More than 1,000 people gathered in Johnny Carson’s hometown Sunday to remember the man who sent millions of Americans to bed every night as host of “The Tonight Show” for 30 years.
Far from a somber tribute, the event was mostly high-spirited and included a monologue, a jazz ensemble playing the “Tonight Show” theme and stage props like a desk and guest chairs where those who had known Carson were asked to talk about him.
Carson died last Sunday of emphysema at his Malibu, Calif., home. He was 79.
At Carson’s request, there was no public memorial in Los Angeles. The king of late-night television was a fiercely private man who made few public appearances following his retirement from the “Tonight Show” in 1992.
However, residents in Norfolk said they wanted a chance to say goodbye. Many had known the late-night comic from high school. The memorial was held in the high school theater that bears his name.
Lois Voecks said Carson sat behind her in homeroom and performed magic for students during Friday convocations.
“We used to see him later in the hallway, and we would look back at him and say, ’That’s the same guy? He seems just like us,”’ she said.
Jeff Burkink, who was principal of Norfolk High School in the 1980s when Carson gave $600,000 to the school to build a new performing arts center, said Carson never forgot his roots.
Burkink said he met Carson in 1976 when the comic came back to town to give the high school’s commencement address.
“He was nervous,” Burkink said. “He said he didn’t want to be a flop in his hometown. But the minute he stood up there, he was humorous and relaxed. He was right at home with a microphone.”
Born in Iowa, Carson was raised in Norfolk from the age of 8 until he left after high school to join the Navy and serve in World War II.
It was in Norfolk that Carson first showed a flair for show business, performing magic as the “Great Carsoni” in Elk’s and Moose lodges starting when he was 14.
Fame did not diminish Carson’s fondness for his hometown. His known donations to causes in the town amounted to more than $5 million, including $2.27 million for a regional cancer radiation center.
The entertainer also gave $100,000 to the Elkhorn Valley Museum in Norfolk and later donated 11 boxes of his personal items — including awards and his Presidential Medal of Freedom — to the museum for a permanent display.