51 years ago, today, was a major event for entertainer, Johnny Carson, and the rest of the United States. October 1, 1962, Carson replaced Jack Parr as permanent host of NBC-TV’s “The Tonight Show”.
I’ve written about Johnny Carson earlier on bluejayblog, but I’ll still outline his essentials for you anyway. John William Carson was born in Corning, Iowa on October 23, 1925. Most of his childhood and formative years were spent here in Norfolk, Nebraska. In the mid 1940’s he served a stint in the U.S. Navy. Then completed his schooling at the University of Nebraska.
Carson began his broadcasting career at WOW-AM radio and WOW-TV in Omaha. His morning show on television was “The Squirrel’s Nest”. By late 1951, Carson landed a job at CBS owned KNXT-TV in Los Angeles. Red Skelton enjoyed listening to Carson’s comedy bits. He recruited Carson as a script writer for Skelton’s TV show. Once, in 1954, Skelton accidentally knocked himself out before his live appearance on the show. Carson was asked to be his emergency replacement.
Carson went on to host several local shows in the Los Angeles market, then moved to New York City. He appeared as the host of “Who Do You Trust?” This is where Carson met Ed McMahon, the future sidekick. “Who Do You Trust?” became one of the biggest hits of daytime TV because of Carson’s wit and ad libbing talents.
All the while that Johnny Carson had been building his own public persona, NBC-TV’s “Tonight Show” had been evolving, too. The program premiered in 1953 with its first host Steve Allen. It originated as the evening “bookend” to NBC’s morning program, “The Today Show”. The viewing public enjoyed “The Tonight Show” and made it a hit. Emcee Jack Paar replaced Steve Allen after Allen began hosting prime-time variety programming.
Eventually, Paar decided to retire, so NBC invited Johnny Carson as host because of his own stellar success on “Who Do You Trust?”. At first, Carson turned down the offer because the thought of spending 105 minutes everyday with celebrities intimidated him.
NBC continued their recruitment efforts with Joey Bishop, Jackie Gleason, Bob Newhart, and even Groucho Marx. They also turned down the Tonight Show’s slot. Carson was re-invited and then finally signed a contract with NBC, for the show, in March of 1962. Because Carson had to fulfill his final contract with ABC-TV for six months, the Tonight Show continued with several guest hosts to fill the slot.
At last, and in spite of his trepidations, Johnny Carson took over the helm at the Tonight Show, 51 years ago, today. It took about a year for him to shed his fears and to grow into his new role. Thankfully, Carson had support from his pal at “Who Do You Trust?”, Ed McMahon.
The show’s opening gambit remained mostly unchanged. The Johnny Carson theme song was played, Ed McMahon said his short introduction which ended with, “Heeeeere’s Johnny”. The famous monlogue followed, then banter with the band. The show continued along with interviews, comedy sketches, celebrity interviews, and usually a musical guest.
“The Tonight Show” continued in New York until 1972 when it was moved to Burbank, California. The program became iconic and remained a major success for almost 30 years. Carson’s final show aired on May 22, 1992. Aside from short public appearances and some television specials, Carson kept out of the limelight. Then, on January 23, 2005, Johnny Carson died of complications of emphysema.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Carnac the Magnificent, “May the bird of paradise fly up your nose.”
Loved Carson, no one really could take his place. [Did the Devil make you say that about the Blue Bird of Happiness? or are we still in that era? Didn’t we have fun back them?!
Carnac the Magnificent was one of my favorite Johnny Carson running gags. His bluebird of happiness quip was an inspiration for my own Blue Jay of Happiness. Carson was as fine a man as will ever be found in the tv industry. He was very generous to his hometown, too.