Life on the Water ~ Tonight Show Part Two

ImageYes, I went to the NBC Credit Union and took out a loan to “buy” the boat over the next seven years. It was a pretty, albeit old, wooden Chris Craft cabin cruiser. There was an enclosed back, which meant the deck with the steering wheel and engines beneath was our living room. Down into the cabin you found a dining table, which converted to our bed and a very small kitchen ~ thank goodness for the crock pot craze and the advertisers on the Tonight Show that provided many props.  The front of the boat – or the bow – had a “v” berth with room for two tiny people. Jake’s sons fit snugly. They loved the adventure and for about a month, so did I. Or did I just love my father’s reaction – “Holy sh*t…you’ve lost your mind.”  Perhaps I had.

The closet on the boat held about five work outfits and the “head” aka bathroom was not to be used at dock.  No worries ~ a restroom complete with showers were a mere 1/4 mile up the dock.  As I write this I shudder in disbelief at what I chose as my reality, but at the time I thought of the boat as a large water bed.Image

I wish I could say things were good. But, Jake was not having fun with his “mid life crisis.” It involved dramatic changes at work where he was relegated to managing people no one had ever heard of and, more than likely, never would. The financial strains of his first life were creating damaging cracks in his second.  Post taxes and boat payments, my salary was stretched and I was not the happiest of campers, either.  Not to mention I always felt a bit moldy.  And not in a good way. The good way to feel moldy is in France surrounded by a whole lot of great cheese.

We decided to go to San Francisco for our first anniversary.  Image Jake had a conference to attend so I had free time during the day.  Don’t ask me what possessed me, but I called an employment agency and went on an interview at an advertising agency.  Down by the wharf ~ large brick buildings ~ San Francisco was a seductive city, for sure.  While the agency wasn’t The Tonight Show there were good accounts and the dangling carrot of a Jr. Account Executive position should I do well in this entry level post.  I told them my husband and I were moving to San Francisco.  They told me they liked me and would let me know in a few days.

That night I called my mom while Jake was still in meetings.  Turning 25 was a milestone and I let her know I was feeling “old.” Her response, “why should being 25 matter?  You’re married.”  As she surely wasn’t crazy about the guy, seemingly it was the status that counted.  Can you understand why my life-view was skewed…and screwed?

About a week after our return to Los Angeles I received a phone call offering me the job.  Remember this was pre-cell and mobile phone days.  We had a phone on the boat with a really long chord that plugged into a jack on the dock.  I lost count of how many times I tripped over that really long chord.    The money was significantly more than I was making.  I had twenty four hours to make the decision.

You’ve surely noticed that many cliches are actually truths repeated so often by so many of us.  A personal favorite ~ hindsight is 20/20.  From where I stand right now I see the choice I was leaning toward clearly, but recognize that would have altered every other life event to follow.  A completely different life script.  Nothing would have been the same.  From where I stand right now that would not have been good news.

I thought about it for two days.  Seriously thought about pulling out of this life, this city, this boat and this marriage. What I did was call the personnel department and say I wasn’t moving up to San Francisco after all. I was going to stay.  In Los Angeles, working on the Tonight Show, married to Jake.

Lots of my life during that time was fun.  I met people and saw things hanging around NBC that I certainly would have never been a part of had I stayed in Locust Valley. By this time I probably would have had a child of my own had I married that nice young man, instead of every other weekend with four kids I liked a lot but, boy was this boat crowded.  Life with Jake was crowded with drama, turmoil and his unhappiness with what he had determined was his unfair “lot in life.”  Through no fault of his own – always, according to him – his great talent was being passed over time after time to represent the greater talent coming into the agency. I wished I always believed him but I’d come to notice his complaining was becoming a chronic condition and if I noticed, certainly others did, as well.  Our age difference made me part of the triangle with his serious mid-life crisis.

