Rare 'Carson Show' episodes on DVD
By Lynn Elber
By Lynn Elber
LOS ANGELES — Last year, Joanne Carson reached into the climate-controlled wine cabinet stored in a corner of her Sunset Boulevard home and pulled out a rare vintage.
Carson had in hand 10 carefully maintained episodes of the 1955-56 "The Johnny Carson Show" on CBS, starring her future husband in days before he made "The Tonight Show" his own.
The black-and-white films were a romantic memento for Joanne Carson: The shy Johnny Carson had wooed her with screenings of the comedy-variety show. He then gave her copies, episode by episode: One for her birthday, one for Christmas, another for Valentine's Day.
"They were valuable to me because they represented a very touching time, a very special time, when you're getting to know someone," said Joanne Carson, whose nine-year marriage to Carson, his second, ended in 1972.
The cache of old shows also stood for a promise.
"About a year before Johnny died, he said, 'Jo, do me a favor. Take those films someday, put them on DVD and share them. Because there aren't going to be any more,' " Joanne Carson, 75, recalled.
Emphysema claimed her former husband in 2005 at age 79. She and Carson had remained in occasional contact over the years, including during his subsequent two marriages.
She was preparing for an auction last year of memorabilia from her late confidant Truman Capote when she rediscovered Carson's courtship gift. "Joanne, you've got gold there," a friend remarked.
The shows are available on a two-disc DVD set from Shout Factory ($24.98). There were 39 episodes, and Johnny had picked his top 10 for Joanne.
She's unsure if there are any other copies. In the early days of television, live shows were recorded by filming a TV monitor. Known as kinescopes, the recordings often were lost.
The networks and producers "didn't keep anything. They erased the first 10 years of 'The Tonight Show,' " Joanne Carson said.
"The Johnny Carson Show" was part of Carson's journey to stardom.
After a series of local radio and TV jobs in Nebraska, where he was raised, Carson started at KNXT-TV in Los Angeles in 1950. His sketch comedy show, "Carson's Cellar," ran from 1951 to '53 and drew attention from Hollywood. A staff writing job for "The Red Skelton Show" followed.
The program provided Carson with a lucky break: When Skelton was injured backstage, Carson took the comedian's place in front of the cameras.
Producers sought to find the right vehicle for the up-and-coming comic, trying him out as host of the summer quiz show "Earn Your Vacation" (1954) and then "The Johnny Carson Show."
The DVDs reveal a rail-thin Carson, then 29, well-barbered but swimming in baggy suits and oversized shirt collars. He had yet to achieve the carefully tailored look he sported on "Tonight," but his unshakable poise was in evidence.
In his opening greeting to the studio audience and the sketches that followed, hindsight finds elements of the wry Carson charm and the comedy — ranging from pointed to pleasingly silly — that would make him a late-night legend.
"Johnny said to me, when we were watching the films, 'There's me without the polish,' " his ex-wife recounted.
Many of the sketches, performed with a stock company that included comedians Virginia Gibson and Barbara Ruick, centered on TV itself, the revolutionary young invention that made the show — and Carson's ambitions — possible.
From the beginning, television couldn't help but be self-referential.
Carson did a bit about a father who comes home to find the TV set out for repair but his children staring, mindlessly, at the space it had occupied. He offered parodies of hit shows, including "You Are There" and "Person to Person," Edward R. Murrow's interview program (Carson's version of the sternly formal newsman was "Ed Furrow").
He envisioned a bright future for himself, he later told Joanne Carson.
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