Local residents remember Malibuite Johnny Carson

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More than his quick humor, Malibu residents remember Johnny Carson’s caring and generosity.

By Ryan O’Quinn/Special to The Malibu Times

This week many words have been used to describe Johnny Carson. Fellow Malibuites remember the man and share stories of his generosity and friendship that give a unique perspective on his love for his community.

Carson died Sunday, reportedly from complications from emphysema, at his Point Dume Malibu home, in a community where he lived for more than two decades. He was 79.

Some adjectives that have been used by those who knew him are “generous,” “giving,” “selfless” and “warm.” Some people can seem like all of those things on television, but in the case of Carson he truly was generous. However, he rarely wanted to be recognized for contributions to local charities and organizations.

Jacqueline Bridgeman of the Malibu Stage Co. said there were several occasions when Carson donated to the theater and on at least one occasion the funds came just in time.

“He saved me,” Bridgeman said. “I couldn’t pay the rent [at Malibu Stage Company] a couple months ago, and he sent me $5,000.”

Bridgeman said the letter sent to Carson was not a targeted plea for a donation and was also not a personal letter. She noted that his address was on a mailing list and the form letter was the same that many received in the Malibu community.

“We have sold seats to celebrities for $1,000, but Johnny Carson is the only one who has ever donated substantial money to the theater,” Bridgeman said. “I have sent out short, cute form letters and Johnny would stick $5 or $10,000 in an envelope. I am very deeply grieved that he has left our community. I am teary-eyed.”

In addition to helping keep the arts alive in Malibu, Carson was also generous to the local Senior Center and often preferred to remain anonymous in his donations. Jo Fogg of the Malibu Senior Center said she had respected his wishes regarding his anonymity in charitable donations to the group.

“When we first started we were the Senior Club and I always had some kind of entertainment,” Fogg said. “We got to a point where the old piano that we had was just too old to use. We sent a letter in to Johnny about our need and the next day after he got the mail, he responded.”

Fogg said Carson called and inquired as to whether the requested amount was enough and wanted to make sure the amount covered the cost of the piano bench and the cover as well. Carson told the club to buy the piano they wanted and have them send the bill to him.

“When we received it we were so happy we wanted to have him there,” Fogg said. “He had told us on the phone, ‘I don’t want any publicity. I don’t want anything said about this.’ The best we could do was put a gold plaque on the back of the piano.”

On a different occasion, the group met at Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School and the curtains on stage were in disrepair and the Senior Club wanted to replace them. Fogg said they called Carson again to see if there might be extra curtains at the studios in Burbank he could donate, and Carson once again came through.

“He said, ‘Go to the store, get a man, get it measured and send me the bill,'” Fogg said.

Fogg also said she would sporadically see him walking on the beach or at her voting precinct and he always offered a smile and seemed very pleasant. Like many who depended on Carson’s late night monologue to make them smile at the end of a long day at work, she said she had a tough time sleeping after he left “The Tonight Show.”

“I can’t think of anybody who has been more gracious and more helpful to people,” Fogg said. “Think of all the people he had on the air and all the careers he made. He let people share what they do and let them go on to make more people laugh. I think we all feel the loss.”

Local caterer and restaurateur Richard Chesterfield considered himself a friend of Carson and said the Point Dume resident had eaten at his restaurant at least once per week over the years.

Chesterfield threw a party at his restaurant, Monrose, for local firefighters following the last big Malibu fires, and said Carson was the first to call him to find out how he could help.

“He saw the ad in The Malibu Times and called to ask me what he could do to help,” Chesterfield said. “I told him we were trying to raise funds and he came down in his Corvette and hand delivered a check for $25,000 and said, ‘Let me know if you need any more.'”

Chesterfield said he saw Carson and his wife Alex recently and could see evidence of the progressing emphysema. Despite his failing health, as recent as a week ago, Carson was seen attending Malibu’s local movie theater to see “The Aviator.”

“He was without doubt the most genuine star I ever had the pleasure of meeting,” Chesterfield said. “I really feel almost a personal loss. He was unbelievably generous.”

Franco Simplicio, owner of The Sunset Restaurant on Westward Beach, said that Carson dined at the restaurant in October. He had heard on the radio it was Carson’s birthday that day and the staff brought a cake and candles to his table.

“He was always very nice and very nice to our customers,” Simplicio said.

In addition to his generosity and his obvious sense of humor, Carson was also the subject of his friend’s jokes, one that had him roaring after dinner at the Beau Rivage restaurant in Malibu.

The restaurant’s owner, Daniel Forge, recalled one time when Carson, who regularly frequented the establishment throughout his time on “The Tonight Show” and even more so after he retired, pulled out his car after dining at the restaurant with another famed local, the late Michael Landon, and ran over the Forge’s cat. Unable to find the cat, Forge told Carson not to worry and he left. A few weeks later, Kent McCray, the producer who worked with Landon on “Little House on the Prairie” and “Highway to Heaven,” was dining at Beau Rivage and Forge told him about the cat incident. Before McCray left the restaurant, he asked Forge for a menu, which at that time the restaurateur still wrote by hand each night. Carson, Landon and McCray, along with Carson’s wife, dined together again at Beau Rivage, and as Carson perused the menu, he found some new items listed: “Soup du Jour” (Ask your waiter to check the parking lot), “Pressed Pussy Provencale” (served outside in the dark) and Pussy Mousse a la Mercedes (served right on the property). According to an account in the book, “Michael Landon, Life, Love & Laughter,” by Harry and Pamela Flynn, “Johnny roared.”

Johnny Carson hosted “The Tonight Show” and ruled the late night talk show time slot for 30 years. His last broadcast was May 25, 1992. Carson is survived by his wife, Alex, and two sons, Chris and Cory.