The Carson Effect

Comics visit Carson’s boyhood home in Norfolk during the Great American Comedy Festival. Antics include shooting baskets where Carson did, and visiting the Carson Gallery at Elkhorn Valley Museum.

AJ Dahm

Three, two, one ... da-da-da-da-da thunders from Doc Severinsen’s band, and the applause sign flashes as Ed McMahon’s “Heeeere’s Johnny” echoes through NBC Studio One in Burbank, California. The rainbow stage curtain parts, and a slender man steps into the spotlight. It’s another episode of The Tonight Show, and Johnny Carson is a long way from home.

Television audiences welcomed Carson into their living rooms weeknight evenings for 30 years, beginning in 1962. His down-to-earth demeanor seemed like that of a close neighbor or friend. Before dominating television talk-show ratings for decades and ascending to “King of Late-Night TV,” the man on a first-name basis with America was an aspiring magician named John, growing up in Norfolk. On camera and off, Carson credited his Nebraska upbringing for his success.

The Homer “Kit” and Ruth Carson family moved to Norfolk from Iowa in 1933. John was 8, middle child between older sister Catharine and younger brother Dick. John’s fascination with broadcasting sparked as the Carsons gathered around their General Electric radio to hear comedian Jack Benny on Sunday nights.

For fun, the boys would pack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hike to the Elkhorn River. When the channel cats weren’t biting, and even when they were, the brothers would dangle from Black Bridge as trains passed overhead. Legends and folklore attributed to Carson (whether deserved or not) circulate through Norfolk yet today.

If John’s classmates chuckled at his Norfolk High School newspaper humor column, they laughed out loud at his antics. Johnny was the suspected prankster after a teacher’s bicycle was hoisted up the flagpole. His mischievous reputation rose to new heights when a goat appeared on the school’s roof. In another four-legged gag, Carson helped guide a cow upstairs to the chemistry lab, where it remained overnight. And speaking of chemistry, rumors linger of the boy’s role in detonating a smelly “rotten egg bomb” so potent that teachers and students got the day off.

Did John really burst onto stage in drag, wearing a mop head for a wig and pair of grapefruits in his shirt as students gathered for an assembly? The oft-recited yarn claims he escaped backstage just as principal Theodore Skillstad walked in.

Carson’s entertainment focus narrowed after discovering Hoffman’s Book of Magic. A mail-order magician’s kit appeared, and John’s family and pals were bombarded with constant requests of “pick a card, any card.” John was 14 when he scored his first paid gig, a performance for the Norfolk Rotary Club, for which he earned $3. At a banquet in nearby Plainview, Carson, who billed himself as “The Great Carsoni,” performed magic tricks while roasting city officials who were guffawing along with the rest of the crowd.

Carson thrived on making people laugh. While describing a baseball game to illustrate a geometry problem, teacher Jenny Walker unintentionally presented Carson with the perfect setup. The class erupted when he raised his hand and shouted, “Which team is playing?”

Perhaps the Great Carsoni’s greatest disappearing act occurred during senior year. Pearl Harbor had been bombed months earlier, and John’s class jumped on the scrap-drive bandwagon, competing with other grades to see who could amass the most metal. After Carson’s class of 1943 scrounged a heaping pile, farmers came looking for their plows. Carson came clean during a 1976 visit to Norfolk. “In our zeal to help the war effort, we sometimes appropriated metal and brass from people who did not know they were parting with it,” Carson said.

As Carson’s crew delivered its last load on a truck borrowed from Ballantyne Furniture Store, they dismantled the vehicle and tossed it on the pile, too.

For the rest of the story see the May/June issue of Nebraska Life.


Subscriber Exclusive

Behind-The-Scenes Tour

Johnny Carson loved Norfolk, and you will, too. Nebraska Life, the Elkhorn Valley Museum, and Norfolk Area Visitors Bureau invite readers to visit Carson’s hometown for guided VIP tours on May 17 and 24. Tours run from noon to 3 p.m., and proceeds benefit renovation of the Elkhorn Valley Museum’s Carson Gallery. Reserve your spots by calling (800) 777-6159 or emailing

The tour is $25 per person, and space is limited to 24 attendees per date.


  • Up-close look at Carson mural in downtown Norfolk
  • Behind-the-scenes tour of Carson’s boyhood home
  • Guided tour of Carson Galley at Elkhorn Valley Museum
  • Carson cupcakes and refreshments with special guest.
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