Remembering Johnny
as told to Jeff Mandel

Johnny Carson

One of the best memories I have of working on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson at NBC in Burbank was one night almost 17 years ago when I worked alongside Mr. Carson for one great night. I'll never forget it as long as I live.

I began working for the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson when it first moved out to Burbank from New York in May of '72. The show was an hour and forty-five minutes in those days. I was very excited to get the job but I must say, it never occurred to me that I would ever meet Mr. Carson himself. When I retired in '92, coincidentally at the age of 92, coincidentally at the end of Mr. Carson's tenure, they retired my position along with me.

I joined into the Stage Hand's Guild from back in the Vaudeville days when, for a nickel, you could take in the latest from Hollywood on the silver screen and in between shows you could watch any number of acts live on stage.

When Edger Bergen came out West to try out the circuit, marvelous talent that he was-- he was so damn quick with the hecklers-- but what I was going to say is that he never came out alone. He always had his good buddy with him, Mr. Charley McCarthy, and if they paid him enough and he had the inkling, sometimes the audience was treated to Mr. Mortimer Snerd. But I think you all know these weren't real people, they were dolls or a special type of puppet that Mr. Bergen would manipulate from inside the back of them. Except when he had BOTH Mr. McCarthy AND Mr. Snerd on well, Mr. Bergen was a great puppeteer but no one was so good that they could operate two of these articulated little dolls at the same time and still have a free hand to sneak those swigs of very nearly pure ethanol that Mr. Bergen always kept in a hip flask. So Mr. Bergen needed a second set of hands belonging to someone hidden under the stage, someone who could stick their hands and arms up at the right time and manipulate the extra puppet for him.

Now here's where fate smiled down on me the first time. Mr. Bergen was no fool. He lived in mortal fear-- some say it was an ugly paranoia-- that some other, better puppeteer would come up in the ranks using the behind-the-scenes manipulation of one of his little doll men as a calling card. So Mr. Bergen was very specific about who he got to do the job. For one thing, he always used a different guy in every town and that guy could not be an actor or performer, he had to be a member of the stage crew. Heck, there weren't-a much difference between flying pieces of scenery in and out on the pulleys or pulling on the little cords that ran out of the puppets rear end, if you'll pardon the image.

The Guild created a new title and job description for this position, "Hidden Prop Execution Tech, Non-Skilled." But that was too highfalutin. We just called ourselves "Cam and Lever Men." That comes from the early days before there were sophisticated pulleys and solenoids, it used to take real strength to make that little puppet's eyes wiggle! That's where I come in.

I never actually had the honor of pulling cords for Mr. Bergen. By the time I was hired out West, Mr. Bergen had taken his show home. But there were many a puppeteer who passed this way through Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. I developed a bit of a reputation for being so exact and not minding the physical demands of being confined in a tiny space onstage for-- sometimes-- the entire length of a show and a double feature. I was highly sought after by quite a few people in the puppet industry which led to my first steady job.

I did a 3 year stint on a local show, The Paul Winchell Show where nine times out of ten I was the Right Hand and the Eyebrows of Mr. Knucklehead Smiff. The entire taped record of that marvelous show was erased and, with it, some of the only records of my best work. But it's a job I couldn't stay with because of problems on the set. Specifically, Mr. Frank Fontaine, the show's announcer and sometime Second Banana used to tease me endlessly saying nasty things like I'd never get promoted to being able to manipulate Mr. Jerry Mahoney, himself, the star puppet. My morale just got lower and lower. After the show had been on for a year, Mr. Fontaine took to getting drunk after lunch and, many times, he would come around behind the wall set piece that I was hidden in and he wouldn't be wearing any pants. And there were kids in the audience! Jeez. So I couldn't take it and suddenly, like fate's hand at work once again in my life, there was a job opening at NBC in Burbank.

By the time I joined up with The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson team, there really wasn't any use for us "Cam and Lever Men" anymore. Anthropomorphic props had gotten too sophisticated and had even moved beyond solenoids. By the time Mr. Carson took the reigns at The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and especially by the time he moved it to it "beautiful downtown Burbank" in 1972, these entertainers used all manner of space-age-type controls: Radio controls, pneumatic joints, hydraulic mouths and lips... I was a living dinosaur. And at NBC, the hidden performing booth and breakroom were the same room. And they were this little 5 foot by 5 foot by 4 foot compartment directly underneath the stage where the show was taped. At some point before I started working there, they had added a tiny crawlspace that led from the compartment, to a smaller compartment directly underneath and behind the couch where, I suppose, a guest with a puppet might go and sit and talk to Johnny after the performance. But, of course, none of this was needed anymore and after the first set remodeling there were no real openings from either compartment to the stage.

