HAPPY HOLIDAY EDITION 2006
On Our Stage Tonight:
...in a good mood
His TV show helped start
a national viewing habit
By GERALD NACHMAN
NOTE TO READERS:
This is a slightly modified version of the introduction to a proposed book about "The Ed Sullivan Show" by Gerald Nachman. Nachman has completed six other chapters on the long history of the popular TV variety show.
Ed and I go back a long way. The first review I ever wrote of anything was of The Ed Sullivan Show--or Toast of the Town, as it was then called. I was 15 years old and wrote the review in my bedroom on an old typewriter my father brought home from his office.
I have no idea why but something about the show compelled me to put down my opinions about it. I gave the show a mixed notice, my debut as a critic.
Seven years later, in my last year of college, I was hired as a TV reviewer for the San Jose Mercury-News, my first newspaper job. Clearly well-qualified for the position, I had watched TV so rarely in college that I had to rent a television set at $3 a week in order to start my career as a TV critic.
My first review was of, yes, you guessed it: The Ed Sullivan Show. I peppered my review with wisecracks as I tried to make my mark as a witty fellow, kidding the dog acts and jugglers and, of course, the hosts garbled introductions. Sullivan was always a sitting duck for TV critics.
TV then--it was 1960--was still so new and insignificant (its Golden Age of the 1950s still decades away from being recognized) that the job of criticizing shows could be left to a 22-year-old kid who didnt even own a TV set and who had never reviewed anything professionally in his life. Most newspapers then didnt have their own TV critics, but ran wire stuff by reviewers like United Presss Rick DuBrow and the APs Hal Humphrey.
The Sullivan show was 12 years old at the time, about the same age as network television, whose programming history dates from 1948, the first year that network programs filled up the entire nightly log. In `47, only a year before Sullivans show debuted, TV truly was a vast wasteland, with shows dropped into the schedule helter-skelter throughout the day. In between shows, a test pattern kept us from seeing a blank screen and most stations signed off by midnight or earlier.
So television, Ed Sullivan, and my video-viewing life all began the same year. In 1948, I was 10 years old and much more deeply immersed in radio. I watched TV only occasionally, mainly out of curiosity, to see what all the shouting was about. But I never watched it at our house because we didn't have a TV set. Like most Americans in 1948, I glimpsed Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle, the Roller Derby, Masquerade Party, Arthur Godfrey, Hopalong Cassidy and Martin Kane, Private Eye, in grainy gray kinescopes on a neighbors little round porthole-shaped screen.
My father, a community theater actor, didnt give in and buy a TV set (a massive Packard-Bell console) until 1953, mainly to watch dramatic series like Studio One, Hallmark Hall of Fame, and The Kraft Television Theater.
The Sullivan show was an ingrained part of every familys weekend ritual in those days: Go to Sunday school, wash the car, eat turkey dinner at grandmas, and gather around the big boxy TV set to watch Toast of the Town. Like most `50s families, we watched Sullivans show while nibbling cold cuts or a tuna casserole off a card table in our new knotty-pine den, seated at TV tables. My main memory of the show was seeing the aging vaudevillians Sullivan doted on. My father loved them, but I'd only heard the names: Maurice Chevalier, Sophie Tucker, Ted Lewis, Joe Frisco, George Jessel. They had all been on radio, of course, but now were spotlighted anew on the Sullivan show--framed, in a sense, given renewed theatrical life with a regular weekly national stage where hallowed ex-headliners could strut their stuff for the next generation: Mine.
Sullivans show was where most Americans got their rudimentary education in the fine arts and popular culture, past and present. Today, no commercial showcase for the arts exists on TV, nor any that encapsulates show biz history as this show did for 23 years. His show was the great equalizer, relentlessly democratic, cutting across all age, class, cultural, and ethnic boundaries--classy one moment (a reading by Helen Hayes) and lowbrow the next (stupid pet tricks), now ethnic (Nat Cole) and now white bread (Kate Smith). No act was billed above any other, though an ostensible headliner led off the show and might return later in the hour. Sullivans innate talent was an instinct for what would please a national audience, no matter how kitschy or elite. Sullivan drew no distinction between a Charles Laughton reading or a performing seal. Whatever worked, got a big hand. Respectable ratings was all that mattered.
Ed was a middlebrow with highbrow pretensions. He grew up in a large family--the next to last of six kids, with a twin brother who died in infancy. His father was an opera lover, his mother a painter. Uncles and aunts joined the family on weekends to sing songs round a piano, so Sullivan had an appreciation of, if not a true love for, the fine arts. He wasnt as passionate about the arts as his parents, but he knew it was good for us viewers, artistic spinach for the soul. As someone noted, it wasnt because he cared, or knew much, about classical music or ballet, but because he was absolutely overwhelmed by `classy acts--and without him many of us might never have laid eyes on Andres Segovia, Margot Fonteyn or Maria Callas. Even if you never saw another ballet or heard another aria, you knew what you were missing, and if you happened to love what you saw--well, you were on your way.
When was the last time a ballerina or diva was glimpsed on CBS, NBC or ABC, or even on cable? Sullivan broke a lot of ground for public broadcasting. But no matter how low-down the art form, such as twirling platters on bamboo sticks, Sullivan felt compelled to present the greatest plate-spinners in the world. He revered talent, any talent, maybe because he had none himself, just a strong hambone sensibility. He craved being on a stage, even if it just meant standing at the far edge in a dark suit. He could barely hum a tune, tell a joke, or read a cue card. His mangled introductions are the stuff of legend (Now starving on Broadway , How about a hand for Jose Feliciano--hes not only blind, hes Puerto Rican!, Lets really hear it for the Lords Prayer!), sprinkled throughout the shows. Unlike most TV performer-hosts, Sullivan had no envy, agenda, or hunger for the spotlight--but how he quivered at the sound of clapping hands!
