Tag Archives: Carson

OH CARSON, MY CARSON

23 Oct

A photo personally autographed to this writer by Johnny Carson in the 1970s.

86 years ago today, on Friday, October 23, 1925, a woman named Ruth Carson gave birth to a son in Corning, Iowa… but Johnny was on vacation, so Ruth gave birth to Joey Bishop!

I couldn’t resist. That joke has been around for decades.

The house in Corning, Iowa where Johnny Carson was born on October 23, 1925.

But truly, the “King of Late Night,” was born on this date in this house, in 1925. John William Carson was born to Homer and Ruth Carson, and he would go on to leave a gigantic imprint on the world of television.

Although born in Corning Johnny didn’t stay there long. Due to Homer’s job with a utility company the Carson family moved quite a bit. After relocating to several western Iowa towns, the Carsons eventually settled in Norfolk, Nebraska. It was in this classic version of small-town America that Johnny began performing. And it was in this home that Johnny grew up.

The house in Norfolk, Nebraska where Johnny Carson grew up.

After learning magic young Johnny appeared around town as The Great Carsoni and built the foundation for his career.

Johnny Carson clowns around with his mentor and boss, Red Skelton.

Years later, his first big break came as a writer for Red Skelton. When Skelton got hurt during a rehearsal Carson went on in his place. CBS executives took note and soon Carson was host of “The Johnny Carson Show.”

By the late 1950s Johnny was based in New York and hosting a game show. The show was originally called “Do You Trust Your Wife?” but later became “Who Do You Trust?

Tickets to see "Do You Trust Your Wife?" and “Who Do You Trust?”

As you all know, Johnny Carson went on to host “The Tonight Show” from 1962 to 1992. In his almost 30 years at the helm Carson turned “The Tonight Show” into an institution. It became a nightly “must-see” for many and Johnny Carson himself became a barometer of public opinion.

Offices for "The Tonight Show" at NBC Burbank, 1979.

Carson left “The Tonight Show” in 1992 and pretty much retired from public life. He died on January 23, 2005 after a long battle with emphysema.

Johnny Carson became one of television’s biggest stars ever, but he never forgot his hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska. Carson donated nearly $5-million to various causes in Norfolk and the people there returned his love. So if you stop in at the Elkhorn Valley Museum in Norfolk, be sure to see the Johnny Carson Gallery there.

Entrance to the Johnny Carson Gallery.

Johnny Carson was born 86 years ago on this date in TV history.

 

Photos from Corning, Iowa and Norfolk, Nebraska ©Richard DiGangi

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FROM WACO TO WACKO

14 Aug

66 years ago today, on Tuesday, August 14, 1945 actor/writer/producer/comedian Steve Martin was born in Waco, Texas.

Steve Martin autograph signed on October 23, 1976

He began performing while still in his teens and by the time he was 22 he was writing comedy for network TV shows. Between 1967 and 1973 Steve Martin worked as a writer on half a dozen comedy variety series including “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” “The Summer Brothers Smothers Show,” “Pat Paulsen’s Half a Comedy Hour,” “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” “The Ken Berry ‘Wow’ Show,” and “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.” He was also a featured performer on several of those shows, as well as on “The Ray Stevens Show” in the summer of 1970.

I still remember the first time I saw Steve Martin on TV. It was on NBC on a Saturday night at 11:30pm, but I wasn’t watching “Saturday Night Live.” In fact, that show hadn’t even been created yet. I was watching the program that “SNL” replaced: reruns of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”

It was that first appearance on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” in 1973 that brought Martin some national attention. His first appearance as host of “Saturday Night Live” in 1976 sealed the deal and made him a comedy “rock star.” I was in the audience for that show. In fact, I got his autograph earlier that day, on the back of my admission slip for the PSAT exam.

What's on the other side of Steve Martin's autograph? The date on my admission slip for the PSAT exam, which was administered that morning.

So, while many people were introduced to Steve Martin on October 23, 1976, I was already a fan.

