Ed Sullivan Show was the definitive and longest running variety
series in television history (1948-71). Hosted by the eponymous
awkward and fumbling former newspaperman, the show became a Sunday
night institution on CBS. For twenty-three years the Sullivan show
fulfilled the democratic mandate of the variety genre: to entertain
all of the audience at least some of the time.
In the late 1940s, television executives strove to translate the
principles of the vaudeville stage to the new medium, the amalgamation
referred to as "vaudeo." As sports reporter, gossip columnist, and
master of ceremonies of various war relief efforts, Ed Sullivan
had been a fixture on the Broadway scene since the early 1930s.
He had even hosted a short-lived radio series that introduced Jack
Benny to a national audience in 1932. Although Sullivan had no performing
ability (comedian Alan King quipped: "Ed does nothing, but he does
it better that anyone else on television"), he understood showmanship
and had a keen eye for emerging talent. CBS producer Worthington
Miner hired him to host the network's inaugural variety effort The
Toast of the Town and, on 20 June 1948, Sullivan presented his
premiere "really big shew," in the lingo of his many impersonators
who quickly parodied his wooden stage presence and multitudinous
initial telecast served as a basis for Sullivan's inimitable construction
of a variety show. He balanced the headliner, generally an unassailable
legend, this time Broadway's Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
with the up-and-coming stars, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, fresh
from the nightclubs in their television debut. He also liked to
juxtapose the extreme ends of the entertainment spectrum: the classical,
here pianist Eugene List and ballerina Kathryn Lee, with the novelty,
a group of singing New York City fireman and six of the original
June Taylor Dancers, called the "Toastettes." From the beginning,
Sullivan served as executive editor of the show, deciding in rehearsal
how many minutes each act would have during the live telecast in
consultation with producer Marlo Lewis. In 1955, the title was changed
to The Ed Sullivan Show.
had a keen understanding of what various demographic segments of
his audience desired to see. As an impresario for the highbrow,
he debuted ballerina Margot Fonteyn in 1958 and later teamed her
with Rudolf Nureyev in 1965; saluted Van Cliburn after his upset
victory in the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow; and welcomed many
neighbors from the nearby Metropolitan Opera, including Roberta
Peters, who appeared 41 times, and the rarely seen Maria Callas,
who performed a fully staged scene from Tosca. As the cultural eyes
and ears for middle America, he introduced movie and Broadway legends
into the collective living room, including Pearl Bailey, who appeared
23 times; Richard Burton and Julie Andrews in a scene from the 1961
Camelot; Sammy Davis Jr. with the Golden Boy cast;
former CBS stage manager Yul Brynner in The King and I; Henry
Fonda reading Lincoln's Gettysburg Address; and the rising star
Barbra Streisand singing "Color Him Gone" in her 1962 debut. Occasionally,
he devoted an entire telecast to one theme or biography: "The Cole
Porter Story," "The Walt Disney Story," "The MGM Story, and "A Night
at Sophie Tucker's House."
distinguished Sullivan from other variety hosts was the ability
to capitalize on teenage obsession. His introduction of rock 'n'
roll not only brought the adolescent subculture into the variety
fold but also legitimized the music for the adult sensibility. Elvis
Presley had appeared with Milton Berle and Tommy Dorsey, but Sullivan's
deal with Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, created national
headlines. The sexual energy of Presley's first appearance on 9
September 1956 jolted the staid, Eisenhower conformism of Sullivan's
audience. By his third and final appearance, Elvis was shot only
from the waist up, but Sullivan learned how to capture a new audience
for his show, the baby boom generation.
1964 Sullivan signed the Beatles for three landmark appearances.
Their first slot on 9 February 1964 was at the height of Beatlemania,
the beginning of a revolution in music, fashion, and attitude. Sullivan
received the biggest ratings of his career, and, with a 60 share,
one of the most watched programs in the history of television. Sullivan
responded by welcoming icons of the 1960s counterculture into his
arena, most notably The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Janis Joplin,
and Marvin Gaye. One performer who never appeared was Bob Dylan,
who walked off when CBS censors balked at his song "Talkin' John
Birch Society Blues."
called "the great stone face" on screen, Sullivan was a man of intense
passion off camera. He feuded with Walter Winchell, Jack Paar, and
Frank Sinatra over his booking practices. He wrangled with conservative
sponsors over his fondness for African American culture and openly
embraced black performers throughout his career, including Bill
"Bojangles" Robinson, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, and Diana Ross.
He also capitulated to the blacklisting pressures of Red Channels
and denounced performers for pro-Communist sympathies.
Ed Sullivan with the Animals
saw comedy as the glue that held his demographically diverse show
together and allowed a nation to release social tension by laughing
at itself. He was most comfortable around Borscht Belt comics as
seen by the funnymen he most often enlisted: Alan King (37 times);
Myron Cohen (47 times); and Jack Carter (49 times). When Sullivan's
son-in-law, Bob Precht, took over as producer in 1960, there was
a movement to modernize the show and introduce a new generation
of comedians to the American audience, led by Mort Sahl, Woody Allen,
Richard Pryor, and George Carlin. The comic act that appeared most
on the Sullivan show was the Canadian team of Johnny Wayne and Frank
Shuster (58 times); the parodic sketches of Wayne and Shuster assured
Sullivan a sizable audience north of the border.
Sullivan was always on the lookout for novelty acts, especially
for children. His interplay with the Italian mouse Topo Gigio revealed
a sentimental side to Sullivan's character. He also was the first
to introduce celebrities from the audience and often invited them
on stage for a special performance. Forever the sports columnist,
he was particularly enthralled by athletic heroes, and always had
time on the show to discuss baseball with Mickey Mantle or Willie
Mays and learn golf from Sam Snead or Ben Hogan.
Ed Sullivan Show reflected an era of network television when
a mass audience and, even, a national consensus seemed possible.
Sullivan became talent scout and cultural commissar for the entire
country, introducing more than 10,000 performers throughout his
career. His show implicitly recognized that America should have
an electronic exposure to all forms of entertainment, from juggling
to opera. The Vietnam War, which fractured the country politically,
also help to splinter the democratic assumptions of the variety
show. By 1971, The Sullivan Show was no longer a generational
or demographic mediator and was canceled as the war raged on. Later
in the decade, the audience did not require Sullivan's big tent
of variety entertainment any longer; cable and the new technology
promised immediate access to any programming desire. The Sullivan
library was purchased by producer Andrew Solt in the 1980s and has
served as the source of network specials and programming for cable
Ray Bloch and His Orchestra
The June Taylor Dancers
Ed Sullivan, Marlo Lewis, Bob Precht
Sunday 9:00-10:00 July 1948-August 1948 Sunday
9:30-10:30 August 1948-March 1949
Sunday 9:00-10:00 March 1949-June
Bowles, Jerry. A Thousand Sundays: The Story of the Ed Sullivan
Show. New York: Putnam, 1980.
Michael David. Always on Sundays--Ed Sullivan: An Inside View.
New York: Meredith, 1980.
Amy. On the Air: Pioneers of American Broadcasting. Washington,
D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.
John. A Really Big Show. New York: Viking Studio Books, 1992.
Ed ; Variety