The show was campy even in its own time, as the mimic Will Jordans early `50s record parody, The Roast of the Town, reveals. When Jordans Sullivan announces, Next week, on our stage, 17,000 Polish dentists drilling!), it didnt seem all that preposterous. Ed adored all drill teams. He pursued the rare and exotic (12-year-old Israeli violin prodigy Itzhak Perlman, the Moiseyev Dancers), the curious and innocuous (The Singing Nun from Belgium, Scottish bagpipers, Swiss bell ringers, an English music hall character, Mr. Pastry, who leaped over chairs). Sullivan always took care to toss in a patriotic moment (a crack Marine drill squad, singing firemen) or a moment of pure pre-Oprahesque uplift (some tragedy-defying figure in the news).
When we have a real hero like this, risking his life to save little children, people should be told. he once explained after singling out a fireman on the show who had pulled two children from a burning building and was part of a band of bagpipers, Its good for firemen, and its good for America.
Whatever was good for Ed was good for America. As one profiler put it: Sullivan, although he lives light-years away from where the grass roots grow, reflects exquisitely the best and worst of the national character.
By worst, the writer was likely hinting at Sullivans emotional pleas, his nationalistic fervor, his love of apple-pie sentiments--respect your elders, help a neighbor, give blood, buy Treasury bonds. He once wrote an ode to moms on Mothers Day, but he was hardly alone. Sullivan lived at a time of solid, unquestioned values--much yearned for today by many and loudly trumpeted in red-state America. Despite all the social, political, and cultural upheaval since that era, tens of millions of people still continue to reside steadfastly in Ed Sullivans America, the America of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, of John Wayne, Rush Limbaugh, Bill OReilly & Co., and even hinted at in Garrison Keillors tales of Lake Wobegon, which winks at homespun populist middle-American middle-class values but warmly (if secretly) embraces them, too.
That huge chunk of post-Sullivan America wants it all back--a time and a place where abortion and homosexual marriage and prayer in the classroom were not issues; the main hot-button issue in `48 was Communism. The Depression and World War II had been tough, sure, but at least we were all on the same side, sharing the same values.
Ed Sullivan with
one of the rock
groups he never
The Ed Sullivan Show was a kind of Sunday night church bazaar, revealed not just by the kind of acts it presented but by the sentiments expressed in the songs and jokes, and by the values upheld by Sullivan, whose producers credo included keeping it clean: no revealing décolletage, no risqué jokes, no effeminate routines. As host, he became a terrific salesman not just for the show, or for each individual act, or for Lincoln and Mercury automobiles - but for The American Way.
Sullivans show was a rich mine of Americana from the `50s and `60s, spanning four decades and two generations; anyone 45 or older still vividly recalls the show, which began in TVs dark black-and-white ages and continued long after TVs ultimate media domination, consummated in 1960, when color TV arrived. CBS then ruled the networks and the Sullivan show became a pop culture landmark. Television, The Ed Sullivan Show, and baby boomer America came of age together.
It was, of course, basically just a variety show--but not just. The Ed Sullivan Show was, it now appears, far more than a TV show, more even than a very good, long-lasting variety hour, more than a mere parade of vaudeville acts. The Ed Sullivan Show was a mirror of 1950s America. It stood right smack on the fault line of show business during its most vital and violent upheaval in history, part of both a hallowed but vanishing tradition and the newly emerging `60s pop culture.
The show--though it ran 23 years and featured some 10,000 acts--is now mainly remembered for five acts: Elvis Presleys first national TV exposure (which it really wasnt); The Beatles first dynamic U.S. TV appearances; for two of its most beloved recurring novelty acts--Topo Gigio, the cuddly stringless mouse puppet that babbled in a weentsy Italian-accented voice (Kees-a-me, Eddie!) and an even stranger Spanish ventriloquist, Senor Wences, with a hand puppet created by scrawling a mouth on his fist in lipstick and a head in a box. But finally, of course, the show is most remembered for Ed Sullivan himself, in all of his endearing ineptitude.
There was never a more unlikely TV star in American show business than Ed Sullivan, nor any who loomed larger. Before CBS quite knew what to do with him, or even whether to dump him, Sullivan became a fixture, then a star, then a powerbroker, and finally a legend who walked like a man (sort of). He was both a titan and a joke, TVs first reality star 50 years before glorifying the mundane became a cheesy vogue.
Sullivan was always compared to the other great impresarios of his day and before--Ziegfeld, Shubert, Minsky, Hurok, Barnum--but none of them were on-stage stars. Nobody quite understood why he hosted the show, but nobody else could have made it work or been such a perfect presenter for the acts he hand-selected, because (a) he loved them and (b) he knew America would, too. But after The Beatles he was trapped in a culture war partly of his own devising. The entertainers he had so long championed, and understood, were gone, and a new kind of entertainer, coarser and less polished, singing sentiments he couldnt understand (literally) were taking over his world.
Before all that happened, though, Ed Sullivan captured the essence of television--of all show business, in fact--for an hour every week for 52 Sunday evenings a year (no reruns, no hiatus). How did he do it, and why it worked so well for so long, spanning two generations, is what intrigued me to look more closely at the phenomenon. Also, at what propelled Sullivan from workaday sportswriter to perhaps the most powerful man in show business, a self-confessed no-talent whose on-camera embrace could make anyone a star overnight after five minutes in TVs most prime time on the grandest show in America--and all of it live.