But in addition to lots of laughs, I also remember a very touching moment provided by Steve Martin on the day Gilda Radner died (May 20, 1989). Martin was hosting “Saturday Night Live” that night and I was in the audience. When he introduced a clip of he and Gilda dancing in an old sketch it was quite moving. Martin, and most of the audience, seemed to be holding in some emotions.

Although Martin has never starred in his own series his career is a product of TV. From his roots as a writer… to his TV specials and guest appearances… to his hosting the Academy Awards broadcast… Steve Martin is a TV star.

He has now hosted “Saturday Night Live” a record 15 times (tied with Alec Baldwin) and prior to abandoning standup he starred in four network comedy specials for NBC: “Steve Martin: A Wild and Crazy Guy” in 1978, “Steve Martin: Comedy Is Not Pretty” and “All Commercials–A Steve Martin Special” both in 1980, and 1981’s “Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever.”

Happy Birthday to Steve Martin, the TV star (and movie star, playwright, musician, novelist, and art collector). Thanks for everything.

A DOUBLE BOGEY

16 May

21 years ago today, on Wednesday, May 16, 1990, Jim Henson and Sammy Davis Jr. both died.  It was a memorable but sad day as these two talented men, who brought joy to the world, were suddenly gone. 

Sammy Davis Jr. died in Beverly Hills at age 64. The cause of death was complications from throat cancer. Muppet master Jim Henson was just 53 when he died in New York City from a Group A streptococcal bacteria.

 

Sammy Davis Jr. was one of the most complete performers who ever took the stage. Davis could sing, dance, act, make you laugh, and play musical instruments. He began his career as a young child in a song and dance team alongside his father (Sammy Davis Sr. of course) and Will Mastin. As The Will Mastin Trio they toured the country for decades before Davis Jr. became a break out star.

Photo of Sammy Davis Jr. also sent to members of his International Fan Club.

In addition to numerous guest appearances on TV, Sammy had two series of his own. “The Sammy Davis Jr. Show” ran from January 1966 through April of that same year. I believe I attended one of the last episodes of this series, which was taped at the NBC studio in Brooklyn. I never knew it was a series. I thought it was a TV special. What would I know? I was 5 years old. What I do know, and do remember, is that I sat in the audience of a show starring Sammy Davis Jr. and guest Art Carney, which was taped in that studio. According to IMDb, Carney was a guest on the April 15, 1966 episode of this series.

Autographed 8x10 photo of Sammy Davis Jr. sent to members of The Sammy Davis Jr. International Fan Club in the 1970s.

Sammy’s other well-known foray into series television was the syndicated “Sammy & Company.” This 90-minute talk/variety show featured guest appearances and performances from many of Sammy’s show biz friends. The series, with radio’s William B. Williams as the announcer, was produced for 2 years, 1975-1977.

 

Jim Henson was just 17 years old when he first performed with puppets on local television. The following year, in 1955, he got his own show on Washington, DC’s WRC, “Sam and Friends.” Though the show was only five minutes long it introduced Jim Henson’s muppets to TV audiences… And among those muppets was an early version of Kermit the Frog (though he was not yet a frog).

Kermit mug from Jim Henson's Muppet Meeting Films

Sam and Friends” ran for more than 5 years. During that time Henson’s creations started making TV commercials and appearances on national TV shows. In 1969 he brought his muppets to the new PBS children’s series “Sesame Street” where they are still going strong 21 years after Henson’s death.

Many will forget that Jim Henson created a group of alien muppets that appeared each week during the premiere season of “Saturday Night Live.” One year later “The Muppet Show” began a very successful run in syndication that lasted 5 seasons. Kermit the Frog was even a guest-host on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1979.

Jim Henson and his family of muppets may have touched your life when you were a child, maybe not until you were an adult… but Jim Henson has left his imprint in our lives.

How sad that two profoundly talented men were taken from us on the same day, but the world is a richer place because they were here.

