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Johnny's Last Line : Television: About 500 fans make the pilgrimage to Burbank for the final public taping of Carson's 'Tonight' show.

May 22, 1992|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For hundreds of "Johnny-Come-Lastlys" who thronged NBC Studios on Thursday to get a final live glimpse of Johnny Carson hosting "The Tonight Show," there would be no tomorrow.

About 500 fans, some of whom had come from as far away as Missouri, made the pilgrimage to Burbank, slept overnight on the street and waited patiently for almost 24 hours in order to assure their place in television history:

They wanted to be in the studio audience that would see Carson host the last "Tonight Show" open to the public.

Carson is retiring from the legendary talk show after 30 years, and his final show to be taped and broadcast tonight is by invitation only.

Although crowds have been gathering in front of the studios for weeks to get a last in-person look at Carson, Thursday's taping was the final opportunity for fans to give Johnny one more standing ovation, one more "Hey-Yo," one more cheer when Carson performed his imaginary golf swing to kick off the show.

When the show began, it took Carson two minutes, 15 seconds to quiet the welcoming applause and cheers. "Come on, now really. I don't think I can stand anymore of this," said the comedian, appearing embarrassed.

"I don't know if I can take another day of this."

When comic Robin Williams, one of the final guests, made a bawdy joke later in the show, Carson threw up his hands. "We're outta here tomorrow," he said. "What do I care, what are they going to do? Fire me?"

Although Carson had said he wanted the final hours of his three-decade career to avoid sentimentality, Bette Midler sang a letter she had written titled, "Dear Mr. Carson," and ended the show with a loving rendition of "One More for My Baby" to a misty-eyed Carson.

But the mood on Alameda Avenue outside the studio before the taping began was not one of grief or even sadness, even though it was certain that all the fans would fit into the 465-seat studio.

The upbeat, casually dressed crowd traded Carson quips, showed off magazines and record albums featuring Carson and cheered when television crews asked them to show their appreciation for the late-night host.

"I had to be here, I just had to be here for the last show," said Marilyn Haegele, 29, a farmer from St. Louis, Mo., who had come straight to Burbank from the airport the previous day to get into line for Thursday's show. She held ticket No. 83 as tightly as she could, along with a record album of "Tonight Show" highlights she hoped Carson would autograph.

Haegele said that four generations of her family had enjoyed Carson, "and I just felt I had to be here for the final show. It's real history."

Artist Wan Ali, 23, had come from Chicago to see Carson. He held a baseball cap on the front of which he had just glued a "Tonight Show" ticket and pictures of Carson. He was hoping the glue would dry before he went inside.

"One of Johnny's people said they would give this to him," Ali said. "It's the least I can do. I like the way he brings on normal people, like bird-callers, folks like that. He makes them feel at home, he's so down-to-earth."

Car salesman Paul Rousseau, 32, who said he had gotten in line about 5 p.m. Wednesday, said he planned to cheer loudly when Carson stepped on stage, but he didn't want to overdo it.

"I don't think Johnny likes that. He tells the audience, 'Hey, there's not that much time, there's a lot of show to do,' " he said.

But the first ticket-holder in line, Marian Rudnyk, 31, who works in the Planetary Images facility at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, had other ideas. "It's going to be hard for Johnny to sit me down," he said. "I'm just going to keep clapping."

Although most of the crowd had been waiting all night and all day, some arrived just minutes before the doors opened, hoping for a last-minute miracle.

"I'm hoping they can squeeze at least one more person in," said Marilyn Avakian, 35, who drove in from Irvine. "I don't take up much space. I can swing from the chandelier."

True to the spirit of the "Tonight Show," some members of the crowd came with something to plug. A truck parked across the street had a large marquee bidding Carson farewell, while its occupants handed out flyers advertising a mobile marquee service.

James McLain, an aspiring actor, brought a 1,300-foot roll of paper that he unrolled as a banner for people to sign, thereby attracting attention to himself. "I see an opportunity to cash in on the publicity," he said.

And how did the host of honor respond to all the pre-show hoopla?

There was no indication he even saw it. Shortly before 3 p.m., 2 1/2 hours before the taping, Carson maneuvered his white Corvette into the Bob Hope Drive parking lot around the corner from the big crowd.

He smiled and waved at a few photographers and fans before driving to his parking space. It appeared to be just another day at the office for him.

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