Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show last night in NYC 1972

Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show last night in NYC 1972

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Before moving The Tonight Show to Los Angeles, in 1972, Johnny Carson hosted it from New York City, where he braved garbage strikes and muggers, lived high atop United Nations Plaza and had run-ins with mobsters.

Johnny Carson walked out from behind the curtain to host The Tonight Show for the first time on October 1, 1962, replacing Jack Paar, who had earlier replaced Steve Allen. In front of a television audience of eight million, old show business gave way to new: Carson was introduced by a 72-year-old Groucho Marx, Joan Crawford was there to plug her autobiography, and aging crooner Rudy Vallée also appeared with a book to sell. But heartthrob singer Tony Bennett and that hot new comedy writer Mel Brooks brought it all up-to-date.

The show was broadcast from NBC Studio 6B at 30 Rockefeller Center, as it was during Allen’s and Paar’s reigns (and will be during Jimmy Fallon’s). Carson had been well prepared for his new role as host of Who Do You Trust? (modeled on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life), which was taped at the Little Theater, on West 44th Street. “The idea [of Who Do You Trust?] was to get New Yorkers or tourists to come in and really talk about their lives,” recalls Ron Simon, television and radio curator at the Paley Center for Media, in New York. (Simon interviewed Carson for the Paley Center’s Jack Benny exhibition in 1991.) “There was something about Carson that he would find exactly where the conversation sparked, where he could interact, where he could say that great retort or give that great Benny-esque double take. Those five years of practice really made him as host of The Tonight Show, but it also gave him a real sense of the city itself. It was like an introductory course on who New Yorkers are, what they think about.”

He was helped by the extraordinary musicians he had on the show—which broadcast one of Barbra Streisand’s first television appearances, and Judy Garland’s last. Bette Midler came on, fresh from the Continental Baths (and would 20 years later famously ring out Carson’s final show in Los Angeles). The Tonight Show was also a showcase for such writers as Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and William Saroyan, even if they often had to wait in the green room until the flickering final moments of the show, known as “the death slot.” For comedians, to be summoned to sit at Johnny’s right hand was the Rapture, like suddenly being called up to show-business heaven. Bill Cosby, Redd Foxx, Rodney Dangerfield, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, George Carlin, Joan Rivers—all saw their stars rising over Rockefeller Center.

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