In October of 2006, I headed out to the Music Hall in Toronto to see Tonight Show legend Ed McMahon. I had interviewed the veteran sidekick on the phone a few days earlier for the Toronto Sun (read that story here). He sounded excited to be coming to a place called the "Music Hall," and asked if it was a grand old theatre in the English vaudeville tradition. I said I'd heard they were fixing the place up, but I knew, and kept to myself, that the Danforth venue had seen better days.
The night he performed it snowed in Toronto. The place was about a third full at best. McMahon was dressed in a tux, sat on a chair, and spoke for a little over an hour. The night was billed as "Ed McMahon's Memories of the Tonight Show" but he either didn't have any memories or just chose to keep them to himself. His act consisted mainly of telling five really long jokes he borrowed from frequent Tonight Show guest Rodney Dangerfield and then referencing slides and video clips thrown up on a screen through a wonky power point presentation.
Some of the clips were vintage Tonight Show moments, some outtakes as well as those old live commercials he used to do for Alpo or Budweiser (the kind of ads that are coming back on TV now). They were all stuff anybody there could have found on YouTube. It was all cued up backstage by a young man named Bob who mixed up the order of the clips a few times. McMahon grew testy, joking at one point that Bob was also the lookout at Pearl Harbor. Yes, Ed McMahon told a pearl harbor joke in 2006.
The folks who were there, many in their 50s and 60s, seemed to get a kick out of being this close to a TV personality they enjoyed each night for 30 years on Johnny Carson's Tonight. There was a question and answer session, but ever-loyal Ed would still not spill the beans about his boss, Johnny, who had died the previous year. Nothing you didn't already know was said.
Still, the fans got their money's worth. One man came all the way from Ottawa to thank McMahon for all the laughs. It really was too bad the theatre had not been full, it would have been a much happier night.
After the show, the theatre manager walked a few of us backstage to meet McMahon. It wasn't even backstage. McMahon stood up against the curtain, off to the side, blocking the way past. He signed a few posters and shook a few hands. He didn't look too happy.
I always thought it was odd that a showbiz veteran like McMahon would come up to Toronto on a snowy night to perform at a place that wasn't exactly Massey Hall. It all made a little more sense to me several months later when I was having lunch with my old pal, B.C.-based publicist Bill Vigars. Vigars told me he was working on the advance shows leading up to the Vancouver Olympics and his boss, David Foster, told him to hired Ed McMahon to emcee an event. Vigars thought that was a strange request--McMahon had already geared down to promoting those seniors bathtubs with the doors at the time--but Foster was being kind; he knew McMahon was broke and really needed the money.
That news took a lot of people by surprise when it broke later in 2007. How could a guy with a steady, 30-year gig in TV, who was a commercial pitchman for many big name brands, who did all those Blooper shows with Dick Clark, possibly be broke? Three wives and bad business deals seemed to be the answer.
While I had McMahon on the phone, I asked him about a couple of Tonight Show rumors for my last book. One of them was the infamous "I kissed his balls" tale that Arnold Palmer's wife supposedly told Carson on the air (supposedly she did to her husband before every tourney for good luck). "Oh ho ho--yes--I was there that night!" said McMahon. He also had vivid memories of the night Raquel Welch or Jane Fonda or whoever showed up with a cat on their lap and asked Johnny if he wanted to pet her pussy. "The place went crazy!" said McMahon.
Neither of those things ever happened. McMahon may not have had very sharp memories, but the ex-Marine was a trooper, an old school entertainer. He never let the truth get in the way of a good story. He was always only too eager to say, "You are correct, sir."
He was the big Irishman who held Carson up those 5000 nights on the Tonight Show, who never missed a opportunity to punch up one of the bosses' jokes with a laugh or a hearty "Heyoooooooo."
He died this morning, just a few weeks after Conan O'Brien succeeded Jay Leno as host of Tonight, bringing back the sidekick tradition by re-hiring his old pal, Andy Richter. McMahon was 86. Read the early wire report here.