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I grew up watching The Tonight Show. Just as your parents marked your height with marks on the door frame, so you marked your own growing-up by how much of the show you could watch. You watched the monologue, of course, and laughed at the things you got and took note of the things you would surely get later. If you were lucky, the Mighty Carson Art Players (I thought they made up that name; no) would do a skit – it’s Art Fern! With lovely Carol . . . Merrill? No, she was Price is Right. Right? Anyway, Carol something. And was she Carol Something, let me tell you.
If you were really lucky, you got Carnac, which was the best. You could repeat the opening lines without knowing what they meant (what was a mayo jar doing on Funk and Wagnalls’ Porch? What?) and enjoy the way Ed milked it, the audience applause when he presented the last question. The audience wasn’t happy it was over, but they knew their job.
And then there was Doc.
Beaming, every time the camera swung his way. His clothing preposterously garish. His reputation, the hipster. We only got snippets of his band, because they played Johnny in and out of the commercials. Sometimes they’d cut back from a commercial with a card: MORE TO COME, and you’d hear the band wailing. When they returned to the show, Doc was blowing mad notes, and his fine tight band snapped to a stop.
Eventually I was old enough to watch the whole Tonight Show. Then I was too cool to watch The Tonight Show. Eventually there was Letterman, with his own band, but he didn’t have a Doc. He had a simpering hipster. Guys like Doc, with their 60s flash and big-band backstory, they weren’t hip! It was Dad Stuff.
Eh. How little you know when you’re in college.
Flash forward a few decades to the mid 2010s. For reasons too complicated to go into here, I ended up a the Master of Ceremonies for the Minnesota Youth Orchestras, a remarkable organization. Four orchestras, from grade school to High School, the latter capable of playing the undiluted classical repertoire. They took on anything. Stravinsky, Mahler, Beethoven – you name it, they played it, and they always took the roof off the hall. We had three concerts a year at Orchestra Hall, the finest venue in town, and for twenty years I introduced the musicians and orchestras and told little stories and moved everything along.
One year I’m backstage, nervous for the first time since the first show, and I’m, what, 14 years into this gig? Check the tie, shoot the cuffs, tug down the suit, wait for the stage manager to nod and open the door. I head out to the mike, say a few things, and then said something I’d never thought I’d say.
“Ladies and Gentleman . . . Doc Severinsen.”
See, he knew Manny, the conductor of the Symphony Orchestra, who was not only also the guiding light of the whole org, but was principle trumpet for the Minnesota Orchestra – and a late-night talk-show listener, which is how we’d met years ago.
Doc was amazing. He was in the high 80s, and still had an amazing tone and seemingly limitless wind. Brought the house down and the audience to their feet. He was just a delight.
Afterwards, we went out to dinner. Manny, Claudette (another conductor, orchestra head, Manny’s wife), Doc, and me.
There are times in your life when you want to talk, and times when you know enough to shut up, chew, and listen. He was as charming as you would hope. It was an honor.
And then I went home and called my dad and said I’d just had dinner with Doc Severinsen, and he didn’t quite get it, “sounded like I said I’d had dinner with Doc Severinsen.” But I did!
This allll came flooding back when I saw a tweet about Doc’s final concert last Saturday. Reviews were sparkling.
One reporter noted that Doc still practices four hours a day. I believe it. May everyone who hits the high note of 95 believe there’s still a joyful noise that needs to be made, and they’d best get on with making it.Published in