- - Thursday, December 22, 2011

Letterman’s holiday traditions include meatballs, Lone Ranger

Think holiday traditions and mistletoe, eggnog and caroling come to mind. David Letterman’s Christmas includes target practice at a giant meatball, the Lone Ranger and singer Darlene Love.

Each has become part of CBS “Late Show” lore through the years, their appearances anticipated by fans like wrapped presents under a tree. The traditions return Friday.

Comic Jay Thomas will be back to try to knock a meatball off the top of a Christmas tree with a football and recount his Lone Ranger anecdote again. Ms. Love will sing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” as fake snow flutters to the stage.

“The best traditions are the ones you can’t plan,” said Rob Burnett, executive producer of “Late Show.”

Mr. Letterman’s on-set Christmas tree frequently is decorated with oddities, such as the meatball on top instead of a star, angel or bow.

It all started one night back in 1998 when New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde was a guest. He and Mr. Letterman picked up footballs and began tossing them at the tree, aiming for the meatball. Watching their failures impatiently from the wings was Mr. Thomas, former quarterback at tiny Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C.

Mr. Thomas had discussed trying the target practice with Mr. Letterman before the show, but no one told that to stage manager Biff Henderson. He blocked Mr. Thomas from going out onstage.

“I fake to the right and Biff goes to catch me and I run around him like a scramble,” said Mr. Thomas, who picked up a football and threw with laserlike accuracy at the meatball, accomplishing in one throw what the NFL quarterback couldn’t in several.

Mr. Testaverde has been forgotten, but Mr. Thomas is invited back each year to see if he can repeat his feat.

Around the same time Mr. Letterman heard about a story Mr. Thomas told of his time as a radio DJ in the South when he and a friend had to give a ride to Clayton Moore, star of television’s “Lone Ranger.” We won’t be spoilers; Mr. Letterman has called it the “best story I’ve ever heard.”

The story, too, is repeated each year.

The Darlene Love tradition has deeper roots. Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer learned early on when he tried to play “Monster Mash” on Halloween that his boss isn’t much into holiday music. But Ms. Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is “the one place where his and my holiday tastes coincide,” Mr. Shaffer said. “He loves the song.”

Mr. Shaffer was performing with Ms. Love in Ellie Greenwich’s musical “Leader of the Pack” in winter 1984 and Mr. Letterman came to see them. Mr. Shaffer isn’t sure which man had the idea of inviting her on the show — then televised on NBC — but everyone was pleased with the results.

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