THE TONIGHT SHOW: 56 Years of Television and Camera History

A look back at 56 years of the cameras that brought us everyone from Allen, Parr and Carson to Leno, O'Brien and Leno

Included below: RCA TK10s, TK11s, TK41s, TK44s, TK47s, Sony HD 1000s and Sony HD 1500s and 1550s

I'll begin by saying this article and it's great pictures from the ''Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien' would not have been possible without the help of camera man Bruce Oldham, and our friends at NBCU Photo Bank.com. Bruce worked with Conan at NBC and is now with him at the Warner Brothers stage for his TBS show, and in another Gallery article, we'll show you that studio too! Since this history comes all the way to today, we'll see the new state of the art Sony cameras at in action and I guarantee, there is a lot of interesting information here on the current state of broadcast cameras that I think will be quite exciting and educational for all of us.

The Tonight Show is a creation of the late Pat Weaver, first president of NBC Television and has been on the air since 1954. It is the longest currently-running regularly scheduled entertainment program in the United States, and the third longest-running show on NBC, after Meet the Press and Today.

When the show began it was broadcast live, but on January 12, 1959, the show began to be videotaped for broadcast later on the same day, although initially the Thursday night programs were kept live.

Color broadcasts began on September 19, 1960 during Jack Parr's tenure as host, and below is the only known photo of a color camera on the Parr set.

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Photo courtesy NBCU Photo Bank.com. Copyright NBC. This image may not be archived, copied, leased or shared.

The Tonight Show has been hosted by Steve Allen (1954-1957), Jack Parr (1957-1962), Johnny Carson (1962-1992), Jay Leno (1992-2009, 2010-present), and Conan O'Brien (2009-2010).

The longest-serving host to date was Carson, who hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for 30 seasons, from the fall of 1962 through the spring of 1992. NBC's Broadway Open House, which began in 1950, first demonstrated the potential for late-night network programming. The format for The Tonight Show can be traced to a nightly 40 minute local, WNBT New York show hosted by Allen, which premiered in 1953. Network president Pat Weaver saw it, liked Allen and made a deal. Beginning in September 1954, it was renamed Tonight! and shown on the full NBC network.


Steve Allen (1954-1957)

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Photo courtesy NBCU Photo Bank.com. Copyright NBC. This image may not be archived, copied, leased or shared.

Above is Steve Allen with an RCA TK10 on the Tonight Show set. The first Tonight announcer was Gene Rayburn. Allen's version of the show originated such talk show staples as an opening monologue, celebrity interviews, audience participation, and comedy bits in which cameras were taken outside the studio, as well as music, including guest performers and a house band under the direction of "Skitch" Henderson.

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When the show became a success, NBC asked Allen to do a prime-time Sunday comedy-variety show in June 1956 and put him up against Ed Sullivan. This lead him to share Tonight hosting duties with Ernie Kovacs during the 1956-1957 season. To give Allen time to work on his Sunday evening show, Kovacs hosted Tonight on Monday and Tuesday nights, with his own announcer and bandleader, and was in essence, the first guest host but Parr is credited with introducing that concept and one of the early guest hosts was Johnny Carson.


Jack Parr (1957-1962)

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Photo courtesy NBCU Photo Bank.com. Copyright NBC. This image may not be archived, copied, leased or shared.

Above, Jack interviews presidential candidate John F. Kennedy as RCA TK11s beam it to the nation. Parr's era began the practice of branding the series after the host, and as such the program, though officially still called The Tonight Show, was marketed as The Jack Parr Show. A combo band conducted by Parr's army buddy pianist Jose Melis filled commercial breaks and backed musical entertainers.

On February 11, 1960, Jack Parr walked off his show for a month after NBC censors edited out a segment, taped the night before. As he left his desk, he said, "I am leaving The Tonight Show. There must be a better way of making a living than this." Parr's abrupt departure left his startled announcer, Hugh Downs, to finish the broadcast himself.

