Climbing the Not-So-Corporate Ladder
When you’re shock jock Howard Stern’s producer chances are people think you’re all about obscene antics. But catch Gary Dell’Abate at home in Greenwich and you’ll realize he’s far more boy-next-door than offensive-prankster
Gary Dell’Abate can thank the naked ladies for his long career. It happened in 1984 when he was just a twenty-three-year-old production flunky at WNBC making $150 a week. He was on a month-long tryout for the fledgling Howard Stern Show. Even though he’d only done minor work up to that point, like preparing traffic reports for the Don Imus show, he went after this opportunity the way he did every job, like a pit bull clamping down on a pork chop.
Howard Stern was then just coming into his own as a new kind of “shock jock,” one who tried to outdo station-rival Imus. The brass at WNBC hated Stern, and various civic authorities were also steamed by his leering antics. Outside in the listening world, however, the growing love of Stern was like a bonding issue for people who loved his sex-fiend anarchy. For people raised on the juicy sarcasm of National Lampoon magazine and the original Saturday Night Live, Stern was nothing less than a crude ’n’ snarky Diogenes, a burlesque comedian throwing his crooked lamp on the world.
So the morning when Stern announced to the staff that he was going to have naked ladies on his show, Gary Dell’Abate, innocent kid from Uniondale, Long Island, helped prepare the studio. Newspapers were taped across the studio windows, and the kid was told to bar the door.
Not long after the raucous show got going, a network lawyer bustled up, demanding to be let into the studio. Dell’Abate stood his ground. The lawyer said he needed to see if anything indecent was going on in there. Dell’Abate told him he only needed to hear if something indecent was going on and to go across the hall and listen to a radio. The lawyer finally relented.
When Stern got wind of this after the show, he told the kid he’d done the right thing. Then, Dell’Abate recalls, two things happened. “One, he saw that I had his back. Two, I saw that he had my back for having his back.”
He was hired. And pretty much immediately, was a made a character on the show. Like any other producer, he booked guests, thought up stunts, and found funny sound recordings of people who didn’t really want fame on a shock radio show. But more than that he was the whipping boy, the constant butt of barbs and jests from his indulgent master. He got famous. These days, the celebrities he tries to lure on the show already know him and call him by his famous nickname. “Is that you? Baba Booey?”
On the Homefront
Gary Dell’Abate led the way downstairs to his lair in his Old Greenwich home. The big, sprawling room was actually redecorated by those two guys from the Man Caves TV show a few years ago, and they had plenty to work with in the realm of man stuff. Autographed jerseys and photos hang everywhere. Bottles of dirt from the old Shea Stadium infield line the bar. There doesn’t seem to be a New York-area ball player who escaped his grasp.
We looked at a signed portrait of a smiling Bill Clinton. “What a character,” he laughs. “I was dying to meet him. I’ve met a lot of big people, like Schwarzenegger and JFK, Jr., but he’s a very charismatic guy. He grabbed my hand and put his left hand on my shoulder and said, ‘It’s naaaahce to meet you.’ And it was like a bolt of electricity going through me. It was as exciting as I hoped it would be, and I’m usually disappointed in stuff like that.”
When Dell’Abate oversaw the design of this house four years ago, he had plenty of ideas, being not just a Big Media guy but also a devoted gear hound. One of his side ventures is writing the Gadget Gary column for Sound & Vision magazine. He took me to see the home theater and it was clear that he didn’t skimp—the immense, projected image was unbearably sharp and the sound waves boomed out like cannonfire.
“This will be our eighteenth year in Greenwich,” he says, walking back to the cave. “We were living in the city and my wife, Mary, was pregnant with our first kid and we wanted a place. We both grew up in Long Island so we ruled that out. We looked in New Jersey. My dentist in Larchmont kept saying to me, ‘You gotta move to Greenwich! That’s the place.’ I said, ‘Greenwich is nothing but rich people, I can’t afford to move there.’”
