'Cheers' bar, 'Tonight Show' set among TV history at auction

DALLAS (AP) — When Johnny Carson retired from “The Tonight Show” after 30 years, one man was determined to make the iconic set part of his burgeoning collection of television memorabilia.

“I would love to say that I convinced him that I was the best guy for the job, but really, if I’m being honest, I had to convince him to save the set at all," James Comisar said. "He told me he had the tackiest set in Hollywood and who would ever want to see it?”

That set is among a dizzying number of items from Comisar's collection of props, sets and costumes from beloved television shows that will be sold in early June by Dallas-based Heritage Auctions — from the bar where Sam Malone greeted customers on “Cheers” to the pink confection Barbara Eden wore in “I Dream of Jeannie” to the set from Archie and Edith Bunker's timeworn living room from “All in the Family.”

Other items on the block when online bidding starts Monday are a tunic worn by Superman in the 1950s TV series, barware from “Mad Men,” tools used to cook meth on “Breaking Bad,” costumes from “Star Trek," and costumes and props from the 1960s TV series “Batman.” The auction, which features about 1,000 lots, wraps up with live bidding from June 2 to 4 in Dallas.

Comisar — who has been tracking down and preserving television memorabilia since 1989 — had dreamed of creating a museum to house his collection, but when that failed to come together, he decided it was time the items leave the temperature-controlled warehouses where he's been caring for them.

“I just decided these pieces should go back to the fans and let them enjoy them and then when that good day comes when a TV museum is effectuated, these pieces will be well cared for in the hands of passionate fans and collectors," said Comisar, 58.

Comisar, who grew up in Los Angeles, said that after school each day he “grabbed my Pop-Tarts and I sat down in front of the TV set" to watch characters who “felt almost like after-school friends.”

After graduating from high school, Comisar became a comedy writer and began spending time on studio lots, where he realized that items from the TV shows he loved were languishing, with no system in place to save or archive them. He said that when shows went off the air, props would be sold or thrown away, or end up back in the costume department for rent.

He said the bar from “Cheers,” complete with the names of the show's stars carved into it, was in studio storage with a dead skunk in it when he acquired it.

The collection that Comisar has curated includes so many different shows that there’s something there to appeal to everyone, said Joshua Benesh, Heritage's chief strategy officer.

The collection, he said, also stands out for the way Comisar put it together. “James was out there in the field, in the wild, piecing properties together and discovering things that didn't have value at the time,” he said.

Benesh said though that in recent years, the entertainment memorabilia market "has come alive.”

“We now understand just how rare some of these things are and how fundamental to our collective popular culture they are," Benesh said. “These characters are iconic. They've become part of the fabric of who we are.”