Tag Archives: Johnny Carson

Where’s Johnny’s?

December 28, 2016 by
Photography by Contributed

Johnny Carson was the definitive talk show host of the 20th century, hosting The Tonight Show for three decades at a time when it was the undisputed king of late night television. Carson started his career as a professional broadcaster in Omaha, a fact that is fondly remembered.

Carson started at WOW-TV in Omaha in the 1950s, and he remained friendly with many of his coworkers there long after he became a national celebrity. Carson was also an amateur magician and performed locally, a fact that appears now and then in local stories about the man.
A now-defunct local business was associated with Carson’s name, too. But this endeavor has received less attention, as it didn’t go all that well.

johnny_carson_1970The idea was not Carson’s. It was that of Gilbert “Gibby” Swanson Jr., one of the scions of the Swanson company that introduced TV dinners to the American public. Gibby was the third generation of Swansons to run the company, despite his background, which had mostly been in various elements of security and law enforcement (which supposedly remained an obsession of his).
Swanson approached Carson with the idea of a restaurant chain bearing Johnny Carson’s name. It would serve typical American food with a Johnny Carson touch, such as the “Carnac Burger,” a sandwich named after one of Carson’s signature characters, an all-seeing seer in a feathered turban.
Carson lent his name to the project, but, he later claimed, little else—he was neither the owner of the business nor a stakeholder. He was, instead, board chairman, a job that was “mostly for publicity purposes,” according to the World-Herald. This would prove important later.

There was initially much excitement about the opening of the chain, which debuted in Omaha on 72nd Street in 1969. Carson himself came out to promote the opening, taking a tour of his old haunts and charming the press. A second restaurant opened on Saddle Creek, but only lasted a few years.
Meanwhile, Here’s Johnny’s restaurants began to spring up across America—a reported 302 franchises were purchased in the U.S. and Canada. Of those that opened, most were short-lived, and in 1979 the company went bankrupt. The World-Herald reported that the Swanson family took a bath on the enterprise, with Gibby losing $1.77 million of his own money; Gibby owed another $1.2 million to other Swanson companies and his brother, Jay.

Several franchise owners filed lawsuits against the company, claiming disastrous rollout, including kitchen equipment that “disintegrated,” as well as claims that franchisees were told Carson himself had invested in the company, only to later learn that this wasn’t true. In September 1976, the first Here’s Johnny’s restaurant on 72nd closed, bringing an end to the business.

This wasn’t Gibby’s only failed franchise, but there is a happier ending to another story: Gibby hoped to start a franchise of fried chicken restaurants targeted at inner-city business owners, and partnered with sports stars Bob Gibson and Bob Boozer to achieve this goal. While the business never developed into a true franchise, it did manage to open one restaurant: Time Out Foods, which is still a beloved institution in North Omaha.

Visit timeoutfoods.com for more information.

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You Know You’ve Lived in Omaha A Long Time

October 15, 2015 by
  1. Johnny Carson hosting a show on WOW-TV in 1950 called The Squirrel’s Nest. The Omaha show was the television debut for the Nebraska native who went on to national stardom as a late-night TV host.  Remember when Carson took a microphone onto the ledge of the county courthouse to interview the pigeons?  He wanted to give their side of the controversy surrounding pigeon’s loitering on the ledges.
  2. You followed your nose to South Omaha. The neighborhood was malodorous because of nearby stockyards. Some neighbors referred to it as “the smell of money.”  Nicknamed “The Magic City” in the 1890s, South Omaha is an historical and culturally diverse area with eclectic neighborhoods like Little Italy and Little Bohemia.  Each year Cinco De Mayo adds fun and music to the streets.
  3. The Omar Baking Company near 43rd and Nicholas streets filled the neighborhood with sniff-worthy aroma by delivering bread door to door. You may remember the jingle:  “I’m the Omar man, (tap, tap, tap). Knocking at your door (rappa tap tap). When you taste my bread (mmmm boy!), you’re gonna want more (rappa tap tap).” The building is now used for offices and events.
  4. Perhaps your brush with fame was graduating from Westside High School in 1959 with actor Nick Nolte, eventually named People Magazine’s 1992 Sexiest Man Alive. Or living nearby when Jane and Peter Fonda resided with their aunt on Izard Street. You may have gone to UNO with Peter or cruised Dodge Street with Jane.
  5. You might have tasted the world’s first TV dinner (98 cents each) in the 1950s, introduced by Omaha brothers Gilbert and W. Clarke Swanson. The package was designed to look like a TV set at a time when only 20 percent of American homes had a television.  The TV dinner’s aluminum tray ended up in the Smithsonian Institute in 1986 as an American cultural milestone.The Swanson name lives on in Omaha on W. Clarke Swanson Public Library, Swanson Elementary School, Creighton’s W. Clarke Swanson Hall, and Durham Museum’s Swanson Gallery.
  6. The Orpheum, a movie theater built in 1927 as a burlesque theater, closed in 1971. Maybe you were there in January 17, 1975, for the renovated theater’s grand reopening. We know you weren’t there in 1971 for the last movie shown; the theater was empty.
  7. The Indian Hills movie theater built in 1961 near 84th and Dodge streets was called “the hat box” because of its shape. Perhaps you were among the people who tried to save the wide-screen Super-Cinerama theater building before it was torn down in 2001.
  8. The Cooper theater near 15th and Douglas streets, a former “bastion of bump” (burlesque) when its name was The Moon, was a place to see movies until it was demolished in 1975.