In their progression of houses, they have remained in the same neighborhood. They have two sons, Jackson, sixteen, and Lucas, thirteen. They have hundreds of old friends now and some are celebrities like Lara Spencer and Tom Bergeron. But as with so many folks, the best friends are the ones they met through school functions. “Most of them are just normal people.”
He stopped in front the 1951 nickel jukebox and briefly fired up a Beach Boys single. Music is his big passion and he knows all the minutiae the way some guys know all the batting averages of the 1950 St. Louis Browns. His recent autobiography, They Call Me Baba Booey, was intended to be a music trivia book. But then the agent challenged him with the question, What’s your story?
The story that Dell’Abate poured out for the agent was the basis for a surprisingly readable memoir about growing up in Long Island, the son of a quiet, responsible Italian-American dad who worked in sales and preached the values of his trade, and a volatile mother for whom floor-shaking dramatic overreach was simply a way of life. Having trouble with the neighbors? Just yank out a shrub and beat them over the head with it.
On the Stern show, producer Dell’Abate serves as Mr. Put-Upon, the guy who gets grief. Any fan of the show reading the book will realize instantly how he was trained. After a lifetime of what he calls “chaos and confrontation” at his manic-depressive mother’s hands, life on the knife-edge of insult radio would just be … home.
During the period he wrote the book, he checked in on his mother, who is now widowed and in assisted living in Greenwich. During his childhood, his mother’s bipolar episodes reached such levels in both depression and anger that she had to be hospitalized. In recent years, however, she has become a more pliant person. Curiously, a head injury took away a lot of her old fight. “I told my mother some of the things she did,” he says, shaking his head, “and she laughed as if it were some ancient prank.”
He sat down on a large leather chair and looked thoughtful. “I think probably that the best thing to come out of the book,” he says, “is my mother and I discussed things we’d never talked about before. The saddest thing is she asked me, ‘Was I a bad mother?’ I said, ‘No. If you were an alcoholic or drug addict, I could say you didn’t care for me. But you suffered from a mental illness.’ I said, ‘I love you.’ It was a nice way to open up with her.”
The book, which is very light on celebrity, traces some of the story of Stern’s getting fired from WNBC and then swiftly becoming a national figure on KROQ, syndicated all across the country, to his present $500 million deal at the satellite network Sirius XM, where, seriously, anything goes.
Although any parent would want to clap protective hands around the ears of the young ones if the Howard Stern show was on (indeed, the Dell’Abate boys are not allowed to listen to the Stern show), the book would actually be a fine thing for kids as it relates the hearty, Horatio Alger story of a guy willing to outwork anyone on the planet. Cowritten by renowned ESPN editor Chad Millman, the book fully portrays the mindset of a guy who, as his wife says, “just does not stop.”
The Baba Booey of the title refers to the nickname bestowed on him after he fumbled the name of a cartoon character named “Baba Louie.” After a riot of hazing and wisecracks by Stern, it was decided that his name would forevermore be Baba Booey. The name has now grown to have a larger meaning in the world. One of the Stern show’s recurring gags is calling up people and fooling them into an embarrassing utterance of some kind that gets broadcast on the air. As the show’s ardent disciples have carried forth the practice of pranking the media, the decisive moment is signaled by blurting out “Baba Booey!”
The Hard Time Guy
Firing up a conversation with Dell’Abate is dead easy, of course. This is a guy who has booked thousands of guests, ranging from politicians to porn stars (two separate categories, actually). But he does have an interesting conversational style. He speaks in short, declarative sentences that come to a sudden stop. He’s waiting for you to say something. And in a minute it becomes clear that this is his radio style—make it short and sweet and then wait for the head Wise Guy to say something.
Within an hour of meeting him, he will seem as friendly and familiar as your kid brother. You might even start teasing him hard about something, such as the way he went on for fourteen lousy pages in his book about a humiliating experience he had throwing out a first pitch at a Mets game and whiffing it badly. Fourteen pages!
