Friday, September 4, 2009
"The Tonight Show"
At the beginning of 1963, I returned to New York where my father helped me get a job as an NBC page. For those not familiar with the page staff, our primary jobs were to seat the audience or to collect tickets at the studio entrance. But sometimes we acted as backstage 'go-fers' for the star or guests on a show. We worked variety shows and quiz shows but the plum assignment, the one we all wanted was "The Tonight Show". It was (then) ninety minutes and done 'live-on-tape' in Studio 6-B at 6:30 and broadcast at 11:30 the same evening.
"The Tonight Show" was in transition from Jack Paar, who had announced in October that he was leaving the show, to a relative unknown named Johnny Carson. Johnny had done local television in Omaha and Los Angeles, but his only national exposure had been a game show on ABC called "Who Do You Trust?" It seems odd now, but many in the television industry wondered who could possibly follow Jack Paar? They could not have imagined that Johnny Carson would host "The Tonight Show" for thirty years.
Their off-stage personalities were very different, in some ways exact opposites. Off-stage Paar was gregarious and seemed genuinely friendly to everyone from stars to stage hands. But on camera, Paar wore his heart on his sleeve and showed his feuds and friendships openly, at one point walking off in the middle of a show when the NBC censors deleted a fairly innocuous joke about a "W.C." and whether it meant "water closet" or "wayside chapel".
But where Paar was emotional and mercurial, Carson was cool and contained with an impeccable sense of comic timing. But off-stage, at least in that first year, Johnny was wound tight and many described him as a "cold fish". My most vivid image of Johnny was backstage before the show, pacing and chain-smoking and hardly interacting with anyone. To be fair, he was undoubtedly under a lot of pressure. But when the music played and he walked through the curtain to Ed McMahon saying "Heeere's Johnny!", he became a different person. By all accounts a complex man, it's open to debate which was the real Johnny Carson.
The continuing success of "The Tonight Show" was important to my father as well as to NBC. After years of working on various shows there, he had been promoted to Director of Nighttime Programming and Johnny's success was priority number one. But Jack Paar was also important to the network and was given a prime-time variety show on Friday nights at 10:00 that was taped in the same Studio 6-B. That studio became even busier when a young game show host named Merv Griffin, best known for "Play Your Hunch", was given his own daytime talk show. Both Jack and Merv's shows lasted only one season.
I worked all three shows (and got to know the hosts to varying degrees) but my favorite assignment was on "The Tonight Show" when Johnny went up into the audience to play "Stump the Band". Resplendent in my NBC page uniform, I would meet Johnny halfway down the aisle * and hand him the prizes, usually passes to the Cattleman Restaurant (a notch or two below Sizzler) or a record album by band leader Skitch Henderson. **
I worked "The Tonight Show" the night Zsa Zsa Gabor threw a fit backstage when the wardrobe lady, holding a gray object at arm's length, demanded Ms. Gabor's "lucky girdle" be washed. I worked Jack Paar's prime-time show the night he presented the first television appearance of a sixteen year-old singer with one leg in a full cast who he introduced as "E-jude Land-gar". Typical of Jack's sense of drama, it was Liza Minelli. I was there the night that Richard Nixon played the piano - badly.
Some inside stuff from "The Tonight Show":
It was not widely known that Johnny wanted to fire Ed McMahon on several occasions during their thirty years on the show. The motive was unclear, some said he felt Ed was "disloyal", others that McMahon was "stepping on his laughs". Each time, the network had to step in and patch things up. One network wag suggested that Johnny could never get over the fact that Ed was a lot taller.
Also little known was that Johnny's offices at NBC were seized and occupied by black militants for several hours and would not leave until their demands for airtime were met. After heated negotiations, the show went on as scheduled and the rest was sorted out by the News Division.
Two members of the NBC page staff, Curt Taylor and Ed Archer, bore striking resemblances to John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon and the show got a lot of mileage out of it on slow nights. But the Kennedy look-alike was the Republican and the Nixon look-alike was the Democrat.
The "beloved" Miss Miller, who had attended every taping of Jack Paar's shows and continued the tradition in the early years of Johnny Carson's reign, was actually a very unpleasant woman who believed she was a TV star and had a tendency to either fall down or throw up shortly before taping began.
A Scottish actor refused to appear on the show for many years after his initial booking in 1962 to promote his new film, "Dr. No", was cancelled by talent coordinators who said, "who ever heard of See-Ann Connery?"
* We always had to carefully watch our footing. Those stairs in Studio 6-B were notoriously treacherous.
** Skitch was summarily fired over what seemed a minor indiscretion and eventually replaced by Doc Severinsen.
NEXT: "A November Weekend, 1963"
COMING UP: "International Showtime"
for more, visit raycunneffsblog.blogspot.com