The Ed Sullivan Show was the definitive and longest running variety series in television history (1948-71). Hosted by the eponymous awkward and fumbling former newspaperman, the show became a Sunday night institution on CBS. For twenty-three years the Sullivan show fulfilled the democratic mandate of the variety genre: to entertain all of the audience at least some of the time.
In the late 1940s, television executives strove to translate the principles of the vaudeville stage to the new medium, the amalgamation referred to as "vaudeo." As sports reporter, gossip columnist, and master of ceremonies of various war relief efforts, Ed Sullivan had been a fixture on the Broadway scene since the early 1930s. He had even hosted a short-lived radio series that introduced Jack Benny to a national audience in 1932. Although Sullivan had no performing ability (comedian Alan King quipped: "Ed does nothing, but he does it better that anyone else on television"), he understood showmanship and had a keen eye for emerging talent. CBS producer Worthington Miner hired him to host the network's inaugural variety effort The Toast of the Town and, on 20 June 1948, Sullivan presented his premiere "really big shew," in the lingo of his many impersonators who quickly parodied his wooden stage presence and multitudinous malapropisms.
The initial telecast served as a basis for Sullivan's inimitable construction of a variety show. He balanced the headliner, generally an unassailable legend, this time Broadway's Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein with the up-and-coming stars, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, fresh from the nightclubs in their television debut. He also liked to juxtapose the extreme ends of the entertainment spectrum: the classical, here pianist Eugene List and ballerina Kathryn Lee, with the novelty, a group of singing New York City fireman and six of the original June Taylor Dancers, called the "Toastettes." From the beginning, Sullivan served as executive editor of the show, deciding in rehearsal how many minutes each act would have during the live telecast in consultation with producer Marlo Lewis. In 1955, the title was changed to The Ed Sullivan Show.
Sullivan had a keen understanding of what various demographic segments of his audience desired to see. As an impresario for the highbrow, he debuted ballerina Margot Fonteyn in 1958 and later teamed her with Rudolf Nureyev in 1965; saluted Van Cliburn after his upset victory in the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow; and welcomed many neighbors from the nearby Metropolitan Opera, including Roberta Peters, who appeared 41 times, and the rarely seen Maria Callas, who performed a fully staged scene from Tosca. As the cultural eyes and ears for middle America, he introduced movie and Broadway legends into the collective living room, including Pearl Bailey, who appeared 23 times; Richard Burton and Julie Andrews in a scene from the 1961 Camelot; Sammy Davis Jr. with the Golden Boy cast; former CBS stage manager Yul Brynner in The King and I; Henry Fonda reading Lincoln's Gettysburg Address; and the rising star Barbra Streisand singing "Color Him Gone" in her 1962 debut. Occasionally, he devoted an entire telecast to one theme or biography: "The Cole Porter Story," "The Walt Disney Story," "The MGM Story, and "A Night at Sophie Tucker's House."
What distinguished Sullivan from other variety hosts was the ability to capitalize on teenage obsession. His introduction of rock 'n' roll not only brought the adolescent subculture into the variety fold but also legitimized the music for the adult sensibility. Elvis Presley had appeared with Milton Berle and Tommy Dorsey, but Sullivan's deal with Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, created national headlines. The sexual energy of Presley's first appearance on 9 September 1956 jolted the staid, Eisenhower conformism of Sullivan's audience. By his third and final appearance, Elvis was shot only from the waist up, but Sullivan learned how to capture a new audience for his show, the baby boom generation.
In 1964 Sullivan signed the Beatles for three landmark appearances. Their first slot on 9 February 1964 was at the height of Beatlemania, the beginning of a revolution in music, fashion, and attitude. Sullivan received the biggest ratings of his career, and, with a 60 share, one of the most watched programs in the history of television. Sullivan responded by welcoming icons of the 1960s counterculture into his arena, most notably The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Janis Joplin, and Marvin Gaye. One performer who never appeared was Bob Dylan, who walked off when CBS censors balked at his song "Talkin' John Birch Society Blues."
Although called "the great stone face" on screen, Sullivan was a man of intense passion off camera. He feuded with Walter Winchell, Jack Paar, and Frank Sinatra over his booking practices. He wrangled with conservative sponsors over his fondness for African American culture and openly embraced black performers throughout his career, including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, and Diana Ross. He also capitulated to the blacklisting pressures of Red Channels and denounced performers for pro-Communist sympathies.
Sullivan saw comedy as the glue that held his demographically diverse show together and allowed a nation to release social tension by laughing at itself. He was most comfortable around Borscht Belt comics as seen by the funnymen he most often enlisted: Alan King (37 times); Myron Cohen (47 times); and Jack Carter (49 times). When Sullivan's son-in-law, Bob Precht, took over as producer in 1960, there was a movement to modernize the show and introduce a new generation of comedians to the American audience, led by Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin. The comic act that appeared most on the Sullivan show was the Canadian team of Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster (58 times); the parodic sketches of Wayne and Shuster assured Sullivan a sizable audience north of the border.
Sullivan was always on the lookout for novelty acts, especially for children. His interplay with the Italian mouse Topo Gigio revealed a sentimental side to Sullivan's character. He also was the first to introduce celebrities from the audience and often invited them on stage for a special performance. Forever the sports columnist, he was particularly enthralled by athletic heroes, and always had time on the show to discuss baseball with Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays and learn golf from Sam Snead or Ben Hogan.
The Ed Sullivan Show reflected an era of network television when a mass audience and, even, a national consensus seemed possible. Sullivan became talent scout and cultural commissar for the entire country, introducing more than 10,000 performers throughout his career. His show implicitly recognized that America should have an electronic exposure to all forms of entertainment, from juggling to opera. The Vietnam War, which fractured the country politically, also help to splinter the democratic assumptions of the variety show. By 1971, The Sullivan Show was no longer a generational or demographic mediator and was canceled as the war raged on. Later in the decade, the audience did not require Sullivan's big tent of variety entertainment any longer; cable and the new technology promised immediate access to any programming desire. The Sullivan library was purchased by producer Andrew Solt in the 1980s and has served as the source of network specials and programming for cable services.
HOST Ed Sullivan
MUSIC Ray Bloch and His Orchestra
DANCE The June Taylor Dancers
PRODUCERS Ed Sullivan, Marlo Lewis, Bob Precht
CBS June 1948 Sunday 9:00-10:00 J
uly 1948-August 1948 Sunday 9:30-10:30
August 1948-March 1949 Sunday 9:00-10:00
March 1949-June 1971 Sunday 8:00-9:00
Bowles, Jerry. A Thousand Sundays: The Story of the Ed Sullivan Show. New York: Putnam, 1980.
Harris, Michael David. Always on Sundays--Ed Sullivan: An Inside View. New York: Meredith, 1980.
Henderson, Amy. On the Air: Pioneers of American Broadcasting. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.
Leonard, John. A Really Big Show. New York: Viking Studio Books, 1992.
Video: The Beatles on Ed Sullivan (airdate: 2/9/64), a posted on YouTube
Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan's America tells the complete saga of The Ed Sullivan Show and, through the voices of some 60 stars interviewed for the book. Written by Gerald Nachman, 2009.