UP YOUR NOSE WITH A RUBBER HOSE

31 Mar

66 years ago, on Saturday, March 31, 1945, Gabriel Kaplan was born in Brooklyn. Since then he has been a stand-up comedian, a financial investor, and a champion poker player… but most people know him as the creator and star of “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

From the letterhead used by “Welcome Back, Kotter” in the 1970s.

The sitcom about a man who becomes a teacher in his old high school premiered in September 1975 on ABC and ran for 4 seasons. It also made stars out of Gabe Kaplan and John Travolta.

Kaplan started doing stand-up in the late 1960s and by the early 70s got the break every comic dreamed of – a spot on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” More TV appearances followed and then Kaplan recorded a comedy album called, Holes and Mellow Rolls. As he explained in his routine, a mellow roll was a kind of ice pop. The album’s title referred to the insults or “ranks” he and his friends used to say to each other in high school. “Up your hole with a mellow roll,” “in your ear with a can of beer,” “up your nose with a rubber hose.”

It was that part of his stand-up act that drew the most attention and allowed Gabe Kaplan (along with Alan Sacks) to create a sitcom based on his high school experiences. The premise had Gabe Kotter (once a remedial student or “sweathog”) return to teach the current “sweathogs” at his old high school. And it became a hit.

Card with pre-printed autograph, sent to fans of “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

During the time “Welcome Back, Kotter” was a hit show, I was attending a real high school in Brooklyn. And since Gabe Kaplan was actually from Brooklyn a friend and I decided we should interview his parents for our school newspaper. We looked in the phone book and found a listing for Kaplan in the correct neighborhood. My friend called and did the talking. Gabe Kaplan’s mother agreed to let us come to their home to interview them. She asked us to call back the following week to set a date.

When we called again Mrs. Kaplan said Gabe never heard of our high school and didn’t think it was a real school. So he told her not to do the interview, and that was the end of it.

Months, maybe years, later I saw Gabe Kaplan on a talk show discussing fame. He said that when “Welcome Back, Kotter” became a hit people would call his parents pretending to be from phony high schools just to score an interview. I always wondered if he meant us.

For the record, we were real, our high school was real, and the interview request was real. Our school — Edward R. Murrow High School — was brand new and in just its second year of existence. That may be why Kaplan (out in Hollywood) had never heard of it. And I suppose “Edward R. Murrow” would’ve been a great name to use for a made-up school.

Gabriel Kaplan autograph signed outside the Ed Sullivan Theater on October 18, 1975.

After “Welcome Back, Kotter” Kaplan starred in several films and gave sitcoms one more try with “Lewis & Clark” (1981-82). His next act led him to the financial markets and then professional poker.

Since the late 1970s Gabe Kaplan has been a champion poker player participating in the World Poker Tour, the World Series of Poker, and winning the Super Bowl of Poker Main Event in 1980. Kaplan has earned more than $1-million playing poker professionally.

He has also been a poker TV commentator, most notably for 6 seasons on “High Stakes Poker” on GSN.

Close-up of Gabriel Kaplan’s autograph.

The cast of “Welcome Back, Kotter” will be honored at this year’s TV Land Awards in April. All the living former cast members: Gabe Kaplan, Marcia Strassman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (aka Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs), Ron Palillo, Robert Hegyes, and even John Travolta are planning to attend. And if anybody’s a no-show? “Up your hole with a mellow roll.”

Oh… and Happy Birthday Gabe.

THE HEIR APPARENT

1 Feb

29 years ago tonight, on Monday, February 1, 1982 Late Night with David Letterman premiered on NBC

Late Night with David Letterman: The Book was edited by Merrill Markoe, then Dave’s longtime girlfriend. It was published by Villard Books in 1985.

David Letterman, a former weatherman from Indianapolis, had moved to Los Angeles in 1975 to try his hand at the big time. In just seven years he had succeeded in a major way. Of course, like most comedians of his era Letterman’s real goal was to host “The Tonight Show.” But “Late Night” seemed like a huge step toward eventually reaching that goal.

TV audiences might have remembered Dave’s last TV show, a morning show on NBC called “The David Letterman Show.” It was clear that NBC executives were impressed with his talent and wanted to find a spot to expose it. However, Dave’s sense of humor just didn’t seem to fit with daytime audiences and the show, though critically acclaimed lasted just 4 months.

