norfolk, nebraska: childhood home of johnny carson

After leaving the Madison County Historical Society Museum, I headed to Norfolk, Nebraska, where I would spend the night. Norfolk advertised itself as “A Community of Strength.” I passed the famous Deets Furniture, which I’d discovered in an exhibit in Madison County. As in all farm communities, a farm equipment dealer dominated the town, in this case Peterbilt of Norfolk.

I went directly to the Elkhorn Valley Museum and Research Center.

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mural of Norfolk, NE from the Elkhorn Valley Museum & Research Center

Norfolk is home to the former late-night host, Johnny Carson; he spent most of his childhood years there. The museum had a Johnny Carson Gallery including a set of The Tonight Show, magazine covers, and costumes worn by the special characters he created on the show. There was a photo of Carson with the Reagans; apparently he frequently made fun of them on the show. The guests who talked to Johnny were in the “hot seat.”  The gallery had much of the memorabilia he donated to the museum as well as several of his Emmy awards.

Johnny Carson was born in Corning, Iowa on October 23, 1925.  The Carson family moved to Norfolk, Nebraska in 1933, when he was eight years old. Johnny’s father Kit Carson worked as a manager at the Iowa-Nebraska Light and Power Company.

Johnny’s first gig as an entertainer was as a magician after he received his first book on magic.  He learned many tricks and at age 14, he performed his first professional magic show for the Norfolk Rotary Club, earning $3.

Johnny attended Grant Elementary School and Norfolk High School.  He performed in various theater productions and wrote a humorous column for the high school newspaper. After graduating from high school in 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.  After leaving the Naval Officer’s School at Columbia University, he was assigned to the U.S.S. Pennsylvania.

Following World War II, Carson attended the University of Nebraska, earning a degree in radio and drama in 1949.  He then went to work at WOW in Omaha in 1949.  Carson left Nebraska for California in 1951.

Carson was given his own show as a comic in July 1955, but the show was cancelled after one season.  After a number of other jobs, he was hired to host a game show on ABC called Who Do You Trust? in 1957.  The show became a big hit.  He appeared in a romantic comedy on Broadway titled Tunnel of Love in 1958.  His last dramatic role was in the movie Looking for Love in 1964.

It was fun to see all the photos of Johnny’s youth.

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photos of the Norfolk Native

The Tonight Show went through several iterations, but after the host Jack Paar walked off due to a censorship dispute over a “water closet” joke, and after he was rehired briefly only to quit again, Johnny Carson became the network’s first choice to be the host.

In The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Johnny began each show with a monologue of rapid fire jokes followed by sketch comedy, much like today’s now familiar late-night talk shows.  For almost three decades, the seven-minute monologues allowed him to amuse the audiences with observations about politics, unique news stories and popular culture. Carson stood on a six-inch white star while delivering his monologue. At the end of the monologue, Carson would announce the show’s guests and, with his signature golf swing, send America into another night of late-night television.

Below is a photo of Johnny Carson on drums, Jimmy Stewart on the accordion, Phyllis Diller on saxophone, and Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty with his banjo.  Johnny said he liked to play drums because “it relieves hostility.”

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Johnny Carson on drums, Jimmy Stewart on the accordion, Phyllis Diller on saxophone, and Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty with his banjo

The wedding of Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki in 1969 was the highest rated show until Carson’s last show on May 22, 1992.

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the wedding of Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki in December of 1969

Much of The Tonight Show‘s popularity came from Johnny’s interaction with his guests. Thousands of guests sat in “the hot seat” over the years Johnny played host.  Some who made numerous appearances were Jimmy Stewart, Jack Benny, Michael Landon, and Charles Nelson Reilly. The Tonight Show gave emerging young comedians a start to their careers: George Carlin, Richard Pryor, David Letterman, Joan Rivers, Jay Leno, Roseanne Barr and Jerry Seinfeld were a few who shared “the hot seat” with Johnny.

Ordinary people with unusual hobbies or talents were also invited to sit in “the hot seat,” including a man who made jewelry from quail droppings, and a woman who collected potato chips that looked like famous people.

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Jimmy Stewart and Johnny Carson

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John Wayne on The Tonight Show

In 1992, Marie Huck, a local Johnny Carson fan, attempted to replicate The Tonight Show backdrop for curtains she used in her home at 2803 Rolling Hills Drive.  The curtains in this exhibit were donated to the Elkhorn Valley Museum following Mrs. Huck’s death.