Working on the Tonight Show was an adventure.  The people on the show were great.  Betsy worked for the head talent co-ordinator and was a gorgeous, smart girl about a year younger than I.  I soon discovered she was the girl everybody wanted to date. Chevy Chase Image came for chicken parm one night in his convertible that really didn’t have a top at all long before Saturday Night Live when he was a writer on the Smothers Brothers show.  Freddie Prinze Imageslept on her cough the night before his first appearance on the show. Betsy, and I were always coming up with something to fill the extra hours in the day. Let’s be honest, working hard was not a Tonight Show job requirement.  Most of the jobs were pretty cushy. So Betsy and I hooked rugs and put together “The Tonight Show” scrapbook – fully subsidized by NBC under the auspices of the head of the Prop Department.  People walked through our bungalow and said hello.  Ed McMahon’s office was right behind my desk and every late morning he’d walk in with that booming “Hello Janet and Beth”. With him what you saw was truly what you got. He was warm and friendly with HORRIBLE taste in women. He met his second wife, Vickie Lee Valentine in the VIP lounge at some airline. She was a hostess. Later she was “reinvented” as Victoria and had one of the worst attitudes of entitlement I’d ever encountered. Reportedly, at their wedding reception in an overly intoxicated state ~that was true about him too, he did imbibe ~Victoria said “that’s it fatso, we’re married now I don’t have to be nice”.  And, from what I understood about their union that was certainly truthful.

I was stunned by my fortune yet having never aspired to such a goal, I wasn’t as impressed as I might have been.  I realized these were all just people.  Famous, surely, some nicer than others, but… just people.  Ed McMahon’s office was the door behind my desk.  He would walk in, larger than life, smiling and jocular.  A very nice man, usually in a very good mood.   He didn’t exactly say “hey-oh” as he walked past, but that greeting wasn’t a stretch coming from the man I saw every morning.   Doc Severinsen the same, except the flashy clothes were a prop.  He wore jeans, practiced the trumpet ALL the time and loved all animals.  He and his wife wound up with quite a menagerie.   She was a friend of mine and I house sat for them a few times in their early days.  Once I lost one of their cats.  I accidently locked her in the closet and when I opened the door during my desperate search she leapt into my arms, foolishly forgetting I was the one who had condemned her to said fate.  For years, that darn cat would repeat the performance whenever I entered their house.  Doc would say, “that one sure does love you.”  Silly cat!

ImageJohnny Carson was shy.  I watched him become Johnny Carson when he walked through the curtain every night.  His office was above the studio, not in the bungalow with the rest of us.  He’d park his car ~ first a Mercedes then a Corvette, license plate 360 GUY ~ in the first space a few steps from the entrance to the studio door, and walk quickly to his offices, behind locked glass doors.   My interaction with him was intermittent.  As Commercial Production Assistant, we scheduled and screened all network commercials ~ some we did “live,” like the infamous ALPO spot when Johnny ate the ALPO.

The first two sixty second spots that ran every night were “national.”  They were our responsibility, and Tonight Show income.  At one time The Tonight Show actually generated one-third of NBC’s revenue, I was told.   I’d write those scintillating lead-ins Johnny would read … “We’ll be right back after this word from our (emphasis added) friends at the friendly skies of United.”   Every so often there would be “sales tapes” to produce.  Large advertisers, such as United Airlines, had large sales conferences back in the day.  Johnny and Ed would tape a “welcome” for them.  My boss, the Commercial Producer, Dick Manley, would sit up in the booth with the director, Bobby Quinn.  The copy would be on cue cards.  Johnny and Ed would be at the desk in their positions and I was “on the floor” in the front row.  I’d place the props and that was usually that.  Dick or Bobby would communicate with Johnny directly over the Public Address system into the studio.  But one day Johnny decided he wanted to change the copy a bit.  He said, “Janet, what do you think about this?”   JANET?????  OMG…do not throw up.  He said your name.  Luckily, I reacted as if I weren’t about to pass out, made the changes and moved on.  I do not recall him ever saying my name again.  Once was enough…

I passed two years on the boat with Jake, his children and spent my days with Johnny Carson and his crew.  One day I wandered through the studio and happened to check the job postings. During those days at NBC people on the “inside” got first crack at an open position. One caught my eye ~Co-ordinator, Compliance and Practices.  It was described as working for the department ensuring the honesty and integrity of game shows.  At that time NBC, as well as CBS and ABC had many game shows on the air.  Hollywood Squares, Name that Tune, Price is Right, Wheel of Fortune and others.  Since NBC had been involved in the game show scandals many years earlier they took the integrity of these productions very seriously.  It looked interesting…it paid more money…I was ready for a change.

I called personnel and went up to discuss an interview.