Tuesday, June 20th, 2023

What Ed Sullivan Showed Us 

The TV Series That Changed Not Just Popular Culture But America Made Its Debut 75 Years Ago.   

Ed Sullivan was 46 years old and a relative unknown when, on June 20, 1948, the CBS television network introduced him as the host and co-producer of a new Sunday night variety program called the Toast of the Town. Leaning heavily on the show business connections he’d cultivated over the years as a New York-based newspaper columnist, Sullivan’s lineup that evening included the then breaking-big nightclub comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Broadway giants Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, a ballet dancer, a classical pianist, an interview with a boxing referee, and, for local color, a Bronx fireman who’d won a community singing contest.

On paper, the mix made little sense. Yet, from that night on, through the weeks and months that followed, as Ed Sullivan continued to present his hand-picked but seemingly random assortment of performers – and notably continued to fumble his way through between-act segues and commercial announcements – the program began to attract a steady following. 

While there were at the start of his television career less than half a million TV sets in operation – and most of them were found in neighborhood bars and taverns – Sullivan’s Toast of the Town was, by the end of 1948, one of early TV’s highest-rated programs. Over the next few years, as sets came down in price and increasingly began taking their furniture-like places in living rooms across the country, Sullivan solidified his position as one of the nation’s premier showmen.  

It was a perch he would go on to occupy for more than two decades.  

At the height of his popularity in the late 1950s and ‘60s, Ed Sullivan’s program averaged an estimated viewership of well over 40 million. It was a testament to his unfailing knack for assessing, on a weekly basis, the entire width and breadth of the entertainment galaxy (high brow, low brow, and everything in between), and then chaperoning its best and/or brightest to a general audience whose overall tastes he understood, and ultimately helped shape, as well as anyone from within or without its parameters. 

In so doing, Sullivan served as perhaps the most important cultural gatekeeper for the popular arts for multiple generations of Americans, as he brought viewers showcase performances by acts ranging from the Bolshoi Ballet to Johnny Puleo and His Harmonicats; Sam Levenson to Senor Wences; Richard Burton to Richard Pryor; Mahalia Jackson to Michael Jackson. And, of course, from Elvis Presley to the Beatles. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” for just about any entertainer on the planet,  if you could make it there, on The Ed Sullivan Show, you could make it anywhere.

By just about any imaginable standard, Ed Sullivan was easily the most unlikely “star” in the history of television – a master of ceremonies whose presence on his own show was so devoid of showbiz pizzazz and personal charisma that he was often referred to as, simply, “Old Stoneface.” And yet, for one hour every Sunday night for nearly a quarter of a century, Sullivan was welcomed into living rooms across America with a loyalty the likes of which remains unequaled since his show went off the air in 1971. 

How did he do it? Sullivan once said he followed a simple formula: “Open big, have a good comedy act, put in something for the children – and keep it clean.” That formula was also informed, however, by Sullivan’s innate sense of good-willed age, race and ethnicity-blind inclusion, a product of his upbringing. Born into a devout Irish Catholic family in New York’s East Harlem, he was raised in Port Chester, NY, a mostly working-class community. Excelling at sports, he played with and against a diverse group of area athletes, which instilled in him important social values. (“On the field, your name or color or religion cut no ice,” he’d later recall. “You stood or fell on your own performance.”) As he grew up, Sullivan also got his first taste of the allure of show business, watching medicine show salesmen successfully hawking their wares in Port Chester’s public squares, and attending local vaudeville shows, where he marveled at the talents of comedians, jugglers, acrobats, magicians, comedians, singers, dancers and actors commanding attention from audiences of all ages. It was a blueprint he’d later refine to a near science.  

Bitten by the journalism bug while still in high school, Sullivan began writing about sports for his local paper, and not long after graduating he moved to Manhattan, where he spent the Roaring Twenties working his way up the newspaper ladder as a sportswriter for various tabloids. In the process he became a familiar figure not only at sporting events but also as a denizen of New York City nightlife, and was soon organizing and emceeing celebrity-packed sport dinners sponsored by his paper. Here, Sullivan rubbed shoulders with sports figures as well as theater, film and radio stars, and he became so comfortable around famous people that by 1932 he’d become the Broadway columnist for the Daily News – a post that, even after he became a TV icon, he would hold onto for the rest of his life. 

Throughout the 1930s and into the ‘40s, Sullivan was seen alongside those in the public eye nearly every night of the week, and he became adept at putting together and/or hosting all manner of entertainment programs. In 1942, he produced and brought to Broadway an all-African American revue, Harlem Cavalcade, and after the U.S. entered World War II, he tirelessly organized and emceed benefit shows sponsored by everyone from the Red Cross to the United Jewish Appeal, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the war effort. 

Television was still a new mass medium in 1948 when, intrigued by the job Sullivan had recently done hosting the broadcast of a Daily News-sponsored dance competition (tellingly, he was unaware the show was being aired on TV, and was relaxed and fairly energetic), CBS put him on the air with his own show. And once he began to succeed, Sullivan built up his show with innovation and boldness. Recognizing that Broadway theaters were traditionally dark on Sunday nights, he began engaging members of hit productions to perform scenes from their shows, and staged sometimes hour-long tributes to Great White Way icons such as Cole Porter and Helen Hayes. And though the film industry had viewed television as an enemy in its infancy, Sullivan coaxed most of the major studios into letting him present clips from upcoming movies and even getting major stars such as Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando to appear on his program. By the end of the 1954-55 season, a new contract with CBS put his salary in the six figures, and in the fall of ’55, just as he was about to grace the cover of Time magazine, the program was retitled, simply, The Ed Sullivan Show. He’d finally made it to the top.