Pre-Beatles, Ed Sullivans show was a total reflection of the man, who was a mirror of `50s Americana. Everything that Sullivan stood for--his taste in entertainment, his adoration of athletes and headline personalities, his cultural/social values--was visible on his stage in what became a Life magazine of the air. Indeed, landing on the Sullivan show was as good as appearing on the cover of Life or Time; there was no broader, gaudier showcase.
If the show was an electronic Life, it was also the Good Housekeeping of show business, where Sullivans imprimatur and pat on the back was a pop seal of approval. If he rejected an act or failed to invite someone back, it was as good as being banned by the FCC or censored by the Hays office. Sullivan had enormous make-or-break power, which he wielded for both good and not so good, rolling out the red carpet Sunday nights for anyone he felt deserved to be spotlighted but caving into the broadcasting blacklist by refusing to book performers suspected of being Commies.
Sullivan relished presenting black performers (despite the grumbling of sponsors) but anyone regarded as even slightly pink was outlawed--not so much because Sullivan disapproved (he wore his liberal sentiments on his sleeve) but because CBS did.
Sullivan capitulated rather than incur the wrath of the network or his sponsors, which would have threatened his show. While never a shrill rightwing jingoist like Walter Winchell, Ed was eager to let us know his true colors were also red, white, and blue.
Sullivan, moreover, was no mere TV front man, a host like Perry Como or Garry Moore, stars who had been awarded a show. Sullivan was the show. It was his idea--and the show was Sullivan. Like a great magazine, or any other corporate success story, the founder shaped the show in his own image. So the story of The Ed Sullivan Show is also a biography of Sullivan. While he was handed the hosting duties by CBS, mainly because they couldnt find anybody better during TVs own stumbling early dawn, it was Sullivan who, with co-producer Marlo Lewis, fashioned the format, then fought to hold onto the show when CBS seriously considered getting rid of him after a few weeks.
He won over everyone: CBSs wary founding father William Paley, his first disgruntled sponsor (Emerson radio and TV), the slightly perplexed public, and in time even hostile newspaper critics, such as the leading, wittiest TV critic of the time, John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune. Crosby needled him constantly from the start (Why, why, why is Ed Sullivan on television?). Gradually, shrewdly, Sullivan built a seemingly routine variety hour into a showbiz fortress that no rival show could knock off the air for almost a quarter century. Even 40 years after it left the air, due to various cultural forces and a new ABC western, Maverick, no prime time entertainment show has reigned as long. (That other immovable Sunday night colossus, 60 Minutes, has run 38 years, but its a news show and not in prime time). Only by surfing 80 channels can you put together your own Ed Sullivan Show from bits and pieces of other shows.
Sullivan crafted the show into a massive theatrical enterprise from its ramshackle beginnings as a variety show with a weekly petty cash budget of $1,500. What had been envisioned as a modest video version of the countless radio variety shows before it--shows like The Kraft Music Hall, with singers and comics and jaunty banter between host and guests--turned into something far more ambitious. The Sullivan show had singers and comedians, but no banter; it had a host who was not a performer and was, in fact, very much of an anti-performer. And, mainly, it dared to feature magicians, animal acts, opera, ballet, and theater, blending it all together into a cultural smoothie, with the aim of pleasing everyone. Sullivan did not want to bore a single pair of eyes, no matter their age, race, region, class, interests, or sophistication.
To be sure, he also featured his share of one-hit wonders, flashes in the pan, like Johnny Horton (The Battle of New Orleans) and Barry Sandler (The Ballad of the Green Berets). His nose for news often took him on many a dead-end detour.
The hour was the most democratic on television, another indication of Sullivans American-ness. No act was given precedence over any other, with a few famous exceptions--Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, some pop flavor of the week. The biggest names in the business would follow smalltime dog acts and Czech acrobats.
Sullivan knew the subtle ins and out of routineing a show, pacing it, his most acute skill. He not only knew what he liked, he knew how long it should run and exactly where in the show it would work best. It was a talent he absorbed as a kid watching vaudeville shows at Port Chester, N.Y.s Bixby Theatre, a regular stop on the Keith-Albee circuit.
The Ed Sullivan Show was always hailed, or ridiculed, as a kind of videoville, i.e., televised vaudeville, which is far too facile a reading of the show. Yes, Ed famously, compulsively and cannily peppered the show with vaudeville acts--but, as he often pointed out, stage vaudeville had the luxury of time whereas he had to edit and alternate acts so viewers were never tempted to change channels, unlike captive patient paying vaudeville audiences. He was often able to jam about 10 acts into less than an hour, unlike leisurely vaudeville bills. Few acts could run beyond seven minutes and each had to prove itself air-worthy during a Sunday afternoon run-through, where Sullivan would often hurriedly and ruthlessly yank an act for reasons of time or flatness. Only hours before airtime he would pull apart a running order to create a faster paced show. Sullivan was a wizard at such show biz calculus.
A pensive portrait of Ed Sullivan,
who was never this composed
while on camera.
He was never quite satisfied with things, even during the shows heyday, and nursed an ulcer much of his life. The host forever fiddled with the format itself--adding hour-long tributes (precursors to A&Es Biography series), or scenes from upcoming movies with rare onstage interviews with TV-shy film stars--a sort of early stand-up talk show. He regularly went on the road to Europe, to inspect new acts and bring culture to the masses here. He even toured the U.S. with the show. He had talent scouts, and relied on tips from anyone, but he explored the planet in search of great acts--trekking to Tokyo to check out a mime or to Paris to review a touted trio of tumblers.
