When Jack Paar signed off for the final time as Tonight Show host 60 years ago this month, he cemented a legacy as one of the most engaging personalities in the history of television hosts.
Paar, along with late friend Betty White, were two stars of classic television to have ties to the Lebanon and Lancaster area.
Jack Harold Paar was born in 1918 and grew up in Ohio and Michigan, where he began working in radio as a young man. His burgeoning career as a broadcast personality was interrupted in 1943 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. In his memoirs P.S. Jack Paar and I Kid You Not, Paar recalls his trip to Fort Indiantown Gap, then a staging area for World War II soldiers, where he remarked to the soldiers that he had always been interested in the stage.
It was while training in Lebanon County that Paar met Miriam Wagner, a distant relative of Milton Hershey and an employee of the Hershey Estates. Wagner’s friend and eventual bridesmaid Lucille Chryst recalled their meeting for the Lebanon Daily News in 2011.
Chryst and Wagner went out one night to a Women’s Club-hosted dance with soldiers at the Gap, where a 25-year-old private greeted them at the entrance of the ballroom and requested a dance with Wagner. According to Chryst, Wagner told her that Paar had declared that night that he would marry her, and they shortly got engaged. On Oct. 16, 1943, just months after they had met, Wagner and Paar married in the Salem Evangelical and Reformed Church of Campbelltown, now Salem United Church of Christ.
According to Salem Pastor Dwight Hein, Wagner was a member of the church, which still holds a wedding photo of the couple in its history display case. Paar had been married and divorced twice to Irene Gubbins before marrying Wagner, but the couple stayed together for over 60 years until his death in 2004.
Chryst, a longtime Salem member, also maintained a friendship with Wagner throughout her lifetime; Chryst passed away in 2015 and Wagner in 2006.
Days after the wedding, Paar was shipped overseas, and while there began entertaining his fellow soldiers with impersonations and comedy. After returning from the war, Paar continued to pursue opportunities in entertainment, eventually landing contracts for shows including Up To Paar in 1952, Bank on the Stars in 1953, and The Morning Show in 1954. In 1957, he was tapped as the successor of Tonight Show creator and host Steve Allen, whose departure from the CBS program at the beginning of the year had kicked off a disastrous period of ratings failure. Tonight Starring Jack Paar, later The Jack Paar Show, was a return to the formula that had initially made the show successful, and Paar’s personality served as the gold standard for talk show hosts for years to come.
Among the many guests Paar invited to his show was Betty White, who formed a friendship with Paar on and off the camera. White was something of a regular on Paar’s show, and the two appeared together on the gameshow Password on June 24, 1963, hosted by Alan Ludden. White and Ludden had been married just days before her appearance on Password, which is available for viewing on YouTube.
White, who was born in 1922 and passed away on Dec. 31, 2021, just weeks shy of her 100th birthday, does not have a direct connection to Lebanon County. She did, however, make her theatrical debut at Ephrata’s Legion Star Playhouse in 1959, a story researched by Erin Negley for Lancaster Online.
White’s short time in Lancaster County for the show “Third Best Sport” was preceded by – what else? – an appearance on the Jack Paar show. Though the show was deemed middling by critics, White left a grateful note to her “Ephrata friends” of the theater congratulating them on their success. This note is still kept at the theater, now the Ephrata Performing Arts Center.
Incidentally, Paar isn’t the only late night host to have a connection to Lebanon. For over two years in the early 1990s, the city served as the “home office” of David Letterman, the headquarters-in-name-only from where his Top Ten feature would originate.
Special thanks to Pat Rhen for providing information on this story.
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