Rome native remembers time working on 'Tonight Show'

By Gary Libratore

(WKTV) - Betty Lanigan grew up in Rome, and in her 20s moved away to host her own radio show, first in Denver, and then in Norfolk, Va.

She sang and danced her way to a successful career before taking a position behind the scenes as a publicist with "Tonight with Steve Allen" in New York City.

The nightime variety show would ultimately become "The Tonight Show."

Lanigan started working on the show with host Steve Allen in 1954, then worked with Jack Parr and finally Johnny Carson, whom she says was her favorite host of all.

"Oh, right from the beginning, he was head and shoulders above anybody else," Lanigan said. "And that remained that way.  He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant."

Lanigan says as publicist of the show, she worked closely with the guests over the years, and one of her favorite guests of all time was Groucho Marx.

"He was very nice, and one day he asked me to lunch after he did 'The Tonight Show,'" she said. "I was very pleased.  That was the smartest man I ever met.  He was talking about pollution of the Great Lakes -- quite a lunch topic of discussion."

She also recalls the time Johnny Carson's parents came to watch his show.

"Don Rickles was his guest that night, and Don wouldn't let go," she said. "He did a job on Carson like you woudn't believe, and Johnny's father was laughing so hard he was crying."

Lanigan remained with NBC, but left "The Tonight Show" to work on the "Bob Hope Show." She actually spent six Christmas Eves with Hope in Vietnam, while he was on his Christmas trips to entertain American troops.

Lanigan retired from NBC and went back to school in her 60s, receiving a master's degree in English from Old Dominion University in Virginia.  She returned to Rome in the late '80s to be closer to her family and worked as an adjunct English professor for 12 years. 

About six years ago she moved into an apartment at Acacia Village in Utica, which is where we met up with her on Monday, before Jimmy Fallon was to host his first "Tonight Show."

Regarding Fallon, Lanigan says, "They're hoping he'll attract more young people."

Lanigan says she wishes Fallon the best, but won't catch a minute of his show because, she says, "it's on too late'.

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