June 22, 1918 Showmen’s Rest

The Michigan Central locomotive smashed into the rear of the stalled circus train at 60mph.  Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly and others horribly maimed, as wooden circus cars telescoped into one another. 

In the circus world, the term “First of May” describes the first season when an employee comes to work with the circus.

There’s an oft-repeated but mistaken notion, that the circus goes back to Roman antiquity.  The panem et circenses, “bread and circuses” of Juvenal (circa A.D. 100), refers more to the ancient precursor of the modern racetrack, than to the modern circus. The only common denominator is the word itself, as the Latin root ‘circus’, translates into English, as “circle”.

Astleys_royal_amphitheatreThe father of the modern circus is the British Sergeant-Major turned showman, Philip Astley.  A talented horseman, Astley opened a riding school near the River Thames in 1768, where he taught in the morning and performed ‘feats of horsemanship’ in the afternoon.

Astley’s afternoon shows had gained overwhelming popularity by 1770, and he hired acrobats, rope-dancers, and jugglers to fill the spaces between equestrian events.  The modern circus, was born.

Equestrian and trick riding shows were gaining popularity all over Europe at this time, performers riding in circles to keep their balance while standing on the backs of galloping horses.  It didn’t hurt matters, that the “ring” made it easier for spectators to view the event.

In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown of Somers New York replaced the wooden structure common to European circuses with a canvas tent, around the time when a cattle dealer named Hachaliah Bailey bought a young African elephant, which he exhibited all over the country.  The exotic animal angle was a great success.  Other animals were added and soon farmers were leaving their fields, to get into the traveling menagerie business.

The unique character of the American traveling circus emerged in 1835, when 135 such farmers and menagerie owners combined with three affiliated circuses to form the American Zoological Institute.

Phineas Taylor Barnum and William Cameron Coup launched P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus in 1871, where the “museum” part was a separate exhibition of human and animal oddities.  It wouldn’t be long, before the ‘sideshow” became a standard feature of the American circus.

There have been no fewer than 81 major circuses in American history, and countless smaller ones.  ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ broke down its tent for the last time last month, when the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus ended a 146-year run.  There was a time though, when the circus really Was, the greatest show on earth.

The American war machine was spinning up to peak operational capacity in 1918, as the industrial might of the nation pursued the end to the war ‘over there’.hagenbeck-wallace-circus

At 3:56 on the morning of June 22, 1918, an engineer with the Michigan Central Railroad was at the controls of an empty 21-car troop train.  Automatic signals and flares should have warned him that there was a stalled train on the track ahead.  A frantic flag man tried and failed to get him to stop.  Alonzo Sargent had been fired before, for sleeping on the job.  Tonight, Sargent was once again, asleep at the wheel.

The Hagenbeck-Wallace circus was a big deal in those days.  The famous lion tamer Clyde Beatty was a member, as was a young Red Skelton, on this night tagging along with his father, who worked as a clown.

The 26-car Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train was enroute from Hammond Indiana to Monroe Wisconsin, when an overheated axle box required them to make an unscheduled stop.

Most of the 400 circus employees were asleep at that early hour, in one of four rear sleeping cars.  The Michigan Central locomotive smashed into the rear of the stalled train at 60mph.  Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly.  Others were horribly maimed, as wooden sleeping cars telescoped into one another.  Confused and bleeding survivors struggled to emerge from the wreckage, as gas-fed lanterns began to set all that wood on fire.

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Those lucky enough to escape looked on in horror, as friends and family members were burned alive.  Some had to be physically restrained from rushing back into the inferno.

127 were injured and an estimated 86 crushed or burned to death in the wreck.  Hours afterward a clown, his name was Joe Coyle, could be seen weeping inconsolably, beside the mangled bodies of his wife and two children.

The rumor mill went berserk.  Wild lions and tigers had escaped and were roaming the streets and back yards of Gary, Indiana.  Elephants died in the heroic attempt to put out the flames, spraying water on the burning wreckage with their trunks.  None of the stories were true.  The animals had passed through hours earlier, on one of two additional trains, and were now waiting for the train that would never come.

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The Showmen’s League of America was formed in 1913, with Buffalo Bill Cody its first President.  The group had  purchased a 750-plot parcel at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois only a year earlier, calling it “Showmen’s Rest”.  They had no idea their investment would be used so soon.

Only thirteen were ever identified.  A mass grave was dug for the unidentified and unidentifiable.  Most of the dead were roustabouts or temporary workers, hired just recently and known only by nicknames.  Some performers were known only by stage names, their gravestones inscribed with names like “Baldy,” “4-Horse Driver”, “Smiley,” and “Unknown Female #43.

