who watched television in America between 1948 and 1971 saw Ed Sullivan.
Even if viewers did not watch his Sunday night variety show regularly,
chances are they tuned in occasionally to see a favorite singer
or comedian. Milton Berle may have been "Mr. Television" in the
early years of TV, but for almost a quarter-century Sullivan was
Mr. Sunday Night. Considered by many to be the embodiment of banal,
middle-brow taste, Sullivan exposed a generation of Americans to
virtually everything the culture had to offer in the field of art
began as a journalist. It was his column in the New York Daily
News that launched him as an emcee of vaudeville revues and
charity events. This role led to his selection to front a regular
televised variety show in 1948. Known as the Toast of the Town
until 1955, it became The Ed Sullivan Show, in September
of that year. According to CBS president William S. Paley, Sullivan
was chosen to host its Sunday night program because CBS could not
hold anyone comparable to Berle. Ironically, Sullivan outlasted
Berle in large measure because of his lack of personality. Berle
came to be identified with a particular brand of comedy that was
fading from popularity. On the other hand, Sullivan simply introduced
acts, then stepped into the wings.
Sullivan's stiff physical appearance, evident discomfort before
the camera, and awkward vocal mannerisms (including the oft-imitated
description of his program as a "reeeeeelly big shoe") made him
an unlikely candidate to become a television star and national institution.
But what Sullivan lacked in screen presence and personal charisma
he made up for with a canny ability to locate and showcase talent.
More than anything else, his show was an extension of vaudeville
tradition. In an era before networks and channels attempted to gear
a program's appeal to a narrow demographic group, Sullivan was obliged
to attract the widest possible audience. He did so by booking acts
from every spectrum of entertainment--performers of the classics
such as Itzhak Perlman, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev; comedians
such as Buster Keaton, Bob Hope, Henny Youngman, Joan Rivers, and
George Carlin; singers like Elvis Presley to Mahalia Jackson, Kate
Smith to the Beatles, and James Brown to Sister Sourire, the Singing
Nun. Sports stars appeared on the same stage as Shakespearean actors.
Poets and artists shared the spotlight with dancing bears and trained
dogs. And then there were the ubiquitous "specialty acts" such as
Topo Gigio, the marionette mouse with the thick Italian accent enlisted
to "humanize" Sullivan, and Senor Wences, the ventriloquist who
appeared over twenty times, talking to his lipstick-smeared hand
and a wooden head in a box. Sullivan's program was a variety show
in the fullest sense of the term. While he was not so notable for
"firsts" Sullivan did seem to convey a kind of approval on emerging
acts. Elvis Presley and many other performers had appeared on network
television before ever showing up on the Sullivan program, but taking
his stage once during prime time on Sunday night meant more than
a dozen appearances on any other show.
Sullivan relented to the blacklist in 1950, apologizing for booking
tap dancer and alleged communist sympathizer Paul Draper, he was
noted for his support of civil rights. At a time when virtually
all sponsors balked at permitting black performers to take the stage,
Sullivan embraced Pearl Baily over the objections of his sponsors.
He also showcased black entertainers as diverse as Nat "King" Cole,
Leontine Price, Louis Armstrong, George Kirby, Richard Pryor, Duke
Ellington, Richie Havens and the Supremes.
attempted to keep up with the times, booking rock bands and young
comedians, but by the time his show was canceled in 1971 he had
been eclipsed in the ratings by "hipper" variety programs like Rowan
and Martin's Laugh-In, and the Flip Wilson Show. Sullivan
became victim to his own age and CBS's desire to appeal to a younger
demographic, regardless of his show's health in the ratings. He
died in 1974.
it ended in 1971 no other program on American television has approached
the diversity and depth of Sullivan's weekly variety show. Periodic
specials drawing from the hundreds of hours of Sullivan shows as
well as the venue of The Late Show with David Letterman continue
to serve as tribute to Sullivan's unique place in broadcasting.
Ed Sullivan remains an important figure in American broadcasting
because of his talents as a producer and his willingness to chip
away at the entrenched racism that existed in television's first
VINCENT) SULLIVAN. Born in New York City, New York, U.S.A.,
28 September 1902. Married: Sylvia Weinstein, 1930; one daughter.
Covered high-school sports as a reporter, Port Chester Daily
Item; joined Hartford Post, 1919; reporter and columnist, New
York Evening Mail, 1920-24; writer, The New York World,
1924-25, and Morning Telegraph, 1925-27; sportswriter, The
New York Evening Graphic, 1927-29, Broadway columnist,
1929-32; columnist, New York Daily News, from 1932; launched
radio program over Columbia Station WCBS (then WABC), showcasing
new talent, 1932; staged benefit revues during World War II; host,
CBS radio program Ed Sullivan Entertains, from 1942; host,
CBS television variety program Toast of the Town (later The
Ed Sullivan Show), 1948-71. Died October 1974.
Toast of the Town (became The Ed Sullivan Show,
Goes My Heart (original story), 1938; Big Town Czar (also
actor), 1939; Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me, 1940.
Sullivan Show, 1932. Ed Sullivan Entertains, 1942.
David. "Ed Sullivan Was also a Syndicated Writer." Editor & Publisher
(New York), 7 December 1991.
Eric. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1975; 2nd edition, 1990.
Jerry. A Thousand Sundays: The Story of the Ed Sullivan Show.
New York: Putnam's, 1980.
Claudia, and Andrew Solt, editors; Text by John Leonard. A Really
Big Show: A Visual History of the Ed Sullivan Show. New York:
Viking Studio Books, 1992.
Harris, Michael David. Always on Sunday/ Ed Sullivan: An Inside
View. New York: Signet, 1968.
Arthur Frank. "The Rise and Fall of Milton Berle." In O'Connor,
John E., editor. American History/American Television: Interpreting
the Video Past. New York: Unger, 1983.
See also Ed Sullivan
Show; Steve Allen