John W. Carson Foundation donates $1 million for scholarships at UNL

Released on 11/04/2011, at 3:30 PM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., November 4th, 2011 —

The John W. Carson Foundation announced today a $1 million gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation to create the Johnny Carson Opportunity Scholarship Fund.

The permanently endowed scholarship fund will annually benefit students in the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts who are graduates of high schools in Nebraska, with preference for students in the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film.

“Johnny Carson’s ties to the University of Nebraska are long and deep,” the John W. Carson Foundation said. “He was grateful for the education he received and the time he spent at the university. His gratitude was exemplified by the numerous gifts he made to the university during his lifetime. The John W. Carson Foundation is pleased to continue this tradition by establishing the Johnny Carson Opportunity Scholarship Fund to assist deserving students.”

Chancellor Harvey Perlman said the gift demonstrates the continued support of Johnny Carson to his home state of Nebraska.

“Once again, Johnny Carson’s legacy lives on at the University of Nebraska,” Perlman said. “He has demonstrated time and time again his love for his home state, and we are grateful to the Carson Foundation Board for this generous gift to help our students with much-needed scholarship support.”

The gift was announced on Nov. 4 following the Carson Lecture presented by “Mr. Baseball” Bob Uecker. Two members of the John W. Carson Foundation Board -- Jeff Sotzing, president of Carson Entertainment Group and nephew of Johnny Carson; and Larry Witzer, president of Gettleson, Witzer & Co., Lexington Financial Management LLC in Beverly Hills, Calif., -- were present for the announcement in Howell Theatre in the Temple Building on UNL’s city campus. The third John W. Carson Foundation Board Member, Allan Alexander, was unable to attend.

In 2004, Carson donated $5.3 million to the University of Nebraska Foundation to support theater and film programs in the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts and to renovate and expand the Temple Building, home to the theatre program and where Carson studied radio. In 2005, the university received an additional $5 million gift from the estate of Carson for endowed support of programs in theater, film and broadcasting, following Carson’s death on Jan. 23, 2005.

The university’s Department of Theatre Arts was renamed the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film in 2005.

With this recent gift, Carson’s support for the University of Nebraska totals more than $12 million. Terry Fairfield, vice chair of the University of Nebraska Foundation, said Carson’s gifts have transformed the department.

“The generosity of Johnny Carson forever changed the future of the theater and film programs,” Fairfield said. “This new permanently endowed scholarship continues his commitment to students and his legacy at the University of Nebraska.”

“Johnny Carson began his career right here in the Temple Building at the University of Nebraska. One of his enduring legacies was helping others achieve their dreams by giving them their big break by appearing on The Tonight Show,” said Paul Steger, Director of the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film. “Throughout his career, he also never forgot his roots in Nebraska and has been very generous to the university over the years. These scholarships continue that generous legacy and will help the next generations of Nebraska students learn their craft and pursue their own dreams at his namesake Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film. We are so grateful to Allan Alexander, Jeff Sotzing and Larry Witzer for their continued support of Johnny’s beloved University of Nebraska.”

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. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in radio and speech with a minor in physics in 1949.

His 1949 senior thesis was entitled “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 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 John 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 in Lincoln.

He hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for 30 years, from 1962 to 1992. Carson earned six Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992 and received Kennedy Center Honors in 1993.

Writer: Kathe Andersen, Fine and Performing Arts