“I’m probably the first deli owner to have to join the union,” said Rupert Jee, referring to the SAG-AFTRA membership he had to get after his unexpectedly long stint on television. The always-humble proprietor of the Hello Deli, located on West 53rd Street in the same building as the Ed Sullivan Theater, was awakened one morning close to three decades ago to a special bulletin blaring on his alarm clock radio, announcing that the “Late Show with David Letterman” was moving into the space. Little did he know back then, but his life was about to change, and he’d soon become a fan favorite on the program, getting recognized not just on the streets in Manhattan, but throughout the entire country.
When Jee — who, to this day, is still fearful of being on television — heard that Letterman was filming a segment called “Meet the Neighbors,” he told the show’s head writer to leave him out because he wasn’t comfortable being on camera. Then, one night, he heard Dave’s voice getting louder and louder as a camera crew approached the deli, and after a meet-and-greet, he was brought on stage for a standing ovation. “And I said, ‘Oh, I’m just glad it’s over with, now I just can continue with my deli business and not have to worry about it anymore.’ But who would have known that this would go on for the next 22 years?” Jee, who made such an impression that day that he was asked to do hidden-camera pranks for the show, explained.
A first-generation Chinese American, Jee was born and raised on the Upper West Side, where his parents owned a laundry, and still calls that neighborhood home. Last month, the city honored the entrepreneur-turned-TV star and his longtime business partner, May Chin, with a proclamation “to celebrate the Hello Deli’s contribution to the fabric of the neighborhood, success as a small NYC business and valuable services to the area’s TV/film production needs.”
The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment was on hand to present Hello Deli with the proclamation, and held a press conference with Paul Shaffer.
“It’s something I never expected,” Jee said. “Of course, I can’t be more empathic than to say if it wasn’t for David Letterman and the support of the offices in the neighborhood, we wouldn’t have the 30 years. This proclamation goes to them as well.”
Tell us how it came about that you opened the deli.
First, I have to go back to when I was a kid, when I was about 7 or 8. I was always in love with sandwiches and I remember when Blimpie’s opened; I was totally infatuated. The interest in sandwiches [his favorites at his shop are Reubens, hot roast beef and the turkey club] stayed with me forever. And so fast forward, now I’m in the garment trade and May Chin, who’s my business partner ... for about 10 years and of course, I’m always looking for other challenges in life, and so I told May, “You know, I’ve always wanted a sandwich shop, just for fun.” So we picked up the “Times” and we found this little shop around the corner from the Ed Sullivan building, it’s part of the building, and apparently the guy was going out of business. And I told May, “I think I could make a go at it.” And so we bought it from him at a very, very low price. Two years later, it was announced that David Letterman was moving into the theater, and then the rest was history.
When Dave first came into your store, what was going through your mind?
That night, I think Dave went around the corner to visit a neighbor right on the corner of 53rd Street, and so I heard that and so I was breathing a sigh of relief, ‘cause I said, “Well, I guess he’s not coming here today then.” But then, apparently, he made a detour and I started hearing his voice on the speaker and it got louder and louder, and that’s when he came into the deli. And I tell you, I almost fainted. He was very nice to me and the audience had a few good laughs, and then he says, “Rupert, I’m going to do something special for you. I’m going to bring you on stage for a standing ovation.” And, of course, that’s something I wouldn’t want to do either, but I couldn’t say no, so I went on and did my standing ovation and blew kisses.
I saw that clip on YouTube, and you looked very natural. You would never know that you were nervous.
Oh no, I was very scared. And you know, ‘til this day, I’m still scared. I just can’t get over being on television; it’s weird. I know, I’m weird.
No, you would never know it. I was also watching some of the pranks you did with Dave. You were doing them so seamlessly.
Really? No, deep inside, my heart is pounding like crazy. When you’re wearing earpieces on the show, you really have to concentrate on what he’s saying, so maybe that masks my fright. He hates it when you say, “What? Can you say that again?” He doesn’t like to repeat, so you gotta really keep on top of it.
How did it happen that you started doing the pranks?
Well, again, they came in and told me, “Well, tomorrow we’re gonna go out all day and shoot this thing where you get miked up and Dave is gonna tell you what to say or do.” And honestly, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. So we went out and Dave was basically feeding me lines and I would go and say them to the people I was dealing with. And, you know, I tell you, you never get a laugh out of Dave because they’re in front of comedy for so long that you don’t get a laugh out of them. I’ve never seen them laugh. But then, suddenly, when we were doing the skit, Dave and the head writer, they were laughing like kids. And that’s when I realized, “Wow, for them to laugh, there must be something special in this.” And it was, they hit it on the spot. I didn’t know how popular it was gonna be, but it became one of the most popular skits that the “Late Show” created, I think.
Do you still have a relationship with Dave?
No, you know, in the earlier days, Dave would just pop into the deli to say hi and have a cup of coffee and hang around and we’d just shoot the s**t, so to speak. He was always a pleasant person to be with. He’s a very special person.
How often do you get stopped by fans on the street?
Back in the days, quite often. New Yorkers are more nonchalant; they would look at me and smile. They’d say, “I love what you’re doing.” Then, once in a while, you get something extreme. Like, I remember walking home and this cab driver was honking his horn, he came out and started waving at me and said, “I love you.”
What are your bestselling sandwiches? How do you come up with their names?
Well, of course, Letterman. The Paul Shaffer. Stephen Colbert sells very well. I mean, all of our signature sandwiches sell pretty well, that’s why we have them on the board ... Of course, a lot of them are named after the people from the “Late Show with David Letterman.” A few from the offices, like “Entertainment Weekly.” It was just a fun thing and people enjoyed it. Like, for example, Brian Teta, he was an intern when we named the sandwich after him and he’s now the executive producer of “The View.”
Who are some celebrities you’ve met at your store?
Of course, Letterman and Shaffer, they used to frequent the deli. Shaffer would always order sandwiches. We’ve had tons of celebrities come in. Leon Spinks, he was the heavyweight champion of the world at one time. And one day he came in with his wife and he was kind enough to sign a boxing glove and pictures for me; I still have that. Lyle Lovett, he’s a wonderful gentleman. Mia Farrow came by. She was supposed to appear on the show that day and took the liberty of walking over and just saying how she liked my appearances on the show, really sweet girl. Mandy Patinkin, I recognized his voice immediately when he ordered a sandwich ... Regis Philbin, always smiling and happy. Willie Nelson, he loves his liverwurst. Jungle Jack Hanna, he’s a funny guy. He used to always come by before the show because he said coming into the deli would give him luck for the show.
What are your bestselling “Late Show” memorabilia items?
You know, to this day, Dave’s T-shirts, caps and mugs, they sell the best. They sell better than my T-shirts. [Laughs]