Lance Burton is one of the greatest illusionists ever, and he was truly impressed by Johnny Carson. Burton reflects on his time on Carson’s ‘Tonight Show.’
When you think of legendary magicians, you think of Lance Burton. When you think of the best talk show hosts, the list will likely forever be topped by the late Johnny Carson.
Aside from being the host of NBC’s The Tonight Show for 30 years, Carson was also a magician and had an appreciation for fellow illusionists. He had Lance on The Tonight Show ten times over his tenure, and Time-Life is revisiting Lance Burton and other classic guests as part of its new Tonight Show “Vault Series” DVD collection, which became available October 4.
Hidden Remote sat down with Lance Burton to discuss what it was like getting the call to appear on Carson’s Tonight Show, his favorite appearance and the gift he received from Carson that he’ll never forget.
Hidden Remote: What was it like to get that first booking on Carson’s Tonight Show?
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Lance Burton: My first appearance on Johnny Carson was October 28, 1981. I had driven out to LA from Kentucky where I grew up, in Louisville, because I was hired to do a show for two weeks down in Los Angeles called “It’s Magic.” It was an annual event that was produced by Milt Larson and Bill Larson, the two brothers who founded the Magic Castle out in Hollywood.
So I drive out to LA, and I get there a week or so before the show opens and I’m meeting with Milt at the Variety Arts Theater…He looks at me and real casual, he says ‘Oh by the way, we have you booked on the Carson show opening night.’
There’s this long pause because I’m thinking to myself, I just got to LA. Carson show? Surely he doesn’t mean Johnny Carson show. Maybe there’s a local show like ‘Billy Carson In The Morning.’ I look at him and I said, ‘Do you mean the Johnny Carson show?’ And he said yeah, that’s the one. That’s how I found out I was booked on The Tonight Show.
Hidden Remote: You quickly became one of Johnny’s favorite guests. How was it to keep getting invited back over the years?
Burton: I was on ten times with Carson and another ten times with [Jay] Leno and it was always exciting. It never got old being on The Tonight Show because I grew up watching The Tonight Show. I discovered Johnny Carson when I was in high school; my mom always used to tell the story that I would be in the living room with the TV on and she’d come in saying let’s go to bed, you have school in the morning, and I was like, ‘Oh mom, let me just watch the monologue!’
When I was in high school I was so into magic and show business and your connection to real show business was Johnny Carson. He was a real entertainer. He had real entertainers. You think of all the people we saw all those years on the show. Sammy Davis Jr., all those great performers. So it didn’t matter if I was 21 years old or 31 years old, going on The Tonight Show was just as thrilling.
Hidden Remote: Do you have a favorite Tonight Show appearance?
Burton: Your first Tonight Show is always going to be the most important one because that was the appearance that launched my entire career. If it hadn’t been for that appearance I wouldn’t have never had [my] career. I would have never come to Vegas and worked here for 15,000 shows and done the television specials. That all came out of that launching pad of being on The Tonight Show.
Other than that one, my favorite appearance was when I did the sword fight. I think it was my fourth appearance on the show…I would go in the audience and put the sword up to the guy’s chest and I would grab him by the arm and just pull him up on stage. like I was kidnapping the guy under threat of bodily harm, and people would think that’s real funny.
The guy would select a playing card and shuffle it back in the deck…He would go back to his seat and I would take the cards and I would toss them up in the air and as the cards fluttered through to the ground, I would take the sword and stab it into the card and I would impale the card with the end of the sword and of course it was the card the guy selected. Then we went into the sword fight with the bad guy.
When I get there, I ask them hey, do you think I could use Johnny as the volunteer? That’s how we rehearsed it. [But] Johnny wasn’t there in the rehearsal; the stage manager stood in for Johnny…So when we did it during the broadcast, that was the first time we’d done it with Johnny. That was the only time in my appearances on The Tonight Show that I got to interact with Johnny on camera.
We never really realized how great Johnny was until he was gone. We never fully appreciated the man’s skill until he was gone. I’m telling you, that night when I walked over there with a sword and pulled Johnny Carson on stage, his reactions were so perfect. He knew right where the line was. He wanted to make the guest shine; he didn’t want to steal the thunder. He knew right where the line was, how much to do and not overdo it.
I never got as big a laugh ever than the night I did that trick with Carson. I never got such a big reaction than that night. He was the greatest talk show host there has ever been.
Hidden Remote: People may not know that Johnny was also a magician himself. And after he passed, you received a magic trick from his collection.
Burton: Johnny was a magician as a boy growing up and did shows as a kid and teenager. He did magic shows in church basements and parties and events and he was really good…He did really great magic, sleight of hand magic. Really hard magic to learn.
When Johnny passed away, he still had all his magic equipment from when he was a kid at his house in Malibu and his nephew Jeff inherited all those props…At the end of the day, Jeff decided he was going to give these props out to some of the guys that appeared on The Tonight Show that Johnny liked and I was one of the guys chosen. So four, five years ago at the LA Magic History Conference, they surprised me with this.
It was built probably in the 1940’s by the Abbotts Magic Company in Michigan. It’s the Abbotts Modern Square Circle. It’s a little prop the size of a bread box. It’s a little box and a little tube that goes inside it, you show them both empty and then you reach inside and you produce handkerchiefs or a small rabbit or whatever it is you want to make appear.
I have it here in my home on display and I have also on display with it, the letter that came with it from Johnny’s nephew Jeff. It’s written on Johnny Carson’s personal stationery and I had that framed sitting next to the prop.
Hidden Remote: You’ve been enjoying retirement from professional magic, but that doesn’t mean you’re not still busy. What has Lance Burton been working on recently?
Burton: The last couple years what I’ve been doing is I have co-written and directed and starred in my first feature film. It’s called Billy Topit Master Magician and it’s a little Independent film. We made our festival premiere a couple months ago. We went and took it to the Wild Rose Film Festival and we won six awards, including the award for Best Family Film. I’m working now on getting the film distributed.
It’s a fun little project; it’s a comedy and I cast all my friends in the movie. Criss [Angel] does a cameo in the film. My buddy Louie Anderson. who just won his first Emmy the other night for Baskets. I’ve got a whole ton of magicians that pop up in the movie, jugglers, musicians. It’s a fun little project and I really had a great time doing that.
The Vault Series is available on DVD now. For more on Lance Burton, visit LanceBurton.com.