Only one show had to be canceled, as erstwhile ‘competitors’ Barnum & Bailey, Ringling brothers and others lent workers, performers and equipment.  The show would go on.

Today, the International Circus Hall of Fame is located in the former Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus winter headquarters in Peru, Indiana.

In the elephant world, an upraised trunk symbolizes joy.  Five elephant statues circumscribe the Showmen’s Rest section of Woodlawn cemetery.  Each has a foot raised with a ball underneath.  Their trunks hang low, a symbol of mourning.  The largest of the five bears the inscription, “Showmen’s League of America.”  On the other four, appear these words.  “Showmen’s Rest”.

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June 16, 1980 Blues Brothers

Eric Idle of Monty Python was once a Saturday Night Live guest host. He paid a great compliment to Aykroyd’s comedic ability, saying he was “the only member of the SNL cast capable of being a Python”.

Dan Aykroyd developed his musical talents during the late fifties and early sixties at an Ottowa club called Le Hibou, (French for ‘the owl’), saying “I actually jammed behind Muddy Waters. S. P. Leary left the drum kit one night, and Muddy said ‘anybody out there play drums? I don’t have a drummer.’ And I walked on stage and we started, I don’t know, Little Red Rooster, something. He said ‘keep that beat going, you make Muddy feel good.’

Eric Idle of Monty Python was once a Saturday Night Live guest host. He paid a great compliment to Aykroyd’s comedic ability, saying he was “the only member of the SNL cast capable of being a Python”.

John Belushi joined The Second City comedy troupe in 1971, playing off-Broadway in “National Lampoon’s Lemmings”. He played The National Lampoon Radio Hour from 1973 to 1975, a half-hour comedy program syndicated on over 600 stations.SNL

Belushi appeared from 1973 to 1975 on The National Lampoon Radio Hour, along with future SNL regulars Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. A number of their radio segments went on to become SNL sketches in the show’s first couple of seasons.

Dan Ackroyd tells a story about long days of rehearsals on the SNL set. An exhausted John Belushi would wander off and let himself into the house of a friend or a stranger, scrounging around for food and then falling asleep in the house, unable to be found for the next day’s work. These outings were the inspiration for the SNL horror-spoof sketch “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave”.

Lead vocalist “Joliet Jake” Blues (John Belushi) and harmonica player/backing vocalist Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) had their musical debut on January 17, 1976 in a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live. “The Blues Brothers” appeared twice more on SNL sketches, both in 1978, before releasing their first album that same year: Briefcase Full of Blues.BluesBrothers

The Blues Brothers film premiered in Chicago on this day in 1980, four days before its general relase. Set in that city and sprawling across the Midwest, the musical/comedy film tells the story of a paroled convict and his brother, and their mission to save the Catholic orphanage in which they were raised from foreclosure. Their “Mission from God” needs to raise $5,000 to pay the orphanage’s property tax bill. To do so, the pair sets out to reignite their R&B band, pursued by the police and wrecking 103 cars along the way, a world record for that time.

While filming one of the night scenes, John Belushi disappeared and couldn’t be found. Looking around, Ackroyd found a single house with its lights on, and knocked on the door. Before he could ask, the homeowner smiled and said “You’re here for John Belushi, aren’t you?” The man told Ackroyd that Belushi had entered the house, asked if he could have a glass of milk and a sandwich, and then crashed on their couch. To some, he may have been a real-life Thing that Wouldn’t Leave. To Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi would always be “America’s Guest”.

John Belushi died in his hotel room on March 5, 1982, of a “Speedball”, a combined injection of heroin and cocaine. The cause of death was originally considered to be an accidental overdose, but Catherine Evelyn Smith was extradited and tried on first degree murder charges after her National Enquirer interview, in which she admitted giving Belushi the shot. A plea bargain reduced the charge to involuntary manslaughter.  She served fifteen months in prison.Bluesbrothersjail

Belushi’s wife Judith arranged for a traditional Orthodox Christian funeral in which he was interred, twice. The first was in Abel’s Hill Cemetery, in the Chilmark section of Martha’s Vineyard.  A classic New England slate tombstone complete with skull and crossbones, marks the location. The inscription reads, “I may be gone but Rock and Roll lives on.”

“Fans” repeatedly felt the need to desecrate the grave.  The body was later removed at the request of Belushi’s wife, and reburied in an undisclosed location.  An unmarked tombstone in an undisclosed location marks the final burial location, where the man can finally Rest in Peace.