“It bothered me,” he responds hollowly when he hears the charge. “I did such a bad job of it. And it was something I know I can do. I just choked. That’s why it bothered me.”
Suddenly you realize that you’re only doing a Stern impersonation—you’re just giving this poor, hardworking guy a hard time. And he’s responding with beleaguered humor, because that’s his role in life.
Giving Dell’Abate a hard time became something of a sport in this town over the last year. As he ran for a seat on the Parks & Recreation board, he ran into a storm of protest from people who hated Howard Stern and, ergo, hated the idea of this radio producer soiling the civic fabric. Never mind that he’s one of the most devoted sports dads in the county.
Selectman Drew Marzullo was the one to alert Dell’Abate to the position opening. “I did because of his love for the town,” Marzullo explains. “He’s a very active participant in town events. He’s a family man who has coached thousands of kids and he’s extremely generous with his time. He’s philanthropic, he’s charitable, he’ll raise money to send kids to camps. He’s everything I thought we needed on Parks and Recs.”
Marzullo expected a little “fanfare” over Dell’Abate’s connection to Stern, but not the tremendous controversy. “This made national news!” Marzullo says, “And it was for an advisory position with no jurisdictional authority.” Marzullo lamented that all the unfair allegations hurled against Dell’Abate harmed the town’s good name.
The process began with a recommendation from the Board of Selectmen, which voted for him 3-0. Then an appointments committee recommended him, but later some members asked for a revote so they could express their reservations. Then, with angry denunciations appearing in the local press, the Parks Advisory Board voted against him 7-4. But since this was an advisory position, it still went before all 230 members of the RTM, and there he won by a 2-1 margin.
“One of the stupidest things I’ve ever dealt with,” he says, excitement rising in his voice. “I really was sandbagged by a small amount of people who tried to portray themselves as victims but who were really trying to victimize me.
“An email was circulated to all the members of the RTM, talking about what a horrible person I am. It ended with, ‘We need to keep our daughters and our parks safe from this man. Gary works on this disgusting show, he’s a horrible person.’
“We looked into the e-mail and found that the person didn’t exist. Somebody had gone down to the Greenwich library—we traced it down to that—and opened a fake e-mail account, and sent this email out to everybody.”
On the air, Stern has often mocked Dell’Abate’s devotion to kids and all the time he spends coaching kids, having coached eight seasons of football, not to mention three different baseball teams (“What are you doing, running for the effing Father of the Year trophy here?”). He’s asked Stern not to talk about Greenwich on the air, but one day Stern was confused by all the uproar and said, “It’s a smear campaign, clearly. What’s going on, Gary? It’s crazy where you live.”
One of Dell’Abate’s critics claimed to have found a baggie of dog feces placed in her mailbox by a Stern fan, forcing Dell’Abate to go into heavy apology mode.
Dell’Abate knew one thing that was bothering his critics: They all assumed their remarks would end up on the air. “Howard said, ‘Who the hell are they?’ He used stronger language than that, because he can, so people took offense to that. My feeling is, if you’re going to say you don’t like somebody, they should have the right to respond. They were trashing me like crazy in the newspapers!”
When it’s observed that people have a strong passion about the image of civic propriety, he quickly cuts off the debate.
“If you have passion and you’re completely misguided, you’re just passionately misguided! I’m not impressed with somebody’s passion if you’re out of your mind.”
During the run-up to the election, his family watched some of the lively town meetings. “I had my wife and kids there. I have such a good relationship with my kids, and they’re looking at me, like, ‘Why is he saying that about you?’ I thought it was good for them to be there. Life’s not perfect. Everyone doesn’t love you. I wanted them to see the whole process, win or lose.”
“It was such a bizarre situation,” Mary says. “As soon as Gary walked in, some woman was very rude to him.” People had not bothered to find out who he really was. “Gary is a very generous person who thinks it’s very important to give back.”
