Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ed McMahon, who died Tuesday at 86, is best-known for sitting on a couch during late-night TV and saying “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” and in later years for turning average Americans into millionaires through his role as pitchman for the American Family Publishers sweepstakes.

But in the nation’s capital, he’s equally well-known in the lobby of Catholic University of America’s Hartke Theatre, which he played an instrumental role in building. In the fall of 1970, Mr. McMahon and performers Helen Hayes and Sidney Poitier attended the theater’s dedication.

Mr. McMahon, a graduate of CU, was also a well-loved alumnus, serving as national president of the Catholic University of America Alumni Association from 1967 to 1971.

“Catholic University has lost one of its most renowned alumni with the passing of Ed McMahon,” said the Rev. David M. O’Connell, the president of CU. “He took such great pride in his alma mater and rarely missed an opportunity to speak positively about his time here in various interviews and books.

“Ed told me: ‘I owe so much to CU. That’s where I got my start,’” Father O’Connell said Tuesday.

Mr. McMahon died at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in the company of his wife, Pam, and other family members shortly after midnight.

Born Edward Leo Peter McMahon Jr. on March 6, 1923, the Detroit native entered CU in 1946 following his service as a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps during World War II. He graduated in 1949, obtaining a bachelor of arts degree in speech and drama. Almost 40 years later, the university awarded him an honorary doctor of communication arts degree.

At 6-feet-4, Mr. McMahon was a natural standout — not only at CU, but in his teenage years as a bingo caller in Maine and later while hawking vegetable slicers on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.

“I made one hell of an income selling slicers in 1946,” Mr. McMahon said years later. “I was making $500 a week at the fairs. And six weeks in the fall, we made $1,000 a week. To give you an idea of how much money that was, my rent was $93 a month, and you could buy a new car for $500 at that time.”

Mr. McMahon would go on to make millions, mainly from his 30-year stint as Johnny Carson’s sidekick on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” — where his rumbling, hearty laugh and bellowed introduction of Mr. Carson became late-night standards for the millions who tuned in. The two actually first worked together when Mr. Carson was host and Mr. McMahon was the announcer for the TV game show “Who Do You Trust?” in 1957.

Bandleader Doc Severinsen, Mr. McMahon’s colleague on “The Tonight Show,” said Tuesday that Mr. McMahon “will be sorely missed.”

“He was one of the greats in show business, but most of all he was a gentleman. I miss my friend,” he said.

Mr. McMahon, who always laughed at Mr. Carson’s quips and was sometimes parodied for it, said he had “hitched my wagon to a great star” in Mr. Carson, who died in 2005.

“It’s like a pitcher who has a favorite catcher,” he told the Associated Press in a 1993 interview. “The pitcher gets a little help from the catcher, but the pitcher’s got to throw the ball. Well, Johnny Carson had to throw the ball, but I could give him a little help.”

A series of other high-profile gigs followed “The Tonight Show,” including Mr. McMahon’s stint as host of “Star Search,” an ‘80s forerunner to “American Idol”; roles in such feature films as 1973’s “Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off”; and guest appearances on several TV series, including “Baywatch,” “Burke’s Law” and “Newhart.”

Mr. McMahon’s natural ability as a pitchman was also put to use in commercials for a host of products, including Budweiser beer and Pride Mobility, a leading power wheelchair and scooter manufacturer.

In recent years, though, the entertainer and father of six suffered multiple health and financial problems.

Yet in true McMahon form, he always bounced back. Last year, the ever-jovial second banana parodied his money woes in a rap-style TV ad (with rapper MC Hammer) for His final project, the feature comedy “Jelly,” will be released later this year.

And his devotion to Catholic University continues.

In spring 1985, Mr. McMahon announced the creation of the Ed McMahon Scholarship Endowment at the Hartke Jubilee. The endowment was created to assist CUA undergraduates who are preparing for careers in broadcasting. Additionally, Mr. McMahon and comedian Bob Newhart performed at Catholic University’s centennial celebration in April 1987.

“The university is saddened by the loss of yet another great alumnus, whose long and distinguished career bears witness to what he learned here,” Father O’Connell said. “May Ed now know the peace of the Lord forever as he joins so many of his beloved CUA friends who have gone before him.”

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