John Belushi is remembered on the family marker at his mother’s grave at Elmwood Cemetery in River Grove, Illinois. This stone reads, “HE GAVE US LAUGHTER”.

Jake and Elwood

May 18, 1965 Final Frontier

In his 1968 book “Making of Star Trek”, Gene Roddenberry says that James Kirk was born in a small town in Iowa. Full time Trekkie and part time Riverside Councilman Steve Miller thought “Why not Riverside”.

A boy was born on March 22, 2233 in Riverside, Iowa, destined to become the youngest captain in Star Fleet history. Before he could boldly go where no man has gone before, he had to have a name.

The WWII fighter pilot and veteran of 89 combat missions Gene Roddenberry made 16 name suggestions on this date in 1965, among them Hannibal, Timber, Flagg, and Raintree.

Star_Trek_William_ShatnerRoddenberry decided on James T. Kirk, based on a journal entry of the 18th century British explorer, Captain James Cook: “ambition leads me … farther than any other man has been before me”.

Kirk was killed in 2329 on the Enterprise (B), after the ship was eaten by a Nexus energy ribbon on its maiden voyage. Only he didn’t die, because Jean-Luc Picard found him alive in the timeless Nexus, negotiating hotel deals for Priceline.com. Or something like that.

In his 1968 book “Making of Star Trek”, Gene Roddenberry says that James Kirk was born in a small town in Iowa. Full time Trekkie and part time Riverside Councilman Steve Miller thought “Why not Riverside”. In 1985 Miller moved that Riverside declare itself the Future Birthplace of James T. Kirk.  The motion passed unanimously. The town’s slogan was changed from “Where the best begins” to “Where the Trek begins,” and the annual summer festival changed from “River Fest” to “Trek Fest”.

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The Riverside connection became Holy Writ, when the 2009 film Star Trek identified the place as Kirk’s home town. There is a granite monument in Riverside, population 963, declaring itself to be the “Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk.

In case you were ever curious about what the “T” stands for…its Tiberius.

 

March 31, 2016 Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye

I can’t imagine many Allied soldiers ever tried to serenade their Nazi adversaries during World War II. The ones who actually pulled it off must number, precisely, one.

James and Kate Kaminski’s little bundle of joy came into the world on June 26th 1926, in Brooklyn. They named this, their fourth son, Melvin James. James died of tuberculosis at 34, when the boy was only two. A small Jewish kid growing up in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood, Kaminsky learned the value of being able to crack a joke. “Growing up in Williamsburg”, he said, “I learned to clothe it in comedy to spare myself problems—like a punch in the face”.

The boy had a talent for music. He was taught by another kid from Williamsburg, Buddy Rich.  By 14 he was good enough to be playing drums for money.

Melvin Kaminsky, 1Melvin attended a year at Brooklyn College before being drafted into the Army, in WWII. After attending Army Specialized Training at VMI, Corporal Kaminsky joined the 1104th Combat Engineers Battalion, 78th Infantry Division in the European theater.  There, he served through the end of the war. Most of his work was in finding and defusing explosives, though on five occasions his unit had to drop their tools and fight as Infantry.

At one point Kaminsky’s unit gathered along a River. They were so close they could hear Jolson, BlackfaceGerman soldiers singing a beer hall song, from the other side. Kaminsky grabbed a bullhorn and serenaded the Germans back, singing them an old tune that Al Jolson used to perform in black face, “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye”.  Polite applause could be heard from across the river, afterward. I can’t imagine many Allied soldiers ever tried to serenade their Nazi adversaries during World War II.  The ones who actually pulled it off must number, precisely, one.

Kaminski went into show business after the war, playing drums and piano in the Borscht Belt resorts and nightclubs of the Catskills. It was around this time that he took his professional name, adopting his mother’s maiden name of Brookman and calling himself “Mel Brooks”.

Brooks started doing stand-up, when the regular comedian at one of the clubs was too sick to perform. By ’49 he was “Tummler”, the master entertainer at Grossinger’s, one of the most famous resorts in the Borscht Belt.  He was making $50 a week writing for his buddy Sid Caesar and his NBC “The Admiral Broadway Review”.Mel Brooks

In 1968, Mel Brooks wrote and produced the satirical comedy film “The Producers”, about a theatrical producer and an accountant who set out to fleece their investors. The scheme was to do a play so bad that it was sure to flop on Broadway, then to abscond to Brazil with their money when the play closed. Problem was, the show turned out to be a hit. The fictional play is a musical, called “Springtime for Hitler”. Even before the age of suffocating PC, I don’t know many guys beside Mel Brooks, who could have gotten away with that one.Melvin Kaminsky, 2

There isn’t one of us who doesn’t know his work. From the 2,000 year old man with “over forty-two thousand children, and not one comes to visit me” to Blazing Saddles’ “Candygram for Mongo” (“Mongo likes candy”).

