Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Johnny Carson and Old Vegas

I love reading about the Las Vegas I remember, a time before megacasinos.

When I saw Henry Bushkin’s book "Johnny Carson," something about the author’s name jogged my memory. Maybe it’s because my parents and I watched “The Tonight Show,” and I remember Carson’s “Bombastic Bushkin” jokes. Maybe it’s because my mom, Barbara Hudson, worked for KVVU TV5 Las Vegas when Johnny Carson bought the television station in 1978, something Bushkin writes about in the book.

Here’s my mom and Johnny Carson at some employee function for the TV station. My mom’s sister, my 94-year-old aunt, still talks about this picture. At the time this Polaroid was taken, which I’m guessing was about 1980, Johnny Carson was incredibly famous and getting a picture taken with him was a Big Deal (remember, this was before camera phones). That picture was such a Big Deal, in fact, that Mom got copies made and sent one back home.  

Mom was the controller for TV5, and I have to wonder if she didn’t spend some time talking to Henry Bushkin. (Mom passed away in 2008, so unfortunately I can’t ask her.) Bushkin, as he relates in his book, was Carson’s attorney/manager/confidant/advisor. To paraphrase his own description, he was just like those guys on “Entourage,” only there was just one of him.

Las Vegas in the 1970s gets an entire chapter in “Johnny Carson,” and it was my favorite chapter (of course, because it’s the time and place of my childhood). Bushkin describes how blasé the locals were about celebrities—and how refreshing that was for the famous:

“The locals left the stars alone, and somehow most of the guests in the casino grasped that they shouldn’t ask for autographs.”

(Which as a complete aside, reminds me of the time I got James Garner’s autograph during his “Rockford Series” days, but that’s another story.)

“Once we were in line at the register at Food King, and the customer in front of us caught a glimpse of Johnny. ‘Oh my God!’ she said. ‘What are you doing here?’

“Johnny shrugged. ‘I needed peanut butter.’”

The Vegas I grew up in was a small place, filled with people who either worked with celebrities, or were well-known themselves. Fritz Becker, conductor for the Mills Brothers, lived across the street from us (we watched his house when he was traveling, which was often). Poker legend Doyle Brunson lived about five blocks away (in his pre-legend days), in a house Jackie Gaughan built, in the then-ritzy neighborhood at the top of Oakey Hill. Many of our neighbors were engineers, stage hands, or musicians. My dad, a bartender, often worked showroom bars and knew scores of both the famous and infamous. (Speaking of infamous, Dad was especially fond of Moe Daliz, as were many long-time Vegas residents).

Bushkin writes quite a bit about Jack Eglash, the influential entertainment director and band director at the Sahara, who lived just a few blocks away from our house. I went to school with his daughter. I had no idea what an important Las Vegan Eglash was—I just knew his daughter had a pogo stick, which I considered a seriously exotic item.

I enjoyed Bushkin’s book, not only because of his descriptions of Vegas, but because Carson was a fascinating person and a ground-breaker. He set the standard for the late-night talk show genre. Bushkin’s account of the 18 years he worked for Carson is an engaging portrait of a television icon during the height of his fame.


Do you remember Johnny Carson -- or Old Vegas?


Marielaina Perrone DDS said...

What a fantastic story about las vegas history. Bet your mom could have told some stories!

TH Meeks said...

Thanks! Both my parents had great stories & I'm lucky enough to have a few myself. :)