Johnny Carson – legendary entertainer and long-time host of The Tonight Show, grew up in Norfolk, Nebraska. He was born in nearby Corning, Iowa but moved to town with his family at the age of 8 and always maintained that Norfolk was his “hometown.” His last known public visit here was in 1982 when he filmed a television special called Johnny Goes Home. The program featured Carson driving around town in an automobile his family once owned and visiting familiar places including his childhood home.
Johnny Carson has been gone from television for close to 30 years yet his legacy looms large over the multitude of today’s late night television show hosts. His legacy is also preserved around the city of Norfolk with murals, an extensive museum exhibit, and of course his childhood home.
The home itself would be unrecognizable to Carson as it’s required many renovations in recent years. Current owner Jim McKenzie poured his heart and soul into saving the house which was on the brink of collapse. Termite damage and neglect over time left the house in extremely poor condition. However, the basic layout of the home remains the same with a few exceptions. There’s still a fireplace where Johnny used to listen to radio shows as a kid and Carson’s childhood room still has the same dimensions. It’s a pretty tight space considering he shared the room with his brother.
One thing that didn’t exist when Carson lived there – a door bell that plays The Tonight Show theme song and other show clips when you ring it.
Norfolk’s local history museum has had the good fortunate of forming a close relationship with Johnny Carson’s nephew Jeff Sotzing. Sotzing, who was also a producer on The Tonight Show, has gifted the Elkhorn Valley Museum with one of a kind artifacts for their Johnny Carson Gallery. Some of the items on display include Carson’s Emmy awards and his personal Rolodex with celebrity phone numbers and addresses.
One display case features two recognizable wardrobe pieces from the show. You’ll see the costumes worn by Carson while portraying Art Fern – the Tea Time Movie announcer and Floyd R. Turbo – the politically conservative “everyman” who taped editorial messages.
In addition to recognizing his legendary run as host of The Tonight Show, the Carson Gallery also spotlights Johnny’s time living in Norfolk. One of the exhibits in the newly updated collection highlights the scrapbooks that Johnny’s Mom had kept with news clippings about her son. Carson had an uncomfortable relationship with his parents and a strained relationship with most of his immediate family. The scrapbook discovery adds an interesting twist to the long held notion that Mrs. Carson didn’t much care about her son’s fame or career.
The museum has a couple of really cool photo-ops for visitors, too. You can stand in front of the curtains as Johnny did during his famous nightly monologue, surrounded by actual cue cards used on the show. You can also have a seat in the guest’s chair next to a cardboard cutout of the host at a replica of his interview desk.
Around Norfolk you can see the impact Johnny Carson had on this entire city. His generosity helped build things like a local performing arts theater and a cancer center. You can also see a celebration of his life and career on a beautiful mural painted by Norfolk artist Karl Reeder. The mural depicts Carson’s life growing up in Norfolk and scenes from his days on Tonight Show including his very last broadcast on May 22, 1992.
If you’re planning a visit to Norfolk, seriously consider staying at Norfolk Lodge & Suites. This place is awesome! It’s a beautiful property and the guest room was huge and super comfortable!
If you’d like to tour Johnny Carson’s Boyhood Home – it’s currently a private residence although tours can be arranged through the Elkhorn Museum. Please do not just show up to the house.
For other things to see and do when visiting Norfolk, you can check out the local tourism website: Visit Norfolk Area.