Cold Spring man got to know late night legend  when Carson was a teen

Ken Raschke of Cold Spring knew Johnny Carson before Carson was famous. They both lived in Norfolk, Neb., and Johnny and Ken’s older brother were good friends. Photo by Bill Vossler

Dick Cavett once said of his friend, Johnny Carson, “I felt sorry for him in that he was so socially uncomfortable. I’ve hardly ever met anybody who had as hard a time as he did.” Henry Bushkin wrote that “Carson standing in a living room making small talk was uneasy: Carson in performance, in front of a dozen pals or 30 million people watching the Oscars, was uncanny.”

Ken Raschke, of Cold Spring, didn’t feel uneasy at all or think Carson was uneasy when he met Johnny (his brother‘s friend) in the Raschke home on 16th Street in Norfolk, Neb., in 1946.

“He lived on 13th Street, Highway 81, three blocks away north towards South Dakota. I was 10 years old, and Johnny Carson would drop in for coffee or something, because he and my brother, Bill, were friends. I don’t remember him being terribly talkative. He was very polite, answered questions, and when I was the brunt of a joke, he hopped right in on it, because my brother was a jokester too, and he and Johnny got along well, and I was a good target. Carson wasn’t overly extroverted, but he was a big presence.”

Johnny’s dexterous ability was one of the aspects about Carson that intrigued Ken. “He fascinated me with his almost continual manipulation of a coin. I was just amazed with the manual dexterity to get a coin walking across his fingers almost continually while visiting, across his fingers back and forth. Those were the days when 50 cent pieces were readily available, and that‘s what he‘d been rolling back and forth and up and down between his fingers, even while he was talking.”

Biographies of Carson state that once he learned how to do card tricks, he followed his family members continually, saying, “Pick a card, any card.” Ken said, “He did some card tricks with me too, but I don’t remember what they were, exactly. I was just a dumb little kid, and quite naïve.”

Early Days

Johnny was born Oct. 21, 1925, in Corning, Iowa, and when he was 8, the family moved to Ken Raschke’s home town, Norfolk, Neb. As the Encyclopedia of World Biography states, “It was there that Carson grew up and began developing his talent for entertaining. At 12, Carson found a book of magic and became fascinated by it. He ordered a magic kit and began practicing. He wanted to be a magician. Carson’s first paid performance was at the Norfolk Rotary Club when he was 14 years old. He had a magician’s stand with the name ‘The Great Carsoni’ on a black velvet cloth draped over the front. Carson also performed for his mother’s bridge club and the Methodist Church socials.”

After his graduation from Norfolk High School in 1941, he enlisted in the Navy, where he entertained troops by giving shows with his ventriloquist dummy, Eddie. When the war ended he returned to Norfolk.

Meeting Carson

Bill and Johnny Carson met in high school, Ken said, when the pair sang in a quartet.

“Knowing the nature of both of them,” Ken said, “they became friends, practiced together, did various presentations.”

Bill brought Carson over to his house several times, where Carson performed magic tricks on Ken.

“He pulled numerous coins out of one of my ears, and one time he was sitting across the room from me, and he told me to watch out, because I’d laid an egg. When I got up, lo and behold! There was an egg on the chair, and he wasn’t anywhere near me. I still don’t know how it was done. I was too shy to ask him how he did any of his magic tricks.”

By this time, Carson was performing magic tricks for local clubs at $25 each, but Ken got to see them for free.

The Singing

Ken said his father must have thought the quartet was pretty good.

“I remember one time Johnny was over, and my dad had the audacity to say, “You’ve got something. You should go to a recording studio and cut a disk, and take those little records and send them around to radio stations.” 

I don’t know if he ever did, but I suspect he already had this plan in mind.”

After Carson left to go to station WOW in Omaha, where he interviewed pigeons on the roof of the local courthouse, reporting on the political corruption they’d seen, the friendship pretty much drifted the way of many friendships, and Ken doesn’t remember Carson coming back to the Raschke home.

“By that time Bill had gotten married, and moved, and had all kind of adventures on his own.”

He said it was a pleasant surprise to his parents to find out that Johnny was making it on radio.

“My sisters held him very much in high esteem, and so did the local residents. They were happy for him. Also, there was an awful lot that Carson did for our city over the years. He was a great philanthropist for Norfolk.”

When Ken saw Johnny Carson on television with his Tonight Show years later, he said his general mannerisms and actions on TV were very, very similar to what he saw in person.

Carson Returns

When Johnny returned to Norfolk for his television retrospective, Johnny Goes Home, in 1976, he spoke at the high school graduation, where he encouraged graduates to “learn to laugh at yourselves.”

Ken said he saw all the parallels between Carson and the Raschke lives.

“Many of the same teachers, same buildings, and road, the very same things I experienced. Today, Norfolk has a museum showing a lot of Carson’s awards.

Ken said, “He was just fun to be around. He was entertaining, accepting, and he didn’t make you feel ill at ease in any manner. He had a ready smile, and he smiled at you.”