Film footage from the early years of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson has been uncovered by an employee at the American Forces Network Broadcast Center in Riverside, California. The footage, believed to be a compilation of Carson's monologues intended for use as filler material on military television stations, dates back to 1963. What makes the footage valuable is the fact that the vast majority of episodes produced between 1962 and 1972/1973 are gone, making footage like this incredibly rare. According to Mark Muckenfuss of the Press-Enterprise, the film was turned over to Carson's nephew -- and president of Carson Entertainment Group -- on Monday, the 50th anniversary of Carson's first episode as host.
An American Forces Press Service article explains how the footage may have survived:
In the 1960s, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service received film reels from the production studios and distributed the programming to its stations for service members around the world. After the footage was shown and no longer needed, it was returned to the studios, destroyed, or sometimes kept on site at the AFRTS facility, now called the American Forces Network Broadcast Center.
“Somebody had the brains or historical foresight to save this reel,” said Pedro Loureiro, archivist at DIMOC.
The television industry used to reuse tapes, Loureiro said. Newer episodes were recorded over the older material without much thought of archiving what is now thought of as part of the “golden age” of television.
“Everything from the 1960s is considered lost,” he said.
The footage will be digitized, added to the searchable database launched in August 2010 (which is still not open to the public) and made available for licensing. Whether details about what was actually found will be released or if the footage will ever be shown publicly is unknown.