Regis Philbin, Aubrey Plaza and more alums of Hollywood's ultimate boot camp dish on their early days in that 30 Rock uniform (and drinking a beer at Tom Brokaw's desk): "It's like this golden ticket that opens every door."
"The page uniform is a scarlet letter," says Universal Television's reality chief Meredith Ahr, who donned the infamous polyester suit as a member of NBC's page class of 2001. "It's so hideous, and everyone sees you in it and knows you're the lowest on the totem pole; but at the same time, it's like this golden ticket that opens every door."
Indeed, long before the job was immortalized by Jack McBrayer's Kenneth the Page on 30 Rock, NBC's 84-year-old internship program was a broadcasting institution that paved the way for hundreds of careers in the entertainment business. Eva Marie Saint, Regis Philbin, Ted Koppel, Michael Eisner, Aubrey Plaza — they all got their start giving tours to out-of-towners and fetching coffee for network stars like Johnny Carson. What the gig lacks in pay — the current crop of 140 pages earns minimum wage, or $12 an hour — it makes up for in opportunity.
THR spoke to 21 former pages who parlayed their experiences at NBC's headquarters — both in New York and Los Angeles — into successful careers and asked them to reminisce about their respective runs. "There was a time when my kids were big 30 Rock fans," says Liz Cole, a class of '91 page who's now an executive producer on NBC's Dateline. "I was able to tell them I did that job, and to them, it was way cooler than anything else I've ever done."
EVA MARIE SAINT
Actress | Page Year: 1944
I was 19, and I'd never had a job before. I'd heard about the Guidettes [an early moniker for a female tour guide at NBC], and then I tried out and got it. Maybe because I was a cute blonde? That summer changed my life. It brought me out of my shell. You had to take the elevator during the tour, and one day it opened and Joan Crawford stepped in. She saw me standing there in my uniform — which I loved — and she said, "Do you want to be an actress?" I said, "Oh, yes," and she replied, "Well, you will be," and then she turned her back and the doors shut. That was the thrill of my summer.
Weatherman | Page Year: 1950
One of my jobs was to relieve the switchboard operator so she could go to the bathroom or get food. I'll never forget, I was there one Sunday morning, and Sundays are usually quiet, but the light on the board turned on. "Good morning, NBC," I said. The voice on the other end of the phone said, "This is the president, and I want to speak to the secretary of state." So, I said, "Yeah, and this is Santa Claus," and hung up. Five minutes later, the phone rang again. The same voice: "Goddammit, this is Harry Truman, and I want to talk to Dean Acheson [who was at NBC doing a panel show]." "You're kidding," I said, and he said, "No, this is not a joke." I apologized, of course, and put him through, and he was nice enough not to raise hell.
Former Live! co-host | Page Year: 1955
In those days, the page department was run almost like a military unit. There was a full dress inspection before every shift. TV was still in its infancy. I don't remember giving tours, but I'd sit behind this big desk on the bottom floor, and it was a thrill because you never knew who would come in. Perry Como was upstairs doing his half-hour show every night. And I'll never forget, Perry was on vacation and Eddie Fisher was pinch hitting for him for the week, and as they were getting ready to say goodbye to Eddie, they called me. "Hey, Regis, come up here and hang on to this elevator. Eddie's going to say goodbye and then get in, and the show will end." So he fights his way through the crowd and up the aisle, and then he gets into the elevator, and I see I got myself on TV. I was thrilled. I ran to call my mother to see if she'd seen me on TV. And she said, "Yeah, yeah, but where was Eddie going?"
Actor-director | Page Year: 1956
On our lunch breaks, you could go up to the balcony and watch the NBC orchestra rehearsing with Arturo Toscanini. It was incredible. In one of those studios, Gene Rayburn, who used to be a page, was running a game show, and he'd see the pages and yell, "One day, kid, you'll be down here!" I remember color television was just starting back then and The Perry Como Show rehearsed in color. So, the last stop on the tour was the master control room and I'd always say a little prayer, 'Let The Perry Como Show be on,' because then they'd get to see color TV for the first time in their lives and I didn't have to say a word because they'd be mesmerized. Those tours became performance pieces for those of us who wanted to be actors. I'd embellish things or tell them they might see David Sarnoff, who had run RCA and NBC, but please don't take pictures. I had no idea what David Sarnoff looked like, and as we came down some corridor and I'd see a man with gray hair and a suit, I'd say, "All right, that's Mr. Sarnoff, and remember you're not supposed to …" and of course they went nuts and took pictures of this complete stranger.
