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In His Collection, Turban Is Perfect Fit

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When you’re an overweight kid who is definitely not an after-school sports jock, there’s just one thing left to do: Rush home, grab the Doritos, and plop down in front of the TV.

Fast forward to the James Comisar of today. At 37, he is a slimmed-down curator of American pop culture who claims to have amassed more Hollywood television memorabilia than anyone else, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. While he owns items such as Jeannie’s bottle from “I Dream of Jeannie,” Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone from “Get Smart” and Spock’s ears from the original “Star Trek,” the crowning glory of his collection is the career ephemera of Johnny Carson, including “The Tonight Show” set and Carnac turban, which Carson personally presented to Comisar.

“To me, Mr. Carson is the king of television, and the turban he wore as Carnac is his crown,” says Comisar, who will only call his idol “Mr. Carson.” “I wouldn’t call the President ‘George,’ nor would I call Mr. Carson ‘Johnny.’”

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Approaching the 10th anniversary of Carson’s retirement, Comisar is quick to point out that since he took possession, nobody (including him) has ever sat in his idol’s chair or worn the Carnac turban.

The journey from the time young Comisar would sneak out of his bedroom to watch “The Tonight Show” to the day he arrived at Carson’s door took many twists and turns. At 17, he dropped out of UCLA to become a television writer.

“My first gig was writing questions for bachelorettes on ‘The Dating Game,’” he said. “It was my first break. Then I started writing for comics like Joan Rivers and Howie Mandel and went on to write shows for Fred Silverman and Norman Lear. Some aired for 10 minutes and were gone, but I was thrilled to be working in TV, and the checks cleared the bank.”

He found that writers would go for two-hour lunches, which wasn’t for him now that he had lost weight, so he would grab an apple and walk around the studio lot. He liked to walk through the costume department to see if he could recognize costumes from his childhood, and eventually he did. When he asked to buy the items, he was told they could only be rented by production companies.

“I came up with a plan,” he says. “I offered to pay a year’s rental fee in advance, and in the end I would own the items. They told me they thought I was crazy, but OK.”

First he just wanted a few pieces to put in his studio office. Then he filled his closet at home, the garage, a storage unit, then 10 storage units. “I decided I needed to build a world-class archive of these television treasures,” Comisar says.

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Comisar now needed a way to finance his acquisitions, so he became a Hollywood expert for auction companies and has since authenticated tens of millions of dollars of items for companies all over the world. He also has celebrity clients who are equally star-struck and enjoy collecting from other well-known people.

When George Burns died, Comisar was called in to help auction off his personal items for the charities that were dear to Burns. “I feel in some small way I represent them after they’ve gone,” he says. “It’s vital that their ephemera is handled with dignity, because they aren’t here to protect themselves. I’ll never forget when I first entered Mr. Burns’ bedroom. I was touched to see that even though Gracie died over 30 years earlier, he still kept her eyeglasses on her nightstand.”

Then came the day Comisar heard Carson was retiring. “I felt like other people did when they heard Elvis had died. It was a terrible shock, and I sent a letter to ‘The Tonight Show’ requesting the opportunity to care for costumes and props. I immediately received a response from Helen Sanders, Mr. Carson’s assistant. The answer was no.”

In the coming days and months, there were many more calls, letters and faxes to Carson’s office. Persistence paid off.

“It’s been 10 years since James first called and I found him to be genuine, sincere and very passionate about what he preserved,” says Sanders, who went to see highlights from Comisar’s collection and realized he was an excellent conservator. Carson agreed to give him the Carnac turban, which he had already taken home, so he invited Comisar to come pick it up.

“When I got that call it was one of those magical, sparkling life moments,” Comisar says. “More than the artifacts, it was the idea that Mr. Carson was trusting me to play a small part in his legacy. He is no less to me than a childhood hero, a father figure and a TV legend, so you can well imagine that seeing to his artifacts is a responsibility I take damn seriously....

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“I’ve met many TV stars, but Mr. Carson made a special request of me that no one before or since has asked for. He said to me, ‘We did our little show and we helped some people with their careers, and that’s fine, but please don’t make a big deal over my stuff. If it’s important to you, take it and keep it, but don’t build a shrine.”

To a dedicated fan like Comisar, hearing Carson “shrugging off 30 years of pioneering television as a ‘little show’” was mind-boggling. A year later, he received another call from Sanders: “The Tonight Show” set was returning from the Epcot Center in Florida, and Carson wanted to know if he wanted to own and conserve it.

Comisar is now negotiating a national tour of highlights from his collection that will visit museums across North America for five years. Though he’s tight-lipped about the details, he adds, “As they say in TV, stay tuned.”

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