Unlike most office-bound impresarios, Sullivan loved to globe-hop, partly because he was usually greeted as a show biz statesman and basked in the accompanying pomp, greeted everywhere as a visiting dignitary. At home, with the aid of Carmine Santullo, a former shoeshine man who became his lifelong assistant, he worked the phones in his office-apartment at the Hotel Delmonico, where he lived with his wife Sylvia, daughter Betty, and a poodle named Bojangles.
But he spent a third of his time scouting talent overseas. He bucked red tape in Russia for a Moscow show and, forever in search of headliners of any kind, once journeyed to Cuba for a chat with Castro.
If he couldnt book a big name performer on stage, he would pack the house with them--seat them on the aisle seat for a celebrity wave. This allowed Sullivan to stop his own show, wisely breaking up the rhythm to throw a spotlight on prominent people he implored to stand up--not just entertainers and athletes (often in our town to plug a book or a movie or show), but priests, reformers, politicians, writers, artists, heads of state, Boy Scouts, mine disaster survivors--anyone at all in the news that week, from Salvador Dali to the Dalai Lama. This had the effect of, first, showing that Sullivan was on top of the news and, second, confirming the fact that, should you have any doubt, The Ed Sullivan Show was the only place to be that night, no matter where you were. Sullivan believed that nobody who had even the slightest interest in entertainment would choose to be anywhere else between 8 and 9 p.m. on Sunday.
His own modest story was proof that anybody could make it in the USA and, if they had the goods, might even wind up on The Ed Sullivan Show--as he had. Ed was the weekly embodiment of our national Cinderella story that a shambling nobody from Port Chester, New York, a lower-middleclass Irish Catholic kid with no visible performing talent, can become a star--and, better still, a star-maker.
Sullivan saw himself as a show biz Horatio Alger, pulling himself up from $10-a- week sportswriter to American institution, all by dint of pluck and luck. He was also TVs Henry Ford, discovering how to roll out an assembly line of entertainment for the masses by building an efficient, smooth running factory of affordable big-name singers, comics, dancers, actors, jugglers, divas. Whether you were in the market for dancing bears or prima ballerinas, The Ed Sullivan Show was one-stop shopping.
When he insisted the audience give a performer a "really big hand," he really meant it--it wasnt just the glib glad-handing of a TV host but his honest belief that they deserved it. The audience was not just applauding the performer, of course, but also Sullivan, who had booked them--his way of confirming that he had done a good job that week. He lived in fear of boring an audience and had a habit, which he was asked to curb, of asking studio audiences at the end of a show, Tell me, didja all have a good time here tnight? He could never hear enough applause. Albeit a famous self-confessed no-talent himself, he needed a performers constant approval. High ratings were nice, and he read them closely in search of microscopic signs of audience apathy, but the sound of 1,400 hands clapping fed his showmans soul and propelled him into the next week.
The show represented the culmination of Sullivans newspaper life--his devotion to athletes, whom he covered as a young sportswriter in New York and hauled on stage on his show, and his second newspaper career as a Broadway gossip columnist, where he soaked up backstage life and accumulated the contacts that would later give him access to anybody in show business. He lived through three distinct golden ages in America--the golden age of sports in the 1920s, which he covered close up; Broadways gilded age that included not just the theater but the glamorous showroom and the mob-run speakeasies that sprung up during Prohibition; and finally, he was a leading figure of TVs golden age, the `50s and `60s.
Decades earlier, he had hosted two variety shows during radios own golden age, but when both programs failed, he gave up on radio, later vowing to make good when he got a third on-air chance, on TV, a medium as raw as he was.
It was Sullivans very amateurness that gradually proved his saving grace. He was forgiven his network trespassing during TVs own struggle to define what it was, allowing an ambitious outsider like Sullivan to get his foot in the door. Something about the nature of TV--its more intimate nature, unlike the formal strictures of trained invisible voices on radio--welcomed people with undefined abilities to carve out major careers on the job: people like Arthur Godfrey, an amiable announcer from Washington, D.C., whose only visible talent was strumming a ukulele; like Art Linkletter and Ralph Edwards, go-getters with plenty of pep and ideas; like Bob Smith, a former carnival barker with a marionette pal named Howdy Doody; like Lawrence Welk, who barely spoke the language (Sullivan was tagged the Lawrence Welk of variety). And, to be sure, like Ed Sullivan, a guy with all the charisma of a Kiwanis Club program chairman, who had emceed scores of benefits and banquets, becoming a toastmaster of endless charity events for the Red Cross and war relief, where the emcee bar was not set terribly high.
Sullivan symbolized, and opened wide the front door to, the Everyman Era in American entertainment. TV, because of its cozy presence as a constant house guest, a sort of Appliance that Came to Dinner, give rise to the vaguely qualified host--the Godfreys and Dave Garroways, the Jack Paars and Dick Cavetts, the Ted Macks and Faye Emersons, the Merv Griffins and Mike Douglases, the Regis Philbins and Phil Donahues, the Hugh Downses and Ed McMahons, the Charlie Roses and Larry Kings - quasi performers/announcers/personalities who became major TV stars, forces even. At a time when TV was up for grabs, anyone who grabbed your attention could become a star, from Pinky Lee to Bishop Sheen to Julia Child to Dick Clark to Ed Sullivan.
Something about the nature of TV--more so than radio, which made stringent theatrical demands on performers--created an aura of informality that, in time, inundated American life itself with a counter culture. Sullivan somehow made it OK to be a guy at the adjoining bar stool, a face in the crowd to quote the title of Elia Kazans movie about an aw-shucks Godfrey-like country singer who becomes a tyrannical TV personality. Sullivans entire manner--the next-door neighbor name, the hangdog Irish mug, the sluggish manner and slouching body language, the rambling, mush-mouthed introductions--shattered TVs fourth glass wall.