So by the time I joined the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1972, there was never anything for me to do. And since the Union protected my position, they had to continue to use me and pay me. But one thing I'll say for Mr. de Cordova [Freddy de Cordova produced The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson - ED.] he was not going to pay a Union wage to a ghost; if he was paying, he wanted me there! So I sat underneath the stage for almost 3,900 tapings. And I never missed a show come Hell or high water!

I read all these tributes to Mr. Carson but I have to confess it's only been recently that I've been buying those tapes they advertise on the TV and seeing what the show actually was all about. My impressions and memories are quite different from most everyone else's.

The guys at the Burbank Studio took to calling my official station "The King's Chamber" after the big room in the middle of that pyramid in Egypt. They never named the tinier space at the end of the tunnel under the couch but, in my mind, I used to think of it as "The Queen's Chamber."

From where I sat, the show was entirely different than what most people experienced. For one thing, I couldn't really hear well. I could hear a distant echoing intonation when people would talk. I used to be able to recognize Mr. Carson's voice, especially toward the end of his run when his voice got a little gravelly. After a couple a years I could make out a lot of what he said. I remember some guests very well. I was a pro at identifying the various comedians that they say Mr. Carson loved so much. Mr. Jerry Seinfeld-- I could always tell the punchline because his voice would rise up but drop suddenly at the last second on the last syllable. Then the audience would roar. To me, their laughter was like thunder and their clapping sounded like rain and hail. When Mr. Seinfeld, Mr. Shandling, Mr. Brenner, or Miss Rivers were on, it sounded like a tropical storm that was going to wash the whole studio away! Mr. Sam Kinison was a very special favorite of mine. I could actually hear a lot of his material. For the life of me, I don't see why people thought he was funny. But I was grateful to be able to hear some of what he said. It made the time go by faster.

Musical guests were always a delight for me because I could not only hear but I could feel the bass lines pound through my body. Like a rhythmic earthquake! When somebody like the Rolling Stones or Mr. Barry Manilow or Miss Celine Dion came on, it was like a Tropical Storm AND an Earthquake at the same time! I loved the commercial breaks, too, because that's when Mr. Doc Severinsen's band would play. There was the usual rumble I felt from above me, but Mr. Severinsen's trumpet would always cut through and I'd hear these wonderful notes from some distant shore, like Gabriel's Trumpet.

Tiny Tim's wedding? I was there. I couldn't hear much at all because no one was really moving and except when the audience would rain its applause and laughter down on me, I hardly heard anything at all. I was told that part of the Jewish ceremony was going to be stomping on a glass and breaking it and I waited for that sound so I would know the exact moment the ceremony was consummated. But the stomp never came. It turns out, I guess, Mr Tim wasn't Jewish. He sure looked Jewish to me!

And speaking of Stomp-- and Gregory Hines and Savion Glover-- I know they were supposed to be wonderful dancers, but from my perspective they were frightening and obnoxious. Each one-- especially that group named Stomp-- sounded like the Invasion at Normandy to me. After one of these acts appeared, I wouldn't be able to sleep for a couple of nights and once or twice I thought of just quitting.

Once, I made out Mr. Carson's voice and my heart sped up. I believed he was acknowledging me and singling me out for the first time! I distinctly heard him say "Now, who's this? Are you sure you work here?" (The Audience made a rainstorm) "See? A guy works for me all these years on the show and I never noticed him!"

I raced home that night to catch the show-- thanks to tape delay on the West Coast-- and even woke my partner up to watch. But it was one of the worst disappointments I ever experienced in my entire career. Mr. Carson wasn't talking about me. A short, bald guest who was insulting people has spilled his beverage and another fellow tech, a young journeyman, Jason Farkner, ran out with some towels to clean it up. Mr. Carson had been referring to Jason.

That was the lowest point for me. I mean sometimes you might even love your job and for me, because I need a lot of solitude or maybe just because I'm so used to confined spaces and such from my childhood, it was the perfect job. But even so, you can have a down point, a time when you don't see any reason to live anymore. But I've always had some angel on my side looking out for me-- even in that small chamber, I guess-- because just when I was at my lowest, an opportunity arose for me to encounter Mr. Carson, himself!

It was a bad week. Most of the crew were dropping left and right with the first ever round of Hong Kong Flu our shores had seen. Mr. Loucic, our Guild Interlocutor, came to me with Mr. Adams, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson's PM. [Production Manager, Jesse Adams - ED.] Our crew was cut down by more than half with apprentices and junior-level journeymen practitioners filling in. But there was one position that could not be filled by someone without experience who might crack or make a mistake.

