Update: The birdcallers will make their final appearance on Letterman tonight!
The feathers were flying on April 17 when Piedmont High School presented the 50th annual Leonard J. Waxdeck Birdcalling Contest.
Sitting in the audience, along with the current generation of Piedmont students, were former birdcallers whom the school invited to join the celebration.
"We're trying to call everyone back to the nest," says Social Studies teacher Ken Brown, the faculty advisor for the past five years.
The birdcalling contest began in 1963 as a class project in Waxdeck's biology course. According to legend, a student asked him, "Wax, what can we do to liven things up around here?" But many Piedmont alums maintain that no one ever would have had the temerity to call him "Wax."
For the first few years the competition was an informal affair at lunchtime in Waxdeck's classroom. Instead of judges, the class voted for the first, second and third place winners by a show of hands.
"There were no Latin names, no sound trucks, no follow-up TV appearances, and no preparation," recalls the winner of the initial contest, Jay Knowland (who did two calls – a rooster and a generic "jungle bird.") "We just made up the calls in the classroom. One girl, Maryanne Endicott, didn't do a bird at all. She did a crying baby."
It didn't take long for the event to outgrow Waxdeck's classroom, as word got out and other students and teachers started dropping by at lunchtime to see the fun. In 1966 it moved to the school's Alan Harvey Theater, where it remains to this day.
From the start it bore the imprint of Waxdeck's personality, including the dress code - three-piece suits for the boys, dresses with skirts that reach below the knees for the girls – the scientific nomenclature, and the deadpan mock seriousness that made the calls even funnier.
"The contest definitely had its tongue stuck firmly in its cheek back then," recalls Matthew Callahan, who finished second in 1984 with the call of Pelicanus Occidentalis, the western brown pelican, and returned as a judge in 2007.
"One of the highlights was Waxdeck's ritual reading of telegrams of regrets from celebrities like Pope John Paul II, the Queen of England, the President of the United States, and movie stars," he continues. "Nobody really knew whether the regrets were real or not, but he sure as hell sent the invitations out. And I know that at least one of them was real – the one from the Queen of England. I saw it with my own eyes."
With or without Her Majesty, the birdcalling contest soon became the hottest ticket in town.
"Starting at 7 a.m., four or five trucks of potted plants and floral arrangements would start arriving," says Callahan. "In those days the contest was held in mid-May, and it would be a warm day. So they'd open the doors of the theater, and the smell would waft out into the quad area and over the whole campus. Inside the theater it smelled like a nursery – minus the fertilizer, of course."
"By 3 p.m., a half hour before show time, the theater was filled to capacity. People were sitting in the aisles, and all the kids were backstage, nervous as hell."
Tickets were so hard to get, it was rare for a student to get one.
"All the VIPs in town were calling in their IOUs," Callahan recalls. "The year I entered I got a ticket for my mother, but as a general rule the only way to see the contest was to be in it."
In 1975 a 7th grader entered the contest for the first and only time: 13-year-old Marc Schweitzer, who won second place with his call of Gavia Immer, the common loon.
The novelty of someone so young beating the big kids was picked up by the local newspapers; and one of the articles caught the eye of a scout for Johnny Carson, who flew Waxdeck, Schweitzer and the contest winners down to Burbank to appear on The Tonight Show.
"Marc was only 13, and his voice cracked in the middle of his call," says his sister Laurie. "But Carson was quick on the uptake. He said, 'That's OK, Marc. Many people have trouble while mating!'"
It got a big laugh, and a new tradition was born. Carson had Waxdeck and the birdcallers on his show every year until his retirement in 1992. And the ripple effects lasted even longer.
"I met my husband because of Johnny Carson," says Liz Wagman '87. "On the first day of my freshman year at UC Davis I was wearing my Piedmont High sweatshirt, and he said, 'I saw you on The Tonight Show!'"
On the other hand, she adds, "I teach high school in Clayton, and when I tell my students I was on the Johnny Carson show, they say, 'Who?'"
