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Article - NUs favorite son comedian makes another serious gift

NU's favorite son comedian makes another serious gift

On Friday at UNL's Temple Building, where legendary comedian Johnny Carson once honed his skills, the University of Nebraska Foundation announced a $1 million gift from the John W. Carson Foundation.

Posted: Tue, Nov 8, 2011

Heeeeere's ... Johnny!

And yet another generous gift for his alma mater.

On Friday at UNL's Temple Building, where legendary comedian Johnny Carson once honed his skills, the University of Nebraska Foundation announced a $1 million gift from the John W. Carson Foundation.

The money will create the Johnny Carson Opportunity Scholarship fund in honor of Carson, who died in 2005.

The scholarships will help students in the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts who – like Carson – graduated from high schools in Nebraska. (Preference will be given to students in the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film.)

Carson grew up in Norfolk, Neb. After World War II, he enrolled at the University of Nebraska, graduating in 1949 with a bachelor of arts degree in radio and speech with a minor in physics.

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

"Once again, Johnny Carson's legacy lives on at the University of Nebraska," he 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 after the Carson Lecture presented by "Mr. Baseball," Bob Uecker.

Two of the three members of the John W. Carson Foundation Board – Jeff Sotzing, the 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 board member, Allan Alexander, a lawyer from Beverly Hills, Calif., wanted to be there but had to cancel to attend a trial in L.A.

"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 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 to 1949, and he once dressed in drag to become the first man to ever emcee the female "Co-Ed Follies Show" in 1948.

Both Johnny and his brother, Dick ('51), were members of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. Johnny Carson starred in the fraternity'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" 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.

In 2004, Carson donated $5.3 million to the University of Nebraska Foundation to support theatre and film programs in the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts and to renovate and expand the Temple Building, at 12th and R streets, 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 theatre, 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.

Support for students like those in the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts is a top priority of the Campaign for Nebraska. If you'd like to help, please give online or contact the foundation at 800-432-3216.

In 2007, two students from the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film and two students from the College of Journalism and Mass Communications created "Johnny Carson: Student of Comedy," in cooperation with Nebraska Educational Telecommunications (NET). This video is an excerpt of that film. To see the whole film, go here.

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