You can still hear those familiar jazz notes as Carson emerges from behind the multi-colorered curtain every night, thanks to syndication of The Tonight Show on Antenna TV. The song, "Johnny's Theme" was co-written by Johnny Carson and Paul Anka and earned somewhere around 3 million dollars in royalties over the 30 years it was played on the show. No other song can call up so many memories for me, of sitting in my grandparent's living room watching the show with them on nights they babysat and watching alone in my first apartment shortly after college graduation. I remember thinking that one day, as an adult, my evenings would be spent like this--engaging in witty and sometimes risqué conversation, smoking, drinking, laughing. And of course there were evenings like this, but the panache of Hollywood was nowhere to be found.
As early as my 20's, I already felt the pangs of fleeting time-- how quickly careers and lifetimes and eras pass. Steeped in nostalgia for my childhood already, the lightning speed of moments dissolved threw me into anxious hyper-awareness of the preciousness of youth.
The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson Show encapsulated generations of rising stars, icons, and legends. Some progressed to their supernova conclusions, some faded into black holes of oblivion, and some left this earth far too early, before having the opportunity to bless us with the full arc of their talents.
Carson represented more than Hollywood to me. His guests captured the zeitgeist of the time and were ambassadors for what was popular, interesting, and evolving during those decades. No doubt much of my love of trivia and the derivation and nuances of language and expressions can be attributed to Carson sharing his own (or the tv writers') curiosity about such things.
Some of Carson's more interesting guests were not Hollywood celebs but lived equally fascinating and interesting lives. These human-interest bits were some of the best moments on the show. One of my favorites was a 1991 interview with Robert "Bob" Evans, a self-described "geologist, historian-farmer-musician" and the chief scientist and organizer for the search and recovery of some 21 tons of gold from the S.S. Central America which sank on September 11, 1857.
Fast forward to the 2000s when some of the investors of this treasure hunt, engineered by Tommy Thompson (the friend and neighbor Bob Evans refers to) is accused of bilking investors out of their share of the booty and hoarding all the profits for himself. Upon a federal judge's order to appear in court, Thompson simply "disappeared" leading to an arrest warrant, fugitive status, and eventual capture in 2015.
Now Thompson claims he can't remember where the gold is, and a federal judge has ruled he is faking his memory problems. In the meantime, he's in an Ohio jail being held in contempt of court and being fined $1,000 a day.
But it's the penultimate episode on May 21, 1992 that really marked the end of an era. I watched in solemn reverence as Bette Midler delivered the send-off of a lifetime, as only Bette can do. Everyone should be lucky enough to have a send-off like this one after a lifetime of hard-work and dedication to their trade. I tried my best to send off a colleague of mine with this same song, but I'm not Bette and Razberry's in NJ isn't exactly NBC Studios in Burbank. Still, I think Joyce appreciated the effort.
May 22, 1992 marked the last episode of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. 25 long years ago, just like it was yesterday. "We're drinking my friend to the end of a brief episode."