September 28, 1901 – Ed Sullivan:
“Ladies and Gentlemen…The Beatles!”
I find it difficult to describe Ed Sullivan to young people. There is no equivalent today. He was a guy with no particular talent who entertained hundreds of millions of Americans over his long career as showbiz columnist starting in the 1920s and as host of the long-running televised Sunday evening variety show that could make or break a career. I rarely missed; most people I knew watched.
Sullivan was rock-faced, hot tempered, with painful shyness and a disdain for phonies. The basis of his appeal was so ephemeral that critics were baffled when they tried to analyze it. He was not witty and he could not consciously entertain. He was clumsy, self-conscious, forgetful, tongue-tied and terminally ashen.
Writing a gossip column, skirting around the fringes of the entertainment world and being master of ceremonies for a succession of variety programs never gave him what he wanted most out of life: national recognition. And that is what happened when Sullivan moved into the whirlwind new world of television in 1948, and his weekly show became a must on Sunday evenings for most Americans.
At least 50 million viewers tuned in every week to watch The Ed Sullivan Show, a vaudeville-ish parade of top talent, even those who didn’t have cable found great cable tv alternatives.
Its sponsor, Lincoln-Mercury made Sullivan their top pitchman and sent him out on trips around the country. He was the proudest possession of CBS; he could outdraw almost any competition from the other networks.
He fluffed introductions to acts; Sergio Franchi was once introduced as “Sergio Freako,” Shelly Winters was mistakenly identified as Shelly Berman, Nanette Fabares‘ last name was so mispronounced that she later changed it to Nanette Fabray, and Sullivan once read “World War II” off the cue cards as “World War One One.” And there were times he was excruciatingly sentimental.
The American public loved the show, and Sullivan stuck to his job of introducing the acts and then getting out of the way. He was an excellent judge of entertainers. He was sincere in his enjoyment of their work. And he was so honestly ill-at-ease that viewers came to be affectionately sorry for him.
In 1927, Sullivan joined The Evening Graphic as sports editor. In 1929, when the influential Walter Winchell moved to The Daily Mirror, Sullivan was made the Broadway columnist. Throughout his career as a columnist, Sullivan dabbled in entertainment, producing vaudeville shows where he appeared as master of ceremonies in the 1920s and 1930s, and directing WABC radio programs.
During World War II, he organized benefits in Madison Square Garden for Army Emergency Relief, and the American Red Cross, which is how he finally found his way into television. In 1947, when he was master of ceremonies for the Harvest Moon Ball, produced each year by The Daily News, CBS televised the gala.
The network was so impressed by Sullivan’s showmanship that he was hired to be master of ceremonies for the television variety show Toast Of The Town, which became The Ed Sullivan Show in its eighth season.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Sullivan was a starmaker, introducing many performers on the show who went on to become giant names. He had a knack for identifying and promoting top talent and paid a great deal of money to get that talent for his show. Sullivan:
“In the conduct of my own show, I’ve never asked a performer his religion, his race or his politics. Performers are engaged on the basis of their abilities. I believe that this is another quality of our show that has helped win it a wide and loyal audience.”
Sullivan was aware of Elvis Presley‘s reputation as a “bad boy”, and claimed that he would never book him, but Presley became too big a name to ignore. In 1956, Sullivan signed him for three appearances. In August 1956, Sullivan was injured in an automobile accident and missed Presley’s first appearance on September 9. Gay actor Charles Laughton introduced Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show. After Sullivan got to know Presley personally, he told his audience: “This is a real decent, fine boy.”
Sullivan’s failure to scoop the television industry with Presley made him determined to get the next big thing. In 1963, while at Heathrow Airport, Sullivan saw Beatlemania firsthand as the band returned from playing gigs in Sweden. Sullivan was reluctant to book The Beatles because they had no successful single released in America at the time. Still, Sullivan signed the group. Their first The Ed Sullivan Show appearance on February 9, 1964, was the most-watched program in Television History to that point, and remains one of the most-watched televised moments of all time. The Beatles appeared three more times and submitted filmed performances later.
Unlike many shows of the time, Sullivan asked musical acts to perform live, rather than lip-synching to their recordings.
