Last year, Joanne Carson reached into the climate-controlled wine cabinet stored in a corner of her Sunset Boulevard home and pulled out a rare vintage.
Carson had in hand 10 carefully maintained episodes of the 1955-56 “The Johnny Carson Show,” starring her future husband in days before he made “The Tonight Show” his own.
The black-and-white films were a romantic memento for Joanne Carson: The shy Johnny had wooed her with screenings of the comedy-variety show. He then gave her copies, episode by episode: one for her birthday, one for Christmas, another for Valentine’s Day.
“They were valuable to me because they represented a very touching time, a very special time, when you’re getting to know someone,” said Joanne Carson, whose nine-year marriage to Carson, his second, ended in 1972.
The cache of old shows also stood for a promise.
“About a year before Johnny died, he said, ‘Jo, do me a favor. Take those films some day, put them on DVD and share them. Because there aren’t going to be anymore,’ ” Joanne Carson, 75, recalled.
Emphysema claimed her former husband in 2005 at age 79. She and Carson had remained in occasional contact over the years, including during his subsequent two marriages.
“Because we started as friends, it was very important to Johnny that we end friends. And we stayed friends,” said Joanne Carson.
The shows are available on a two-disc DVD set from Shout Factory ($24.98). There were 39 episodes produced of “The Johnny Carson Show,” which aired Thursdays at 10 p.m. on CBS, and Johnny had picked his top 10 for Joanne.
She’s unsure if there are any other copies. In the early days of television, live shows were recorded by filming a TV monitor. Known as kinescopes, the recordings often were lost.
The networks and producers “didn’t keep anything. They erased the first 10 years of ‘The Tonight Show,’ ” Joanne Carson said.
“The Johnny Carson Show” was part of Carson’s journey to stardom.
After a series of local radio and TV jobs in Nebraska, where he was raised, Carson started at KNXT-TV in Los Angeles in 1950. His sketch comedy show, “Carson’s Cellar,” ran from 1951 to ’53 and drew attention from Hollywood. A staff writing job for “The Red Skelton Show” followed.
The program provided Carson with a lucky break: When Skelton was injured backstage, Carson took the comedian’s place in front of the cameras.
Producers sought to find the right vehicle for the up-and-coming comic, trying him out as host of the summer quiz show “Earn Your Vacation” (1954) and then “The Johnny Carson Show.”
The DVDs reveal a rail-thin Carson, then 29, cleanshaven but swimming in baggy suits and oversized shirt collars. He had yet to achieve the carefully tailored look he sported on “Tonight,” but his unshakable poise was in evidence.
In his opening greeting to the studio audience and the sketches that followed, hindsight finds elements of the wry Carson charm and the comedy — ranging from pointed to pleasingly silly — that would make him a late-night legend.
“Johnny said to me, when we were watching the films, ‘There’s me without the polish,’ ” his ex-wife recounted.
Johnny Carson reveled in playing the kind of characters that would later populate “Tonight,” and there are early hints of Carnac the Magnificent and others to come.
Many of the sketches, performed with a stock company that included comedians Virginia Gibson and Barbara Ruick, centered on TV itself, the revolutionary young invention that made the show — and Carson’s ambitions — possible.
Carson did a bit about a father who comes home to find the TV set out for repair but his children staring, mindlessly, at the space it had occupied. He offered parodies of hit shows, including “You Are There” and “Person to Person,” Edward R. Murrow’s interview program (Carson’s version of the sternly formal newsman was “Ed Furrow”).
He envisioned a bright future for himself, he later told Joanne Carson; then the show was canceled.
“He got very upset about it, left Los Angeles and moved to New York,” she said. That’s where Joanne Copeland, then an actress and model, met Carson and where he got a fresh start.
There were a few acting roles, then the game show “Who Do You Trust?” (1957-62), then an offer to replace Jack Paar on “Tonight.” The late-night show, which Carson hosted until his retirement in 1992, made his career but helped end their marriage, Joanne Carson said.
“Johnny couldn’t go anywhere, we couldn’t stick our noses out of the door of the apartment, because people would grab at him. He had all these benefits to go to, all these openings. ... I was a little girl from California,” she said. “You just get to a point you can’t do this anymore.”
But Joanne Carson, who returned West and went on to earn graduate degrees in psychology and physiology, said her memories of Carson himself are only good.
“He was the best of the best. And that kind of style and class — you won’t see it again,” she said.