Johnny Carson posing with an owl

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has received more than $38 million in total philanthropic support from Johnny Carson, a 1949 graduate of the University, and the Johnny Carson Foundation.

In November 2004, the University announced a $5.3 million gift from Carson to support the theatre and film programs in the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts. Of that gift, $4.3 million is for renovation and expansion of the Temple Building at UNL, home to the theatre program and where Carson studied radio. Another $1 million created an endowment to keep performance spaces current with latest advances in lighting and sound technologies.

In July 2005, the University received a $5 million gift from the estate of Carson for endowed support of programs in theatre, film and broadcasting. The bequest establishes the Johnny Carson Fund for Theatre, Film and Broadcasting. Annual income from the endowment will provide support to the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film in the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts and the broadcast program in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

As a memorial to Carson and his generosity to his alma mater, the University has renamed the Department of Theatre Arts the "Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film."

In November 2011, the Foundation announced another $1 million gift to create the Johnny Carson Opportunity Scholarship Fund. The permanently endowed scholarship fund will annually benefit students in the Hixson-Lied College who are graduates of high schools in Nebraska, with preference being given for students in the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film. An additional $6.25 million has been received since then from the Johnny Carson Foundation to support this scholarship fund, including a recent $5 million gift in 2021.

On November 6, 2015, the University announced a $20 million gift from the Johnny Carson Foundation, the charitable arm of the late entertainment icon and University of Nebraska alumnus Johnny Carson, to help create an academic program and facility focused on interdisciplinary learning, creativity and research in emerging media. The program will be led by the university’s Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film within the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts to provide a specialized emphasis in digital virtual production and design.

UNL and the University of Nebraska Foundation announced the gift during a celebration at the former Nebraska Bookstore building at 1300 Q St., which was purchased by the university in June. About 31,400 square feet of the 55,000-square-foot building will be renovated to be the center’s headquarters.

“Johnny Carson was an innovator of television, which was certainly the emerging media of his era,” said Allan Alexander, president and a director of the Johnny Carson Foundation. “Because of this and his legacy at Nebraska, we are especially pleased to support the education endeavors of many future generations who wish to follow in his footsteps as media innovators.” Jeff Sotzing, an advisor to the Carson Foundation’s board of directors and Johnny Carson’s nephew, said, “This gift and what it seeks to build upon within higher education will absolutely make a difference in how students today and in the future learn about media and how they master modern trends and advances.”

Chancellor Harvey Perlman said the university is extremely grateful to the Johnny Carson Foundation for its ongoing commitment to the lasting legacy of Carson on its campus. “This generous investment will once again have an enormous impact on our students,” Perlman said. “Johnny Carson’s education at Nebraska prepared him to succeed in an era of change, and this gift ensures the university is able to prepare many future generations of students for careers in the ever-changing arena of media arts.”

Charles O’Connor, the Hixson-Lied Endowed Dean of the Hixson–Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts, said the gift helps the university build on the success of the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film and creates new opportunities for students to expand their knowledge of today’s emerging media art forms that are positioned at the intersection of film, design, computational technologies and commerce. “The Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts is a vision that is unique, innovative and achievable. It will increase the working power of our graduates … It represents a long-term, strategic partnership between the Johnny Carson Foundation and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, establishing a signature legacy in the name of one of UNL’s most distinguished graduates.”

Graduates who complete coursework in the new program will be especially prepared with media arts skills that can be used in various professions, including filmmaking, game design, television production, theater, advertising, social media, business, architecture, science, education and agriculture, among others.

The university’s plan for the Johnny Carson Center includes an increase in faculty and staff, offering new courses and curriculum, and officially opening it in 2018. Plans also call for increased student enrollment.

The $20 million gift is directed for renovation and development of the center’s physical space and a permanent endowment at the NU Foundation to provide annual support for the Johnny Carson Center’s programs and future capital needs. The center will include design and editing labs, scoring and recording studios, video and audio editing rooms, classrooms, sound stage, faculty and staff offices and more.

The Johnny Carson Center will engage partners from across campus, other universities and the private and public sectors through an advanced development studio, emerging media arts symposium, master classes, internships and more.

Throughout his successful career, Carson maintained a strong relationship with his university. In the 1970s he established an endowed scholarship to assist outstanding Nebraska high school graduates. In 1988, he provided a gift toward construction of the Lied Center for Performing Arts. The black box theatre adjoining the main stage was renamed the Johnny Carson Theater in his honor.

"I got my start in the Temple Building and have never forgotten the impact of my academic studies at the University of Nebraska on my life and career," Carson said in November 2004, just over two months before his death on January 23, 2005. "It is my hope that this gift will enable future generations of theatre and film students to learn their craft . . . which will enable them to pursue their goals, just as I did."

John Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, on Oct. 23, 1925, and grew up in Norfolk, Neb. He served in World War II in the Navy as an ensign before enrolling at the University of Nebraska in 1947. He received a bachelor of arts degree in radio and speech with a minor in physics in 1949.