Entertainment icon Johnny Carson announces $5.3 million gift to Hixson-Lied College of Fine & Performing Arts

Released on 11/10/2004, at 10:30 AM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., November 10th, 2004 —
Carson as Cleopatra
Carson as Cleopatra
Carson interviewing on trampoline
Carson interviewing on trampoline
Carson with owl prop
Carson with owl prop
Carson portrait
Carson portrait
Temple Building in 1940s
Temple Building in 1940s

Entertainment and television icon and University of Nebraska alumnus Johnny Carson announced today a gift of $5.3 million to the University of Nebraska Foundation to support the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts' Department of Theatre Arts. The gift will support the renovation and expansion of the Temple Building, located at 12th and R streets on City Campus, and will create an endowment to keep performance spaces equipped with the latest advances in lighting and sound technologies and assist students and programs in the department.

"From the halls of the Temple Building to the studios of NBC, Johnny Carson has left an incredible legacy to the world of entertainment and television," said Terry L. Fairfield, president and CEO of the NU Foundation. "He has been a pioneer in setting the standard for late night talk show hosts, comedians and interviewers. Through this generous gift, Johnny Carson creates another rich legacy to provide educational opportunities and possibilities for the next wave of actors, designers, writers and filmmakers at the University of Nebraska."

Plans for the renovation and expansion of the Temple Building will include a new black box theatre and film sound stage for students to use in their productions, a newly remodeled and expanded scene shop and updated lighting facilities, new computer-aided design and theatre class lab space, new offices for attracting additional graduate assistants, enhanced storage facilities, and an updated lobby for the Howell Theatre. When completed, the new addition will connect the Temple Building to the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center.

"This gift is obviously a very special one," said Giacomo M. Oliva, Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts endowed dean. "Not only because of the person who has given it, but also because of what it will enable us to do for the Department of Theatre Arts and the college. This gift will have an immediate and lasting positive impact on the students and faculty in the department as it enables us to create and support state-of-the-art facilities that will enhance the opportunities for theatre and film students for many years to come."

The announcement of the gift comes just as the Temple Building celebrates its 100th anniversary. The University of Nebraska Board of Regents authorized the construction of the Temple Building in December 1904, and the building opened in 1906. Its construction was made possible by a donation of $66,666.67 from oil magnate John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller's gift covered two-thirds of the building's original $100,000 cost.

Tentative plans for Carson's gift call for the renovation and upgrading of the Temple Building to begin following the spring academic term in May. The work is expected to take just over one year with completion of the work slated for the summer of 2006.

"I got my start in the Temple Building and have never forgotten the impact of my academic studies at the University of Nebraska on my life and career," Carson said. "It is my hope that this gift will enable future generations of theatre and film students to learn their craft in the Temple Building, which will enable them to pursue their goals, just as I did."

John Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, on Oct. 23, 1925, and grew up in Norfolk, Neb. He served in World War II in the Navy as an ensign, before enrolling at the University of Nebraska in 1947. Carson received his bachelor of arts degree in radio and speech (with a minor in physics) in 1949.

His 1949 senior thesis was titled "How to Write Comedy for Radio," which he recorded on a reel-to-reel tape. The 50-minute recording was a scholarly examination of the techniques and devices that radio comedy writers used to construct the jokes and gags in comedy radio shows. Using bits from several well-known comedians, such as Jack Benny and Bob Hope, Carson illustrated the various techniques used to write comedy, which he later effectively used in television through his "Tonight Show" monologues.

Carson also served as master of ceremonies for the male dramatic society Kosmet Klub shows on campus from 1947-1949, and he once dressed in drag to become the first man to ever emcee the female Co-Ed Follies Show in 1948.

Both Carson and his brother, Dick ('51), were members of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. John Carson starred in the Fiji's Kosmet Klub skits. The fraternity won first place in the 1947 Kosmet Klub fall revue for their skit, "She Was Only a Pharaoh's Daughter, But She Never Became a Mummy," which featured Carson as Cleopatra.

His sister, Catherine ('45), was a member of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority.

While at the University of Nebraska, Carson performed locally at the American Legion, VFW and local clubs in Lincoln at night, practicing the skills he learned during the day in the Temple Building. Carson also wrote and did shows for KFAB radio, then broadcasting from Lincoln.

Following his graduation from the university, he worked at WOW Television in Omaha. After leaving Nebraska, he worked for a Hollywood television station, where he hosted his own program, "Carson's Cellar."

He hosted the television shows "Earn Your Vacation" and "Who Do You Trust?" before filling in for Jack Paar on "The Tonight Show" in 1958. On Oct. 1, 1962, Carson became the Tonight Show's new host. When he retired on May 22, 1992, after more than 4,000 shows and more than a half century of comedy performance, Carson's final show was a national event.

Throughout his successful career, Carson has maintained a strong relationship to the University of Nebraska. In the 1970s, Carson established an endowed scholarship at the NU Foundation to assist outstanding Nebraska high school graduates. To date, these scholarships have helped 24 students with their education at the university.

In 1988, Carson gave a gift to support the construction of the Lied Center for Performing Arts. The black box theatre adjoining the main stage was renamed the Johnny Carson Theater in his honor.

In December 1993, Carson received the Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award. The University of Nebraska publicly said thanks to Carson through the Cornhusker Marching Band's performance of "There is No Place Like Nebraska" and "The Tonight Show Theme" with Doc Severinsen during Carson's nationally televised tribute.

The Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts was established in 1993 and includes the Department of Art and Art History, the Department of Theatre Arts and the School of Music, as well as the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center.

The University of Nebraska Foundation is a nonprofit corporation supplementing support for students, faculty, facilities and programs at the University of Nebraska's four campuses through gifts from alumni, friends, corporations and other foundations.

CONTACTS: Christine Aguirre, University of Nebraska Foundation; and
Kathe Andersen, Hixson-Lied College of Fine & Performing Arts, (402) 472-9355