Sullivan especially appreciated African-American talent. Most television variety hours booked ‘acceptable’ black stars like Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey or Sammy Davis Jr. In the early 1950s, Sullivan presented black entertainers who were strangers to white America, but he had enjoyed uptown in Harlem like Peg Leg Bates, Pigmeat Markham and Tim Moore. He hosted pioneering acts in their first television appearances: Bo Diddley, The Platters, Brook Benton, Jackie Wilson, Fats Domino, plus numerous Motown acts, including The Temptations, The Jackson 5, and The Supremes, who appeared 17 times.
He presented Harry Belafonte singing Calypso, Miriam Makeba offering Xhosa songs, and cutting-edge comedy by Richard Pryor.
Sullivan took great personal and professional risks in booking Black performers, receiving a steady roll of irate mail and threats — including one claiming “you will get yours” from angry White viewers. Correspondence from the South included threats of boycotts if Sullivan continued to touch, hug, shake hands with, or laugh with Black performers.
He defied pressure from CBS to avoid interacting with the African-American entertainers. Ford-Lincoln dealers, were very unhappy when Sullivan kissed Pearl Bailey on the cheek and dared to shake hands with Nat King Cole. Sullivan had a Ford executive thrown out of the theatre when he suggested that Sullivan stop booking so many black acts. And a dealer in Cleveland was livid when Sullivan put his arm around Bill ”Bojangles” Robinson and Sullivan had to be physically restrained from punching the guy for using the ”N” word. Sullivan later raised money to help pay for Robinson’s funeral.
”As a Catholic, it was inevitable that I would despise intolerance, because Catholics suffered more than their share of it. As I grew up, the causes of minorities were part and parcel of me. Negroes and Jews were the minority causes closest at hand. I need no urging to take a plunge in and help.”
At a time when television had not yet embraced Country music, Sullivan featured Nashville performers on his show. The act that appeared most frequently through the show’s run was the Canadian Country and Western comedy duo of Wayne & Shuster, who made 67 appearances between 1958 and 1969.
He was responsible for American television debuts of Jack Benny, Humphrey Bogart, Jackie Gleason, Maria Callas, Elvis Presley, Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margo Fonteyn, Rolling Stones and The Beatles and many animal acts.
He booked a 10-piano “concert” with Eugene List and nine others pianists at 10 nine-foot concert grands doing Louis Moreau Gottschalk‘s The Siege Of Saragossa.
As part of a United States-Soviet Union cultural exchange program, Sullivan led a variety troupe on a successful Soviet tour in 1959 and presented an hour-long telecast of the Moiseyev Dancers on his show.
One of my favorite frequent acts was an Italian puppet mouse, “Topo Gigio”, who became a movie star and the subject of an American patent. In 1965, Maria Perego Caldura of Milan, who operated the puppet, received a patent for the complex mechanisms, operated by three people, with a fourth supplying the voice, that made the 10-inch puppet come alive. The puppet stood in a special “limbo” black art stage with black velvet curtains, designed to absorb as much ambient light as possible, which helped hide the puppeteers, who were also dressed in black. The illusion was quite remarkable, since unlike traditional hand puppets, Topo Gigio could actually appear to walk on his feet, sing, make subtle hand gestures, and even walk up Sullivan’s arm and perch on his shoulder. In more than 50 appearances, the mouse would appear on stage and greet Sullivan with, “Hello, Eddie!”. Topo Gigio ended his visits by crooning to the host, “Eddie, kiss me goodnight!” (“Keesa me goo’night!”). Topo Gigio closed Sullivan’s final show in 1971.
At the peak advertisers were paying $62,000 for a minute’s advertising, and Sullivan’s own salary was $20,000 a week, plus that $100 for each of his two columns a week in The Daily News.
The show lasted 23 years, until 1971, when CBS dropped it in favor of movies, which brought in more money for a smaller investment.
Sullivan was taken by esophageal cancer on October 13, 1974, two weeks after his 73rd birthday. His funeral was attended by 3,000 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, on a cold, rainy day.
Sullivan had a good sense of humor about himself and even encouraged impersonators such Frank Gorshin, Rich Little, Will Jordan, and Johnny Carson to do him, even Joan Rivers imitated Sullivan. They exaggerated his stiffness, raised shoulders, and nasal phrasing, along with some of his commonly used introductions: “And now, right here on our stage …”, “For all you youngsters out there …”, and “a really big shew” (his pronunciation of the word “show”), which all entered the popular lexicon.
CBS renamed its studio at Broadway and 53d Street, “The Ed Sullivan Theatre”.