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the set and curtains

Johnny Carson made his debut as host of The Tonight Show on October 1, 1962.  Thirty years later, on May 22, 1992, he said his goodbyes. Robin Williams and Bette Midler both contributed to the emotionally charged episode.

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Bette Midler & Johnny Carson

Johnny created a cast of memorable characters. “Carnac the Magnificent,” with his familiar turban, white envelopes and entertaining answers was one of Carson’s most popular characters.  He also played the sometimes psychic “El Moldo,” who revealed unsuspecting audience members’ inner thoughts. He also parodied famous people from popular culture, such as Ronald Reagan, Rambo, Willie Nelson, and sex therapist Dr. Ruth.

Carson’s skits created characters that included the fast-talking Art Fern, the elderly Aunt Blabby, and the opinionated Floyd Turbo.

Caron’s retirement marked an historic moment in American television.  During his tenure as host, more than 83 billion viewers tuned in and more than 3 million sat in the studio audience.  Carson delivered monologues through the administrations of seven U.S. Presidents.

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cathy cartoon

Johnny Carson donated money to Norfolk and other communities.  His support helped the Norfolk Public Library, the Norfolk Arts Center, the Carson Radiation (Cancer) Center at Faith Regional Hospital, the Johnny Carson Theatre at Norfolk High School, the Elkhorn Valley Museum & Research Center, and the Lifelong Learning Center at Northeast Community College.

I was surprised to find a photo of our despicable president next to Johnny’s picture on People magazine.

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Goodbye, Johnny on the cover of People (October 23, 1925 – January 23, 2005)

There were other exhibits in the museum about life in Norfolk. There were exhibits on dentistry, a doctor’s office, a kitchen and parlor, a funeral hearse, a movie theater, and a saddlery and harness shop.

A good horse, properly fitted, was the pioneers’ most treasured possession.  Horses were the main source of transportation whether it be for taking the family to church, visiting the neighbors, or hauling supplies.  The first harness shop was located at the center of Braasch and 2nd Street.

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Harness shop

The varied collection in a Postcard scrapbook includes photographic and illustrated post cards, as well as the later folded style of greeting cards. Collecting and sending photographic post cards in the early 20th century were popular practices, as photography grew much more widespread and accessible to the public at large.  Post cards commemorated not only locations, but significant buildings, people, and moments in American history.

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Postcard Scrapbook, early 1900s-1960s

There was farm equipment, including an enormous Square Turn Tractor – the only surviving and operating tractor of its kind in the world. A.T. Kenney and A.J. Colwell invented the Square Turn Tractor.  They formed the Kenney-Colwell Co. in 1914 and began to build and sell their tractors.

IMG_9177There was a timeline of Norfolk and the hardships people had to endure. One newspaper articles discussed grasshopper hordes, or “hopper blizzards,” in the early 1900s. Other photo exhibits showed floods, blizzards, and fires.

I also found some fiber art by Beth Vogel-Baker from Norfolk, NE.

I also popped into the Willetta Luesben Bird Library, but surprise, surprise, there were just a bunch of bird books.

I found the mural of the “Many Faces of Johnny” at 3rd and Norfolk Avenue.

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“Many Faces of Johnny” mural

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“Many Faces of Johnny” mural

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“Many Faces of Johnny” mural

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“Many Faces of Johnny” mural

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“Many Faces of Johnny” mural

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“Many Faces of Johnny” mural

I checked in to the New Victorian Inn and Suites; a bunch of rough characters were also staying there.  There were numerous pickup trucks in the parking lot and lots of greasy characters smoking outside the doors.

I had dinner at Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill.  They served up a big loaf of warm black and white bread with soft butter.  I sipped on a Blue Moon with an orange in it.  I also had a huge hamburger with mushrooms and Swiss cheese.  It was all delicious (especially the bread), but I ate too much!

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loaf of warm black and white bread with soft butter and Blue Moon beer

Below are my journal pages for my travels on Thursday, September 5, from Omaha to Norfolk.

Information about Johnny Carson and the early days in Norfolk, Nebraska comes from signs at the Elkhorn Valley Museum.

*Drove 174.1 miles; Steps: 9,925, or 4.21 miles*

*Thursday, September 5, 2019*