Former Nightline anchor | Page Year: 1960
I was arguably the worst page in the history of NBC. I was assigned to be backstage at The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, and I'd take calls coming from ambitious young women who wanted to come on the show. I'd tell them I was the talent booker and offer to meet them for a drink, but they'd take one look at me, and I looked about 16, and they knew that I was [full of it]. Or there was another page who spoke fluent Czech, and I spoke fluent German, and when he and I were on duty guiding the elevator bank to The Tonight Show, I'd be in the information booth and he'd be by the stanchions making sure that the line went through properly. People would come over and they'd ask me a question about getting tickets to The Tonight Show and I'd answer in German. Of course, they'd say they didn't understand what I was saying, and so I'd point to the other guy and he'd answer them in Czech. And then there was the time Queen for a Day was in town [from L.A., where the game show traditionally was filmed], and all these women came and were all crowding, trying to get to the front of the line so they could get on the show. I walked up and down that line, pointing to a crack in the sidewalk, saying that NBC had installed an electronic barrier and that if they crossed it they'd receive a mild electric shock. It just so happened that the head of the guest relations department came by as all of these women were huddled up against the wall of the theater. When she asked them what was happening, I saw all of these fingers pointing at me.
Former Disney CEO | Page Year: 1963
I got to wear a uniform without having to go to Vietnam. It was all very formal then. You had to memorize the names of all of the senior executives and you had to know the history of NBC to give the tours. I remember I worked on The Price Is Right and Jeopardy! and then on the Tonight Show. The summer of '63 was in between Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, so all summer long there were alternating guests. All of the biggest stars came through. It was one of the best jobs I ever had.
Television producer | Page Year: 1966
After I graduated college, I got a temp job in the garment district, but every day at lunch I'd run over to NBC to the office of the guy who hired the tour guides at the time. "I need this job," I'd say. I'd somehow gotten an interview with him, and then I just wouldn't leave him alone. He'd say, "All you young Turks coming out of college, you all want to be in TV, and you all end up here. There's a long list ahead of you. Stop pestering me." "OK I'll be back tomorrow." He finally gave me the job to get me out of his office. I can still almost smell the locker room.
Former Tonight Show executive producer | Page Year: 1976
Oh, the people you saw being a page for The Tonight Show! Richard Pryor, Sammy Davis ... you can't imagine being there and having Sammy Davis singing 20 feet away from you.
Today executive producer | Page Year: 1989
Every day I'd give three to five tours, and the brass ring of a tour would be running into a celebrity. Johnny Carson used to show up around 3 o'clock, so I'd love to get the 2:30 p.m. tour because maybe, just maybe, by the time you got over to the Tonight Show studio, Johnny would pull up in his white Corvette and wave to the tour. Outside the Tonight Show studio, they had this shoe shine guy named Floyd, and it was considered good luck to have your shoes shined before you went on The Tonight Show, and you'd always hope to run into a celebrity at the shoe shine. Well, I remember giving a tour to a bunch of kids, they were, like, 13 and probably on a school trip, and on this particular day Donny Osmond was there. And of course, for someone of my generation, Donny Osmond was a pretty huge deal. But I remember walking up and saying to the kids, "Hey guys, you know who this is, right?" and they all just had these blank faces. I was probably 23 years old, and it was the first time I remember feeling old.
Last Call With Carson Daly executive producer | Page Year: 1990
I grew up in Kansas, and my dream in life was to work for David Letterman, and then I got the Letterman assignment. It was during the Gulf War and occasionally during the show, a guy with a camera over his shoulder would set up right outside my little stand and point the camera at me, and I'd think, "Oh no, what's coming?" Then you'd see Dave pick up his phone and you'd know he's going to call my phone and immediately my heart starts beating like a bunny. He asks my name and I say it and then he gets it wrong on purpose and then he says, "You know we're at war, right? I want you to walk up and down the hallway look for scud missiles." So I'd put the phone down and do it. Of course I'd do it. It's funny because I remember watching the show before I started and thinking, "Wouldn't that be fun?" And then it was happening and all I could think was, "I can't believe I'm that poor kid!" Everyone I knew would call the next day, "Was that you looking for scud missiles on Letterman?" I'd be like, "I didn't find any, but yeah, that was me." My other assignment was SNL the year with Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman and Mike Myers. Occasionally you'd be able to sit in on writing sessions and you could pitch a joke to Adam Sandler or Kevin Nealon. I'll never forget Mike Myers had this sketch "Middle-Aged Man." I told him it was my favorite sketch at the beginning of the season. Cut to the season wrap party, and Mike Myers hands me a gift. I hadn't spoken to him in eight months. I looked at it and said, "Who should I take this to?" He said, "It's for you." I open it and it's a Middle-Aged Man T-shirt. I said, "Mike, that's my favorite sketch," and he said, "Yeah, I remember, we talked about it in September."
Dateline executive producer | Page Year: 1991
I was a page when Letterman was at NBC, and it was just fun to be around the swirl of Dave at that time. Everyone wanted the Letterman assignment. And it was really cool if you got to be the one who opens the door when Letterman went into the studio because the audience could maybe, just maybe, see a tiny piece of you in the background and of course your mom would get really excited.
