The year was 1972. Rumors were flying all over. In the press and broadcast. Johnny Carson was dissatisfied and wanted to leave The Tonight Show. Oh No! Say it isn’t so!
The show’s 10th anniversary was approaching and his contract was up for renewal. After The Tonight Show had gone through two previous hosts – Steve Allen and Jack Paar – Carson had molded the show into one of the most profitable broadcast properties. Advertisers were plowing millions into NBC coffers for a chance to get their messages on the popular late night TV show.
Perhaps the rumors were just a negotiating ploy, but Johnny was legitimately dissatisfied. The executives at NBC knew if Carson left The Tonight Show, ratings – and those lush advertising dollars – would decline. Carson’s agent, managers, and lawyers knew that as well. Millions were at stake.
NBC executives started piling dollars into the offer for signing a new contract. Still that didn’t seem enough.
The call came to Medallic Art Company and was directed to the vice president of sales, Lindsay Latham. The NBC executive wanted Medallic Art to strike a special medal for Johnny Carson on his Tenth Anniversary. Trouble was, they wanted it in a week’s time. Money was no object.
Lindsay gave the standard boilerplate reply. “All our medals are made from sculptors’ models. It takes a minimum of two months for the sculptor and another month for us to produce it.” In other words, impossible in a week’s time.
The executive was insistent. “How can we shorten that time? We need this in a week’s time.” Lindsay: “No way.”
“What if we had our NBC artists come up with the design – do the art work – would that work?”
“No, we have to make dies, strike the medal, finish the medal. That takes more than a week.” The implication was still – impossible.
“Isn’t there a way of making a medal without dies?” “We don’t do that at Medallic Art Company.”
The NBC executive was insistent. Find a way. Get it done. Money was no object. We need that medal by next Wednesday. You have got to do it! Lindsay didn’t have to stretch his imagination to detect the earnest pleading of the NBC executive. This guy was
serious with a capitol S. Their need was urgent, and we needed to produce a miracle for them.
“Well… there may be one way.” The executive pleaded to learn more as he detected a glimmer of hope. “If you can get us the art work tomorrow by noon we will try. But it has to be a graphic design, two-dimensional, no relief.”
“I knew we could count on Medallic Art Company.”
The drawing for the two sides arrived on time, but it was huge for a medal. It must have been eight inches. Lindsay called his contact. “Do you want this reduced? What size do you want this medal?” The answer was: exact size – do not reduce.
Whether Medallic Art had on hand, or had to order a strip of copper that size I don’t know. But the craftsmen at Medallic Art cut two large eight-inch discs. This was sent – along with the black-and-white drawing of the two sides – to Malcom & Hays, a firm two blocks away that had photo-etching equipment. Instructions: “photo-etch those graphic designs into the two discs of copper as deep as possible… and we need this right away.” In New York City, particularly in industries serving the advertising field, everything is needed right away. It’s the pace of life here. Every business is geared up for speed.
That task took a couple of days, however. The photo-etched plates were returned to Medallic Art. Now the real work began. The two plates had to be affixed together, in proper orientation. The edges had to be smoothed, made completely round and cover that seam where the two plates came together.
Then the entire ensemble had to be silver-plated – silver for the tenth anniversary. The silver plating took more than a day. After the piece came out of the plating tank, it had to be highlighted – finished – and lacquered.
It was done late Tuesday afternoon. It had to be in NBC offices by 9 a.m. Wednesday morning. I walked downstairs to leave for the day and found the medal lying on the table in the shop office ready to be wrapped to be sent over by messenger in the morning. Instead of rushing to Grand Central Station to board my commuter train, I made a quick decision.
“Give me that,” I told the shop foreman, “I want to photograph it.” I didn’t say where I wanted to photograph it.
I stuck it in my briefcase and walked the six blocks to the New York Times building at Times Square. I knew my way around the Times building. No guards then, no screening, no check point. I took the elevator to the third floor and asked the receptionist for the coin columnist. He was not in. Is the stamp columnist available? He was, and I showed him the medal. Wow! Was he impressed.
He took the medal to his photo department to have it photographed, and returned it to me after ten minutes. So, somewhere in the Times photo archives is buried those photographs of Johnny Carson’s Special Medal. Unfortunately they never published it in the Times (which was my intent for bringing it to them).
I returned the medal to the shop office, and it was wrapped and delivered the next morning.
I never knew what Medallic Art Company billed for that medal, but it was probably in the high four figures.
The medal was presented to Johnny Carson in an elaborate ceremony. He signed the contract, and The Tonight Show went on. We didn’t know it at the time, but one of the provisions in that contract was that the show could be moved. Later that same year, 1972, The Tonight Show moved to Los Angeles. The show went on, as we all know, for another twenty years. Johnny retired in 1992 after thirty years, saved, we like to think, because his ego was massaged with a special medal – made in a week’s time! – at Medallic Art Company.
Interestingly, while the show was in New York, all that time from 1962 to 1972, Johnny Carson lived a block and a half from Medallic Art’s East 45th Street location, a mere half block from the United Nations. Immediately north of the UN was a sixty-story luxury apartment building. Johnny Carson lived in that building. In effect, we were neighbors.