Another tradition was born in 1977, when Peter Chovanes performed the first introductory skit.
"My bird was Spheniscus demersu, commonly known as the jackass penguin because of its braying sound," he says. "So I wore a top hat, white tie and tails, and carried a cane. As I waddled onto the stage I tossed my cane to the emcee, Jim Hoglan, then I handed him my hat and he folded it. After I did my call Jimmy tossed the hat and cane back to me, and I waddled off again. The audience loved it."
Over the years the skits have become more and more elaborate – much to the dismay of some old-timers, who miss the understated deadpan deliveries of yore, and to the delight of today's students.
Two years after Carson retired in 1992, Waxdeck suddenly died from a stroke. And the birdcalling contest went dark for two years.
But the people of Piedmont refused to let it die. A coalition of parents and former birdcallers – with behind-the-scenes help from Piedmont Middle School P.E. teacher Linda Jarvis that continues to this day – resurrected the competition in 1996, with the winner's trophy renamed the Leonard J. Waxdeck Trophy.
Feelers were put out to Carson's successor, Jay Leno, to have the kids on his show. But Leno, who was anxious to escape Carson's shadow, wouldn't touch anything that reminded people of Johnny. So for one year they appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show.
Then, in 1976, David Letterman, who idolized Carson – and couldn't pass up a chance to stick it to Leno – was only too glad to have the birdcallers on his program. And there they have appeared every year since then. Their final appearance before his retirement in May will be next Tuesday, April 21.
The only downside was that Letterman routinely brought four birdcalling acts back to New York, but one of them would be cut at the last minute.
"We got cut the first year, and it was really disappointing" says Jill Pervere Saper, who won first place 2001 with her best friend, Rachel Winograd. "Both of my grandmothers had flown to New York to be in the audience. They didn't know we'd been cut, and I was stuck in the green room with no way to warn them. So when we went to back New York the next year I told them, 'No one can come.' Naturally, we got on the show."
Enter the man who, apart from Waxdeck himself, is the most important person in the history of the birdcalling contest: Randall Booker, who took over as faculty advisor in 2005 when he became assistant principal. Tactfully but firmly, he informed Letterman's producers that from now on it would be all or nothing.
"I saw kids sitting in the green room crying, and I said, 'We can't do that; this is cruel.' I was a little nervous about bringing it up, but it didn't take much convincing. I don't think they saw them before as kids with feelings."
Though the essentials of the contest remain the same, some details have changed.
"The dresses and three-piece suits have been replaced by jeans and T-shirts, and the VIPs in the audience have given way to actual students," says Callahan. "But the biggest change is that the bird calls are much more authentic than they were in my day. And instead of sports stars and local TV celebrities, the judges are now people who actually know something about bird calls."
This year's judges will include an ornithologist from Francisco State, prominent Piedmont community member Matt Heafey, and Waxdeck's son, Joel.
And discerning observers might detect a resemblance to a certain biology teacher – goatee, floppy forelock and all - in the Cedar Waxwing on this year's Birdcalling Contest poster.
"If you knew Leonard, you might recognize him," says Brown. "He's still an integral part of this event."
As for the future, no approaches have been made yet to Ellen, Conan, Colbert, Fallon, Kimmel et al. But they have a year to find another show. Brown says whatever happens – or not – is fine with him.
"This is really about the community," he says. "Television is just the frosting on the cake. The frosting is sweet, but the cake is pretty sweet, too."
"One of the things I like best about the birdcalling contest is that it lets kids just be kids," adds Booker. "Once they get into high school, it all gets so serious. They're focused so much on college admissions, tutoring, club sports teams, and community service. The birdcalling contest allows them to be silly. They have the rest of their lives to be serious."
(Footnote: Booker was promoted to principal in 2007, serving in that capacity until 2010, when he became assistant superintendent of schools. On July 1 he will become Piedmont's next superintendent.)