Often, talk show hosts are charming and competent on camera, and maybe not the most business-savvy off-screen. Ed Sullivan was just the opposite—pasty in the bright lights, shifty in his stance, and notorious for bungling introductions and monologues. But ironically, that high discomfort factor helped develop the cult of Ed. There was just something novel about an awkward host, and like a fender bender on the side of the highway, people just couldn’t avert their gaze.
Off camera, Sullivan was a brilliant tracker and arranger of talent. A variety show always has variety, but nothing was as eclectic as the mish-mash that Sullivan put together, from puppet shows to opera. There were countless acts and performers who made their debuts—or their most famous TV outings—on his show. He had his finger right on the pulse of what was hot and intriguing in the way of talent, even if he himself didn’t have a discernable pulse onstage. He knew how to book ‘em, probably better than anyone.
Sullivan began his media career as a sportswriter, and then he took over famous gossip man Walter Winchell’s syndicated column. He hosted Broadway specials, charity events, and, through the 40’s, various war relief efforts and his own radio show. In 1948, CBS hired him to host its first variety show endeavor, a new format that combined vaudeville and television and was nicknamed ‘vaudeo.’ The show was called The Toast of the Town.
For his inaugural program, Sullivan assembled Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Rodgers and Hammerstein, a pianist, a ballerina, a troupe of crooning firemen and a boxing referee whose next gig was the Joe Louis-Jersey Joe Wolcott match. If you wanted to see the phrase ‘something for everyone’ incarnate, there it was.
The critics were rough on Sullivan—they lambasted him for his wooden hosting style and the scattershot tone of his guest menageries. But the show did well anyway. In 1955, its name changed to The Ed Sullivan Show, and the following year, it broke all of TV’s single night ratings counts when a young Elvis Presley swiveled that famous pelvis on Sullivan’s stage. June Taylor provided her six dancing ‘Toastettes,’ Ray Bloch led his orchestra, and Sullivan was a Sunday night institution soon enough. With producer Marlo Lewis, he decided during rehearsals how long each act would last, what order the acts would appear in, and what, out of each performer’s cache of material, should be performed.
Just a sampling of the people who made their American TV debuts on Sullivan’s show (Elvis isn’t on the list—he had been on TV shows prior to Sullivan’s): Bob Hope, Lena Horne, Martin and Lewis, Dinah Shore, Albert Schweitzer, Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire and Jane Powell, Eddie Fisher, and probably most famously, The Beatles. Most Americans got their first exposure to the band from this
Broadcast, the Beatlemania phenomenon commenced, and the floodgates for other British bands were opened. It remains one of the most highly watched single shows in TV history.
Since hip, cutting-edge musical acts were clearly treating him right, he responded by booking The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Marvin Gaye and Bob Dylan, though Dylan jumped ship when the network wouldn’t let him sing ‘Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues,’ a song about an over-zealous Communist seeker. Not that this was Sullivan’s only problem with emerging rockers: The Stones were banned (temporarily, it turned out) after their rowdy first appearance, and the show’s director asked The Doors to leave out the line ‘girl we couldn’t get much higher’ from ‘Light My Fire’ (they agreed, sang it anyway, and likewise got banned).
Sullivan’s celebrity guests sat in audience, not backstage in a fancily-catered green room, and so when the acts were introduced, they came right from the audience to the stage. Sometimes, with no prior planning, he’d invite them back up for additional performance. His interplay with mechanical Italian mouse Topo Gigio and Señor Wences and his talking box (‘S-all right? S-all right!’) showed a soft side on camera, but once again, since the man was a dichotomy, don’t ever think he was all softie. He feuded with executives who didn’t want to book as many African American acts as Sullivan did, he went head-to-head with Steve Allen, his rival variety show host, and with Walter Winchell, Jack Paar and Frank Sinatra over the way he insisted on booking and arranging (or in Sullivan-speak, ‘routining’) the acts. For the most part, thank goodness, people knew not to bully him. If he didn’t like you, he could put the brakes on your career in the space of a single night.
The Ed Sullivan Show was the longest-running variety show in TV history, and an undisputed institution. Towards the end of that long run, with the country divided by Vietnam and shifting value systems, Sullivan’s catchall format didn’t cross the demographic lines like it used to. Time slot rivals The Walt Disney Show and The F.B.I. were gaining momentum, and CBS, eager for youth-oriented programming and fearful that Sullivan was a vestige of older generations, canceled the show.
No matter. Guts and diversity like that, which goes for the show and the man, tend to stick around in a person’s (and a country’s) consciousness.
USA / CBS / 50 minutes / Sunday 20 June 1948 – Sunday 6 June 1971
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