Televisions broad stage could accommodate great theater like Playhouse 90, The U.S. Steel Hour, and Studio One, but also left room for an aging ink-stained newsman to become a huge star. Sullivan was a formal, old school, hat-wearing. God-fearing, family-loving, traditional-values bloke who insisted on decorum and professionalism on stage and off, who flinched at those early-warning sounds of shrieking teenage rock fans; he seemed one of us. The implicit message, and the secret of his lengthy tenure and impresarios contract with America, was: if Ed Sullivan can host a show, anyone could, and many did. Alongside The Original Amateur Hours dour Major Bowes, Sullivan seemed positively dynamic. But as he always pointed out, hosting was the least of his chores; producing was his true talent.
Sullivan perfectly illustrated Andy Warhols famous `60s dictum, the major difference being that Ed had much longer than 15 minutes of fame. Mike Dann, a former CBS vice president of programming, once said, If someone walked into my office and said he wanted to be just like Ed Sullivan, Id throw him out. Nobody should want to be like Ed Sullivan. He is all wrong for television. He just happens to be great. Other descriptions were hurled at Sullivan throughout his career, but the rotten tomatoes and cream pies somehow, over time, turned into wet kisses and bouquets.
Marshall McLuhan, TVs first guru, summed up Sullivans non-charisma as ideal for the medium: Mr. Sullivan has the perfect television countenance--a mask instead of a face. It is a corporate image which contains the entire audience within itself. Ed Sullivan, like Walt Whitman, contained multitudes. He was his audience, a microcosm of the millions of Eds and Sylvias sprawled on their couches across America watching his show--the peoples show. As a Newsday TV critic wrote in 1967, The Sullivan mystique is not skin deep. Its roots lay right smack in the midst of the American psyche. He appeals to our real national tastes and to our imagined national tastes.
It was always a severe mistake to maintain that Ed Sullivan had no personality--nobody as relentlessly mimicked as Sullivan lacks personality. His very absence of a standard brash or polished TV personality was his personality--his gimmick, if you like. He was a brilliant non-performer, which captured our eye and ear. If Sullivan had been truly bland he could not have lasted. He was awkward, yes, and uneasy, but never dull. He learned to use his deadpan image and, indeed, parlayed it into a persona as indelible as Jimmy Cagneys, Cary Grants, or Humphrey Bogarts (in his 30s, he looked a bit like Bogie). His accumulation of facial tics, fish-eyed gaze, bodily contortions, non sequiturs, and snarled sentences was as rich a persona as anyone could wish for.
An NBC executive once said, People watch Sullivan so they can hate him--its mass masochism--much too harsh an analysis. People never hated him, though they may have laughed at him or felt sorry for him; one viewer praised him for doing so well for a man with a steel plate in his head. Mostly, they identified with him, realizing that he was doing the best he could; he gave eternal hope to the severely talent-challenged.
Viewers embraced him as a fellow human. Making fun of Sullivan became a national pastime--everyone knew somebody who could do Sullivan, even if nine times out of 10 they were doing a bad imitation of Will Jordans imitation, or a pale copy of Jack Carters, Rich Littles, or Jackie Masons Sullivan. Making fun of Sullivan, which comedians regularly did on the show as a rite of passage, was really an indication of the publics great affection for him. We only kid those we love.
Much as Sullivan enjoyed his late-blooming stardom, he still believed that helping worthy causes was his duty. Even in his heyday as a TV kingmaker, he never tired of emceeing charity events--his way of performing, of feeling good about himself, and of justifying his fluky celebrity life. If he didnt host an event, he organized it, and he let himself be draped with ribbons and plaques at endless tribute dinners. Sullivan, like Willie Loman, simply liked being liked; indeed, he reveled in approval.
Sullivan artfully wove his modest toastmaster talents, Broadway columnist credentials and connections, and booster mentality into a major show biz career. He was reborn on the night of March 13, 1947, when he was called upon, yet again, to emcee the New York Daily Newss seventh annual Harvest Moon Ball finals, a local dance contest that was televised and watched by a CBS programming executive, Worthington Minor, who later produced the much-honored dramatic series Studio One. Minor had been searching for a guy to host a new TV variety series.
At the time, Sullivan was a surprisingly dapper fellow with sleek patent-leather hair who had appeared briefly in two movies, playing himself, and who had shoehorned his way onto Broadway by producing a few shows. To Tony Minor, Sullivan seemed a self-assured, almost suave emcee when the `47 Harvest Moon Ball finals were telecast, unbeknownst to Sullivan, who claimed he thought he was looking into newsreel cameras. So to Minor he came across as cool and confident. TV cameras later terrorized him, causing him to freeze up. It took him six years on the air to thaw out, even a little.
Thats how it all started in the spring of 1948. By the time it all ended, in 1971, The Ed Sullivan Show had become a prism through which we can zoom in on Americas violent pop culture upheaval and the changing taste in entertainment--in the very definition of what constituted entertainment: in 10 years, the national spotlight had leaped from Patti Page to Janis Joplin, from moonlit songs about old Cape Cod to wild sexual yowls. Before Presleys explosive debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, everyone in America pretty much agreed what was a great song (Thats Amore) and who was a funny comic (Myron Cohen), which Sullivans show only solidified. But when Sullivan left TV in `71, pop life was a shambles, fragmented by the cultural/social rebellion of the `60s. The Ed Sullivan Show was both the staging area and the stunned victim of that revolt. In shows that featured more and more rock and roll acts and fewer and fewer divas, dancers and Broadway stars, it sowed the seeds of its own destruction.
