Gift sets Johnny Carson Theater renovation

UNL dance students perform in the Johnny Carson Theater as part of the April 26 renovation announcement. (Troy Fedderson, University Communications)
UNL dance students perform in the Johnny Carson Theater as part of the April 26 renovation announcement. (Troy Fedderson, University Communications)

UNL's Johnny Carson Theater is getting a $571,500 facelift.

The renovation, made possible with a gift from the John W. Carson Foundation, was announced April 26. The project will include a complete redesign of the theater's entrance and lobby and a new performance floor.

At the gift announcement, Chancellor Harvey Perlman said UNL is again honored to receive support from the foundation of the late Johnny Carson, who proudly grew up in Nebraska and graduated from the university.

"As an integral arm of our performing arts program, the Johnny Carson Theater is an important venue that provides our students and Nebraska residents with opportunities to experience many aspects of the performing arts," Perlman said. "We are incredibly appreciative of this gift, which promises to greatly improve the experience guests will have at the theater while proudly honoring Johnny Carson's legacy."

Bill Stephan, executive director of the Lied Center, said the renovation would provide a new entrance to the theater, nearly double the size of the lobby area and provide a new high-grade floor to serve the theater for the next 20 years.

"The renovation will provide a dramatic new entrance and appropriate lobby area for the Carson Theater, helping to create an environment that will help patrons begin to experience the ultimate theatrical journey," Stephan said. "The renovation will also feature a new tribute area to celebrate Johnny Carson's legacy and entertainment contributions."

The theater is a black box theater that seats up to 250 people and is able to be configured for a variety of different performances. The diverse space is host to more than 100 events annually, ranging from professional theater presentations and dance concerts to youth programs and special events. Located on the west side of the Lied Center, it was named after Carson in recognition of a gift he provided toward construction of the Lied Center in 1990.

Once a project architect is selected, final designs are approved and a construction contractor is hired, the university estimates construction could begin next summer and be completed by the end of 2014.

The gift joins other major support from Carson and his foundation, which has bolstered the university's theater, film and broadcasting education. In 1978 he established the Johnny Carson Scholarship, a permanently endowed fund for Nebraska high school graduates. His gift in 1988 supported the construction of the Lied Center. The theater adjoining the main stage became the Johnny Carson Theater.

In 2004, Carson gave $5.3 million toward theater and film programs at the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts and to renovate and expand the university's Temple Building, home to the theater program and where Carson studied. After his death in 2005, the university received a $5 million gift from his estate to create an endowment to support programs in theater, film and broadcasting. In his memory and recognition, the theatre arts department was renamed the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film.

The John W. Carson Foundation gave $1 million in 2011 to create the Johnny Carson Opportunity Scholarship Fund, a permanently endowed scholarship fund that provides annual scholarship assistance to students from Nebraska who study within the Carson School of Theatre and Film.

Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, in 1925, and grew up in Norfolk. He served in World War II in the Navy before enrolling at the university in 1947. He received a bachelor's degree in radio and speech with a minor in physics in 1949. He hosted "The Tonight Show" from 1962 to 1992. He 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.

— Robb Crouch, University of Nebraska Foundation