Parr returned to the show on March 7, 1960, strolled on stage, struck a pose, and said, "As I was saying before I was interrupted..." After the audience erupted in applause, Parr continued, "When I walked off, I said there must be a better way of making a living. Well, I've looked... and there isn't."

Jack left the show in March 1962, citing the fact that he could no longer handle the load of putting on the show five nights a week. The Jack Parr Show moved to prime time as The Jack Parr Program, and aired weekly, on Friday nights, through 1965. Jack was a favorite of mine...quite a sharp man!


Johnny Carson (1962-1992)

Below, Johnny Carson with three TK41s broadcasting his show from New York. Carson took over the show on October 1, 1962 with Ed McMahon as his announcer and side kick. For all but a few months of its first decade on the air, Carson's Tonight Show was based in NBC's Studio 6B at 30 Rock.

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Photo courtesy Lytle Hoover's Old Radio.com.

Below is only the second known photo of a TK41 on the Carson set in New York. The TK41 images were so good, Carson kept them on this show about 1971.

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Photo courtesy RCA Broadcast News Magazine.

In May 1972 the show moved to Burbank, California into Studio One of NBC Studios West Coast (although it was announced as coming from nearby Hollywood), for the remainder of his tenure. Below are four shots from the Carson show showing RCA TK44s on the set.

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Johnny, Joan and Ed celebrate the Tonight Show's anniversary in 1975.
Photo courtesy NBCU Photo Bank.com. Copyright NBC. This image may not be archived, copied, leased or shared.

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Remember this? In December of 76, Johnny took the cameras next door to the set of CPO Sharkey to confront Don Rickles after finding out Don had broken his cigarette box while guest hosting. Note the new "Nebraska" logo in the TK44.
Photo courtesy NBCU Photo Bank.com. Copyright NBC. This image may not be archived, copied, leased or shared.

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Photos courtesy RCA Broadcast News Magazine.


Jay Leno (1992-2009)

Johnny Carson retired on May 22, 1992, and was replaced by Jay Leno amid quite a bit of controversy. It was no secret that David Letterman, who's Late Night show aired on NBC after for Carson for years, wanted to host The Tonight Show when Johnny retired. Carson, and others, considered David his natural successor despite Leno having been Carson's permanent guest host. It was an ugly situation behind the scenes and Leno prevailed. Letterman, having had his heart set on the earlier time slot, left NBC and joined CBS. The Late Show with David Letterman, airing in the same slot, has been competing head to head against The Tonight Show ever since.

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The photo above was taken the first week Jay took over show with the TK47s in use now. The 47s came to Burbank in 1980 and were used till 1996.
Photo courtesy NBCU Photo Bank.com. Copyright NBC. This image man not be archived, copied, leased or shared.

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Above is Jay Leno in May of 2004 doing his monologue to new Sony cameras...not yet HD, but that progression is shown below with a Sony HD 1000 camera on stage with Jay in June of 2007. The Sony HD 1000 is a great camera and in the business is called a ''hard body' camera because as you will see below, things have changed!
Photo courtesy NBCU Photo Bank.com. Copyright NBC. This image may not be archived, copied, leased or shared.

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Conan O'Brien (2009-2010)

If you have not already, please read the first article in the Gallery. It's called 'State Of The Art: A Must Read Primer on the Latest Innovations'.

In it are even more pictures from Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show set that beautifully illustrate some of the dramatic changes in the studio cameras in detail. Out of respect to this show's history and Conan O'Brien, I felt it was not fair to superimpose an in depth tech talk here, so be sure and take a look.

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On September 27, 2004, the 50th anniversary of the show's premiere, NBC announced that Jay Leno would be succeeded by Conan O'Brien in 2009. Leno explained that in yielding to Conan, he wanted to avoid repeating the hard feelings that developed between him and David Letterman, and called O'Brien "certainly the most deserving person for the job". I guess it's the thought that counts right? What was thought, at the time, to be the final episode of The Tonight Show with Leno as host aired on Friday, May 29, 2009.

