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Ed McMahon: America's favorite second banana; what can you say about a guy who once interviewed the hand of Ginger Rogers?


He looks and acts like someone you've known all your life. Perhaps that trait has been the real key to success for Edward Leo McMahon.

Rare is the day you can turn on your television set without seeing him in one of his familiar roles: the host of "Star Search"; a pitchman for a legion of products ranging from dog food to a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win a million dollars; or the "second banana" to Johnny Carson on the "Tonight Shows." On Monday nights, you can watch him cohost "TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes" with his longtime chum Dick Clark.

McMahon possesses all the credentials of a "star," yet he doesn't behave like one. He's no Hollywood glamour boy. His picture is conspicuously absent from the scandal tabloids; instead, he seems more like a next-door neighbor. As he walks through the halls of the NBC studios in Burbank, he frequently stops to share idle conversation with tour groups and to respond freely to people's questions. Or he'll pause to ask Floyd, the shoeshine man, about his family. Those who know him testify that this is no act of false humility; he is just a down-to-earth guy.

McMahon does enjoy one luxury, however--a chauffeur-driven limousine. "I have never enjoyed driving a car," he confesses. "Besides, while riding in the limo, I have my only opportunity to relax, gather my thoughts, and put my life into proper perspective."

McMahon's infatuation with broadcasting started early, when his grandfather wrapped a radio aerial around their house in Lowell, Massachusetts. In the evenings, everyone took turns listening through the headphones of a crystal set to the distant sounds of KDKA in Pittsburgh. Six-year-old Edward was hooked. By age 11, he was practicing announcing in his living room and reading magazine articles into a hand-held flashlight that became a fake microphone. Later, he experimented with disk-jockey patter and cued up records on his grandmother's Victorla.

As a youth, McMahon also displayed a natural talent for salesmanship. When he learned he could earn a bicycle by selling subscription to The Saturday Evening Post, he combed the neighborhood and sold three the first afternoon. Soon he had not only the bicycle, but also something far more important--a talent that could open doors.

From his father, a professional fund raiser for charities, Ed learned the importance of setting high goals and having faith in his own work. "My father was a man who could look at a brick and see a house," he says.

At 15, McMahon took his first announcing job, ballyhooing the mid-way attractions from atop a sound truck at a carnival. By 18, he had "graduated" to announcing for a traveling bingo parlor and had earned enough money to enroll at Boston College.

World War II interrupted both college and career. McMahon joined the Marine Corps, earned his wings at Pensacola Naval Base, and became a fighter-pilot instructor. He wasl also a test pilot for a variety of fighter aircraft, including the sophisticated Corsair.

After the war he returned to school as a speech and drama major at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. To support his wife and child, he worked part-time selling stainless-steel cookware door-to-door. In the summers, he pitched products on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. So polished was his technique for selling the Morris Metric Vegetable Slicer that other salespeople stood by just to study his lines and his style of delivery. Among those "students" were the stars-to-be Jack Klugman and Charles Bronson.

In 1949, McMahon moved to Philadelphia and entered the new medium of television. He soon became host, writer, and producer of no fewer than 13 TV shows simultaneously, including a breakfast show, a cooking segment at noon, and a popmusic record program. And he also made movies.

War again intervened during the early '50s. McMahon traded his microphone for the control stick of a fighter jet. He flew 85 combat missions in Korea, earned six air medals, and rose to the rank of full colonel.

When mcMahon returned to Philadelphia following the war, he discovered to his dismay that television jobs were scarce. The only slot open was a five-minute potpourri segment at the end of the 11 p.m. news. He auditioned and got the job. It was only a tiny slice of time, but it allowed him the latitude to demonstrate his creativity. When Ginger Rogers was forbidden to appear on TV by a clause in her studio contract, McMahon interviewed her, showing only her hand on camera. "This is the elegant hand of Ginger Rogers. . . .," he said. And the audience loved every minute of it. Similar flashes of his showmanship pushed that half-hour news shows to the top of the ratings.

McMahon landed other television jobs in Philadelphia and used each as a chance to hone different skills. He donned a clown's costume to introduce the weekly Saturday children's show "Big Top" and gained his first national exposure.

