SULLIVAN, ED

U.S. Variety Show Host

Anyone 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 and entertainment.

Sullivan 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.

Ed 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.

Although 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.

Sullivan 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.

Since 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 decades.

-Eric Schaeffer

 


Ed Sullivan

ED(WARD 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.

TELEVISION SERIES

1948-71 Toast of the Town (became The Ed Sullivan             Show, 1955)

FILMS (writer)

There Goes My Heart (original story), 1938; Big Town Czar (also actor), 1939; Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me, 1940.

RADIO

Ed Sullivan Show, 1932. Ed Sullivan Entertains, 1942.

FURTHER READING

Astor, David. "Ed Sullivan Was also a Syndicated Writer." Editor & Publisher (New York), 7 December 1991.

Barnouw, Eric. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975; 2nd edition, 1990.

Bowles, Jerry. A Thousand Sundays: The Story of the Ed Sullivan Show. New York: Putnam's, 1980.

Falkenburg, 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.

Wertheim, 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 Show; Variety Programs