Traveling to Los Angeles from New York with Johnny Carson was Bert Weiskopf. Mr. Weiskopf had invented the job of holding the curtain back for Mr. Carson when Mr. McMahon announced him at the top [The beginning of the show - ED.] Well, he didn't really invent it, but he sued and made sure it was unionized and got the position himself. He hadn't missed a day since Mr. Carson first took the reins of the show away from the very unstable and sad Mr. Paar back in 1962. But Mr. Weiskopf was down, as sick as he'd ever been. And because I was the only senior union member present whose position could remain empty without having an adverse affect on the show, they asked me to fill in for just that one night!

I had hardly breathed back in my breath from accepting this opportunity when I was rushed to the executive wing where I was briefed on my duties for the night by Miss Anna Inosanto, Mr. de Cordova's Executive Secretary, herself.

      1. I was not to look Mr. Carson directly in the eye.
      2. I was not to speak to him in any way.
      3. If Mr. Carson spoke to me or asked me any kind of question an unlikely occurrence I was to try to acknowledge him or answer by simply nodding or shaking my head and smiling or shrugging.
      4. If the question absolutely required some sort of response, I was to answer with as few words as possible and not offer any opinion or observations, limiting my answer to facts visible or obvious.
      5. And I had to remember Rule Number One: NO EYE CONTACT!
      6. As Mr. Carson approached the opening curtain, I was not to make any movement toward him, but try to step back while not releasing my grip on the curtain.
      7. AT ALL TIMES I WAS TO TRY TO AVOID ANY ACCIDENTAL PHYSICAL CONTACT WITH MR. CARSON!

Then Mr. Adams went over the technical requirements: how far open I should hold the curtain, what exact beat after Mr. McMahon intoned the last syllable was I to open it, what the range was of the acceptable angle of the wedge that the opened curtain created, and how long I was to keep it open after Mr. Carson passed through. There was only one hour to go before showtime, but in that hour I practiced over and over. I got to the point where I was even able to flutter the curtain as it closed to reflect the excitement of the audience.

The moment arrived and my hands were sweating a little. Funny, huh? These same hands that shook hands for Mr. Mortimer Snerd and wiggled his eyebrows, these same hands that on more than one occasion manipulated Mr. Kukla of Kukla, Fran and Ollie at the The Variety Arts Theater as well as Mr. Beanie, Mr Wiggles, The Floating Handkerchief in Mr. Mark Wilson's Floating Handkerchief Illusion, and many more. These hands were now nervous to hold the curtain for Mr. Johnny Carson after years of hearing his echo through he floor!

At exactly 5:35 PM, the band struck up the Theme to the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson as written by Mr. Carson and Mr. Paul Anka and arranged by Mr. Tommy Newsom. While Mr. McMahon was announcing the guests, Mr. Carson appeared. He stood several feet away from me, looking down, his finger to his mouth. He was obviously going over his opening monologue in his mind. On those magic words: "Here's Johnny!" I pulled back the curtain making sure to achieve the correct angle and held my breath. Mr. Carson straightened, wiped his teeth once with a finger across them, formed a smile and strode out through the curtain. The very curtain I held! I know I must have performed perfectly because Mr. Carson didn't break his stride, not once. He never even had to look at me or look up, even, until he felt the lights hit him. I can tell you now because so many years have passed, but I was so nervous to do it right, I may have held the curtain open a tiny bit too long. But nobody else noticed. And Mr. Carson? The way he wasn't aware that it wasn't Mr. Weiskopf holding the curtain for him, the same man that had been holding open the curtain since the show began in New York in '62. The way he didn't even notice me. Well, that's all the compliment a Cam and Lever Man ever needs. Mr. Carson's monologue was incredible that evening!

What an evening it was for me, too! For the first time in my life, I heard the audience's real applause and laughter and it wasn't like a thunderstorm. Mr. Doctor Severinsen and his band were, in fact, a great band! That drummer, Mr. Shaughnessey, really got some great sounds out of those traps [drums - ED.] and they weren't at all like a battlefield fusillade! The guests that night were Phyllis Diller and Joan Embrey of the San Diego Zoo. There was some young comedian I can't remember that night, too, but he was bumped because Miss Embrey ran over. I'll never forget that night as long as I live!

Carl Wagner, Cam & Lever Man

[As we go to press, Carl Wagner has just died. He passed quietly in his sleep just three days after sending us his remembrance, a mere five days after Johnny's death. His partner, Allen Peters, asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to The Saint Vibiana House.]


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