It Was 20 Years Ago Today (Almost)

April 29, 2012

My editor at DVD Talk, John Sinnott, recently inquired whether I’d be interested in reviewing the new American Masters show profiling Johnny Carson. (“You bet,” I said.)

This got me to thinking of that magical night, May 5, 1992, when the gods looked kindly upon my ex-wife and I and we got tickets to see one of the very last tapings of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

I was not yet living in California, but the wife and I had decided to visit the Los Angeles area as part of a belated (by almost two years) honeymoon. We reserved a sleeper aboard Amtrack’s Desert Wind, and as she had never been out west before, we planned to visit the usual sorts of places first-time tourists go to: Disneyland, Grauman’s Chinese Theater and, of course, Forrest J. Ackerman’s Ackermansion in the Hollywood Hills.

Unfortunately, two days before we left Michigan, a jury acquitted four police officers accused of beating suspect Rodney King, sparking the infamous 1992 Los Angeles Riots. She wanted to cancel the trip, but I was argued the whole thing would surely have blown over by the time we arrived. Privately, I wasn’t so sure. Maybe Los Angeles would be nothing more than a pile of smoldering ashes by the time we got there.

When our train pulled into Union Station, the riot was indeed dying down, replaced by an eerie calm difficult to imagine today. We decided Disneyland was our safest bet for the first two days, and indeed the place was like a ghost town (ghost kingdom?). Disneyland averages about 40,000 visitors/day, but I swear on those two days I doubt there were more than 200 guests in the entire park. Workers outnumbered us. There wasn’t an attraction or ride we couldn’t just hop right on instantly. I think I rode Space Mountain 10 times.

Eventually we decided to venture out onto Hollywood Boulevard and found the area around the Chinese Theater and its famous forecourt of foot- and hand-prints similarly deserted. Except, that is, for National Guardsmen patrolling the Boulevard armed with M-16 rifles. Nevertheless, we were having a swell time when a young man approached us with a proposal. “Would you like free tickets to see The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson?”

We couldn’t believe it. Johnny was retiring. His final show was just two weeks away and, under normal circumstances, tickets for those last shows would have been about as easy to come by as tickets to the orbiting space station. But, because of the riots, they were actually struggling to find out-of-towners (The Tonight Show‘s preferred core audience, because they’re invariably livelier and more appreciative).

There was one catch, however. The show taped in the late-afternoon. (My memory on particulars is sketchy, but I want to say they started around 5:30.) It was getting late. In order to use the tickets, we had to get from the Chinese Theater in Hollywood to NBC in Burbank, about 6-7 miles away, in 35 minutes. We had a rental car, but at that time I had no idea how to get there. The NBC rep gave me instructions, but we basically drove there madly and blindly, uncertain as to where we were going, and through rush hour traffic besides.

Sprinting the last 500 yards, we arrived at the studio just as they were letting the long line of people in. The level of excitement was palpable and we didn’t have to wait long. As I recall, Doc Severinsen warmed up the crowd for a few minutes first, followed by Ed McMahon, but the show proper was ready to begin very shortly after the audience had been seated and given a few simple instructions.

Anyone that’s ever been to a taping of the Johnny Carson-era Tonight Show will tell you the same thing: as good as the band sounds on TV, it’s nothing compared to hearing them live. Aided by the soundstage’s great acoustics, the band was nothing short of phenomenal. Soon enough McMahon announced “He-r-r-r-r-e’s Johnny!” and out the Great Man stepped, a mere 30 feet away. The ovation was thunderous. I can’t remember a single joke he said that evening, but everyone in the audience, aware of Carson’s impending departure and how lucky they were to catch him so near the end,  laughed long and hard.

We were also lucky in terms of Johnny’s guests that evening: Jonathan Winters (predictably, a riot), Dame Edna Everage (who flirted with an amused Johnny), and Jimmy Buffett. My faulty memory was that he performed his signature tune, “Margaritaville,” but according to that night it was “Money Back Guarantee.”

The whole thing was live-on-tape, and before we knew it was over and Johnny, Ed, and Doc vanished and the audience filed out, enormously satisfied but also a little sad, knowing our collective once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was now over. That night the ex-wife and I watched the show from out hotel room, a surreal experience.

One Response to “It Was 20 Years Ago Today (Almost)”

  1. […] 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 […]

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