In the past year, a cavalcade of celebrities have flooded the balcony above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Ring! There was actress Sarah Jessica Parker, aka Carrie Bradshaw, in a shimmery dress and a chunky pair of Miu Miu's. Ring! And LeBron James, rubbing elbows with NYSE chief Richard Grasso. Ring! No, you weren't hallucinating: That really was Mr. Potato Head glad-handing exchange execs.
What gives? One day it's an aging suit with a tie pin and cuff links, the next it's a rock star with shades and a nose ring. Then it's suit and musician together, hands clasped, arms raised. Here, here! Righteous! Ring that bell! Let the trader warriors in funny jackets commence battle!
Again we ask, What gives? What is it with the exchange's opening bell? How did we come by this ritual of capitalism? And why does everyone who's anyone want in?
"It's Hollywood meets Wall Street," says Jeffrey Hirsch, editor in chief of The Stock Trader's Almanac. "I don't remember it ever being as ceremonial as now. Nobody knew about it because the cameras weren't there."
That's part of the answer: Pressing the buzzer that rings the bell at 9:30 a.m. every day presents a costless opportunity for massive exposure. It may be fairly meaningless exposure, but still, there's nothing quite so intoxicating as 15 seconds of cable-news fame.
Yet the bell predates CNBC by more than a century. In 1871, the exchange tossed out its gavel and introduced a Chinese gong to begin trading. In 1903, it moved to its current digs on Wall Street and adopted modern technology in the form of a shiny, electrically induced bell.
Although guests started making podium cameos in 1956, "ringing the bell was generally the task of the floor managers. It was just a mundane part of their job," says Robert Zito, the exchange's executive vice president of communications and the man responsible for the bell. Then in 1995, the NYSE discovered marketing, and the bell's once obscure life changed forever. These days, 8 or 9 of the 10 bell-ringings each week are done by guests. (Closing bells aren't as sexy, but they are televised.) Some slots in 2005 are already booked.
"It's a pretty terrific feeling," says Frank Weise, CEO of beverage maker Cott Corp. Weise and his team, having rung the opening bell one summer morning, were still hanging around at the close. For companies like Cott, the ceremony presents the opportunity for an all-day binge of TV, analyst confabs, and shrimp bowls. But it can also be quite a poignant experience. Huddled with colleagues, Weise speaks reverently of his brief shining moment: "It was one of the highlights of my professional career."
And there's the key: Ringing the bell is about ego. For the CEO who has everything else, scaling the balcony of the exchange, or even Nasdaq's considerably less glam MarketSite studio in Times Square, can be like reaching the pinnacle of one's own career Olympus.
If that executive is overwhelmed by the vastness of his achievement — well, not to worry. "We actually practice with the guest to get the timing right," Zito says. If guests still botch the button (as some have), there's a backup bell (location undisclosed for security reasons) that, after one second, automatically triggers trading.
As for the floor traders, they rarely give the bell ringer a second glance. Sarah Jessica may have been an exception, but mostly, they "are probably the least interested in what's going on on the podium," says Zito. For them, the bell means just one thing: It's time to go to work.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.