At its peak, from 1954-57, the season-long ratings average for Sullivan's show was close to 40 per cent of the total TV audience. It's best year in overall ratings was the 1954-55 season, in which it attracted an average of 39.6 per cent of the TV audience. The highest it ever went in season-long ratings was No. 2 in 1956-57. Rumors that the show was "knocked out" by ABC's stylish James Garner western "Maverick" are preposterous. The shows only went head to head for 30 minutes because "Maverick" started at 7:30 p.m. and Sullivan's show at 8 p.m. "Maverick" did cut into Sullivan's ratings, but the western was cancelled in 1962 and Sullivan stayed on the air through 1971, remaining among each year's 30 top-rated programs through the 1969-70 TV season.
Along the way, the Sullivan show became the gold standard for what mattered in show business. Ed was the gatekeeper not just to TV success but, by extension, to success elsewhere, from Las Vegas to Peoria to Miami Beach. In Carol Burnetts words, If Ed put his arm around you and said you were a really funny gal, then America put its arm around you and said you were a really funny gal. When a favored performer finished, Ed would gesture him to come over, grinning like a proud papa after his kids recital.
Thus, if you could make it on the Sullivan show you could make it anywhere, for New York, and specifically Broadway, is where pop careers were launched. Hit musicals and Tin Pan Alley spun off songs later recorded and heard/seen on Your Hit Parade. Singers and comics lives relied on New York nightclub engagements, heavily publicized by columnists like Sullivan. Times Square then was the show biz capitol of the universe--not Hollywood, not Las Vegas, not Nashville--or so Sullivans show made us believe from its opening shout by announcer Art Hannes: And now, from New York City, the nationally syndicated New York Daily News columnist--Ed Sullivan! Wow. The shows intro pulsated with excitement and Broadway sparkle. If a nationally syndicated New York newspaper columnist was not totally hip and in the know, who the heck was?
The show was not only important for itself but as a major feeder to clubs and concert halls around the country. A shot on Sullivan was a booster rocket to the future that a performer could ride for years. The show did not so much discover talent--that was left to Steve Allens and Jack Paars edgier midnight Tonight Show revels--as it did confer status and confirm stardom already safely achieved. Even performers Ed first presented nationally on TV usually had proven themselves elsewhere. In most cases, as the show itself became a hit, and then a habit, you had to be famous to earn a booking. Sullivan was a keen judge of talent but rarely a risk-taker, though he took chances on black performers and a few quirky newcomers. He had an autograph collectors heart and a C.E.O.s head--half fan-club cheerleader, half Donald Trump. If Ed loved an act he might book it, but his real discoveries are hard to find. Some of his personal favorites, notably the Canadian comedy team Wayne & Schuster, never caught on here despite a record 58 appearances on the show, more than any other comedy act.
Sullivan, a softie in some ways, was more interested in giving a boost to performers on the way down than on the way up, stars he had once loved who were clinging to their legend for dear life--Buster Keaton, Blossom Seeley, Gene Austin, Harry Richman, Eddie Cantor. Financially, he also was a soft touch for broke vaudevillians and broken down boxers. He sparked fighter Sugar Ray Robinsons failed hoofing career, booking him seven times, and helped pay for Bill Robinsons funeral.
Sullivans show was both the birthplace of the rock revolution and the final resting place of the biggest headliners in show business during their twilight years. The onetime legends represented old-fashioned showbiz standards (proven artistry, charm, style) that Sullivan revered. When they retired or died, his world died and with it the shows spirit. Sullivan worshipped showbiz longevity and he himself outlasted many far flashier stars because he never pretended to be one. The show was the star. As someone put it in 1968, Twenty years! And where are the Berles of yesteryear? And the Godfreys and [George] Gobels and [Red] Buttonses? And the Caesars and Cocas, the Philco Playhouses. And all the little $64,000 questions? Gone, all gone. And still Ed Sullivan drifts on, immortal. Drifts? Charges is more like it.
But if Elvis and The Beatles were a breath of fresh air on Sullivan show, once the rockers began to dominate the show (and most of pop life) they knocked the rarified air out of the unique show that had been the vision of one man. Once Elvis entered the building on 53rd Street and Broadway, most of those mellow, beloved headliners who had dazzled the country were doomed, stampeded by a herd of funky folksingers and raucous rock stars. To appear hip, and hold onto his show, Sullivan was forced to book The Lovin Spoonful, Jefferson Airplane, the Dave Clark Five, Ricky Nelson, The Monkees, et al. TVs supreme impresario had to be dragged into the `60s kicking and screaming.
Against his better judgment, Sullivan was pushed into booking rock groups by his new young co-producer and son-in-law Robert Precht, who nudged aside the shows co- genius Marlo Lewis. The sharp, no-nonsense showman with once-unerring taste now invited into the main tent such freak-show idols as Bob Dylan, The Doors, and Jimi Hendrix, all of whose appeal bewildered, and irritated, him. Yet in interviews, Ed invariably boasted about being a newspaperman with his finger on the public pulse. So even if that pulse suddenly revealed a wildly erratic beat, he had to hold his nose, grin through those celebrated clenched teeth, obey his newsmaker instincts, and make good on his promise to bring hot new acts, however dubious, to his TV audience.