Brooks has risen to the top of his chosen profession, winning the coveted “EGOT”, an acronym for the entertainment industry’s four major awards, the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Only eleven others have ever risen to this level: Richard Rodgers, Helen Hayes, Rita Moreno, John Gielgud, Audrey Hepburn, Young FrankensteinMarvin Hamlisch, Jonathan Tunick, Mike Nichols, Whoopi Goldberg, Scott Rudin, and Robert Lopez.  As of this date, Brooks only needs another Oscar to be the first “Double EGOT” in history.

Melvin Kaminsky will be 92 in a couple of months. Last year, March 31, 2016, the Averhill Park K-12 School District in upstate New York kicked off a three day production of “Young Frankenstein”.  Let me know if you can think of another 92-year-old guy, who remains that current.  I can’t think of one.

March 22, 1958 Bocephus

For the media, the business model depends on renting an audience to a sponsor. The “controversy” would be squeezed for all it was worth, but Bocephus would have the last word.

Hank WilliamsRandall Hank Williams was born May 26, 1949 in Shreveport, Louisiana, the son of country singer/songwriter, Hiram King “Hank” Williams. Surprisingly for a guy who could neither read nor notate music and died at the age of 29, the elder Williams has been described as “one of the most significant and influential American singers and songwriters of the 20th century”.

His father called the younger Williams “Bocephus” after the ventriloquist’s dummy used by Grand Ole Opry comedian Rod Brasfield.

A lifelong problem with drugs and alcohol ended the elder Williams’ life, way too early. All that police found in his Cadillac, were empty beer cans and handwritten, unfinished song lyrics.

The younger Williams was raised by his mother Audrey, after his father’s untimely death in 1953.  The apple didn’t fall far from the musical tree. Audrey encouraged the boy to copy his father’s dress and musical style. “Hank Williams Jr.” made his stage debut in Swainsboro Georgia, on March 22, 1958, at the age of 8. Audrey Williams

Some of the top musicians, singers and songwriters of the era came to visit the family: Johnny Cash, Fats Domino, Earl Scruggs, and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name a few. They all taught Bocephus a little of their musical instruments, and musical styles.

Bocephus was nearly killed in 1975, while climbing Ajax Peak in Montana. The snow collapsed beneath him, plunging him nearly 500 feet to the rocks below. There were multiple skull and facial fractures. Williams required several reconstructive surgeries, and had to learn to talk, and to sing, all over again. The signature look of beard, sunglasses and cowboy hat have all become part of his brand, but it all began to hide the scars from that mountain climbing accident.

Williams’ work in the 60s and 70s earned him a string of country music hits, but he wanted to be more than a “Hank Williams impersonator”.  A prodigously talented musician in his own right, Williams’ repertoire includes guitar, bass guitar, upright bass, steel guitar, banjo, dobro, piano, keyboards, harmonica, fiddle, and drums.

The country music establishment was slow to accept the new sound, but Hank Williams Jr. would not be denied. Sometimes recording and releasing two albums a year, Williams released 21 albums between 1979 and 1990, all certified “gold” by the Recording Industry Association of America. There were 44 Top Ten singles on the Billboard Country charts, including 10 No. 1 singles over the course of his career. In 1982, Bocephus had nine albums on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, simultaneously.HLN

From 1989 to 2011, a version of Bocephus’ song “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” opened Monday Night Football broadcasts. In an October 3, 2011 interview with Fox News’ “Fox & Friends”, Williams described a June golf game between President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner as “one of the biggest political mistakes ever”.  Asked to explain, Williams said, “Come on. That’d be like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu … in the shape this country is in?”

