RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Once thought to be lost, a film reel containing clips of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, was discovered in a military visual information storage facility here and turned over to Jeff Sotzing, Carson’s nephew, Oct. 1.
The clips, dating back to 1963, were found on an archived 16mm film reel stored at the Defense Imagery Management Operations Center just outside March Air Reserve Base.
In the past, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service would receive film reels from the production studios and distribute the programming to service members around the world. After the footage was shown and no longer needed, it was returned to the studios, destroyed, or sometimes kept on site at the AFRTS facility, now called the American Forces Network Broadcast Center (AFN-BC).
“Somebody had the brains or historical foresight to save this reel,” said Pedro Loureiro, Ph.D., archivist at DIMOC.
According to Loureiro, the television industry previously reused its tapes. Newer episodes were recorded over the older material without much thought of archiving what is now thought of as part of the “golden age” of television.
“Everything from the 1960’s is considered lost,” he said.
“That’s what they did with everybody’s show,” said Sotzing, Chief Executive Officer of the Carson Entertainment Group, the owners of Carson’s archives. Besides being related to the late Johnny Carson, Sotzing even worked on the show from 1977-1992, working his way up from runner to producing the show.
“I’m really looking forward to adding this film to the collection. Almost everything [the Carson Show] from 1962-1973 is gone,” said Sotzing.
Mary Carnes, a retired program support manager at AFN-BC, discovered the reel as she was sorting through a box of old items that had been overlooked for years.
“As soon as I saw it, I knew it was a gem,” Carnes said. “Giving it back to the family and the Carson archives will be like a birthday or Christmas for them.”
“This is one of the great parts of the job here; we can do the work we do to entertain our troops and document history at the same time,” she said. “It’s really great.”
Great is an understatement. In all, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson highlighted nearly 23,000 stars in 4,351 episodes over a 30-year span. Carson won six Emmy Awards, the Peabody Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Kennedy Center Honors and is a member of the Television Academy Hall of Fame.
“Johnny would make an on-air plea (for lost footage),” Sotzing said. “He would be thrilled to get this.”
“A lot of young people don’t know who Johnny Carson is,” he said. “This helps show them.”
The DIMOC facility contains vast amounts of still photos, video footage and even correspondence letters dating back to WWII.
The found footage will be digitally recorded, transcribed and then made available for users of the Carson Entertainment Group’s searchable online archives. The physical footage will be stored at a former salt mine in Hutchinson, Kan., which currently houses the Carson archives as well as many other Hollywood film archives, according to Sotzing.