February 7, 2014
A couple of years back I wrote this piece about attending a taping of one of the very last episodes of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. This week, another story comes to mind.
When I moved to Southern California in 1993 the first place I lived was an apartment complex near the corner of Western Avenue and Glen Oaks in Glendale, just east of the Burbank city line. Just a few buildings away from where I lived was neighborhood grocery story called Jons. “Jons” was clearly imitative of the much more popular Vons chain. For all I know the first Jons might well have been a failed Vons where the owner decided to save money by replacing that first letter. Very soon after moving into the area a film crew set up to shoot scenes for The Naked Gun 33 1/3 at Jons, and I got to very briefly meet Leslie Nielsen and Fred Ward. Ward wasn’t in the little grocery store montage that opens the picture, but I suspect he just wanted to be there and hang out that evening.
The store looks pretty generic in the movie but in truth its customers were overwhelmingly Armenian, and so it catered to their cuisine tastes, not mine. I used to joke that when I’d get in line with customers buying big trays of tripe and skinned sheep’s head, my carton of milk and loaf of bread would generate bemused stares.
And so I did most of my shopping down the road at a big place called Pavilions, right down the street from both the Walt Disney Studios and NBC’s Burbank headquarters, where The Tonight Show was filmed. It was Pavilions’ proximity to Disney, I suspect, that accounts for the time I went there late one night to buy a toilet plunger only to hear over the P.A. system, “Ladies and gentlemen, come and meet Fess Parker, Davy Crockett himself!” I did and even bought of bottle of his then-new line of wine.
Pavilions had a lot of advantages over other grocery stores and one big disadvantage: its vast parking lot was overrun with beggars. At that time, anyway, “Spare change, mister?” “You got any spare change?” was as much a part of the Pavilions experience as the checkout aisle.
Over time, I developed a kind of sixth sense and could tell when people were about to hit me up for some money. So one afternoon I’m loading up the bag of my car with groceries when I began to sense it was about to happen again. Sure enough, out of the corner of left eye I began to realize I was being approached, not just by one homeless guy, but a small mob, maybe five or six guys.
Then a friendly, familiar voice said, “Excuse me sir, would you mind if we asked you a couple of questions?” It wasn’t a beggar but Jay Leno, Johnny Carson’s replacement on The Tonight Show. He and his small crew were there prowling the lot, filming a comedy segment for that evening’s show. I decided to play along as Jay quizzed me about traffic laws. It was pretty obvious he was looking for outrageously stupid and funny responses, but my answers were either correct or incorrect but not funny. About the only one I remember clearly was, “Is it okay to do a U-turn in front of a police station?” I watched the show that night but I wasn’t on it. Working right down the street Leno, as it turns out, often filmed segments in that parking lot, and I saw him back there several more times through the years.
But briefly meeting Jay – who, apropos of nothing, has maybe the bluest blue eyes I’ve ever seen – was a pleasant experience. He was exceedingly polite and friendly and neither he nor his crew were as pushy and exploitative as many other TV crews I’ve encountered.
About six months ago we got Hulu and I began watching the previous night’s Tonight Show while making dinner. I had been pretty ambivalent toward the show since Carson’s departure but, I must admit, rather like where Leno has taken it and am sorry to see it end.