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O'Brien replaced Leno as host on The Tonight Show on Monday, June 1 from a new studio in Stage 1 of the Universal Studios Hollywood back lot, ending an era (since 1972) of taping the show in Burbank and all the photos below were taken in that new multimillion dollar studio where 6 floor cameras and 4 or more fixed position audience reaction cameras were in use daily.

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Above, a bird's eye view of the new studio and below, a view from the house audio console.

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Now, here go...on the stage floor at camera rehearsal. At first glance, it looks like there are big Sony studio cameras everywhere right? Wrong. More below.

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If you have not quite caught on yet, this should do the trick. Do you notice the difference in the light and dark parts of the camera? Well, that's because these are two entirely unique elements. These are 'build up kits' that use small Sony HDC 1500 EFP cameras and HD lens adapters. For more, read the first story in the Gallery.

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Closing with a couple of final camera shots that show Bruce's camera 3 (above) and the main interview set. His camera was one of the three large lens cameras mounted on the new Vinten Quattro peds, and was equipped with a 72X lens and did guest close-ups at home base and other zones. He has the exact same setup now and is on camera 3 of the Conan Show. The other 2 large lens cameras had 27X lenses and were cameras 1 and 2. All together, there were 9 cameras with 8 operators in the studio. Cameras 4 and 6 were the combo hand held and ped mounted. Camera 5 was the jib, and 7 and 8 were robo cams with one operator. There were also 2 Iconix lockoff lipstick cameras for audience shots.

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Here is the final class picture of the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. A great crew and a lot of great talent here. Fortunately for all, TBS made a deal with Conan and most of these staff members are again, Coco nuts...including Bruce who's still on camera 3. Something I did not know about ''how things work now' is that the cameramen, and many other technical people, were not NBC employees. They are called ''day hires' and that seems to be the way the new television business works...too many accountants in radio and television these days. Many thanks again to Bruce Oldham for the great photos.

Bobby Ellerbee

A final Coco note...

On the last day of the show, I spoke with Bruce and he told me they were mounting a teleprompter on one of the cameras...the first and only one ever used there. Conan wanted his final goodbye thoughts to be ''just right' and the best way to do it was to read what he himself had written. It was a very moving and apt tribute to NBC for giving him his start, to his fans and audience and to his staff. The video of the speech is no longer available due to copyright issues but, the text of that farewell speech, as read from the newly installed teleprompter, is seen below. Should you care to read it, you will find it quite inspiring and real!

Conan's Farewell:

"Before we end this rodeo, a few things need to be said. There has been a lot of speculation in the press about what I legally can and can't say about NBC. To set the record straight, tonight I am allowed to say anything I want. And what I want to say is this: between my time at Saturday Night Live, The Late Night Show, and my brief run here on The Tonight Show, I have worked with NBC for over twenty years. Yes, we have our differences right now and yes, we're going to go our separate ways. But this company has been my home for most of my adult life. I am enormously proud of the work we have done together, and I want to thank NBC for making it all possible.

Walking away from The Tonight Show is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. Making this choice has been enormously difficult. This is the best job in the world, I absolutely love doing it, and I have the best staff and crew in the history of the medium. But despite this sense of loss, I really feel this should be a happy moment. Every comedian dreams of hosting The Tonight Show and, for seven months, I got to. I did it my way, with people I love, and I do not regret a second. I've had more good fortune than anyone I know and if our next gig is doing a show in a 7-11 parking lot, we'll find a way to make it fun.

And finally, I have to say something to our fans. The massive outpouring of support and passion from so many people has been overwhelming. The rallies, the signs, all the goofy, outrageous creativity on the internet, and the fact that people have traveled long distances and camped out all night in the pouring rain to be in our audience, made a sad situation joyous and inspirational.

To all the people watching, I can never thank you enough for your kindness to me and I'll think about it for the rest of my life. All I ask of you is one thing: please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism -- it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere.

Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen."

-Conan O'Brien

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