Nebraska at 150: Celebrating Johnny Carson in Norfolk

Editor’s Note: Nebraska celebrates its 150th birthday as a state March 1. As the state observes its sesquicentennial during 2017, we wanted to take a look at Cornhusker state attractions leading up to the celebrations. Today, we take a look back at our Johnny Carson tour in Norfolk…

Johnny Carson; Norfolk, Nebraska

Downtown mural recognizing Johnny Carson

Nebraska has turned out some truly famous celebrities – Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Nick Nolte, Fred Astaire, David Janssen, Dick Cavitt, etc. Is anyone a bigger Nebraska celebrity than Johnny Carson? It may be tough to argue anyone was a bigger Husker celebrity.

Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, but moved to Norfolk, Nebraska, at the age of 8. He lived in Norfolk until he headed off to the military in 1943. Afterward, he attended college in Lincoln, at the University of Nebraska.

Following college, he worked for Channel 6 in Omaha – then known as WOW TV (now WOWT). He had a show in black and white. “The Squirrel’s Nest” featured segments where Carson would “interview” pigeons.

Johnny Carson; Norfolk, Nebraska

Johnny Carson’s early days highlighted

A beautiful mural in downtown Norfolk highlights Carson’s career, beginning in black and white, and finishing with his final performance on “The Tonight Show.”

Johnny Carson; Norfolk, Nebraska

Carson during the latter days of “The Tonight Show”

Carson took over the “Tonight” gig after initially turning it down. He went on to host the show from October 1962 to May 1992. His run of 30 years as the host of a single show may never be topped. I remember watching him tear up as Bette Midler serenaded him with a song that night.

One of my favorite characters he performed on the show was “Carnac the Magnificent.” He would hold an envelope against his forehead and would say a line. After he opened the envelope and read the question, it would be the punchline. It was a popular skit, alongside Ed McMahon.

Johnny Carson; Norfolk, Nebraska

Carnac the Magnificent

His monologue was perhaps the best 10-15 minutes of television. During the height of his career, there were really only three networks, as well as the birth of cable. No one had the following that made you think “I have to Watch Carson’s opening.”

His approach pushed the envelope of censorship, too. He would say some very provocative comments, usually with sexual overtones. He was hilarious. Today, comics would throw in cuss words and body parts to get people to laugh. Not Carson.

Carson never forgot where he came from. He donated money to the Norfolk community, as well as to the university. He even visited Norfolk for an NBC special “Johnny Goes Home” in 1981. A jacket he wore during that visit hangs in the local museum.

Johnny Carson; Norfolk, Nebraska

Wardrobe for Carson’s visit home in the early 1980s

As Carson ended his TV career, you knew it was a good one. The show won six Emmy awards, and Carson was honored by the Lincoln Center, as well as a recipient of the Peabody Award. He won several other honors.

Johnny Carson; Norfolk, Nebraska

One of six Emmy awards

The Elkhorn Valley Museum in Norfolk hosts several pieces of Carson memorabilia in a collection called “Heeeere’s Johnny.”

Johnny Carson; Norfolk, Nebraska

Carson exhibit at Norfolk museum

Several copies of TV Guide magazines are on display featuring Carson on the cover. Letters from presidents and other notable officials are also on exhibit.

Johnny Carson; Norfolk, Nebraska

A TV Guide cover photo with Carson’s first wife

Visitors are immediately greeted by a suit worn by Carson on his show. He was a small person. It always amazes me how small famous people tend to be when you either meet them or see clothes on exhibit.

Johnny Carson; Norfolk, Nebraska

Suit worn by Johnny Carson

The museum has a cool display of a mannequin resembling Carson, standing in front of the famous multi-colored stage curtains during a monologue, with an NBC camera in the distance. A recording of a monologue plays in the background.

Johnny Carson; Norfolk, Nebraska

Monologue display

Another section has a living room with “The Tonight Show” playing on a TV screen. I think I scared a guy lying on the sofa with my laugh. I admit I have a loud boisterous laugh. If you’re going to laugh, why not go strong at it? His interview with a younger Dolly Parton was hilarious.

Johnny Carson; Norfolk, Nebraska

“The Tonight Show” on loop in museum

Photos of Carson, McMahon, Doc Severinsen (band leader) and guests adorn the walls.

Johnny Carson; Norfolk, Nebraska

Cast and guests

Carson even has his own expressway in Norfolk. As is common in the state, we like to name pieces of highways or streets after our famous citizens. “Johnny Carson Boulevard” welcomes folks to his childhood home area on 13th Street.

His childhood home underwent renovation a few years ago. It’s an attraction that should be viewed while in Norfolk.

Johnny Carson; Norfolk, Nebraska

Carson’s childhood home

The area hosts a comedy festival annually at the high school that features famous comics, including Louie Anderson, Kevin Pollack and Brian Regan.

Johnny Carson; Norfolk, Nebraska

High school theater

Checking out Johnny Carson in Norfolk was a fun way to spend a couple of hours. We suggest you take the time to hang out in the hometown of one of the greatest American comics of all time. And, don’t be surprised if someone in your group says, Heeere’s Johnny!” as you enter town.

For more information on Norfolk and its attractions, please visit www.visitnorfolkne.com.