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Op-Ed: Recalling 'Tonight Show' memories

February 07, 2014|By John R. Smith

On the eve of “The Tonight Show's” final show in Burbank, I felt compelled to visit Burbank's hometown newspaper and see what was being written. As expected, a mixture of melancholy and upbeat optimism about the future of Beautiful Downtown Burbank.

I was lucky to have worked as a page at NBC in the late 1970s. The network’s 3000 W. Alameda Ave. West Coast Headquarters was a hub of television production in those days. In addition to the nightly 5:30 p.m. tapings of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, the facility hosted Hollywood Squares, sitcoms, several game shows and a soap opera or two. Surrounding NBC were movie studios and video and audio support facilities too numerous to mention. Even Dick Clark Productions was nearly across the street.

PHOTOS: Final taping of the 'Tonight Show' with Jay Leno

NBC's Burbank facility was built in the 1950s. Originally called Color City, it was state-of-the-art in every way. I think, the first full-color video facility on the West Coast. Arriving from a small town in upstate New York, I can still remember vividly the first time I saw that impressive studio complex with the big multicolored peacock high above the intersection of Alameda and Olive avenues.

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We gave tours of the facility in those days and the highlight was always the big Studio One where Johnny held court every night, or a guest host when Carson had the night off. Each day, people would line up for free tickets to the show and we'd pass out a few hundred stand by tickets too. Johnny's studio was always full, even when Don Rickles or John Davidson guest-hosted. And 5:30 was a magical time when Doc Severinsen started playing that theme song and Ed McMahon introduced Johnny.

Johnny brought Tonight to Burbank because he wanted access to more big name talent. I heard, while I was there, that Johnny really enjoyed driving himself to work, something he could never do in New York. He'd arrive early each afternoon from Malibu, always driving his white Corvette and parking behind the studio in a spot with his name on it. In those days, we could never imagine Tonight leaving Burbank because we could never imagine Johnny leaving Tonight. Late night was NBC. Late night was Carson. And late night came from Hollywood (Burbank).

Television doesn't have to be produced in big studio complexes these days. You can do a TV show from a swamp if you want to. And I suppose it is fitting and honorable that Tonight returns to where it all began, in Studio 6B at 30 Rock, where Jack Paar made the show a cash cow and where Johnny hosted from 1962 to 1972. For me though, Tonight will always be in Studio One. On Alameda Avenue. Under that big Peacock in Beautiful Downtown Burbank.

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JOHN R. SMITH is currently a resident of Santa Rosa. He can be reached at jrsmith@hanselauto.com.

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