Gary’s favorite manner of giving back to the community is to coach. His work schedule makes him the perfect candidate for the job.
“I may not be a great tactician,” he grins suddenly, “but I’m a slam dunk to get there by 4:30. We do our football practice at 5 o’clock, and some of the guys who coach are builders in town, or work in heating and air conditioning. I can’t tell you how many times the cell phone would ring and, ‘I’m stuck on 95!’ I’d say, ‘Don’t worry, I got it under control here. I’ll get the kids started on calisthenics.’”
Polishing off a bottle of water, he smiles again. “You want to know the schedule? The routine? I get up at 4:12, hit the snooze button and that takes me to 4:22. I get up and shower. My clothes are laid out. I can do the loop without waking my wife. I have my laptop in the closet. While I’m getting dressed, I’m clicking on e-mails for that short amount of time.”
He does it all without coffee, or any other caffeine. “I usually don’t sleep much. Like last night I went to bed at 10:40.” He drives himself into the city, wary of all the summer construction sites. “I’m generally at my desk at 5:25 in the morning. I go through my stuff and usually meet Howard at 5:40. I bring him lots of tapes and elements to use in the show. Sometimes he uses a lot of it. Sometimes he uses none of it. He’ll pull a bunch of notes out of his briefcase on things he wants to talk about.”
Dell’Abate’s main job, still, is to guard the door. “I’m the filter.”
“My job is to keep the train on the tracks. Be a guide. We’re on at 6:00 and stay on the air till 10:00, 10:15.” Immediately following the show he and Jon Hein host “The Wrap-Up Show,” in which the two “dissect everything that happened in the four hours before.” Dell’Abate walks out of the studio door at 2:00 and heads for the playing fields of Greenwich.
NO WASPS HERE
Gary had a close and influential older brother named Steven. There was a lot of family drama when Steven revealed he was gay. But the family came together as Steven suffered the ravages of AIDS. He died in 1991, and ever since his younger brother has been an ardent campaigner for the charity Life BEAT. And now he’s doubling up with the local group Red Ribbon. He’s helping arrange a big event for next year that will benefit both charities. He’ll also speak at the high school on World’s AIDS Day, December 1.
“My whole rap is that everyone’s got someone gay in their family.”
He feels generally that he gets a lot of support around town from people who know him. And the kids on the field just know him as Mr. Dell’Abate anyway. He can go on at length about the townies, the rich people, the blue-collar folks.
“I really, really love this town. I see myself living here for a very, very long time. And I’m defensive of the town because I think the image of the rich, snobby people is just not fair. Do they exist in this town? Absolutely. Is that the make-up of the town? No. It’s very diverse.” In his book, he lists one of its rejected subtitles as, “How the ape erased his past and became a Connecticut WASP.”
“I’m hardly a WASP,” he grunts. “My son doesn’t even know what it means. We go to Vineyard Vines to get some shorts the other day and I say, ‘Gee, you’re only getting khaki. No son of mine is wearing pink or yellow shorts. Your great grandparents would spin in their graves if they knew their grandson was turning into a WASP.’
“We get in the car and he says, ‘What are you saying, Dad? I’m turning into a bee?’
“I had to explain to him what a WASP was. I thought, if he doesn’t know what it is, he’s not turning into one.”
From upstairs, he could hear clatter in the kitchen signaling that Lucas and Jackson were home from school. It was time to bring all this talking to a close and go find out what the heck the boys were up to.
“I think I might go for a run now, too.” As he jumps to his feet, it’s clear that he is actually a very vigorous guy.
“I dropped about thirty pounds two years ago. I did a cleanse, and then started running. When the weight comes off, the farther you can run. So now I run almost every night. You know what? For fifty years old, I feel pretty good. I’m probably in better shape than when I was forty-five.”
He offered a glowing smile and then went upstairs to see his sons, taking the stairs two steps at a time.