Toledoan Mel Barger remembers growing up with the TV legend

By Mel Barger From:  The Blade, Toledo, Ohio, May 22, 1992


My wife and I will be in Norfolk, Neb., this weekend to help my mother celebrate her 88th birthday. We'll also be watching Johnny Carson's final day as host of NBC's Tonight Show.

According to an item in the Peach Section Tuesday, most of Norfolk's 19,000 residents will be watching, because Carson still has close ties with his hometown community and has been very generous in donating large sums for a high school theater and a cancer radiation center.

         As a native of Norfolk, I've been impressed by the way people immediately link up any mention of Nebraska or Norfolk with Carson, whom we knew simply as John. It's hard to think of anybody who has done the same for Toledo (although we did have a nice run with Jamie Farr's Cpl. Max Klinger on M*A*S*H.)

I'm usually reluctant to tell people that Carson was a grade-school classmate. Not only do I have an aversion to name-dropping, I was also afraid John might hear about it and would use my name on his show to advance his ratings in Toledo. After all, he and I may be the only two boys from Norfolk's Grant Elementary School who succeeded in show business — he on NBC, and I as a performer for seven weeks in Brigadoon at Toledo's now-defunct Westgate Dinner Theater.

But since Carson is retiring and can no longer exploit my good name, I'll risk sharing my memories of going to school with him in the 1930s.  What stands out is his amazing wit along with his ability as a sort of mimic and comic impersonator, gifts that were obvious even in the fourth grade. I envied the smooth way he could deliver an instant comment to fit any situation. And it was almost magic when he delivered a clever impersonation, such as when he did a Popeye song and seemed to include the cartoon character's squinched-up face.

Now and then I've read things that suggest Carson might have been a sort of trouble-maker in school. I resent that, because being the trouble-maker and bad boy was my role. Carson was extremely well-behaved, and I think most of the teachers looked upon him as a model student. The only time I can remember him getting into trouble was when he and I were caught drawing naughty pictures on a garage door on the way to school, in the seventh grade. We were called down to the principal's office separately. Carson copped out immediately and drew light punishment, while I attempted to deny the whole thing and wound up with eight after-school detentions.

On television, Carson has said he was caught shoplifting at age 12. I never knew about this, and I've always thought of him as a scrupulously honest person; if he did shoplift, it was the one and only time.

        John was very ambitious, and he was always coming up with astonishing projects. I've often wondered if he remembers our attempt to capture the Mattson kidnapper. It was a weird idea, but it was an example of Carson's fertile imagination at work. Back in December, 1936, a 10-year-old boy named Charles Mattson had been kidnapped and brutally murdered out in Washington state. A poster was circulated early the next year with a drawing of the suspected kidnapper and an offer of a $10,000 reward — an immense sum in 1937.

John came to school with a copy of the poster and told two of us he was sure he had seen the kidnapper a few days earlier in a wooded area near the golf course, north of town. Even then, John had an ability to charge his ideas with lots of energy. We became so excited about the reward money that we didn't even think to ask the hard questions, such as why the man would be hiding out in Norfolk or how we were going to capture him. So that Saturday, we packed lunches and went out to the area. We were certain that the kidnapper would be waiting patiently in the same spot for our arrival and would meekly surrender when surrounded by three 12-year-old boys wielding clubs.

The man was nowhere to be found, of course, but the outing was not a total loss. While we were roaming the woods, two women on the nearby 12-hole golf course asked us to caddy for them. I remember being thrilled with the 25 cents I was paid for caddying a round. (One of the boys who caddied with us that day was Eugene Covert, who later became distinguished as a professor of aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I entered the public relations field and, for a slight fee, was once listed in Who's Who in the Midwest. So, of the three of us, it appears that only John failed to find training in a suitable profession and thus was forced to scratch out a precarious living in television.)

John's father was the local manager of the power company, which then operated a large coal-fired generating plant in Norfolk. Compared with most Norfolk families in those Depression years, the Carsons were considered well off. But on one dismal day, I helped John search half the town for a dollar bill he had lost, and I can remember his mother berating him for his carelessness. (John has since scattered many dollar bills upon Norfolk, and I'm sure his parents, before their deaths, finally concluded that he knew a thing or two about handling money.)   Though I entered Norfolk High School with John in 1939, I left in 1941 and saw him only two or three times after that. The last time was in 1960, when I dropped in at The Little Theater Off Times Square in New York, where he was then doing an afternoon show.

Watching that show being produced live on television, I sensed that John loved the field but didn't really like the advertising connected with it or some of the subjects he had to deal with. That afternoon, the subject was cotton-candy making, and it just didn't have the power to draw out the best in John's wit, though his interviewing skills were always superb. It took another two years before he connected with The Tonight Show and started what has become an astonishing performance record that is not likely to be matched anytime soon.

We were living in Jackson, Mich., when John took over The Tonight Show from Jack Paar. Paar, though I never knew him, had lived in Jackson as a youth and even launched his career at a Jackson radio station. It's really amusing now to recall all the speculation and tired jokes about whether Carson would be "up to Paar." I would guess that a lot of people today couldn't even identify Jack Paar, while Johnny Carson is a household name.

Now that John is retiring, he's been discussed as an intensely private person who is difficult to know. He is said to be a shy person except in situations, such as his talk show, where he is in complete control. We never knew him as a shy person in Norfolk, but when we were in school or riding our bikes somewhere, he was always the one in control. He did sometimes seem to withdraw into a world of his own, but I believe today that this was part of his genius. When his thoughts seemed to be elsewhere, I believe some idea had caught his attention and he was going over it in his mind. I have no doubt that this may be part of his personality, even today.

It will be fun to be back in Norfolk to hear the comments about John's retirement show. I intend to take the Peach Section item to Charles Howser, who was mentioned in it. Chuck said about John, "We owe him a great deal — as an entertainer and as a charitable person toward our community." Like, Chuck, Norfolk people have a nice way of showing their pride in John. On main highways going into the city, large billboards display his portrait. The road from the south has been named Johnny Carson Boulevard, and the high school athletic field also bears his name.

The one thing I do resent, as a Norfolk native, is the suggestion that John grew up in some hick place hidden away at the western tip of the Corn Belt. Norfolk is admittedly in the Corn Belt, but any community would be lucky to have the productive farming that goes on today in that region.

The town has doubled in size since John Carson and I went to school there, and today the county has about 3,000 manufacturing jobs, including many at a steel plant that is competing head-to-head with efficient foreign producers. Norfolk is a progressive, attractive community with great schools, fine stores, and excellent hospitals, as well as lots of bright, well-educated people. In many ways it's well ahead of the larger cities as a good place to live.

I'm sure that nobody realizes this any better than John Carson, who has met everyone and been everywhere. He has been praised for representing the small-town values and, in many cases, expressing old-fashioned courtesy and manners. We're beginning to see that this is not all bad.

So I'm happy to add my recollections to the news about John's retirement. It's nice to have known an outstanding person. And maybe I should have mentioned that before, just to help John with his Toledo ratings.