Predictably, the media outrage machine came to life – this would not do.  ESPN pulled the song from that night’s football game, the first of the season. Williams described his analogy as “extreme – but it was to make a point…I was simply trying to explain how stupid it seemed to me – how ludicrous that pairing was. They’re polar opposites, and it made no sense. They don’t see eye-to-eye and never will.” No matter. ESPN announced three days later that, after 22 years, Williams and his song were being pulled from all future broadcasts. ABC and the National Football League, were quick to follow suit. hank_jr_001

For the media, the business model depends on renting an audience to a sponsor.  The “controversy” would be squeezed for all it was worth, but Bocephus would have the last word.  He responded with a song, criticizing President Obama, ESPN and Fox & Friends, calling it “Keep the Change”.  As I write this, the song has had over 988,000 views on You Tube. Williams released the track on iTunes and via free download at his website, where it was downloaded over 180,000 times in just two days.

In the words of the song, Bocephus and all his rowdy friends were “outta there”.  A demonstration that, in an age of suffocating and humorless political correctness, even then, “A Country Boy will Survive”.

March 3, 1920 The Craziest Pilot in the Canadian Air Force

Doohan practiced voices and accents ever since he was a kid, and he was good at it. The skills he acquired would serve him well in his later acting career.

Born March 3, 1920 in Vancouver, British Columbia, James Montgomery “Jimmy” Doohan enrolled in the 102nd Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps in 1938. By the outbreak of WWII he was commissioned a Lieutenant in the 14th Field Artillery Regiment of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division.landing

Doohan’s first taste of combat took place on D-Day, on the Normandy beach Canadian landing forces knew as “Juno”. Crossing through a field of anti-tank mines, the Canadian’s luck held.  None of them were heavy enough to set one off.  Leading his men to higher ground, Lieutenant Doohan personally shot two German snipers, before taking up positions for the night.

That night, Doohan had just finished a cigarette and was walking back to his command post.  A nervous sentry opened up on him with a Bren light machine gun, striking him four times in the leg, once in the chest and again on the middle finger of his right hand. The chest shot hit the cigarette case his brother had given him for good luck, and doctors were able to save his life.  Not so much for the finger. That had to be amputated. He would always hide the injury in his later life.

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After healing up, Doohan served as courier and artillery spotter, aboard a Taylorcraft Auster Mark IV.  In the spring of 1945, he slalomed his aircraft between telegraph poles, just to prove that it could it be done.  Though the man was never an actual member of the CAF, the stunt forever marked him as “the craziest pilot in the Canadian Air Force”.

Doohan practiced voices and accents ever since he was a kid, and he was good at it. The skills he acquired would serve him well in his later acting career.

He heard a radio drama after the war. Knowing he could do it better, Doohan recorded his voice at a local radio station, winning a two year scholarship to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York and studying with the likes of Leslie Nielsen, Tony Randall, and Richard Boone.

Doohan appeared in over 4,000 radio programs and 450 television shows throughout the forties and fifties. Coincidentally, Doohan played “Timber Tom”, the northern version of Buffalo Bob, in the Canadian production of Howdy Doody. About the same time that a young actor named William Shatner was playing Ranger Bill in the American version. The two would appear together on the 1950s Canadian science fiction series “Space Command”. It wasn’t the last time the two would appear together.

Auditioning before Gene Roddenberry in 1965, Doohan performed several accents. Asked which he preferred, he responded “If you want an engineer, in my experience the best engineers are Scotsmen.” He chose the name “Montgomery Scott”, after his grandfather.

Chief Engineer aboard the Starship Enterprise was supposed to be an occasional role, but Doohan’s character proved irresistible.scotty

Soon he was #3 in command, a regular cast member playing alongside William Shatner (Captain James T. Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy).  Doohan’s voice talents helped behind the scenes as well.  It was he who helped develop the Klingon and Vulcan languages.

Star Trek was canceled in 1969 due to poor ratings, but returned to broadcast syndication in the 70s.  The series has since become a cult classic. There is hardly a woman, man, puppy boy or girl who isn’t steeped and marinated in the program.

The “Scotty” character was so iconic, that many fans credit him with their interest in the technical fields.  Among them was the engineer-turned-astronaut Neil Armstrong, who personally thanked him in 2004.

doohan-1Doohan’s health declined in his later years. He developed Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, along with fibrosis of the lung, blamed on his exposure to noxious chemicals during WWII. He was experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s by 2004, though he was able to attend the ceremony held in his honor after receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, that August.

James Montgomery Doohan passed away on July 20, 2005, survived by third wife Wende, their three children, his four adult children from a previous marriage, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His youngest daughter, Sarah, was five at the time of his death.

On April 29, 2007, a SpaceLoft XL rocket lifted off from the Spaceport America launchpad in Las Cruces.  Onboard were the ashes of astronaut Gordon Cooper, and James Montgomery Doohan.  Cooper’s wife Suzan and Wende Doohan pushed the launch button.

