The Dave Cave

Aaron Barnhart interviewed me in my apartment on August 2, 1995, for a profile in the Village Voice. A photographer dropped by a week later. Despite failing to get anything remotely interesting out of his subject matter, Aaron managed to put this together, published on August 29, 1995:

Meet Don Giller, Letterman Archivist and Infomaven. By Aaron Barnhart

In the small Minnesota town where my wife grew up was a Jack Sprat Food Store that an eccentric widower named Ed Krueger ran for 65 years. Early on, Krueger discovered he had an insatiable appetite for collecting things, and started using his store as a repository. Anything inanimate was saved: unbought merchandise, customer receipts, town records, movie memorabilia, opera music, his dead cat, and of course endless stacks of newsprint. By the time Krueger was ready for the rest home, the only usable work space in the store was a glass counter at the front where he sold candy and cigarettes. The rest, as he called it, was “Ed’s Museum,” but it worked kind of like the old full-service groceries. You came in and struck up a conversation with Krueger, and at the mention of anyone or anything having to do with the town, the cinema, or the opera, he would go rummaging through all the crap and find some relevant item to look at in remarkably short order.

There are probably hundreds of Ed Kruegers in every major city, voracious gatherers of information who, in another era, might have endeared themselves to neighbors, or met under the flourescent light of a civic center. But in this increasingly anomistic age they have taken instead to the online services and the Internet, where they mingle with a larger and more diverse community than would otherwise have been possible. In turn, each of these infomavens performs the valuable service of helping civilize one more corner of the wild wild web called cyberspace.

On the alt.fan.letterman newsgroup, the resident infomaven is Don Giller — Donz5@aol.com as he is known to the newsgroup’s 30,000 or so regular readers — who specializes in answering questions about the 20-year television career of David Letterman. Donz5 can tell you on what game shows Letterman was a celebrity contestant in the 1970s, reconstruct the look and feel of Dave’s 1980 morning show on NBC, list every date that your favorite entertainer appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, or produce detailed CVs for most every writer and musician who has worked on the show.

My favorite Donz5 messages conjure images of a Midwestern sociologist combing census data, block-by-block. Someone recently complained on the newsgroup that Letterman was now habitually sacrificing the program’s scheduled third guest, usually for the sake of some lame comedy bit. Inspired, Donz5 quickly compiled and posted a list of every guest bumped in the 101-week history of the CBS Late Show. His conclusion? Dave’s been leaving more guests in the green room in recent weeks than ever before. Donz5 added a disclaimer: “I lay no claim to completeness, as I know I missed a few, such as one of Bobby Tessel’s bumps.” But it _looked_ complete — and anyway, who the hell was going to challenge him?

Internet statistics rate alt.fan.letterman as the second most popular personality fangroup after Rush Limbaugh’s. While alt.fan.jay-leno barely registers a pulse with 10 to 20 messages a week, alt.fan.letterman averages 1000, ranging from casual viewers to die-hard fans like Pam Cox, an Oklahoma City housewife who logged in to the newsgroup to crow about her unexpected selection as cohost-for-a-night of a recent Late Show. When others posted messages suggesting Dave should have picked someone else, she wailed, “This has been the greatest moment of my life so far and I am not going to let people like you ruin it for me.”

Donz5 arrived at alt.fan.letterman a little more than a year ago, when America Online, where he has an account, began offering its subscribers access to newsgroups. Before that, he had been recording Letterman programs for a decade and exchanging rare videotapes (such as broadcasts of Dave’s morning show) with other collectors on AOL and CompuServe. Don Giller moved to New York in 1978 to earn his masters in historical musicology from Columbia, then worked for the music division of Holt, Rinehart and Winston until its New York office closed in 1987. He bought a Macintosh and began working out of his home as a freelance typesetter for Holt and other music publishers.

Giller’s one-bedroom apartment combines work with life-away-from-work so thoroughly that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The eight-year-old Macintosh sits on a table in his work room (“the earth station,” he calls it); above it, shelves stretch to the ceiling with software manuals and several years of computer magazines, Beatles albums, bootlegs, and literature. To the left of the Mac, a stereo sits atop three VCRs; Giller points to the bottom machine and jokes, “I use that one as a clock.” Against the other wall are more magazines, more music, a keyboard and a stack of analog equipment from a long-abandoned hobby. There is just enough room here for the two of us to conduct an interview, and none for the videotapes. Those are in the front room — 3200 of them and counting, stacked three deep — where they share space with hundreds of classical LPs from the musicology days, his bed, and his cat.

Giller became the amazing Donz5 by inputting thousands of items from his collection into a database, which he tends like an organic garden. We get to talking about Rob Burnett, the Late Show head writer who is helming Bonnie Hunt’s new CBS sitcom. Without warning, Giller whirls around in his chair and keys “Burnett” into a search field on his Macintosh. Not much happens; instantly he realizes he’s searching the wrong part of his database. “Hold on,” he tells me, “I know exactly what I’m doing.” And like old Ed Krueger, he’s right: soon we are looking at a list of every Burnett mention from the Letterman show’s closing credits, 1985 to present, an impressive climb from “Production Staff 4” (meaning the fourth most senior member of production) to “Researchers 2” to “Writers 11” and up that totem to the top.

