It is hard to believe that it has been 16 years since Johnny Carson, the undisputed king of late night television, stepped down from hosting the Tonight Show.
Most people remember him only from that very successful 30 year run, but Johnny Carson began his career on television more than a decade earlier.
After serving in the Navy during WWII, Carson returned to civilian life and attended the University of Nebraska. In 1950, Carson worked at WOW radio (Omaha), and for a local television station where he hosted a morning show called The Squirrels Nest.
In 1951 he moved on to KNXT, the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles, where he started in a sketch comedy show called Carson's Cellar, which ran from 1951 to 1953. Red Skelton, who was a fan of the show, hired Carson to be a writer in 1953.
Remarkably, one of these early shows (circa 1951-53) still exists.
Carsons Cellar - Johnny Carson
KNXT Cautiously Presents 'Carsons Cellar' Johnny (in drag) instructs the audience on the proper way to stuff a turkey.
This early foray into sketch TV would lead to Carson hosting a game show called Earn Your Vacation. This show would only run for 5 months during the summer of 1954.
Carson continued to be a staff writer for the Red Skelton Show, and one night in 1954 he was called on to stand in for Red, when Skelton was knocked unconscious during rehearsal.
He did well enough that CBS decided to give him a shot at a half hour variety show. While it might not have been his finest (half) hour, it was certainly good training for what was to come.
Here we have a rare episode with Johnny's guest, Rudy Vallee.
The Johnny Carson Show - Ben Brady
The Johnny Carson Show Guest Rudy Vallee Produced by Ben Brady Directed by Ron Winston Written by : Charles Isaaces Jack Elinson Jack Douglas Musical Supervision : Lud Gluskin Conductor : Paul Baron Art Direction : Robert Tyler Lee James D. Vance Technical Direction : Brooks Graham Set Decoration : Anthony Mondell
Although it only ran 39 episodes (June 30, 1955 – 1956), Johnny's career continued to expand as he became a regular panelist on the original To Tell The Truth.
In 1958, Johnny began a 5 year run as host of Do You Trust Your Wife? aka Who Do You Trust? Much like Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life, the `game' itself was of secondary importance.
The real entertainment came from the host's interviewing of the contestants.
An 1958 episode of "Do You Trust Your Wife" starring Johnny Carson, complete and unedited. Rated G. This series was a daytime game show.
During the `Trust' years, Carson would occasionally be called up on to substitute host on the Tonight Show during the Jack Paar years.
In 1962, Carson would replace Paar as permanent host.
Much of Carson's early years on the Tonight Show, literally thousands of hours of classic interviews and performances, are lost today. NBC in a cost cutting move, decided to tape over old shows in order to reuse the video tape.
Home video recorders weren't widely available (or affordable), until the mid-1970's.
Hopefully more of these rare kinescopes will emerge over time. Some may be hidden in closets, cellars, or storage units unmarked and unnoticed. If you have old records, or transcription disks, or film canisters buried in your attic, you might have a look.
Who knows? Maybe you'll find a piece of history.