Was up north painting the unplugged cottage and a bit behind on posting, so missed this milestone from Sunday: the 50th anniversary of the first Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.
Carson’s official debut on Oct. 1, 1962 only survives on a short audio clip. As has been noted here before, the first 10 years of Carson’s Tonight Show is lost. NBC basically threw out or taped over the original master tapes to make room in a New York storage facility. The loss was only discovered by Carson in the early ’70s.
A few moments from those early shows survive thanks mainly to film collectors such as Stan Taffel. Stan helps run Cinecon and regularly screens 16mm gems in Los Angeles. From what I understand, black and white kinescopes (a filmed recording of a live or taped TV show shot off a studio monitor) survive from some early Tonight shows. These were mainly recorded and shipped overseas to U.S. military bases to entertain troops.
Taffel had a Carson Tonight in his collection from Dec., 1963–one of the oldest surviving episodes–and, several years ago, sent it to Carson Productions. As noted on Taffel’s Facebook page, Carson himself was thrilled with the gift.
A few other early Carson goodies survive because they were pulled for anniversary show use. That Ed Ames tomahawk throw, for one, dates back to this era, as does Tiny Tim’s Dec., 1969 wedding to Miss Vicky–one of the oddest as well as highest-rated episodes ever.
Several well known entertainers serves as Tonight temps in the several months between Jack Paar’s departure in March of ’62 and the start of Carson’s 30 year reign. Ernie Kovacs was one (you can catch glimpses of his genius on The Ernie Kovacs Collection Volume 2, available later this month through Shout Factory). Jerry Lewis and Mort Sahl also did desk duty.
Another was Groucho Marx, who you can listen to here introducing Carson on that surviving Tonight Show clip from 50 years ago. Carson’s other guests that night: Tony Bennett, Joan Crawford, Rudy Vallee and Mel Brooks.

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