Amidst the chaos of the newsgroups, a man can walk tall when he sports a hefty database. A newcomer to alt.fan.letterman posts a message asking who was Dave’s worst all-time guest. Besides the usual suggestions (Cher, Shirley MacLaine), one message nominates the guy who invented the graffiti remover stuff that was orange- colored or -based or something. he had more jewelry than mr. t. Sensing trouble, Donz5 dips into the data and posts this message:

“Don’t recall the jewelry, but that was Rocky Dellutri. Bryant Gumbel was also a guest on the show, February 26, 1985 (#520) (as were the immortal Schmenge Brothers, who sang ‘Cabbage Rolls and Coffee’), and since Bryant wasn’t wearing socks, Dave spray-painted them on his ankles. Later in the show Dave gave a giant hand-shadow finger on the Exxon building with hand-shadow expert George Gilbert.”

Someone else offers that a drunken and hostile Oliver Reed, circa 1987, was the worst-ever guest. Donz5 swats that down with a reference so obscure:

“What tempers this view is the fact that Reed stuck around after 2 segments to participate in a show promo with Dave that aired a few weeks later.”

you wonder if even Letterman’s people would remember it.

In person, Giller seems a little embarrassed by this trove of Lettermania (at one point he says to me, “There’s a fine line between getting information and creeping people out”). But his online presence commands respect, and things can get ugly when it doesn’t. After someone challenges his mastery of the permissions guidelines for Dave’s on-air phone calls, Donz5 sniffs, “Thanks for jumping in; you must be new here. And if you claim it, it must be true: I just make up things around here. Ask around and get back to me.”

Online and in person, Giller bears the pride and the countenance of the academic. He tells me he’s working on a theory he’d like to publish about the evolution of Letterman’s show. There have been three distinct phases since 1982, the most recent occurring when several senior writers, including Chris Elliott, quit Late Night in 1990 and Dave’s longtime mentor, Peter Lassally, began to assume a larger creative role. At that point, Giller says, the format changed “from a repertory into a show that’s just about Dave.” I ask him if he’s ever tried this theory out on Letterman’s staff; he smiles and says, “The easy thing would be to just ask them. It’s more fun to figure it out yourself.”

Indeed, despite living just a subway ride up Broadway from the Ed Sullivan Theater, attending the occasional taping, and engaging in frequent e-mail exchanges with Letterman staff — a number of whom are online addicts (including producer Robert Morton) — Giller keeps a respectful distance from the show. He is, however, trying to get an official blessing for a book project, modeled on Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive two-volume Beatles chronology. Lewisohn got the green light from producer George Martin, says Giller, because his proposal fixated on the sheer data of the Fabs’ careers and avoided mentioning their personal lives. (Giller also has collected most of the records and performance dates of the three musicians who formed the original Late Night band with Paul Shaffer in 1982. He says he is still trying to fill in some of the musicians’ early dates but adds, “If they were in _rehabilitation_ then I don’t want to know about it.”)

So far, three book publishers have taken a pass and a fourth has suggested a small trade paperback similar to other “unofficial” Dave guides published in recent years. It seems unlikely that an official encyclopedia will appear until Letterman’s retirement, if ever.

Fortunately, the fandom industry is shifting towards electronic media, where Giller excels. (Trekkies are so numerous on the Internet that the old rec.arts.startrek newsgroup had to spin off six new subgroups to keep the message levels manageable.) The coffee-table book Donz5 is compiling will in all likelihood be published on the the rapidly-growing Internet multimedia space of the World Wide Web. Giller would need a substantial computer upgrade to access the Web, and he wonders how he will be compensated for his efforts, since the Internet still lacks a decent payment scheme for online content.

My feeling is it’s just a matter of time before ultraspecialists like Donz5 generate at least a modest cash flow from cyberspace. Look at moneymakers like CompuServe’s Entertainment Drive, which succeed despite mediocre content and interfaces. Giller doesn’t have the marketing savvy or broad, bland focus of E-Drive, but his work ethic and his ability to think clearly amidst staggering levels of inventory bode well for him in the coming information economy. He is a curator in search of patronage, and given the mass appeal of Dave it’s safe to say that eventually he will find it.

Meanwhile, it’s back to alt.fan.letterman, where someone has posted a message addressed to Paul Shaffer, asking what music the band played for David Hyde Pierce on the previous night’s Late Show. Donz5, who has never sighted Shaffer (or Letterman) online, handles the question.

“No need to ask Paul. The band has played the Beatles’ ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ every time Hyde has guested on the show.”


Village Voice, August 29, 1995, front page.
Blow-up of Table of Contents page.
The article, page 1.
The article, page 2.

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