More bluntly, Sullivan, ensconced in a velvet sinecure with a seemingly lifetime appointment as Impresario in Chief, had simply sold out. He gave the public what it wanted instead of, as he had done for so many years, telling the public what it wanted. The bold leader had turned follower, if not defector, even panderer. And of course rock and rollers were not really what the public wanted at all--they were what the youngsters wanted, the first stirrings of a pop culture driven by demographics and disc jockeys. Sullivan, like most of the showbiz establishment, treated rock and roll like a novelty fad, a sort of musical Hula-Hoop.
With his slavish devotion to pleasing The Youngsters--he didnt much distinguish between puppets, clowns, and rock singers--Sullivan found himself, like Americas parents themselves, taken hostage by teenagers whose taste was largely molded by payola-saturated DJs and radio station owners whose highly suspect hit lists wagged the show biz dog. Newly powerful DJs now could manufacture hit songs, which shows like Sullivans were forced to respond to by booking the songs hot singers. Once that happened, much of the familiar old show biz empire began to crumble. Rock and roll was not just about music; it was also, famously, about sex and drugs, also social values, politics, fashion, food, language.
Booking Elvis, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones was a dangerous game: the rockers inflated his ratings, and boosted his legacy, but they also, ultimately, brought the great show to a screeching conclusion, smothered by third-rate rock groups. Sullivans single, unwavering standard had always been quality--but how could he judge the quality of a rock group he didnt fathom, let alone enjoy? Now he was forced to take many acts on highly suspect Top 40 faith.
The impact of The Ed Sullivan Show, both pre- and post-Beatles, resonated far beyond TV or even show business itself. It was a measure of mid-century America--a direct result of its time and of Ed Sullivans personal history. It arrived at a moment when New York, and specifically Broadway and surrounding nightclubs, were in charge. Sullivan had sat through countless opening nights and supper club floorshows during his rounds of the citys most glamorous performing palaces--El Morocco, the Copacabana, the Empire Room, the Latin Quarter--and knew when a performer connected with an audience, and with him. He had even produced a couple of Broadway shows, notably Harlem Cavalcade with Noble Sissle, a warm-up act for the day when he would bring great black performers for the first time to lily-white late `40s and `50s television.
Sullivans first love was not the former Sylvia Weinstein, or Broadway, or even Topo Gigio--it was sports, which he wallowed in all his life. The bull-necked Eddie Sullivan had been a 10-letter man at Port Chester High School, briefly a semi-pro catcher, and earned a few bucks as a teenager caddying with the later golfing legend Gene Sarrazan at a local Westchester country club, where he met John D. Rockefeller and other tycoons and got his first taste of how the other half lived, or at least putted.
He covered the greatest, most romantic, period of sports in America, chronicled by Sullivan and his sports writing comrades (Grantland Rice was his role model and later crony) during what was later termed the Gee Whiz Era of sports, which gave way in the mid-1960s to the Aw Nuts Era, still in play today. Sullivan the sportswriter helped invent the athletic Paul Bunyons of his day--Ruth, Dempsey, Grange, Hogan, Rockne, Tilden, Owens, Tunney, DiMaggio, all of whom he knew and proudly paraded on his show at the drop of a Yankee cap. He was a huge unembarrassed sports nut during an era when it was taken for granted that all great athletes were heroes, no matter how sleazy their off-the-field life. Sullivan bought into the whole Frank Merriwell/Bill Stern jock iconography that remains a major part of American sports lore.
Young Ed was a gung-ho 15-year-old stringer for his hometown paper, covering high school teams before becoming a workaholic sportswriter for several New York City papers, writing both daily stories and knocking out a regular column, Ed Sullivans Sports Whirl. His sports pieces reveal a savvier, more incisive writer than the later Broadway columns, where he was less reporter than rewrite man--repeating jokes, revising press releases, and retailing anecdotes separated by three dots, after Winchell. Sullivan never bonded with show folks as naturally as he did athletes, whom he considered cohorts. Whereas Sullivan always remained a kind of a stage door Eddie to singers, comics and actors, he was much more of a soul brother to sports figures.
His TV stage became the ideal dais to preside over a sort of weekly sports page of the air, a primitive ESPN, sans the cynicism. Athletes exploits were raved about by Sullivan each Sunday night, when he introduced them in the audience or invited them on stage for a victory lap, a handshake, and an awkward exchange with the host at a time when media-shy sports heroes were even more uneasy on camera than Sullivan.
His main interests were boxing and golf, but he loved even fringe sports like trotter racing, featuring the annual winning jockey of the Hambletonian sweepstakes. For viewers, trotting was a funny, arcane, geezers sport (did anyone other than Ed give a damn who won the Hambletonian?), but Sullivan had grown up watching the trotters at Yonkers Raceway, later even owned a few, and became that peculiar little pastimes biggest publicist; they even named a harness race for him, The Ed Sullivan Pace. Well, you figured, if trotters (or soap box derby winners, or horseshoe champs) were featured on The Ed Sullivan Show, it must be a big deal. No, but it was a very big deal to Ed, who loved sharing his idiosyncratic enthusiasms with America. Sullivan was a sincere flack for all sports, not just trotters, gleefully trotting out Look magazines All-American teams as if he was their coach, when all America took such stuff seriously. After winning a championship, athletes didnt announce they were off to Disneyland--instead, they headed straight for The Ed Sullivan Show.
Likewise, Miss America invariably began her global tour with a prim curtsy on Sullivans stage, to be followed a week later by a new world dominoes champ, an Oscar winner, or a Miami Beach headliner. Today, World Series heroes or Super Bowl victors might swap a few jokes with Jay Leno or David Letterman, mere boutique versions of Sullivans weekly spectacle, but in the `50s and `60s all obligatory bows were taken on The Ed Sullivan Show--the biggest game in town, in all of America.