Then, on Sept 9, 1956, came the icing on the cake, spelled E-L-V-I-S.

Elvis Presley had appeared previously on a number of programs on NBC, including one earlier that summer on Sullivan’s Sunday night competitor Steve Allen’s show. In fact, it was Allen’s beating him in the ratings that week that finally nudged the dubious Sullivan to book Elvis for three appearances at the even-then astronomical price of $50,000. Yet it was Presley’s first performance on the Sullivan show that drew the biggest audience, as an estimated 60 million viewers – one-third of the country – tuned in. While Presley was already being hailed as the “King of Rock and Roll,” his initial appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was, for America, the official coronation. 

As a result of Elvis’ breakthrough, Sullivan tapped into the teen audience throughout the remainder of the 1950s with performances by virtually all the biggest rock and roll and pop acts, including Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, the Platters, Bo Diddley, Connie Francis, Johnny Mathis and Sam Cooke. While most adults looked upon the coming generation’s music as little more than a trivial passing fad, Sullivan presented his youth-oriented singing acts with simple, nonjudgmental respect. In 1957, after Cooke’s rendition of “You Send Me” was abruptly cut short by CBS when the live show ran late, the network was flooded with angry calls from Cooke’s fans. In response, Sullivan brought him back a month later, apologized to him on air, and then gave him time to perform several songs.

As America transitioned into the 1960s, Sullivan broadened his horizons to include keeping the pulse not only on pop culture, but the world around him. He took his show international, broadcasting from locations in Europe and Asia, and as the Cold War escalated, he staged shows from the Soviet Union and in front of the Berlin Wall, where Louis Armstrong’s trumpet rang out with “When the Saints Go Marching In.” With folk music and progressivism on the rise, Sullivan’s audience heard the Brothers Four sing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and might have seen 21-year-old Bob Dylan perform his satirical “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues” in 1963 if not for the CBS censors, who heard the song at the show’s dress rehearsal and refused to let him perform it. (Rather than agree to play another tune, Dylan famously packed up his guitar and left, and never did appear on the Sullivan show.) 

Alongside Borscht Belt comics like Myron Cohen and Henny Youngman, Sullivan booked cerebral Mort Sahl, who skewered politicians from both sides of the aisle. Ever the civil rights advocate, Sullivan continued to showcase African American performers such as comedians Moms Mabley, Nipsey Russell, Dick Gregory, and Richard Pryor, as well as musicians such as Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Dionne Warwick and James Brown, and Motown artists like Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Temptations, the Supremes and the Four Tops. Their collective appearances underscored Sullivan’s leveling-the-playing-field-for-all philosophy. 

February 9, 1964 is probably the most famous date in the history of The Ed Sullivan Show, as 73 million Americans tuned in to see the Beatles make their live debut on US soil. In contrast to Presley’s first appearance, here Sullivan led the way, making the decision to book the band after he’d been tipped off by his European talent scout about their phenomenal success abroad. Sullivan had quietly met with Beatles manager Brian Epstein in New York in November of ’63, and contracted the group for three engagements in what turned out to be perhaps the biggest coup of his entire career – $3500 for each show – including one perk: the Fab Four’s airfare was covered. By the time they flew in to New York a few days before their first show, they’d already become stars. Once they completed their high-spirited two-set Sullivan performance, John, Paul, George and Ringo were bona fide superstars.

Just as it had been the case with ‘50s rock and roll following Presley’s debut, the Beatles’ conquering of America opened the doors for the “British Invasion,” and Sullivan soon was welcoming acts such as the Animals, the Searchers, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, the Dave Clark Five and Herman’s Hermits. The Rolling Stones made several notable appearances as well, though not without some rough patches. Ever the prim, family-conscious host, Sullivan didn’t particularly like what he saw the first time the Stones played his show in October ’64 – literally – and told their agent that, while he’d have them back again, he expected them to dress better, and also use some shampoo. In January 1967 he let the Stones perform their new hit “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” but only on the condition that they change the lyrics to instead say “Let’s spend some time together.” 

Throughout the ‘60s, Sullivan continued to feature his vaudeville-based array of acrobats, jugglers, animal acts, magicians and puppets. Even there, he made an important cultural contribution: Most people forget that, well before Sesame Street, Jim Henson and his merry band of Muppets were frequent Sullivan guests. Meanwhile, few around at the time could forget the all-too-regular appearances (50 in all) by the little Italian puppet Topo Gigio and his often disarmingly warm conversations with Sullivan. Complete with the tiny rodent’s signature tagline, “Eddie, keeese-a me goodnight,” these skits (many written by up-and-coming comedian Joan Rivers), at last brought out a side of the impresario few viewers knew existed.

Eventually, between the growing generation gap of the 1960s and the emergence of the youth counterculture late in the decade, close-knit family life in much of America began to show signs of unraveling, and Ed Sullivan and his show began to show their age as well. In 1967, after Jim Morrison of the Doors ignored Sullivan’s demand that the group not use the word “higher” in the band’s hit “Light My Fire” and sang it anyway, the edict that they’d never play the Sullivan show again made little impression on the group. As the decade turned, CBS began looking to appeal to a younger, more urban demographic, and in early  ‘71, Sullivan was notified that his program was going to be canceled. 

The final presentation of a new weekly Ed Sullivan Show took place on March 28, 1971, and on October 13, 1974 – fittingly, on a Sunday night – the great showman passed away at age 73. As evidenced by the billions of views of clips from his programs that have resonated with worldwide audiences over the last 50-plus years since The Ed Sullivan Show ended its initial run, his is a legacy that lives on, unsurpassed in not only television history, but in the entire history of popular culture as well.