When The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien premieres tonight it marks the end of one era and the beginning of another one.
The show will no longer be taped at the NBC studios in Burbank, but across the way at Universal Studios. Though The Tonight Show began in New York in 1954, since 1972 the show had come from Burbank, California. Hosted by Johnny Carson from 1962 to 1992 I grew up listening to his references to “Beautiful downtown Burbank.”
It was meant as a put down because Burbank was a rather bland area (some would say that bland would describe the entire San Fernando Valley). But Carson’s jab helped put Burbank on the map for millions of viewers and it is still a catch phrase today.
These days Downtown Burbank is actually a nice area with a good mix of restaurants and a couple hundred shops. But when I moved there in 1982 it was a different story. Though Burbank is home to Disney Studios and The Burbank Studios (as well as NBC) back then there wasn’t even a single movie theater in the city. Just one drive-in theater near my Riverside Drive apartment. Today the drive-in theater is gone but there are over 30 movie screens in Burbank.
Once the theaters were built I remember going one night and standing in line for popcorn and there was an older gentleman in front of me who looked familiar. I asked him if he was Richard Farnsworth and he said he was. In those days I would have only known him as the actor in The Grey Fox (1982) and The Natural (1984). Little did I know that he was a full-fledged Hollywood legend having been a stunt man first and received his first film credit way back in 1937.
It wasn’t until the Internet and IMDB that I learned he was in Gone with the Wind, A Day at the Races, Red River, The Ten Commandments, and The Wild One. Which meant he was connected in film history to Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, the Marx Brothers, John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Cecil B. DeMille. He turned to acting after 30 years as a stuntman and received two Oscar nominations as Best Actor.
His last film was The Straight Story (1999) which was directed by David Lynch and for which Farnsworth’s nomination made him the oldest actor to be nominated for an Academy Award. The Straight Story was filmed right here in Iowa. You knew there had to be an Iowa angle, right?
And just for the record Johnny Carson was born Corning, Iowa and lived in southwest Iowa until he was 8 when his family moved to Nebraska.
Like many young people who moved to L.A. in the eighties I dreamed of getting on The Tonight Show and meeting Johnny Carson. Back in the day, that was seen as the pinacle of success. That never happened and I never even went to a single taping all the time I lived out there. But while going to film school I did work as a driver for a video equipment rental company and one day made a delivery to NBC.
I made a comment to the security guard about The Tonight Show and he asked if I wanted to see the set. Of course I did. So while not making it on the show, I did make it to the set. Almost famous.
And like a lot of things in life The Tonight Show set seemed a lot smaller in real life. But thanks to Carson and Jay Leno for all the memories and humor they kept flowing from Burbank the last 37 years.
And best wishes to Conan in his new venture.