“Master of Variety”
“Ed Sullivan can’t sing, can’t dance and can’t tell a joke, but he does it better than anyone else.” – Alan King
The story of Ed Sullivan is one of a man whose on-camera persona was that of a stone-faced, humorless emcee. However, his off-screen life was full of glamour, great career heights and the personal satisfaction of being famous. He tried to make a name in the movies, loved the New York nightlife and was an avid world traveler. Ed led the life of an eccentric celebrity living in the Delmonico Hotel, out all night and eating pork chops for a late breakfast. But Ed’s ultimate claim to fame was that he hosted the longest running primetime variety show in the history of television. The true story of Ed Sullivan is a fascinating tale of a complex man that has never been told.
Edward Vincent Sullivan and his twin brother Daniel were born in Harlem, New York on September 28, 1901. Daniel was a sickly child who lived only a few months. Ed, on the other hand, was a strong boy who loved all sports. He began his professional career as a newspaper reporter, covering sports for a variety of papers until 1931. Then his career took a major turn when he wrote a feature about Broadway, prompting The New York Daily News to hire him to write a regular column, “Little Ole New York,” on all aspects of the city. From 1932 until his death, a Sullivan column remained a popular fixture in the N.Y. newspaper world.
Beginning in the late 1920’s, Sullivan added another dimension to his working life when he began hosting radio programs with Broadway themes. Many entertainers, among them Jimmy Durante, Irving Berlin and Jack Benny made their radio debuts on his show. By the 1940’s, while hosting “Ed Sullivan Presents” from the 21 Club, Ed began to accept offers to emcee reviews at theaters in Manhattan which led to him hosting additional events. He was now on his way to achieving what he had always wanted – fame.
In 1926, Ed met and began dating Sylvia Weinstein. Sylvia tried to tell her Jewish family she was dating a man named Ed Solomon, but her brother figured out she meant Ed Sullivan. With both families strongly opposed to a Catholic-Jewish wedding, the affair was on-again-off-again for three years. Ed and Sylvia were finally married in a City Hall ceremony and a year later Sylvia gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, named after Ed’s mother. The couple was always “on the town,” eating out five nights a week at some of the trendiest clubs and restaurants – The Stork Club, Danny’s Hideaway and Jimmy Kelly’s. Ed would hobnob with the rich and famous, was friends with U.S. Presidents and would even receive audiences with various Popes.
In 1947, Sullivan emceed the Harvest Moon Ball for The New York Daily News and, unbeknownst to him, the affair was televised (very few people had TV’s then). CBS subsequently hired Sullivan to host their new variety show, “Toast of the Town,” which debuted on June 20, 1948. It was rough going in the beginning with sponsors threatening to pull their advertising dollars unless CBS replaced Ed. Ed was a fighter and battled hard to book the best talent he could and William Paley, the head of CBS stood behind him. Ed loved to stand in the spotlight on center stage. He had found his métier. The show would air continuously on CBS Sunday nights at 8pm for an amazing 23 years.
Ed fought his numerous critics and eventually his weekly show took hold and became a major ratings success, prompting the network to announce Ed Sullivan as the host at the beginning of each show. In 1955 the show was re-named “The Ed Sullivan Show” and in 1967 Ed received one of his greatest honors — the theater from where he broadcast his show was re-named The Ed Sullivan Theater.
With an uncanny ability to spot top-notch talent, Sullivan presided over many “firsts” on American television. Among the individuals or groups who made their first television appearances on the show, or who were relatively unknown until they appeared, include Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Dick Van Dyke, Hank Williams, Jr., The Rolling Stones, Jack Benny, Elvis Presley and, of course, The Beatles. Still, Ed would be as likely to present unusual acts like plate spinners, the Singing Nun, Señor Wences and Topo Gigio as he would be to introduce America to “culture” like ballet, opera, classical music and Broadway show tunes. In short, Ed had become the arbiter of taste for America!