Sullivans unexpected switch from earnest sports columnist to Broadway columnist thrust him into the reluctant role of gossip monger when The Evening Graphics in-house Broadway columnist Louis Sobel moved to a rival newspaper, opening a prize slot for Sullivan. It wasnt one he coveted but was drafted into it by a desperate editor with a giant hole to fill. During the 1930s and `40s, a Broadway columnist was considered as vital to a New York tabloid as a city hall reporter.
Sullivan took the job seriously--maybe too seriously. In his first column, he came on like a reformer, a Broadway Fiorello LaGuardia promising to clean up the gossip mills. He vowed not to follow in his fellow keyhole columnists shabby footsteps, peddling smutty stories of philandering celebrities, debutante gay divorcees, and every manner of whoopie-making. It was an incredibly gutsy, not to say arrogant and righteous, pronouncement for Broadways rookie columnist, throwing down the gauntlet to Winchell & Co. his first day on the job. Nonetheless, The Rev. Sullivan quickly adapted to the racy Broadway lifestyle, dating chorus girls and singers like Jane Kean, who later had a serious affair with Winchell. The two columnists paths crossed even in bed.
The competitive nerve that ran deep in Sullivan compelled him to try to scoop all his rivals, especially when he got to TV, where ratings were the name of the game, one he played as fiercely as he ever had high school football. As Alan King, Sullivans go-to comedian, once said, In a sense, what he was doing was using his talent as a newspaperman, scooping everyone. When he heard there was a singing nun in Brussels, he was on the next plane to bring back Sister Sourie.
Sullivan even put in a three-year hitch in Hollywood as The Graphics movieland columnist before he got fed up with sunshine, palm trees, and swimming pools and returned to Times Square, his native grounds. Sullivan, born in Harlem and raised a short train ride from Manhattan, was a New Yorker in his bones. He loved the lullaby of Broadway--the hip-hooray and ballyhoo, the rattle of the subway trains and taxis, the folks who entertain at Angelos and Maxies. He knew all of the Angelos and Maxies, the Texas Guinans and Tony Pastors. The mythic Broadway world that we now only know through musicals like 42nd Street and Guys and Dolls was a neighborhood that Sullivan patrolled nightly.
While he wasnt in Winchells league as a writer, phrasemaker, philanderer, snoop, or, to be sure, newspaper terrorist, Sullivans early columns were steeped in Broadway lore. He was never feared, like Winchell, Dorothy Kilgallen, or Lee Mortimer, nor was he as beloved as Damon Runyon, Mark Hellinger, or Nick Kenny, but Sullivan could mount a soapbox with the best of them. His occasional public outrage and indignation was a favorite literary mannerism among gossip writers (see also Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, Jimmy Fidler, Jack OBrian), useful for attacking celebrities who had stepped over some fuzzy moral line, or, even worse, snubbed them.
But Sullivan was less often angry than miffed, with an easily bruised skin and an Irish temper that flared and then rapidly subsided. Unlike Winchell, he held no grudges - except against Winchell, his lifelong nemesis. He was quick to apologize in print. He wanted, again, to be well liked, unlike Winchell, who wanted only to be worshipped and kowtowed to. Sullivans hunger for attention was not satisfied by bringing press agents and producers to their knees but by cuddling up to them at banquets and fund-raisers.
Press agents who sucked up to Winchell found in Sullivan more of an ally, an easy guy to be around. Winchell had his famous drop dead black list for press agents whom he felt had crossed him, but Sullivan did not enjoy playing God. Though he relished the role of big shot Broadway columnist, he rarely used his newspaper column as a blunt instrument, like Winchell or Westbrook Pegler. He never picked fights, as they did, but he had his share of public feuds--with Arthur Godfrey, Jack Paar, Jackie Mason, Hedda Hopper, Joan Crawford, Steve Allen, to name a few besides Winchell and Pegler.
Pegler was a former sportswriter-turned rabid Red-baiter who regularly attacked Sullivan for his liberal instincts and mob friendships, but it was impossible to cover nightclubs without rubbing elbows with Mafia characters; and columnists love characters. Runyon, Sullivans colleague, elevated gangsters--cleaned up as whimsical Times Square gamblers--to mythic stature in Guys and Dolls. At least two mobsters (Owney "Killer" Madden, who ran a favorite Sullivan hangout The Silver Slipper, and Maddens henchman Frankie Marlow) were pals of Sullivan, who wrote a mawkish farewell when Marlow died (Good bye, Frankie. And God bless you! Our hearts tell us we have lost a friend and whole-souled comrade, a pardner, in the complete sense, an ace).
So Sullivan had a box seat and front row table at some of the most glittering periods in American life--from the gilded age of sports and the entire tough, fast-paced Front Page era of lurid, wacky, anything-goes tabloid journalism, to the Jazz Age of subterranean jazz joints and glittering boites, to the Broadway renaissance of the 1930s through the 1960s--and, to be sure, to televisions own golden age, which he helped burnish. Born in 1902, Edward Vincent Sullivan was truly a child of the century. He saw it all, lived it intensely, and reported much of it--part of the untold back-story that leads into Sullivans beginnings as the fumbling television host of what one TV historian called an American archive of 20th Century entertainment.
As a waiter at Dannys Hideaway, Sullivans favorite restaurant retreat after each weeks show, once put it: Hes a right guy, Ed. Hes America. He will never be destroyed. The way I feel about my country is the way I feel about Ed.
©2006 by Gerald Nachman. The Nachman caricature is ©2000 by Jim Hummel. This column first posted Dec. 18, 2006.
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