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Omaha Press Club

October 29, 2013 by
Illustration by Jim Horan

While other city clubs have closed in defeat, the Omaha Press Club marks its 42nd anniversary on the 22nd floor of the First National Center in Downtown Omaha.

Does the club stay open because of the spectacular view from windows stretching to the ceiling? The glowing copper fireplace? The food?

Executive Director Steve Villamonte explains the club’s durability, even through a recession: “There is something going on all the time. The club offers events from lunch-and-learn opportunities to wine dinners to holiday buffets.”

Retired WOWT newscaster Gary Kerr and his committee hold monthly educational events. Sports forums at noon feature such topics as Nebraska football and 
Creighton basketball.

Each year, journalists are inducted into the OPC Hall of Fame. Their names are engraved on a plaque in the club’s Hall of History. Among the first inducted in 2008 were Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown (read more on Brown), NBC-TV’s Floyd Kalber, and legendary radio sportscaster Lyell Bremser.

The OPC Foundation’s annual Omaha Press Club Show, which raises funds for journalism scholarships, will be held next year on April 3.

The space’s premier event is the ‘Face on the Barroom Floor’ dinner. When the club’s restaurant opened in 1971, members decided to celebrate the people who give journalists something to write about. Walls are now covered with caricature drawings of 
newsmakers’ faces.

The satirical artwork by artist Jim Horan (full disclosure…yes, the author is Jim’s wife, and she also serves on the organization’s board) is presented in fun as friends roast the subject. A zinger directed to Larry the Cable Guy is a sample of the teasing that honorees endure: “I’m happy to say fame has not gone to his [Larry’s] head, only to his waistline.”

The most recent honoree was Omaha Magazine publisher Todd Lemke.

The first caricature was that of fun-loving Omaha Mayor Gene Leahy. Nebraska football coach Bob Devaney followed him in 1972. Also that year, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew dropped by the club to see his ‘Face.’

Agnew had a love-hate relationship with the press, whom he once famously described as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” So it was with tongues in cheek that Omaha Press Club officers named a private room at the club the “Spiro Agnew Room.”

Among other well-known ‘Faces’ hanging on the club’s walls are Bob Gibson, Chuck Hagel, Tom Osborne, and Johnny Carson.

Horan said that his drawing of Warren Buffett is his favorite because of the billionaire’s unruly hair: “Warren looked at his caricature the night he roasted Walter Scott at a ‘Face’ event and quipped, ‘I’ve got to rethink that 25 cent tip for my barber.’”

The disappearance of Buffett’s ‘Face on the Barroom Floor’ became national news in 2008. The New York Times and Forbes magazine were among media that published stories about the missing artwork. Omaha heaved a sigh of relief when the drawing was finally found.

On Sept. 9, the Lauritzen Room was dedicated to honor the First National Bank family that helped open the club 42 years ago.

“Without their continuing support,” Villamonte says, “it would have been difficult for us to succeed.”