Nearly five years ago, I wrote a historical piece here at Active Rain that received many comments. The topic was Ed Sullivan, a showbiz phenomenon of my generation. In looking at that post the other day, I saw that some of the links were broken and the formatting has a problem that I was unable to easily correct. Therefore, I have revised and rewritten the story, with some updated information and videos, below.
In the midyears of the past century, one of the biggest names in show business was Ed Sullivan. His show was broadcast from coast to coast across the country. Sullivan was a huge television star, I guess it was the charm and the youthful good looks, and host of the most powerful variety show ever broadcast on American television. I remember, as a kid, sitting here in Bellingham and rarely missing the show. It was a big deal!
If you have seen Ed Sullivan, you have to wonder why he became a leading icon and performer on TV. As an M.C., he was about as stiff on camera as Richard Nixon and his gait was like that of a penguin -- odd posture, shoulders held high, neck low, famous for mispronouncing the names of his guests. Insiders from back then say he had a toddy or two before the show.
The standing joke among viewers was that Sullivan had a really big "shoe" that night. The silver-tongued Ed could make "show" come out as "shoe" any day of the week. How did an awkward former pugilist become the leading force in variety show entertainment from the 1940's until the 1970's?
First, you have to realize that this was the beginning of the television era. The new medium was not so glamorous in those days and TV was relying on people from other related fields to fill airtime. The producers called in many of the established radio stars and even newspaper columnists. That is where Ed came in.
Sullivan began his media work as a newspaper sportswriter. Later, he became a theater columnist in New York City -- the Big Apple. From there, Sullivan had a radio program, critiquing Broadway shows and dispensing entertainment gossip. Then, in 1948, CBS television hired Sullivan to do a Sunday night variety show. "The Ed Sullivan Show" was the 800 pound gorilla of television for 23 years.
It was not so much his personality and charisma the network was buying, as much as Sullivan's important connections that allowed him to acquire the top entertainers. He could make or break an act overnight. Stories about Sullivan the man, his quirky behavior and his quick temper, fill books.
To tell Sullivan's story, from the perspective of someone who remembers the show, I have selected three videos. The first one is for those people who do not know Ed Sullivan from Kermit the frog. This was a Kodak commercial Sullivan did in his prime, and you can see how stiff he was in front of the camera. It gets across his award winning style and personality, or lack thereof.
One of the highlights in the history of his show was when, in 1956, Sullivan booked Elvis. The cavorting, shimmy-shaking Elvis had worked the girls into a frenzy a few months before when he appeared live on the Milton Berle show. The appearance on the Berle TV show was the first time parents had seen the young man rock and many of the moms and dads were displeased with the raw sexuality that was exuded by the future king of rock 'n' roll. Oh yes, those were simpler times. Click on the 1950's era TV to check out that lascivious, controversial and historic Elvis' performance on the Berle show.
When Presley appeared with Sullivan, only three months later, Ed televised the star from the waist up only. Undoubtedly, the biggest coup of Sullivan's storied career came in 1964 when he managed to book the sensational new music act from England, the Beatles. 73 million people watched the show that night -- the largest television audience in history up until that time. And, for several years to come, Beatlemania raged in the USA, Canada and much of the rest of the world.
If you lived through the 1960's, then this step back in time is probably nostalgic. But, if all of this information is new to you, then you can see just how crazy all of us sheep were back then, religiously turning on the television every Sunday night to watch Ed Sullivan control the entertainment industry with his iron fist and a big weekly Sunday night shoe.