Though nearly everything about the Leno-ized Tonight Show feels just-out-of-the-wrapper and a bit uncomfortable — those layers of curtains, the new voice of Edd (Hall), and that seaside backdrop — one familiar element remains: Bob and Betty Kelly are still sitting in the audience. The Kellys estimate that since 1983, when Bob retired as a manager at a milk carton plant, they have attended the tapings more than 800 times.
”We’re addicts,” says Betty, 70.
”We don’t like to stay at home,” confesses Bob, 71. (In fact, on those afternoons when they decide not to make the half-hour drive from their San Fernando Valley home in Reseda to the NBC studios in Burbank, they often hang out at nearby malls.)
When they do head to Burbank, the Kellys arrive by 1:30 for the 5:30 p.m. taping of the show — the better to get their favorite seats in the fourth row, directly in front of the host’s desk, and to act as unofficial greeters. ”We try to help out the first-timers,” says homemaker Betty, who often brings along their Tonight Show scrapbook, containing pictures of Johnny and Jay and their guests, to share with other folks standing in line. ”Most people are very nice about it,” she adds.
The Kellys, who have been married for 45 years, didn’t miss a single show during Carson’s last four weeks — including the invitation-only, VIP finale. ”Johnny’s nephew, Jeff, who was one of the producers, invited us,” says Betty. ”When we thanked him, he said, ‘Don’t thank me. Thank Johnny. He would like you there.”’ This came as a surprise to the Kellys — who had never before been acknowledged by Carson. ”But I think he knew who we were,” says Bob.
Indeed, before the taping of one of the final shows, Carson walked into the audience and shook hands with the Kellys. ”Oh, we were up in the air!” Betty says.
By contrast, the more outgoing Leno has often waved at the Kellys from the Tonight Show stage. He has even posed for pictures at the gas station across the street from the studio, when Bob happened to catch him pulling his 1932 Packard in for a fill-up.
”A great guy,” says Bob.
”Oh, Jay’s so very nice,” adds Betty.
But Betty, who with Bob has one grown son and two granddaughters, worries that the new caretakers of Tonight are sending signals ”that they might not want older people to keep coming.” Already, she notes, the music, led by jazzman Branford Marsalis, is louder and a bit more raucous than Doc’s.
”Oh dear, I probably shouldn’t have said that,” says Betty. ”I don’t want to say anything against Jay because we really do think he’ll do very well.”
Still, she plans to be an advocate for the older crowd. ”If we get the chance,” she says, ”we’ll ask Jay about it.”