ON A PLEASANT AFTERNOON AT THE DISNEY-MGM STUDIOS Theme Park near Orlando, camera-laden visitors are strolling about, looking for familiar figures. “There’s Mickey!” a woman cries as she spots the world’s most celebrated mouse. “There’s Minnie!” cries another. Then a man yells so loudly that heads snap around, “And heeere’s Eddie!”
Sure enough, there’s Ed McMahon, who—next to Mickey, Minnie and his old boss, Johnny Carson—is among the most recognizable figures in the land. He’s walking hand in hand with his wife of eight months, advertising executive Pam Hurn, 38, and when he hears the shout, he grins and calls back, “How you doing?” Fans thrust autograph books in his face. Showing the implacable good humor that marked his 30-year reign as Carson’s sidekick, McMahon signs and signs. Then a woman snaps his picture, looks up and pleads, “Say it for me.” McMahon asks kindly, “What’s your name?” She tells him, whereupon McMahon swells his ample emcee’s chest and roars, “Heeere’s Debbie!”
And heeere indeed is Ed McMahon, happily in his new element at Disney World, proving, at 69, that there is plenty of life for him after Johnny. Star Search—the wildly popular syndicated TV show now in its 10th season and officially known as Ed McMahon’s Star Search—has wed with Disney and moved from Hollywood to Orlando, where the live half-hour weekly shows and hourlong weekend program are now taped. Already it looks as if McMahon owns the place. “It’s like you’re always in a little town,” says Pam. “It’s so relaxed—everybody going ‘Hi, Ed! Hi, Ed!’ They don’t feel threatened going up to him. They feel he’s just somebody they know.”
McMahon understands the source of that easy familiarity. “It’s not like being Robert Redford,” he says. “It’s the second-banana business—that’s a big part of it.” What’s more, he sounds genuinely thrilled about his afterlife. “I just love the fact that I’ve gotten this success and I can give something back,” he says. “I hear stories about celebrities who can’t be approached. Well, I want to try to make up for all those people.”
He’s doing just that, the Disney way. McMahon sports red suspenders these days, decorated with mouse figures. And when they put his name on the dressing-room door at the new Star Search studio, McMahon insisted that they put a pair of Mickey ears over the in his name. “You get me,” he says proudly, “you get a company man.”
Disney got McMahon after more than two years of discussions. The folks there thought Ed was ideal for them—big, brash, friendly and eternally wholesome. But, of course, McMahon was tied to Burbank and The Tonight Show. That tie loosened last March, before Carson’s retirement. The McMahons were on their honeymoon at the time, on a yacht in the Caribbean. Ed got the news when his agent called and urged him to fly to New York City. With Pam in tow—and no socks on his feet—Ed was off. “They said, ‘Would you go to Orlando?’ ” he recalls. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
McMahon’s recollections are interrupted by a woman who comes up to him and says, “We miss Johnny.” McMahon solemnly answers, “Thank you. I miss him too.” Later, in his dressing room, as young singers, dancers and comics begin queuing up for their Star Search auditions, McMahon begins remembering. “You know, I was with Johnny for four years before The Tonight Show, so that makes 34 years, except for vacations,” he says. “And I miss the free-for-all when you didn’t know what he was going to bring up. I never went to a meeting. Never read a note. I just showed up. That stuff you saw us do was all ad-lib banter. At the end of the final show, he said, ‘What Ed and I have is a great friendship. He’s my friend. I’m his friend. And you can’t fake that.’ And it’s tine,” McMahon quietly adds.
He did get a chance to speak to Johnny shortly after that last show. “He told me that every Wednesday he starts looking in the newspaper, getting material, writing jokes. And then he said to me, ‘Ed, who am I writing jokes for—the fish?’ ”
But McMahon claims he has been far too busy to get blue over bygone days. After the show closed and Johnny and his wife, Alex, look off to the French Open and Wimbledon, McMahon made a grand tour of three California theme parks, Knott’s Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain and Disneyland, with most of his family, including adopted daughter Katherine, 6. Then he began a 14-day, 14-city promotional tour for Star Search. As if his new job weren’t enough, there’s his wide range of charities to take care of. He appears annually on the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, works for St. Jude’s Ranch for abandoned kids in Boulder City, Nev., is on the board of I he Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation and does a benefit every year with Lou Rawls for the United Negro College Fund. “It’s a great cause to educate people,” he says, “and these people need a break.”
The needed break is something McMahon understands. That’s why he pays as much attention to the also-rans as to the winners on Star Search (whose contestants have included Dennis Miller, Sinbad, Sharon Stone and Rosie O’Donnell). “They cry their hearts out,” he says. “So I give them encouragement.” In fact, when production is shut down in January, McMahon will emcee a revue to be performed by the also-rans for Disney World visitors. Plus, McMahon tells the star-struck kids the story of his own first tryout—a story that says quite a lot about McMahon himself. “I had been practicing since I was 10,” he says, “because I knew I wanted to be in the business. I had a flashlight, and I’d talk into it like a microphone, with my little cocker spaniel, Valiant Prince, sitting there listening to me. I’d do commercials, sports, weather, the news.
“Anyway,” he continues, “when I was about 17, they had an audition for a new announcer on a local radio station in Lowell, Mass. I was sure I was going to win. But I came in second to Ray Goulding. Of course, I was crushed. [But] Goulding got so hot on the local station that they sent him to Boston. Thai’s where he met Bob Elliott, and they became Bob and Ray. Then the people at the station remembered that I came in second, and I got to lake over Ray’s job.”
McMahon smiles softly. “So this is what I tell the finalists on the night when they’re going to get the $100,000 or not get it: ‘You don’t have to come in first to have a nice career in show business.’ ”
DON SIDER in Orlando and DORIS BACON in Los Angeles