Johnny Carson was born on October 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa. His father worked for a power company, and when Johnny was only eight, the family moved to Norfolk, Nebraska. It was there in Nebraska of all places that Johnny began developing his talent for entertaining.
At the age of twelve, Johnny found a book on magic at a friend’s house and immediately purchased a mail-order magician’s kit. Johnny practiced his magic and entertainment skills on family members with card tricks. He was known for following his family members around saying, “Pick a card, any card.”
Johnny’s mother sewed him a cape, and his first performance was staged in front of the local Kiwanis Club. He debuted as “The Great Carsoni” at age fourteen and was paid three dollars a show. Soon, many other performances at local picnics and country fairs followed.
After graduating from high school, Johnny hitchhiked to Hollywood. But shortly after arriving, he joined the United States Navy on June 8, 1943. Johnny got into the Navy College Training Program officer training at Columbia University and was then assigned to the USS Pennsylvania in the Pacific. While in the Navy, Carson posted a 10–0 amateur boxing record, with most of his bouts fought on board the ship. He was sent to the combat zone aboard a troop ship when the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war.
After his time in the Navy, Johnny used grants for veterans, to go to the University of Nebraska, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Radio and Speech with a minor in Physics in 1949. Johnny began his broadcasting career in 1950 at WOW radio and television in Omaha, Nebraska. He soon hosted a morning television program called The Squirrel’s Nest. One of his routines involved interviewing pigeons on the roof of the local courthouse that would report on the political corruption they had seen.
The wife of an Omaha political figure, owned stock in a radio station in Los Angeles, and in 1951 referred Johnny to her brother, who was influential in the emerging television market in southern California. Johnny joined CBS-owned Los Angeles television station KNXT. Johnny got a low-budget sketch comedy show, “Carson’s Cellar” (1951 to 1953) on KNXT.
Comedian Red Skelton caught the local show and was impressed, so much so, that he hired Johnny as a writer. In 1954, Skelton accidentally knocked himself unconscious, during rehearsal, an hour before his live show began, and Johnny successfully filled in for him. In 1955, Jack Benny invited Johnny to appear on one of his programs during the opening and closing segments. He imitated Benny and claimed that Benny had copied his gestures. Benny predicted that Johnny would have a successful career as a comedian.
Johnny hosted several shows, including the game show “Earn Your Vacation” (1954) and the CBS prime time variety show “The Johnny Carson Show” (1955–1956). He was a guest panelist on the original “To Tell the Truth” starting in 1960, later becoming a regular panelist from 1961 until 1962. After the prime time “The Johnny Carson Show” failed, he moved to New York City to host “Who Do You Trust?” (1957–1962). It was in New York that he also met his future sidekick and straight man, Ed McMahon.
“Who Do You Trust?” was a big success. It was the first show where Johnny would ad lib and interview guests. Because of his on-camera wit, the show became “the hottest show on daytime TV” during his five years at ABC.
Next week we’ll look at Johnny’s rise to TV stardom.
Fred Jacobs is a full-time resident of Puerto Vallarta and the author of three books.