DALLAS – From Friday June 2, through Sunday, June 4, Heritage Auctions will offer nearly 1,000 pieces from the Comisar collection of television memorabilia, most of which have never before been to auction. Among its voluminous highlights are The Tonight Show set from which Johnny Carson kept a nation awake and entertained until his 1992 farewell; the desk and New York City skyline where David Letterman became every college student’s Late Night fixture during his NBC tenure; Archie and Edith Bunker’s Queens living room from All in the Family, including the two most famous chairs in sitcom history; and the bar around which the Cheers regulars congregated. Absentee and Internet live bidding will be available through LiveAuctioneers.
The collection began simply enough in 1989, with two hand-painted title cards from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson that appeared before commercial breaks and promised “More to Come.” These were the first of more than 10,000 artifacts James Comisar acquired during more than three decades of collecting and conserving, restoring and protecting television history. More to come. No kidding.
Comisar spent decades and millions of dollars gathering decades’ worth of sets, props and costumes spanning the medium’s birth to its Golden Age to the era of Peak TV – from Howdy Doody to Gunsmoke, I Love Lucy to Star Trek, Bewitched to I Dream of Jeannie, The Office to ER, Moonlighting to Mad Men, All in the Family to Breaking Bad. He assembled enough material to fill the television history museum he long dreamed of opening.
But after decades of trying to establish that museum to no avail, Comisar came to a difficult decision: If these TV treasures couldn’t find an exhibition space where others could experience them, the time had come to part with a momentous portion of his renowned collection.
“After 30 years of saving and sacrificing to acquire and protect this collection, then meeting with studio heads, network presidents, theme parks and different cities across the country, I have come to accept that I won’t be able to establish the museum for TV fans I always dreamed of,” Comisar says. “I am extremely proud to have done my part in assembling and safeguarding this collection. Now, it’s up to others to take over this cultural mission.”
The remarkable list of props, sets and costumes available here honor the must-see TV of every era and genre.
Other touchstone objects in the sale include Superman’s woolen uniform tunic and molded muscles from The Adventures of Superman, estimated at $80,000-$120,000; Captain James T. Kirk’s command-gold top, estimated at $90,000-$170,000, and the Grecian tunic worn when he and Lieutenant Uhura shared TV’s first interracial kiss on Star Trek; Barbara Eden’s pink-chiffon costume from I Dream of Jeannie, estimated at $50,000-$70,000; U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon’s badge and boots from Gunsmoke; and the signpost featuring the hometowns of the doctors and soldiers who staffed the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital on M*A*S*H, which carries an estimate of $100,000-$200,000.
Treasures from the Comisar collection span yesterday’s hits all the way through the series that reinvigorated television in the satellite and streaming age. In the climate-, humidity- and light-controlled warehouses built specifically for art and historic works, Comisar stored the ensembles worn by Tony Soprano and his crew when Christopher Moltisanti became a so-called “made” man; the tools used by Walter White and Jesse Pinkman to cook Breaking Bad’s blue meth; the midcentury barware Don Draper, Roger Sterling and the other Mad Men used to mix their cocktails, estimated at $10,000-$20,000; and serial killer Dexter Morgan’s kill table.
This auction offers the most complete history of television ever available in a single place.
“When acquiring items like these – pieces that took decades to collect and wouldn’t have survived had it not been for James – you’re getting so much more than the object,” said Heritage’s Chief Strategy Officer Joshua Benesh. “You’re buying American history.”
Quite literally: Versions of Archie and Edith Bunker’s living room chairs and the M*A*S*H signpost reside in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. But those weren’t the only ones made during those series’ production runs. Comisar – whom Forbes in 2015 called “a one-man Smithsonian of TV memorabilia” – tracked down the remaining survivors for long-term preservation.
Archie and Edith Bunker’s chairs in the James Comisar collection, which have an estimate of $100,000-$200,000, were made for the ninth – and final – season of TV’s most influential sitcom about the man All in the Family creator Norman Lear has famously called a “lovable bigot,” and they were used throughout the run of Archie Bunker’s Place, which followed. And three signposts were made for M*A*S*H: One was destroyed in a fire, one was donated to the Smithsonian, and one is in this auction, bearing an identical estimate to the All in the Family chairs.
The 58-year-old Comisar grew up in front of the television, whose characters became his constant companions: “Batman, Captain Kirk and Keith Partridge felt like after-school friends,” he said. “My happy place was sitting in front of the television on our avocado-green linoleum floor.”
Comisar grew up dreaming of a television career, of one day working for Johnny Carson, and at 17 launched a writing career that included a stint writing jokes for stand-ups such as Joan Rivers and Howie Mandel. He then went to work punching up sitcom scripts for Norman Lear, Ron Howard, Fred Silverman and others. His work on that side of the screen provided him with a peek behind the scenes, where he found familiar costumes languishing on racks and beloved props piled up on dusty shelves.
“That was the turning point because now I knew where these pieces were, that they existed and that there was no care given to them,” Comisar says. “In fact, if you were a studio and you had a rental house, the most recognizable pieces are the worst for them because it’s hard to re-rent them. It’s hard to rent a Superman costume, for instance, and so often, these recognizable pieces would be relegated to the worst building on the lot with a leaky roof.”
Years later, Comisar added a Superman costume to his collection – one of the blue tunics George Reeves wore during his televised tenure as the syndicated Man of Steel from 1952 to 1958, which is offered in this auction with the aforementioned estimate of $80,000-$120,000. It soars alongside the outfit Clayton Moore wore during his final years as ABC’s The Lone Ranger, the Spanish black felt hat and satin mask Guy Williams wore during his spin as Zorro on ABC in the late 1950s and, best of all, the extraordinarily rare Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin’s costumes worn, respectively, by Adam West and Burt Ward during 120 episodes of ABC’s Batman in the mid-1960s. They will be offered as one lot with an estimate of $500,000-$700,000.
From Batman’s first episode, “Hi Diddle Riddle,” comes one of its most iconic outfits: Frank Gorshin’s green jacket covered in The Riddler’s trademark question marks. But the Bat-costumes aren’t the only things Comisar is offering from the Batcave: Here, too, are the sole surviving “bulletproof” Bat-Shield and Robin’s Batarang grappling hook.
Everything offered in this event is near and dear to Comisar, who canceled nearly every family vacation and regularly dined on mac and cheese to assemble and protect this collection. But at the top of this list has to be the set used during the final decade of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, including the desk, chairs, couch, Burbank skyline backdrop and other items present the night Carson said his last good-night to America. Comisar, who acquired the set directly from Carson, said the late-night host couldn’t believe anyone would want to see his set, which Carson described as “the tackiest set in Hollywood.” Comisar spent decades caring for it. The Carson lot has an estimate of $100,000-$200,000.
And now he hopes these historic props, cherished costumes and instantly identifiable sets will find new caretakers, whether they’re collectors, curators, institutions or simply ardent fans of the TV shows that entertained, informed and raised generations.
“This history can’t spend forever in a warehouse,” Comisar said. “I have this theory that all important art finds its curator. I feel like I’ve taken this as far as possible, but I am excited to find out who takes the baton and cares for and celebrates these objects. These pieces are part of our shared experience. And they need to go back out into the world.”
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