A record setting 73 million people tuned in that evening. I did, much to the parental unit’s dismay.
The Beatles had already had a Number One hit on the American charts, AM Radio stations were playing their tunes in heavy rotation. The delirium around The Beatles’ arrival from England had not been equaled since Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show eight years earlier. But even Presley’s appearance could not have prepared the staff at The Ed Sullivan Show and the New York City authorities for what was about to happen.
The Ed Sullivan Show is remembered fondly by baby boomers for introducing acts and breakthrough performances by popular 1950s and 1960s acts including The Dave Clark Five, The Animals, The Beach Boys, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Janis Joplin, Rolling Stones, The Mamas & the Papas, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Herman’s Hermits, and The Doors. They would be on the bill with opera singers, casts of Broadway shows, comics, puppets, and variety acts.
The Ed Sullivan Show ran on CBS from 1948 to 1971 and was hosted by entertainment columnist Ed Sullivan, who had no discernable talent of his own. In the show’s debut, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis performed along with Broadway composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II previewing the score to their new show South Pacific. The last show (#1068) was in 1971, with guests Melanie, Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass and Canadian comic act Sandler and Young in their 67th appearance.
In an era when few opportunities existed for African-American performers on national television, Sullivan championed black talent. He launched the careers of many performers by presenting them to a nationwide television audience and ignored the criticism. The Supremes were a special act for The Ed Sullivan Show, with 14 appearances, they were a personal favorite of Sullivan. He affectionately called them “The Girls”.
In 1963, while arriving at London’s Heathrow airport, Sullivan and his wife encountered thousands of frantic young people waiting in the rain. When Sullivan inquired about what was happening, he was told that a British band named The Beatles was just returning home from a series of concerts in Sweden. When he got to his hotel room, Sullivan looked at booking the band for his show.
The next year, The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein reached an agreement with Sullivan to bring the group to America to perform live for the first time on American television. The handshake deal was for performances on three shows to air in 1964. In return, The Beatles would receive $10,000 for their three appearances and top billing.
Right before their debut on Sullivan’s show, I Want To Hold Your Hand was leaked in advance of its planned release to radio stations across the country. When Capitol Records was unable to stop American DJs from spinning the tune, the record label relented and in December 1963, they dropped the album ahead of schedule. Within a week, it had sold over one million copies and was Number One on the American Pop charts. By the time of The Beatles’ performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Beatlemania was in full force.
When The Beatles landed at Idlewild Airport on February 7, they were met by a hundreds of reporters and thousands of screaming fans. When asked ”How do you find America?”, Ringo replied: ”Turn left at Greenland”.
The Beatles spent the next two days locked away in The Plaza Hotel. Fans set up camp outside. As the show approached, CBS had over 50,000 requests for seats. CBS’s Studio 50 could only hold an audience of 700.
New anchor Walter Cronkite and talk show host Jack Paar were able to score seats for their teenage girls. Leonard Bernstein tried but failed to get tickets. Richard Nixon‘s 15-year-old daughter, Julie, became one of the lucky ones to get a seat. Even Sullivan himself had trouble getting extra tickets. On his show the week before The Beatles’ debut, Sullivan implored his audience:
If anyone has an extra ticket for The Beatles on our show next Sunday, could I please have it? We need it very badly.
Just 77 days before The Beatles’ appearance on Sullivan’s show, John F. Kennedy had been murdered, and America was ready for a diversion and some fun. So, 56 years ago, America tuned in to The Ed Sullivan Show.
Sullivan opened the show by mentioning a congratulatory telegram to The Beatles from Presley. After the first commercials, Sullivan told the audience:
Now yesterday and today our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agreed with me that this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles. Now tonight, you’re gonna twice be entertained by them. Right now, and again in the second half of our show. Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles! Let’s bring them on.
The Beatles opened with All My Loving with ear-splitting screams from teenagers in the audience. The Beatles followed with Paul McCartney doing Till There Was You from the musical The Music Man. During the song, the camera cut to each member of the band and introduced him to the audience by displaying his first name on screen. When the camera cut to John Lennon, the caption below his name also read: SORRY GIRLS, HE’S MARRIED”. The band finished their first set with She Loves You.
They were followed a magician act. Concerned that The Beatles’ fans were not giving the other acts enough attention, Sullivan admonished them with:
If you don’t keep quiet, I’m going to send for a barber.
Among those performers that night were impressionist Frank Gorshin, acrobats Wells & The Four Fays, and Georgia Brown and the cast of Oliver!.
The hour-long broadcast concluded with The Beatles singing two more of their hits, I Saw Her Standing There and at last, I Want To Hold Your Hand.
Amazing really, 45.3% of American households with televisions were watching on this day, 56 years ago. I was there, were you?
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