The Letterman Wit by Bill Adler, who I interviewed about Letterman in 1994.

I personally had predicted greatness for Letterman years earlier. In November 1978 my family went to New Hampshire to celebrate my Grandmother’s 75th birthday during the week of Thanksgiving. While there I watched “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and saw a new standup comedian making his first appearance on the show… his name? David Letterman.

At the time, there was the usual speculation about who might replace Johnny Carson if he left “The Tonight Show.” All the entertainers mentioned as potential successors had their strong points and their drawbacks. When I saw David Letterman that night I saw several characteristics that made me think that someday he might be the one.

(Let me say that I am not ALWAYS a great judge of talent. In 1987, while scouting standup comedians for a video I was producing, I passed on Drew Carey.)

Late Night T-shirt given to me for my 30th birthday – a gift from Jim Murphy, now Senior Executive Producer of “Good Morning America.”

First, he was Midwestern. In the late 1970s network executives still liked white bread hosts from middle America – no one too ethnic. Letterman also looked good in a jacket and tie. Comedian David Brenner, who was considered a potential replacement for Carson, always wore an open collar, which was popularat the time.

The third and most basic requirement Letterman exuded was talent. The man killed in his first appearance. In fact, I still recall one of his bits from that night. He asked if anyone had seen last night’s episode of “The Waltons.” Letterman explained that in the episode, the family had saved up enough money to “get that thing removed from John-Boy’s cheek.”

The “Late Night with David Letterman” Book of Top Ten Lists was published by Pocket Books in 1990.

Succeeding Johnny Carson was years away, but the “king of late night” did take an obvious liking to the new kid and Letterman became a frequent guest on “Tonight.” He also became a frequent guest host. Once NBC signed him to a development deal they tried to find the right place for him. The morning timeslot hadn’t worked out, so they had an idea.

The Tomorrow Show” hosted by Tom Snyder had been following Carson’s show for eight years. Over the previous year NBC had tinkered with the show until it was an unrecognizable mess. The network decided to cancel “Tomorrow” and put David Letterman in that timeslot. What they actually did was to give Johnny Carson control of the one-hour following his “Tonight Show” and that’s why “Late Night with David Letterman” was produced by “Carson Productions.”

Johnny Carson with “his favorite,” David Letterman, on the cover of Rolling Stone’s “Comedy Issue” November 3, 1988.

Most readers of this blog know the rest. “Late Night” became a huge hit and Letterman became a huge star. And while he didn’t ascend to host “The Tonight Show,” we all know he was Carson’s choice for the job. And that, I think, is a nice consolation prize.

Late Night with David Letterman” broadcast more than 1800 new episodes and ran until June 25, 1993. That’s when Dave left NBC and brought his show to CBS to compete against new “Tonight” host Jay Leno.

Esquire Magazine, May 2000 – Cover Story: The Fall & Rise of Dave.

So “Late Night with David Letterman” lives on. Only now it’s called “Late Show with David Letterman.” Dave’s CBS show premiered on August 30, 1993 and continues today after more than 3500 episodes.

David Letterman is right when he says there will never be another Johnny Carson. But I think the closest we’ll ever come is the true heir apparent, David Letterman himself.

GOODNIGHT, SWEET PRINZE

29 Jan

NBC publicity photo of Freddie Prinze, circa 1975.

34 years ago today, on Saturday, January 29, 1977 actor, comedian Freddie Prinze died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The young star of NBC’s “Chico and the Man” was just 22 years old.

The death certificate of Freddie Prinze.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way… or this soon. Three and a half years earlier Freddie Prinze was an unknown teenager working the comedy clubs of New York City. Then came an appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Producer James Komack was watching that night and asked Prinze to audition for a new sit-com called “Chico and the Man.”