One of the most important contributions Ed Sullivan will be remembered for is how he bucked the system and embraced African-American performers giving them their first television breaks. He supported talent with a passion, regardless of race, introducing an audience to timeless legends like Nat “King” Cole, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ella Fitzgerald and dozens more. He even held hands with Pearl Bailey on his show, much to the chagrin of his sponsors (especially in the South). He was very close friends of Louis Armstrong and paid for the Harlem funeral of dancing legend, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson when he died penniless.
In the sixties Ed embraced the brand of a small record company from Detroit – Berry Gordy’s Motown! He presented nearly all the Motown acts including The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Jackson 5, etc. He also helped break the race barrier in the comedy world by presenting comedians such as Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley, Flip Wilson and Bill Cosby.
Perhaps what most people remember about “The Ed Sullivan Show” is that it gave us two of the most memorable, iconic moments in television history – the legendary “from the waist-up only” appearance of Elvis Presley and the American television debut of The Beatles. Few people realize that Ed Sullivan didn’t actually introduce Elvis on his Sullivan Show debut. Six weeks earlier Ed and his son-in-law, the producer of the show, Robert Precht, were in a near fatal car accident near Ed’s Connecticut country home. It was guest host Charles Laughton who did the honors of introducing Presley to his biggest audience ever – 60 million TV viewers. The Beatles appeared live four times on “The Ed Sullivan Show” opening the door for the British Invasion that followed. They were the first UK group to conquer America, and as we all know – they forever changed music history.
Ed was a good and loyal friend to those he liked, but heaven help you if you were his enemy. Ed’s famous feuds were legendary. Harriet Van Horne of The New York World Telegram & Sun wrote, “Sullivan got to where he is by having no personality; he is the commonest common denominator.” In response, Sullivan wrote her an uncharacteristically short note “Dear Miss Van Horne. You Bitch. Sincerely, Ed Sullivan.” On one show an address by President Johnson caused comedian Jackie Mason to have to cut his routine. A visibly shaken Mason started making fun of Ed’s pointing and motions for him to wrap up his monologue. He allegedly gave Ed “the finger” live on the air. Ed was furious, banned Jackie Mason from his show and a multi-year, million dollar lawsuit ensued. To this day Jackie still complains that Sullivan ruined his career for 20 years.
A solid family man, Sullivan loved his wife and daughter Betty, but it is rumored he was also something of a ladies’ man. The truth is he loved the finer things in life, including long-legged dancers. He also liked to gamble on horses and even owned harness silkies that raced at Suffolk Downs, Boston.
Ed ran his show with an iron will and he was often known to edit artists’ routines when he saw fit. During a rehearsal when CBS censors and Ed told Bob Dylan he couldn’t perform “Talking John Birch Society Blues,” the legendary singer-songwriter walked out and never appeared on the show – a decision he is said to regret to this day. Ed forced the Rolling Stones to change their lyrics from “let’s spend the night together” to “let’s spend some time together” much to the chagrin of Mick Jagger who rolled his eyes at the camera every time he came to the song’s title. Jim Morrison and The Doors were also asked to change the lyrics of “Light My Fire” and not sing “girl you couldn’t get much higher.” When they performed live they kept the song’s original lyrics which made Ed absolutely livid. After the show when Ed said, “you’ll never do the Sullivan Show again,” Morrison calmly replied, “We just did the Sullivan Show.”
In 1971, CBS canceled “The Ed Sullivan Show” rather unexpectedly, claiming the costs had become prohibitive and the tastes of the American audience had changed. Sullivan produced several annual specials for CBS with his son-in-law, Robert Precht, but was bitterly angry with the network because he desperately wanted his show to complete a 25 year run.
Heartbroken by the sudden cancellation of his show and crushed by Sylvia’s death the year before, Ed Sullivan died on October 13, 1974 at the age of 73. His show and its timeless 10,000 performances by so many of the world’s greatest artists (1,045 hours of “The Ed Sullivan Show” are archived) live on and to this day his name and all he accomplished still reverberates in both television and rock ‘n’ roll history.