wahoo residents figured out something strange to send to 1697 Broadway. They shipped a size 30 wedding dress from Sloup’s Nebraska Bridal Outlet. Wahoo Wieners from the OK Meat Market and pig-shaped sugar cookies from the Wahoo Bakery went east, until a Letterman staffer asked the city leaders to stop sending food, as the writers were afraid of being poisoned.
Warneke said everyone in Wahoo started watching Letterman to study his idiosyncrasies, to learn what to send. From these studies, they settled on a wall clock. It was made from cow dung. Warneke said she’s pretty sure the show writers put it up in their office.
And in Wahoo, she said, city leaders and business owners gathered at the Chamber of Commerce at noon everyday that spring to pitch possibilities for the next potential joke gift to Letterman and his show. It was their own version of the show's writers' room. Sloup said he probably burned 40 hours a week thinking about it through February, March and April of 1996.
“I don’t think there was anything normal about any of it,” Warneke said.
More gifts headed east, including a signed Ford Pinto that some guys drove to New York. General admission tickets to the College World Series, an ear exam from Dr. Quinlan, an admiralship in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska, which doesn’t exist -- they could all be Dave’s. (Everything, including the empty promises, was donated, by the way. Wahoo’s Chamber paid only for 32-cent stamp after 32-cent stamp.)
They also sent letters, many of the “Top Ten” variety. They created dozens of lists of 10. Then-Gov. Nelson’s No. 2 reason the home office should be moved to Wahoo -- “It will cause much Wahoopla.” Then-elementary school student Amber Henkel’s No. 4 pancake topping -- “milk.”
With all the effort came attention. Letterman acknowledged the Wahoopla, building a plexiglass case on the “Late Show” set to casually chuck each Wahoo offering into for a stretch of shows. Grand Rapids officials put up a fight to keep the title there, sending Letterman a polka exercise tape and a birthday cake. Warneke said she even got challenged directly from the mayor.
“When someone calls and challenges you to a thumb war, your brain doesn’t even know what to do with it,” Warneke said.
Producers from shows like “Extra” and “Entertainment Tonight” parachuted in to film Wahoo segments. The “Extra” crew interviewed the two teenage sons of Vicky Price, who in late April offered her boys to “The Late Show.” Two days after the segment aired, Josh Price said, his mom picked them up from church and said they were flying to New York. Letterman had accepted the penultimate bribe.
“It’s just junk,” Letterman said after Josh, then 16, and Jeff, then 14, made their big network TV debuts. “Let’s put ‘em in the grafteroo box.”
For the on-air portion of the 10 days they spent in New York, Josh Price said, he and his brother sat in the box and chatted.
“Every once in a while the stage guys would throw you things, apples, pop,” Price, now 35, said. “Or come scare you.”
With the Prices onstage, Letterman on May 3 announced that Wahoo had done it, and the town rejoiced. Sloup said that, as it became plausible that Wahoo would actually become the home office, people in Wahoo had to figure out where to put the office. He said no one wanted it to be located in an actual business or facility, so they asked themselves, “What is the most neutral thing that means nothing?”
The answer was the phone booth on Fifth and Broadway.
In the immediate years after claiming the home-office title, Wahoo Chamber of Commerce executive assistant Jennifer Woita said, buses en route to and from casinos would swing through town to let passengers take pictures with the phone booth. People visited town specifically to see it, too, including someone who showed up from Russia.
"We had no idea when we began that it would mushroom, or snowball, into something like this," Warneke said back in '96. "It's all hype, but it has brought us so much positive promotion."
At the Wahoo Chamber of Commerce, the memories from the wooing months of ‘96 fill up two three-ring binders. Nearly every letter written by every business leader, government official and doe-eyed child was preserved, much like the frozen enchiladas they at one point tried to send to New York.
So were the letters sent to Wahoo soon after this loose connection to Letterman was forged. A child in Menomonie, Wisconsin, sent a note to Wahoo with romantic advice for the oft-flirtatious host: “Hi David, I think you and Rosie O’Donald (sic) should get married. If you want to get back to me heres my address and phone number…”
The Letterman caricature from the hot-selling shirt was turned into a wood cutout that was propped up at businesses for a few months as part of a Where's Waldo-style promotion, until it fell over and wooden Dave's head fell off. After a while, Woita said, some of the Letterman-mania subsided in Wahoo.
On "The Late Show," references to the home office waned over the years as well. The daily show summary on "The Late Show" website is called the Wahoo Gazette.
Price said he still tunes in now and again, he said, and still recognizes some of the long-employed stage crew who guided him and his brother through their 10 days in New York back then. He remembers meeting Regis Philbin and Dave’s mom. Price said his only interactions with Dave occurred in the realm of on-air time.
That pretty much went the same for Wahoo.
Letterman never came around these parts as far as anyone knows. It wasn’t for lack of trying. The binders also include letters written to Letterman after the Wahoo win, inviting him to come out to events like the inaugural Home Office Days in August of 1996. (A lookalike contest was held instead to find a faux Letterman to ride the telephone booth float.)
But Letterman was never Wahoo's Godot. Sloup said nobody ever expected him to show up.
“Just to have him say your name, you’re honored,” Sloup said.
As for the phone booth, Woita said a collector called the Wahoo Chamber of Commerce offering to buy the booth and the sign, and haul them off. That's not the chamber's call to make, she said.
But it doesn't sound like it's going anywhere anytime soon. Though "The Late Show with David Letterman" will air its finale on Wednesday, Wahoo City Clerk Melissa Harrell said "we honestly have not had discussions" about the home office.
It's something they're proud of, she said, and something that still draws the occasional snapshot from a visitor to town.
And it's a reminder of a weird, fun time in Wahoo, said Sloup.
“I think it’s part of the nostalgia of the town,” he said.