Script for “Chico and the Man” episode that was taped on January 21, 1975. Once Prinze was cast as mechanic Chico Rodriguez he became a star – even before a single episode had been broadcast. Freddie Prinze moved to Los Angeles and, with veteran actor Jack Albertson, made “Chico and the ManNBC’s newest hit. The show premiered on Friday, September 13, 1974.

Freddie’s first L.A. apartment was in this building on N. Laurel Ave. Photo taken in 1989.

Over the next few years, as Freddie Prinze grew in popularity, he recorded a comedy album, starred in a TV movie, headlined in Las Vegas, and guest hosted “The Tonight Show.” But Prinze had a drug problem… and his marriage was on the rocks. In fact, as January 1977 rolled around Prinze was living apart from his wife at the Beverly Comstock Hotel.

Freddie’s last apartment was at the Beverly Comstock Hotel, where he shot himself. Photo taken in June 1979.

On January 20th Prinze performed at the Inaugural Gala for new President Jimmy Carter, but a week later his world came crashing down. While under the influence of narcotics and reportedly despondent, Freddie Prinze shot himself in the head on January 28, 1977 at 3:30am. He was taken to the UCLA Medical Center where he lingered for more than 33 hours.

At 1:00pm on Saturday, January 29, 1977 Freddie Prinze died from his injuries. He was 22 years old.

Freddie is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills.

Freddie Prinze’s death was ruled a suicide. Several years later his mother, Maria Pruetzel, went to court to argue that Prinze was not responsible for his actions due to the influence of narcotics. She was honest in admitting that part of her reason for doing so was that she needed the money from his life insurance policy. Prinze’s death was ruled accidental and Pruetzel was able to collect the money.

This writer paying his respects to Freddie Prinze in 1989.

From the day of Prinze’s first “Tonight Show” appearance to the day he died just 3 years and 2 months had passed. But, in that short time, the talented, lovable actor and comedian entertained us and, when he left us, millions grieved for him and pledged to remember him always. Freddie Prinze was just 22 years old.

GOOD NIGHT JOHNNY!

23 Jan

6 years ago today, on Sunday, January 23, 2005 Johnny Carson, the “King of Late Night” died of complications from emphysema. He was 79. But before he died, Johnny Carson put his stamp on “The Tonight Show” and the television industry.

Early publicity photo of Johnny Carson as host of “The Tonight Show”

Carson was born to Homer and Ruth Carson on October 23, 1925 in Corning, Iowa.  After several moves to other towns in Iowa, the Carsons settled in Norfolk, Nebraska, where Johnny grew up idolizing comedian Jack Benny. It’s also where 14-year old Johnny Carson started performing as a magician; The Great Carsoni.

Johnny Carson in the U.S. Navy.

Carson served in the Navy aboard the U.S.S. Pennsylvania during World War II. After the war Carson attended the University of Nebraska and began working on WOW radio in Omaha. By 1950 he had moved to Los Angeles and on to television, eventually getting hired as a writer for Red Skelton.

Red Skelton with one of his writers, Johnny Carson.

One night, during rehearsal for the show, Skelton was injured and they asked Carson to fill in for the star. In one of those “only in Hollywood” stories Johnny Carson shined and started moving up in the world of TV.

Tickets to see "Do You Trust Your Wife?" and “Who Do You Trust?”

After several other programs, Carson seemed to hit it big in 1957 as the host of the ABC game show “Do You Trust Your Wife?” (later called “Who Do You Trust?”) That’s also where he was first partnered with announcer Ed McMahon. But the big time really came 5 years later when Carson replaced the seemingly irreplaceable Jack Paar as host of NBC’s “Tonight.”

A photo personally autographed to this writer by Johnny Carson in the 1970s.

Johnny Carson began his run as host of “The Tonight Show” on October 1, 1962 and didn’t leave until May 22, 1992… almost 30 full years. He turned himself into a superstar and “The Tonight Show” into an institution.

Front gate at the Beverly Hills home Johnny shared with his third wife Joanna. Photo taken in June 1979.

Once Carson left “The Tonight Show” in 1992 he pretty much retired from public life. He died on this date in 2005 after suffering from emphysema.

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