‘King of Late Night’ got his start in Iowa

by Michael Swanger

“Heeeeere’s Johnny!”

Six years after his death and 19 years after his retirement as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” those two words — like the icon himself — continue to leave an indelible impression on millions of television viewers. So much so that each time you hear them repeated during a late-night infomercial advertising video collections, fond memories of Johnny Carson’s television career come rushing back.

That enthusiastic, definitive introduction that Ed McMahon made each night from 1962 to 1992 is one of the many legacies of the “King of Late Night” who was reportedly viewed by more than 80 billion people. Yet the first chapter of his fascinating life story begins humbly in Iowa.

Born in Corning, Iowa, a town located about half way between Des Moines and Omaha, on October 23, 1925, to Homer “Kit” Lloyd Carson and Ruth Hook Carson, John William Carson was first raised with his older sister Catherine in a small house that is now home to the Johnny Carson Birthplace Society.

“Kit” Carson was the manager of the Iowa-Nebraska Light and Power Company and Ruth Carson worked as a homemaker.

“They were very friendly, very nice people. Lovely people,” said an anonymous friend of the family and former employee of the power company in Mike Chapman’s 1983 book, Iowans of Impact. “I just barely knew Johnny, of course, as he was just a little boy, but I did babysit him once for his father. He was a cute little boy.”

When Carson was about two or three years old, his family moved from Corning to nearby Red Oak, where his younger brother Dick (who later served as director of “The Tonight Show” for a brief time) was born. When Carson was five years of age, they moved to Avoca and eventually, Clarinda. That’s four Iowa towns in eight years.

“He spent his early childhood in the small towns of southwestern Iowa,” wrote Douglas Lorence in his book, Johnny Carson: A Biography, “tiny little pimples of houses, silos and barns clumped together in that vast never-ending expanse of fertile land known as America’s grain basket.”