“My first guest is from Summerville, Georgia. He is a former minister and bicycle repairman.” Johnny Carson pauses there for a second. He lingers on those words, allowing the audience to chuckle. Soon after, the big blue curtain is pulled back, and Howard Finster emerges. His arms raised high; hands wide open. It was a gesture of welcome and inclusivity, of connection and togetherness with the congregation on the shared spiritual journey they are all about to embark on. From that moment on, Finster has the entire Tonight Show audience in the palm of his hands. With his pomade-slicked hair and giant navy suit, he exudes charisma, confidence, and stage presence that overwhelms his hosts.
Now keep in mind this was in 1983. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was the most significant thing going. There is no modern equivalent. During the host’s nearly 30-year run, the show averaged 9 million viewers nightly. To put that into perspective, in the middle of his run, that was 17 out of every 20 televisions in the country. This was the show that molded modern late-night television. With increased competition from both cable and streaming, the top-rated show now averages just 2.95 million viewers.
Undaunted, Finster reveled in the audience. Ever the showman, he was deeply rooted in Southern traditions, having honed his quirky storytelling style from the years he spent behind the pulpit, having traveled throughout the region as an evangelical preacher. During his life, he was likely the most celebrated religious artist of the day. Finster constantly sought new audiences and ways to spread the good word. As he noticed that his congregation swiftly forgot his sermons soon after a sermon, he published religious songs and poetry in area newspapers. He delved into broadcasting by hosting a prayer-based radio show from the late 1930s to the early 1940s. The story was told in 1976 when repairing a bicycle; he got a spot of tractor paint on his thumb. He looked down and saw the face of God. God had a message for him: “Make sacred art.” From that point, until he passed on in 2001, Finster made 46,991 works of art. His masterpiece was the ever-evolving environmental sculpture, Paradise Garden, built home in the early 1960s. It became an eclectic haven with vibrant biblical allegorical murals, scattered bicycle mounds, concrete sculptures embellished with salvaged objects, a shiny Mirror House, and even a resplendently painted Cadillac. People arrived as word spread of what he was building in this little corner of Northwest Georgia. Many of them were art students from around the South. The B-52s and R.E.M. would come over from Athens (R.E.M. filmed their 1985 “Radio Free Europe” video there), and Keith Haring arrived in 1989 shortly before passing. There is an excellent video of Finster repeatedly referring to him as “Chief” Harring before putting him to work on assembling a sculpture. And with all of the guests, he could share the good word.
And that night in Hollywood with Carson in 1983 was no different. This was a chance for his largest crowd to witness his performative sermonizing. He had them all immediately. “I never dreamed of being on your show. I’ve been watching for many years, and I think to myself, will I ever get to see the real Johnny?” Carson replies: “I always wanted to meet the real Howard Finster.” Carson typically hosted with a light touch, allowing the stars to shine, but on this night, the role of host and guest was reversed. Invited to sing one song and banjo pick another, he begins each song with a considerable preamble. Then he begins:
“Just hanging around
Ole’ California land.”
As Finster sings, he owns the stage. He goes left, then is back by the blue curtain to get backstage. He turns towards Carson with his back to the camera. We see the overhead boom mic attempting to keep up. His body language, gestures, and vocal delivery all have this undeniable magnetic quality. Ed McMahon and Carson lob bewildered and amused looks at each other.
“All the pretty girls, they fell into my hand
They lean back on my thumb; they look down in my face.
I thought I heard them say, did you come from space?
Well, I’ve nothing to lose, everything to gain,
If I lose my mind, I’ll get a super brain.”
The audience erupts.
In the end, Carson says thank you for being here, “You look like a gentleman that gets a lot of fun out of life.” Finster replied as the crowd settled down: “Oh yeah, it’s healthy for you to laugh at least once a week.” Carson lets out a booming laugh. The multifaceted Finster held many titles over his years, but for one episode on television, this preacher-turned-artist was also the King of Late Night.