It was a gentler time. Television had supplanted radio as the main form of evening entertainment for the American family who would gather together most evenings to watch their favorite shows. Taking the edge off the Sunday night blues was “The Ed Sullivan Show,” a wholesome compendium of acts ranging from musical to acrobatic. From small towns to tenements, practically everyone who had a television set tuned in to CBS each week to watch this iconic variety show, still the longest running show ever to rule the airwaves. Standing watch over it all, of course, was Ed Sullivan.
The Toast of the Town
Harlem-born Sullivan started his career as a boxer and sports writer, later moving on to a syndicated entertainment column for the New York Daily News. A short stint in radio preceded his entry into the television scene. This eclectic background served him well, providing an edge for sniffing out talent and sharpening Sullivan’s instincts for determining what the American public wanted to watch.
When Sullivan was approached by the CBS Network to host a live, weekly variety show, he agreed, opting to model the one-hour entertainment platform largely on Vaudeville, despite its decades-old decline in popularity. Revamped for television, the concept took off undeterred by early panning from television critics. Telecast from Broadway’s Maxine Elliott Theatre, the show started its run in 1948 and was called “Toast of the Town.” Sullivan featured everything from circus acts to opera stars.
The Star Maker
Live TV can be merciless, but “The Toast of the Town” continued to build in popularity. Colloquially called “The Ed Sullivan Show” by viewers, the name was officially changed in 1955 to reflect its host’s larger-than-life presence. The show’s format shifted slightly around that time, featuring more performances of shorter duration in keeping with what Sullivan’s audience enjoyed.
A stable of tried-and-true performers, including a popular mouse puppet named Topo Gigio and ventriloquist Senor Wences, delighted audiences. Other performers such as The Mamas & the Papas became household names.
An appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” wasn’t an iron-clad lock on stardom, but it sure was close. Among the most memorable performances was the American-debut of the Beatles in 1964. Years earlier, fans had thrilled to another rock and roll legend’s appearances on the show: Elvis Presley.
Comedians, musicians and scores from Broadway musicals were all featured and given high billing. Fan-favorites were asked to return multiple times including the Supremes, Joan Rivers and Richard Pryor.
The Sneer Heard Round the World
The unpredictability of live television sometimes irked the host, who never hesitated to display his ire on air. His thumbs up or down countenance could make or break a star, resulting in additional bookings or a one way ticket to has-been land.
During the early days of rock and roll, music started to take on titillating themes, such as sex and drug use. A purist, Sullivan often requested certain songs not be sung on air or that lyrics be altered so as to avoid controversy. When the Supremes sang their popular song, “Love Child,” about a little girl born in poverty to an unwed, single mother, Sullivan requested no changes. But when other acts, such as the Rolling Stones or The Doors wanted to sing controversial songs, Sullivan would often demand alternatives to the existing lyrics. Sometimes the stars would listen and sometimes they wouldn’t. Mick Jagger’s infamous eye rolling during a Sullivan-requested altered rendition of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” resulted in next day headlines. Jim Morrison, after agreeing to alter the lyrics to “Light My Fire,” did not keep his promise. Sullivan’s fury was obvious and The Doors never played the show again.
Other performers burned by Sullivan’s on-air wrath included Bo Diddley, Jackie Mason and Buddy Holly.
An Untimely Exit and an Unvarnished Legacy
American tastes were changing. “The Ed Sullivan Show” had an unheard of 24 year run and is still the longest-running variety show ever to grace the TV screen. But its popularity started to wane in the early 1970s. The show was unceremoniously yanked off the air in 1971 without warning or a proper goodbye. Despite its abrupt end, the show’s legacy is uncontested. The studio from where it was broadcast in later years was renamed “The Ed Sullivan Theatre” and is now a Broadway landmark where the “Late Show with David Letterman” currently tapes. Performances from the show are still in high demand on CD and DVD, continuing to delight new generations of fans.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.