– Heeeeeere’s Johnny!
Or, more apropos, here is the birthplace of Johnny.
Johnny Carson was the man who established late-night television’s prevailing talk format, with novelties such as the guest couch and the accompanying studio band. During The Tonight Show’s reign of Johnny (1962-1992), he distinguished himself as the king of late-night.
The white-haired, wry comedian – self-assured, smart alecky, boyishly charming, waltzing through the gaudy colored curtains to noisy applause – was one of the most treasured entertainers of his time. After all, who could ever resist Johnny’s giddy cohort Ed McMahon whooping “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny” right as Doc Severson orchestrated the familiar theme opener.
Contrasting all of Hollywood’s pomp and glamour, Johnny Carson was a man of humble origins. In fact, it is hard to imagine a more humbling start than Corning, Iowa, population 1,783, the picturesque hub of Adams County. It was here, nestled among the gently sloping, pastoral hills of southwest Iowa, that Carson entered the world on Oct. 23, 1925.
“Here in Corning, we are known for having enthusiastic community organizations, energetic businesses, and a peaceful quality of life,” says James L. Whitmore, Chairman of the Board and President of Okey Vernon First National Bank, a tall, lean man, sporting a salt and pepper beard. “But our greatest claim to fame is still Johnny Carson.”
In June 2006, Whitmore and about a dozen or so other local folks formed the Johnny Carson Birthplace Society. They see Carson as an example of the best of what our country and culture epitomizes – a strong capacity for upward mobility, humor and surprise. Since its inception, the group has worked diligently to keep the community’s Carson connection alive. In February 2008, the group’s hard work paid off when the city designated Highway 148 within the city limits as “Johnny Carson Boulevard.”
“Johnny Carson’s entertainment was his fame,” says Chris Nelson, another founding member of the Johnny Carson Birthplace Society who works as County Extension Education Director at Iowa State University. “But his generosity for projects to serve the community was also his quality of greatness. The home is a valuable asset to Iowa and the Midwest.”
“There was talk, before we bought the home, of a California man buying it and relocating it to Hollywood,” adds Whitmore. “Good thing that didn’t happen. The home is here where it should be.”
The Carson family did not live in Corning or even Iowa, for very long, moving to Nebraska a few years after Johnny’s birth. Following high school graduation and navy duty during World War II, Carson enrolled at the University of Nebraska. Soon after, he found work with a radio station in Lincoln, the first gig in a long career.
Carson’s first job after college graduation in 1949 was a radio job in Omaha, and two years later, he was announcing full-time at a Los Angeles television station. He then earned a shot as a Sunday afternoon comedy showman, which led to employment as a writer for funnyman Red Skelton.
Spontaneous and quick-witted, Carson was such a popular fill-in for Skelton that the network chose him to host his own variety show. Following its brief run, Carson moved to New York City where in 1957 he hosted the game show Who Do You Trust? He became emcee of NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, after Jack Paar quit in October 1962. Sidekick Ed McMahon accompanied him, with his opening line, “Heeeere’s Johnny” becoming a television hallmark.
During Carson’s three-decade ride, he performed a large number of classic skits and wielded unrivaled dominion over a generation of boob tube watchers, Carson hosted a list of guests spanning from U.S. presidents and Hollywood’s best, to Johnny’s first babysitter, who was still living in Corning the time Johnny called her on-air.
On May 22, 1992, Carson’s final appearance as The Tonight Show’s host attracted an estimated 50 million viewers, the largest turnout in the program’s history. Comedian Jay Leno replaced Carson’s slot as NBC’s late-night staple.
“I am one of the lucky people in the world,” Carson, who, off-camera, was legendarily standoffish and reclusive, told viewers, choking back tears. “I found something that I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight.”
It has been many years since Carson’s sentimental last appearance, and to the folks of Corning, America – and its television programs – feel unnervingly altered. Uglier, harsher, louder, and sleazier.
Francie Mack, 78, Johnny Carson Birthplace Society member and Corning resident, feels that the television talk world has become increasingly vulgar and crass since the time when Carson was king. He bemoans the loss of Johnny’s good-natured larks, corny smoothness, suave Midwestern charm, and all of the memorable characters he created such as Aunt Blabby and Carnac the Magnificent.
“He ribbed and bantered with them all,” says Mack. “but never did I find him to be angry or mean, or hateful, certainly not the way that Letterman talks about Sarah Palin. He lacked that type of personal anger on the television that you hear from Letterman and others.”
Winner of four Emmy Awards, Carson – married four times, divorced three – was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1987, and was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom five years later. He died January 23, 2005, age 79, due to complications from emphysema.
Whitmore points out that Carson never forgot his simple beginnings, as he donated $500,000 in 2001 for a new library in his hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska and $75,000 in March of that same year for a skateboard park in Corning.
“Though he never came back to Corning,” says Whitmore, “at least not that I’m aware of, he returned to Nebraska in 1996 for the 100th birthday of his grade school penmanship teacher. Pretty cool.”
It is the hope of The Johnny Carson Birthplace Society that the site will serve as an inspiration to area and state youngsters to follow their dreams the same way that the famous rural country scion did. Moreover, Corning could use every penny of economic bonus or stimulus that it can accrue through cashing in on the Carson angle.
As the county seat of one of Iowa’s least populated counties, non-agricultural industry is sparse. A neglected Victorian opera house anchors the main street of a downtown dotted with empty hardware, furniture and thrift stores. It has been more than 150 years since the first European settlers, a group of French Icarians, arrived here from Nauvoo, Illinois, establishing a community close by in Lake Icaria in 1852.
“Hopefully we can use Johnny Carson and the restoration of the buildings related to the French Icarian settlement as touchstones for tourism,” says Whitmore. “The old colony has a few partly refurbished buildings and a small cemetery with French grave markers.”
Renovations to the Carson home started in 2007 with the ceiling lowered as well as the interior carpeting removed to expose the original hardwood. Currently, the interior is furnished with some 1925 era furniture, and the society has managed to procure a $6,400 grant to pay for an historical architectural survey to help guide the retrofitting. Previous grant money was used to repair the basement, driveway, plumbing, electrical and rebuild the foundation.
These volunteer efforts, the technical grant writing and its search for capital, the hauling of heavy wheelbarrows, the by-appointment-only tours, are this small town’s way to thank a native son for the memories and spark a brighter economy for the place they love.
“Johnny Carson is Corning’s most famous resident,” says Whitmore. “I’m sure it will always be and stay that way. We hope that what we are doing here will get people to Corning and to Adams County.”