In Linlithgow, Scotland, there is a museum, claiming the West Lothian town as the future birthplace of chief engineer Montgomery Scott.  He will be born there, in 2222.

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March 2, 1977 Heeeere’s Johnny

The world’s longest running talk show began in 1954, when Steve Allen sat down at his piano on September 27. This show is gonna go on… forever”, Allen quipped. So far, he seems to have gotten that right.

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US Navy Portrait

With Jack Parr about to sign off the “Tonight Show” for the last time, NBC executives were anxious to find a replacement. Bob Newhart, Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx, and Joey Bishop all declined the opportunity, when a United States Navy veteran, amateur magician and amateur boxer with a 10/0 record agreed to take the job.

Johnny Carson had himself turned down the job, believing himself unequal to the task of producing 90 minutes a day of fresh content. A series of guest hosts including Merv Griffin, Art Linkletter, Joey Bishop, Jerry Lewis and Groucho Marx followed, as Carson finished out the last six months of an ABC contract. Despite misgivings, Carson started the new gig on October 1, 1962.

No sooner had NBC announced that Johnny Carson was joining “The Tonight Show,” than the national press gaggle came after him, looking for interviews. Carson resisted at first, but finally relented, providing journalists with a list of answers to which they could apply any question they liked: “Yes, I did. Not a bit of truth in that rumor. Only twice in my life, both times on Saturday. I can do either, but prefer the first. NO. Kumquats. I can’t answer that question. Toads and tarantulas. Turkestan, Denmark, Chile, and the Komandorskie Islands. As often as possible, but I’m not very good at it yet. I need much more practice. It happened to some old friends of mine, and it’s a story I’ll never forget”.carson-mcmahon-1963

Carson was joined shortly thereafter by a Marine Corps Colonel and flight instructor, from Lowell, Massachusetts. The Marine had earned his carrier landing qualifications around the time the atomic bomb ended the war in the Pacific, going on to fly 85 combat missions in Korea, and earning six air medals. His name was Ed McMahon.

When the Tonight Show first aired, everyone on the set including Carson himself, smoked. The “Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act” was introduced in Congress in 1969. Ironically, it was President Richard Nixon, an avid pipe smoker who lit up as many as eight bowls a day, who signed the measure into law on April 1, 1970. The measure included a permanent ban on television cigarette advertising, scheduled to take effect January 2 the following year. The last cigarette ad in the history of American television was a Virginia Slims ad, broadcast at 11:59p.m., January 1, 1971, on the Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson. Smoking on-air became a thing of the past sometime in the mid-80s, but that cigarette box remained on Carson’s desk until his final episode, in 1992. You’ve come a long way, baby.carson-monolog

For NBC, the Tonight Show was a cash cow. Many years the program grossed over $100 million, accounting for 15-20% of the profits earned by the entire network. Carson threatened to walk in 1980, ending up with a deal unprecedented in the history of American television: $5 million a year and series commitments estimated at $50 million. Just as important, show content would no longer belong to the network, but to Carson himself.

Carson began taking Mondays off in 1972, when the show moved from New York to California. There followed a period of rotating guest hosts, including George Carlin and Joan Rivers, who became permanent guest host from 1983 until 1986.

carson-carnac  The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was a late-night fixture through seven US Presidents: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. Almost every American over the age of 30 will remember “Heeeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny!”. The opening monologue, and the imaginary golf swing. “Carnac the Magnificent”, holding the envelope to his head, reciting the punchline to the joke sealed inside. “Saucepan… Who was Peter Pan’s wino brother?” When the joke bombed, there was the comedic curse. “May a bloated yak change the temperature of your jacuzzi!”

Jay Leno appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson for the first time on March 2, 1977. He would frequently guest host, and served as permanent from May 1992 to May 2009.

Five years after Carson’s final show, 10,000 taped episodes were moved to a salt mine in Kansas, to protect them from deterioration. There they remain, 54 stories underground, where the average temperature is 68 degrees, with a uniform 40% humidity.

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Final episode, 1992

Excepting Conan O’Brien’s eight months in 2010, Leno remained permanent host until February 2014, recording more episodes (4,610) than even Carson himself (4,531). Saturday Night live veteran Jimmy Fallon took over the reins in February 2014, where he remains to this day.

The world’s longest running talk show began in 1954, when Steve Allen sat down at his piano on September 27. This show is gonna go on… forever”, Allen quipped. So far, he seems to have gotten that right.