Eric Thompson Jay Leno greets Leno before the show
by Andy Gray
Jay Leno is well known as a comedian, but he’s just as well known for his love of cars.
So it was no surprise that Leno, who owns four vintage Packard automobiles, would try to fit in a visit to the National Packard Museum before his performance at Packard Music Hall.
“It was thrilling, exhilarating, humbling,” museum director Mary Ann Porinchak said. “He’s the quintessential car guy. What can you tell him that he doesn’t already know?”
After initially getting word that Leno could stop by as early as mid-morning, the comedian arrived around 6 p.m., about an hour before his show was scheduled to start next door. Instead of the dark suit and burgundy tie he’d be wearing on stage, Leno was dressed in jeans, T-shirt and an unbuttoned chambray shirt.
A 1956 Vincent Black Prince motorcycle, part of the museum’s current antique motorcycle exhibition, caught Leno’s eye as soon as he walked in the door. He toured the galleries, checking out the cars and motorcycles, as well as the historical displays about the Packard family’s history in Warren.
While Porinchak and Dr. Robert Walton, president of the board of directors for the National Packard Museum, shared stories about the museum’s collection, Leno also told anecdotes during the tour.
“This is where it all started,” Leno said. “It’s fun to see the artifacts. It’s fun to play the hall, and it’s fun to poke around the museum and see where he (Packard) lived.”
Walton said, “It’s really something to have someone of that caliber in the museum and have it mean that much to him.”
Leno has supported the museum in the past. When the museum, the Fine Arts Council of Trumbull County and the Trumbull County Historical Society organized the “Spectacle of Speed” public art project in 2007 with artists painting large statues of the Packard’s Goddess of Speed hood ornament, Leno had the art department for “The Tonight Show” decorate one of the goddesses, which was auctioned off to raise money for the three organizations.
Leno was given one of the goddess statues, which he said remains on display in the garage that houses his car collection.
Among those at the museum to greet Leno was magician/comedian Eric Thompson, who owns Satolli Carpet & Floor Covering in Warren. Thompson was the emcee the last time Leno performed in Warren, around 1983 at Tickles Comedy Club.
“He was great,” Thompson said. “After the show, we’d all go back to his hotel room and talk, and he’d critique your jokes. Not in a mean way. He’d help and tell you how to improve. He always encouraged everyone to work clean and showed how it can be funny without being vulgar.”
Leno did the same thing during his 100-minute set at the music hall, a mostly PG-rated act that mixed the kind of topical jokes that filled his “Tonight Show” monologues with longer routines about his childhood and family.