While preparing for a show in 1956, McMahon was distracted by a figure on the station's ABC monitor, a wiry young man giving off hilarious body language. He turned up the volume in time to hear the man say: "Hi, my name is Johnny Carson."

Before long, McMahon met Carson, then the host of the popular daytime quiz show "Who Do You Trust?" Carson was searching for a new announcer, so McMahon went to NEw York and had the briefest of interviews--about five minutes of Carson looking out the window and commenting on the new Shubert Theater sign across the street.

McMahon went home and wondered what had gone wrong. Three weeks later he received a call from Carson's office that began: "When you report on Monday. . . ." Nobody had bothered to inform him that he and Carson had clicked immediately. Their interactive chemistry was perfect in style, in sense of humor, in appearance, and in their mutual enjoyment of each other.

McMahon's first duty on the program was to rattle off a list of sponsors, a task he suddenly had to speed up when Carson lit a match to the bottom of the list. Then, when the 6'4" McMahon lumbered onto the stage, Carson did one of his patented double takes and, in his best mad-scientist voice, exclaimed: "Lothar--you startled me!"

After four years of polishing their interplay, the team of Carson and McMahon took over the "Tonight Show." Before their first broadcast, McMahon mulled over the problem of a suitably dramatic introduction for Carson. Minutes before air time, he recalled the success he'd had in radio with rolling his "r's." A few moments later, the trademark "Heeeerrrre's Johnny!" was born, and the rest, as they say, is history.

McMahon inists on spontaneity in his work with Carson. Unless he's a participant in a scripted sketch, he never sees the material beforehand. "I simply can't fake amusement," he says. After more than a quarter-century of close association, McMahon has refined his instinctive sense of Carson's humor to lend full support to any routine, whatever its direction.

Madeline Kelly, McMahon's personal assistant for more than six yers, says her boss' knack than six yers, says her boss' knack for intelligent conversation comes from his avid reading and retentive memory. "Last week, while in the make-up room, he began to recite Rudyard Kipling's Gunga Din," she says. "He learned it back in college but remembers it even to this day."

Despite a busy schedule, McMahon finds time to volunteer hundreds of hours a year for causes dear to his heart. For 15 years the cohost of the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, he also serves as a vice president of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He is on the boards of the Veterans Bedside Network, the Marine Corps Scholarships Fund, and Saint Jude's Ranch for Children, Boulder City, Nevada. He was president of the Catholic University Alumni Association for four years. Recently, he was named "Humanitarian Man of the Year" by the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation. In December, he will be honored by the Boy Scouts of America as their "Man of the Year."

The church, too, is an important dimension in his life. McMahon acknowledges that his Christian training by the Jesuits helped cement his solid sense of values and his love for his fellow man.

McMahon, who has four adult children from a previous marriage, lives in Beverly Hills with Victoria, his wife of ten years. Last year, the McMahons added to the family by adopting a five-day-old infant, Katherine Mary. "It was not easy for this 62-year-old to adopt her,c McMahon confesses. "But one of the reasons why the adoption agency and the courts granted permission is becauce of my long-term association with children in special projects such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association."

Those close to McMahon remark that Katherine has given him another purpose in life. "He's an A-1 pop," says Patrick Marwick, McMahon's chauffeur for more than 11 years. "Just the other day, in fact, while we were driving to the studio, Mr. McMahon was in the back seat, changing the baby's diaper."

McMahon enjoys his reincarnated role as a father. He even personally mixes the formular for his baby daughter. "I feel like Louis Pasteur or one of the other world's great chemists," he exclaims. When the baby doesn't respond as she should, however, he worries. "By a few months, so say some experts, she should be rolling over. She wasn't. So I got down on the living-room carpet and demonstrated for her how it is done. That might sound strange to you, but when I raised my first family, I was so busy running from town to town just to make a dollar, I didn't have the time to worry about things such as this. Now I do."

On March 20, 1986, hundreds of McMahon's fans gathered outside the Roosevelt Hotel to watch as Ed and his wife unveiled his star on the famous "Walk of Fame" along Hollywood Boulevard. The new star is located next to one honoring his life-long ideol--W. C. Fields.

Perhaps tht will be the highest honor even given to Ed McMahon--after all, how often does something like this happen to your next-door neighbor?

Even Mr. Fields would have been proud.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:McCollister, John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1986
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