Although The Tonight Show has been on for over half a century, it was probably the second host who the old timers most remember as paving the way for this now ubiquitous late night genre. That of course may be a bit slighting to Steve Allen who today is remembered more for being a panelist on What's My Line.
Back then, though, it wasn't The Tonight Show. It was just Tonight or more fully Tonight with the addendum "Starring Steve Allen" or "Starring Jack Parr".
In 1957 when Jack started on the Tonight Show (as we will continue to call it) Johnny Carson was hosting a (sort of) game show with the ungrammatical title Who Do You Trust? Although Johnny was quite well-known by that time, he was still feeling his way through the uncertainties of network programming and was never sure if the executives would decide to keep his shows going or let them drop.
Steve had usually taken an oblique approach to controversial material. Rather than stand up and defend someone like comedian Lenny Bruce, Steve would invite him on the show. Jack, on the other hand, never hesitated to use his chair to editorialize. He directly criticized the then iconic gossip columnist/news reporter Walter Winchell - which at the time was considered a risky thing to do. But even more controversial was Jack's feud with Ed Sullivan.
It was a strange feud. It started off because Ed mentioned that he paid his performers thousands of dollars to appear while Jack only paid them $320. Supposedly Ed said anyone who took Jack's paltry payment would get that amount and nothing more from him. Originally Ed agreed to meet Jack in a debate on The Tonight Show. But for various reasons the encounter never came off, each blaming the other for backing out.
Jack had the advantage in that his show was, after all, a talk show and he could take a part of the air-time to give his opinion. Ed, whose show was a variety program - something now as antiquated as the rabbit ear antenna - really didn't have the option. Eventually the feud fizzled out, and Jack left the show the next year 1962. That was when Johnny - who brought along his Who Do You Trust Announcer Ed McMahon - took over.
But if we are to believe the stage magician and author of gambling books, John Scarne, being the Tonight Show host could be potentially hazardous to your health. Jack was hosting the show in 1958 when Fidel Castro and his rebels were fighting the Batista government for control of Cuba. Jack had scheduled a broadcast from Havana which at the time was still in Batista's hands.
Jack was staying at the Hilton where John was consultant to the casino (gambling was extremely popular in Cuba). As Jack got into a cab at the airport, immediately a group of Batista's men jumped the cab, grabbed the driver, and began to beat him up. Later Jack was told that the driver had been one of Castro's revolutionaries intending to kidnap him.
Later John walked up to Jack's room and saw Jack standing in the hall.
"John," Jack said. "There's two men in there with guns."
John, who spoke Spanish albeit with an Italian accent, told Jack he'd go in. He came out and said they were maintenance men and they had wrenches not guns. Later he said hotel staff found some guns underneath the sofa.
Is the story true? A number of critics think that John tended to stretch the blanket. Did he really perform a card trick for Bugsy Siegel that would have required him to sneak outside of the window of Bugsy's apartment? Did he really demonstrate to casino bosses across the country that he could count cards so well that he would inevitably win at blackjack even though his books said that card counting was a waste of time until after Edward Thorpe published Beat the Dealer? During World War II did he really publish a book that warned GI's against card counting - a book that no one can remember seeing a copy of and no copies have yet been found? Did he really advise Harry Houdini about the method Rahman Bey used to remain under water even though the method is not what Harry Houdini himself later said he used (and demonstrated). Well, we do know John was, after all a stage magician, a genre of performing artists not known for their modesty or lack of self-promotion.
And the stories about Jack in Cuba?
Although one historian mentioned that there were rumors Jack would be kidnapped, Jack himself appears not to have mentioned any such attempts or of seeing men with guns in his room. Later Jack interviewed the Cuban dictator and Jack, like many of the more liberal Americans of the time, saw Fidel as a liberator of the oppressed. Jack later changed his opinion of Fidel.
But certainly Jack's most noted event was when in February 1960, he simply walked off the show shortly after broadcast time. The problem was Jack learned that a joke had been cut from a taped broadcast since he had said "W. C." (i. e., "water closet"). His announcer - Hugh Downs - had to continue the show on his own and for two weeks no one at the network knew where Jack was. They later tracked Jack down to Palm Springs and two of the top executives told him to take a couple more weeks off but then he had to return and fulfill his contract. So after a month Jack did return but left the show for good in March 1962.
Television Talk: A History of the TV Talk Show, Bernard M. Timberg, Bob Erler, University of Texas Press, 2002.
"The Other Fight: Ed vs. Jack", Life Magazine, pp. 33 - 35, May 24, 1961.
The Odds Against Me, John Scarne, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966.
The Big Book of Blackjack, Arnold Snyder, Cardoza, 2005.
Contesting Castro: The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution, Thomas G. Paterson, Oxford University Press, 1994.
"John Scarne", Internet Movie Database.
"Jack Paar Reminisces", Nan Robertson, The New York Times, February 20, 1984
"Jack Paar, 85, Former 'Tonight' Show Host, Dies", Richard Severojan, The New York Times, January 27, 2004.