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Behind the scenes at 'Today' show's plaza
It's just before 8 on a summer morning, the weather a perfect mix of seasonal warm-cool, and a crowd of thousands, most of whom have been standing outside since the wee hours, is suprisingly laid-back, waiting for John Legend to start his signature, soulful crooning.
The location: The "Today" show Plaza at Rockefeller Center, where Legend is getting ready to perform as part of the long-running NBC morning show's Toyota Summer Concert Series.
"The audience really is reflective of the performance: Today everyone was peaceful, grooving. With Cher, it was feather boa central," Alex Ficquette, associate Plaza producer, told us from the green room post-show.
Ficquette is relaxed now, sitting on a couch in the green room, dishing about his gig and the Plaza. But from 6:30 a.m., when the space opens to visitors, to 9 a.m. (when "Today" must exit the Plaza, as per an agreement with Rock Center), he's the go-to guy out there, coordinating the the visitors' experiences daily and making them as personalized as possible.
He's been doing so since joining the staff almost a year ago in a newly created position geared toward achieving those goals.
On concert days, the draw for visitors heading to the Plaza is, clearly, the artist: being able to witness sound check, rehearsals and the live show, plus sometimes extra, non-televised tunes (Bruce Springsteen and Dave Matthews practically gave entire concerts).
But on non-concert days, people want to share their stories, celebrate birthdays with the world or get a glimpse of iconic anchors like Matt Lauer and Al Roker. That process is now streamlined, thanks to Ficquette's role, plus an RSVP capability launched on today.com/visit in February, which Ficquette monitors.
When they RSVP online, people can share their reasons for visiting "Today." Stories range from pure fandom -- a school-age boy who wants to be an anchor -- to funny -- a Geist family looking to meet co-host Willie Geist -- to, in true "Today" show fashion, heartwarming. The young boy got a mug signed by the anchors, the Geists got to meet Willie and the woman with the touching story, Tricia, received something truly meaningful.
As Ficquette told it, Tricia wanted to get a photo of herself and Lauer from six or eight years prior signed during a recent visit to the show. She didn't give Ficquette any more information, but just asked for his help. Well, Lauer signed it, and Tricia ended up writing "the most touching story back," Ficquette said.
"She had lost her son several years before to suicide," Ficquette said. "It was a very dark time in her family. She was starting to travel again ... and she came to New York, to the Plaza and got this photo with Matt and sent it around to her family. And her dad wrote back and said, 'This is the first time I've seen that old smile since this happened and I know you're going to be OK.'"
"Those are incredible and touching stories," Ficauette said.
Besides RSVPing with their stories on the site, visitors can find out insider tips, share photos and connect with Ficquette directly (his Twitter handle @alexontheplaza has skyrocketed in popularity). He also facilitates meetings on the Plaza between fans who have some sort of connection with an anchor, like, say, a visitor who went to Ohio University like Lauer did or someone who was touched by Natalie Morales' reporting on the Boston Marathon bombings.
"We make introductions that are also relevant to [the anchors] so they're not just blindly shaking hands," Ficquette said.
Ficquette said he compares the Plaza experience to a live studio audience experience: While before, people often just swung by to check things out, now it can be a full-on, show-long experience.
Though the Plaza mostly welcomes people vacationing in New York, Ficquette noted that for many New Yorkers, going there is "a bucket list moment."
"New Yorkers know the Plaza. They walk by it on their way to work," he said. "They've never been here, but they want to."