ITV Studios America exec | Page Year: 1996
Conan O'Brien was just starting out when I was a page, so part of our job was going out to recruit audiences. You'd go to all of the places you knew tourists would be: around 30 Rock, Macy's, Central Park. I remember I had a chip on my shoulder. I was like, "I'm not wearing this stupid uniform out in public," so I'd go in regular clothes. But they didn't know who Conan was yet. The big show then was Rosie O'Donnell's, and then there was In Person With Maureen O'Boyle, which I guarantee you don't remember. They couldn't fill the audience for that, so they'd have the pages sit in. We'd all fall asleep every time. But the most sought-after assignment, by far, was Saturday Night Live, which is the one Kenneth the Page did. If you wanted to be a comedian or a writer, you were desperate for that assignment.
The View co-host | Page Year: 2001
I was a page on 9/11. At first they said, "Do not leave the building," and then it was, "You all have to get out." I lived in a railroad apartment with a roommate on 77th Street, and something like 17 pages came home with me that day because a lot of pages were commuting in. Many still write me every 9/11, "I remember being at your apartment." Our page manager showed up and bought us all pizza. A few of us volunteered to come back in the next morning because they needed people to answer hotlines. We walked through the empty streets of New York at 5 in the morning on Sept. 12 to answer phones with [then CEO] Bob Wright's assistant for people who had emergency questions. I was also appointed the head page of the anthrax testing site.
Universal TV Alternative Studio president | Page Year: 2001
I started on Sept. 4, 2001, exactly a week before 9/11. I came back the next day because I had nowhere else to go. So, I was sitting in the page room on Sept. 12, and someone came in and said, "Hey, no one has to be here today but if anyone wants to work, you could make your career." I ended up volunteering for any assignment they had. A lot of it was news specials because we had 24-hour news coverage, but one of my jobs was sitting audiences for the VIP floor seats at Saturday Night Live. I was there for the first show of the season a few weeks later, where Rudy Giuliani came out with the NYPD and the fire department and gave everyone permission to laugh again. I still watch that episode every once in a while. Then I worked for WNBC, which is the local news promotion department. People dismissed the assignment because it was local news but it was New York local news after 9/11, so we were telling stories about a city trying to rebuild itself. It was an unbelievable time to be there.
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon showrunner | Page Year: 2002
I pulled an all-nighter working the Macy's Thanksgiving parade as a P.A. I was in charge of driving talent in a minivan between [30 Rock] and Herald Square. When the parade was over, and I got to my parents' house, I fell asleep before they even served the turkey. I guess you could say I floated away that day, too.
Comedian | Page Year: 2003
Everyone wanted to work on SNL because you wanted to try to get to the afterparty and then the after-afterparty. The one I never wanted was Today because it was so early, and we were all just out of college. I drank a beer on Tom Brokaw's desk once. They left his studio unlocked, and all I could think is, "This is the desk where all of the world gets their news," and so I sat down and had a beer. I've never told anybody that.
30 Rock producer | Page Year: 2004
I became Tina Fey's assistant at SNL when 30 Rock was being developed. Tina had worked for SNL for so long that she knew exactly what [the page] job was, but I still brought my manual to give to the writers — it had these very specific facts that Kenneth would know. Of course, because I worked on the show from the beginning, people would always say, "Kenneth must be based on you." He was not. He definitely was not.
Marvel Television exec | Page Year: 2004
I was a page in Burbank, so on our tours you'd show people Jay Leno's cars and the Days of our Lives sets and then you'd walk them through the Ellen studio. At Ellen, they'd have pages stand at the back of the crowd — more for crowd control than anything else — but as part of the deal you'd have to dance because they'd turn the cameras on the audience and she wanted everyone dancing. So there you were in your little Kenneth the Page outfit and you'd have to dance. I'm no dancer.
CNBC on-air reporter | Page Year: 2005
My most memorable moment was at Dateline. One of the producers came over to me and said, "We're doing our next run of To Catch a Predator, and we need online profiles but all of our staff is too old and their old photos would look dated. Would you mind providing photos of you when you were 13?" So they created a profile with old pictures of me, and when it aired, they said, "This is the picture that we used to lure the predators in but really was one of our Dateline staffers …" They never said my real name on air, but I got calls from people I hadn't seen in years. So, yeah, technically my first time on national TV was as bait on To Catch a Predator.
Fandango correspondent | Page Year: 2005
I was a green room page on Today. My first week, I met the ladies of Destiny's Child. After the concert, Beyonce told me I had an amazing smile. A month later, I met a 17-year-old from Barbados named Rihanna. I remember she had a very strong accent and even stronger appetite — I watched as she ate her second doughnut. She was wearing a midriff with overalls, and I kept asking her where she put all that food.
Actress | Page Year: 2005
The tours were fun because each was a whole new performance. There were plenty of times where I'd veer off and make up facts about Conan O'Brien. And then I remember meeting Katie Couric in an elevator. The elevators were tricky — you'd have to press the floor that you're going to before you got in, but people would forget. That's what had happened to Katie. Now, this was the height of Katie Couric, and of course I knew it was her, but I just looked at her and said, "Is this your first day here? I can show you around." It made her laugh, which I considered a big win. But the most incredible thing is that I played myself on 30 Rock. That happened because I still had my uniform. Actually, I still have it.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.