A driveway bounded by white stucco walls and pink bougainvillea bends from the street toward the Coldwater Canyon home on the hillside. Parked in front of the Spanish-style house are a Mercedes and a Jeep belonging to Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen and his wife, Emily Marshall. Parked inside a back bedroom are the owners themselves, recalling the days before their eight-year-old marriage began.
“Remember Kansas City?” asks Doc.
“Oh, no,” moans Marshall with a wince.
“I was playing in Kansas City,” Severinsen continues. “We got into a tremendous fight in the hotel room. I mean, it was a battle. Emily was throwing things and screaming. In the midst of this knock-down-drag-out, there was a tap on the door, which we ignored. Then, a piece of paper slid under the door.”
“I kept hearing this fluttering sound,” says Emily, “so I looked at the note. It said, ‘We would like to see Mr. Severinsen and have his autograph.’ A group of sorority girls was standing outside.”
“So I stopped the argument,” says Doc, “opened the door and smiled politely. I had a nice chat with these people, signed a few autographs and closed the door. Then bam! back to the yelling and screaming.”
Fourteen years later, memories of Kansas City ignite only smiles for Severinsen, 61, and his 45-year-old wife. James Thurber once characterized humor as emotional chaos remembered in tranquility, and these days Doc and Emily are as emotionally tranquil as library carpeting. Not that the same can be said about their work schedules, of course. Marshall, a Tonight Show secretary when she met Doc in 1972, is now the creator and co-executive producer of the new CBS Monday night comedy series, Coming of Age. Severinsen, meanwhile, has just started his 26th year of Tonight Show trumpeting, performs every weekend and just last July released Facit, his latest album. And their marriage? “More than I ever would have hoped for,” says Doc. “We’ve learned how to argue,” says Emily.
They have, in fact, learned a great deal more. When they first met, Marshall was a first-time divorcée and had just taken a job as secretary to Fred de Cordova, The Tonight Show’s producer. Severinsen was a twice-married father of five (two by adoption), a recovering alcoholic and well-known TV personality 16 years her senior. The Tonight Show had moved to California from New York, and Doc—his second marriage crumbling—had come alone, leaving his wife back home in New Jersey. “I wasn’t running around, looking to fall in love,” he says. “When I realized what was happening, I said, ‘This can’t be.’ ”
The couple moved in together two years after their first meeting. Marshall’s second stab at cohabitation, however, quickly brought second thoughts. “I don’t think he was ready for the baggage that I brought into the relationship, and my neediness,” she says. “Every weekend he would leave to go off and do his work. I would sit and sob. I had no interest except Doc. I was in my early 30s, still a secretary, and feeling very frustrated about working.”
Then, one day, Emily gave de Cordova a few jokes she had written. Johnny Carson “used two of them that night, and they both got laughs,” she says. “That was my first taste of, ‘Well, maybe I can do something else.’ ” After writing a TV script and shopping it around town, she was hired to write for the Laverne and Shirley show, and then for the Rhoda sitcom. As her new career took off, her romance with Severinsen began to falter over the question of whether to marry. Emily wanted to; Doc didn’t. In 1979, after a huge blowup, she finally left.
Within a few months she had another new job (on the comedy show Angie), a new apartment in Hollywood and then, on Labor Day in 1979, the most frightening experience of her life. Waking up in the middle of the night, she found a man in a ski mask standing with a knife over her bed. “He ransacked the apartment, terrorized and raped me,” she says without flinching. “I managed to escape. At one point his pants were down around his ankles, and I was in a position to leap out. I ran through the living room, got out the front door and locked it. He got out the window, which is how he got in. It took me a long time to come back from that. But the experience, while it was horrific, showed me a strength that I didn’t know I had. It made me refocus and reevaluate myself.”
Severinsen, meanwhile, had been doing some reevaluating of his own. Lamenting Emily’s departure, he had finally concluded that he couldn’t “go on ahead with life until I got back with her. It just didn’t feel over.” He bought a wedding outfit, put it in a suit bag and hung it in his closet. He bought a diamond ring (“a doozy, about five carats,” he says). Then he launched a campaign to win back his old lover.
“In February 1980 he sent me a single rose every day,” says Emily. “He wrote letters saying he had changed, which I wasn’t buying for a minute. Then he sent a telegram saying that I had won a contest. The prize was a trip to Las Vegas and dinner with Doc Severinsen. That sort of did it for me.”
Three months later the couple married. Although the road hasn’t been bump-free since (on their honeymoon Doc was working on a TV special and preoccupied with practice and rehearsals), both say they’ve learned to accommodate the dreams—and work schedules—of their partner. Emily now toils until midnight most evenings on scripts for Coming of Age, her comedy set in a retirement community, and she credits Doc’s prodding and advice for helping her get the show off the ground. Severinsen still dons his tricky signature suits to lead the NBC band for Johnny each evening, then hits the road, often with his own four-piece group, Zebron, on weekends. “In lives this busy, you have to create the islands,” says Emily. “We create very structured dates. We usually just go to dinner. Sometimes, to make it special, we dress up.”
Away from work, the couple has help from a housekeeper who comes in daily to tend their three-bedroom home overlooking L.A. An upstairs study is filled with Doc’s memorabilia: his 1986 Grammy, pictures of his children, now grown, and of horses and of celebrities with whom he has worked. A bathroom contains hundreds of trumpet mouthpieces and a music stand next to the toilet (“I do some of my best work in there,” he jokes). With no children of their own, the pair dote on their five cats and three dogs. “They are our family,” says Emily. “In Coming of Age there’s a little old woman who lives alone with a dog that she dresses. I am that person. Right now it’s under control; they don’t have on clothes.” Uh, yes, but what about that mutt in the picture?
“This is Lily,” says Emily, producing a silver-framed photograph of a bull dog and Severinsen posing cheek to cheek. Both are wearing party hats. “Doc is my priority; Lily is his. Lily goes with Doc everywhere. It’s hysterical to see the valet drive with her sitting next to him when Doc and I go out to dinner.”
If the onetime secretary-turned-TV writer takes a back seat to Lily sometimes, she is no longer willing to do the same behind Doc. “I had an idea for a book once called Invisible Women, about the wives of famous men,” says Emily. “I cannot tell you how many times when I am standing with him and introduced to someone, people don’t even look at me. I find that outrageous behavior. I now make an extra, double effort if I meet a famous person to always say hello to the husband or wife.
At home in the back bedroom, though, on this autumn day, those sometime slights seem distant indeed as Doc and Emily reminisce about their courtship’s early days. For the dentist’s son from Arlington, Ore., and the railway executive’s daughter from Columbus, Ohio, the squabbles of the past are now just a cause for present tweaking.
“And then there was Venice,” recalls Emily. “I really wanted to go on a gondola ride. He thought that was just too ordinary…” Doc sighs, and his wife goes on with her tale.
—Vicki Sheff in Los Angeles