CLASS OF 1987
Born in Corning, Iowa, Johnny Carson was raised in Norfolk which he always considered his hometown. Following high school, Carson joined the Navy and entertained enlisted men with his love of magic aboard the USS Pennsylvania. Upon his return to Nebraska, he wrote comedy for KFAB’s “Eddie Sosby’s Radio Rangers” show in 1948 while attending the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. The following year he went into radio full-time at WOW Omaha.
Carson’s morning show on WOW joined by his sidekick engineer Percy Ziegler quickly became popular with his humorous and sometimes irreverent bits. He also did other blocks of programming during the day, and in 1950 was drafted into television. He was in the announcer’s booth the first day WOW TV channel 6 went on the air. Carson soon had his own TV shows on a set adjacent to Martha Bohlsen’s kitchen.
In a little-known fact, Carson did a live pickup of a Nebraska Cornhusker football game in 1950 on WOW TV during the station’s infancy. It was a one-time test broadcast microwaved from Lincoln seen by very few people. His co-announcer in the booth was William Keough, a WOW announcer who later became president and CEO of Coca-Cola.
Leaving for stardom in California in 1951, Johnny left behind some life-long friends from his brief stay at WOW, including Ziegler, Lyle DeMoss, and Merrill Workhoven.
Carson’s television success in California is legendary, but not before various jobs starting with a staff announcer position at KNXT (now KCBS TV). This led to his own show “Carson’s Cellar.” By 1953 he was writing for Red Skelton’s show, and was occasionally substituting for Jack Paar on the CBS “Morning Show.” In 1957 he hosted a new daytime game show on ABC, “Who Do You Trust,” where he met his sidekick announcer Ed McMahon.
He continued substituting for Paar, by now on NBC’s “Tonight Show,” and was selected as the show’s new host when Paar left in 1962. After working out his contract with ABC, Carson took over late nights for the next 30 years. During this time, Johnny also hosted five Academy Award telecasts.
“The Tonight Show” won six Emmy awards. Carson was honored by the Lincoln Center and was a recipient of the Peabody Award, But he never forgot his Nebraska roots. He donated huge sums to the University of Nebraska and to Norfolk where his generosity helped build a local performing arts theater and a cancer center. Carson would donate between one and two million dollars a year to his charity, the Carson Foundation, assisting children’s aid groups and local nonprofits in Nebraska and Los Angeles.
Johnny passed away on January 23, 2005.