Sullivan, Edward Vincent ("Ed")
SULLIVAN, Edward Vincent ("Ed")
(b. 28 September 1902 in New York City; d. 13 October 1974 in New York City), television variety show host who is forever remembered for introducing and making household names of Elvis Presley and the Beatles on his extraordinarily successful Ed Sullivan Show.
Sullivan's parents were Peter Arthur Sullivan, a customs inspector, and Elizabeth Smith Sullivan, an amateur painter. He had six siblings, two of whom died. Sullivan's family moved to Port Chester, Westchester County, New York, in 1907, when he was five years old. He studied at Saint Mary's Parochial School and graduated from Port Chester High School in 1917. In athletics he was gifted and versatile. His other passion was journalism, and as a teenager he wrote a regular sports column for the Port Chester Daily Item. After a brief stay in Chicago, where he tried to join the navy but was turned down because of his youth and lack of a birth certificate, he rejected an offer from his uncle to pay his college tuition and decided on a career in journalism.
Subsequently he worked for several newspapers, including the New York Evening Mail, Philadelphia Ledger, New York World, and New York Evening Graphic. By 1930 Sullivan was the Broadway editor for the Graphic, and in 1932 he became a columnist for the New York Daily News. His column was a regular feature of the paper for many years, appearing under the byline "Little Old New York." He married Sylvia Weinstein on 28 April 1930, and they had one daughter.
In 1947 a senior Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) manager was impressed with Sullivan, who was acting as master of ceremonies of the Harvest Moon Ball at Madison Square Garden, and signed him as the front man for a new one-hour show called Toast of the Town. The program was launched on 20 June 1948 and immediately captured the interest of the nation.
Why Sullivan became both beloved and hugely popular continues to be a mystery. His large head and big smile made him quickly recognizable. Moreover, his absence of affectation and an abundance of traits that made audiences identify with him created a new sort of celebrity figure. Here was the epitome of an ordinary man who could seem gauche and awkward. However, millions of Americans embraced him because he seemed like one of them.
Profile upon profile of Sullivan talks of an "awkward, wooden, word-mangling newspaper man," but, as Tim Brooks notes, this simple-sounding man, although the antithesis of the polished television host, was "a sort of twentieth century P. T. Barnum who not only had his finger on the pulse of what was hot at the moment but could get his whole hand on it." Despite mediocre ratings in the 1950s, Sullivan's astonishing weekly appeal allowed the CBS network to demand and expect higher fees for their program advertisers.
In the 1950s Sullivan showcased the likes of Victor Borge, Margaret Truman, Hedy Lamarr, Gloria Swanson, and Bob Hope. He launched his initial program with a pair of wacky unknown comedians with the names of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Then on 9 September 1956 Sullivan introduced a young truck driver from Memphis, Tennessee (originally Tupelo, Mississippi), named Elvis Presley. Sullivan spluttered and looked half-puzzled and half-dumbfounded by the gyrating hips of a white musician who somehow combined rock, blues, and folk. Presley's career was emphatically launched, and Sullivan's status as premier impresario was firmly embedded in the national mindset.
Sullivan was the genius behind not just the selection of the acts shown on the show but the sequencing and the duration of each segment. By the time Toast of the Town metamorphosed into The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955, Sullivan, as executive producer, was not just America's most famous television personality. He had assumed the role of a cultural conduit. Sullivan crafted a variety program that was so artfully packaged that the aesthetic and athletic merged seamlessly, and American households were transformed into miniature theaters into which Italian opera, British ballet, German classical music, and Broadway dramas were introduced as wholesome divertissements.
Ron Simon, for example, describes Sullivan as a combination muse and Renaissance man who relished the opportunity to elevate popular tastes and captivate plebeian America. Sullivan presented the prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn in 1958 and then teamed her with Rudolf Nureyev in 1965. He promoted stellar American performers such as the pianist Van Cliburn and the opera sensation Roberta Peters. Exotic European divas such as Maria Callas were featured as were Pearl Bailey, Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Sammy Davis, Jr., Yul Brynner, and Barbra Streisand. Henry Fonda read Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and, as the 1960s progressed, Sullivan stayed up with the times and hosted the new and famous: musical acts such as the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Janis Joplin, and Martin Gaye.
Unequivocally, 9 February 1964 was Sullivan's defining moment. On that date he hosted the first of three live Beatles performances. The Encyclopedia of Television (1997) says it was an exclamation point in popular culture, in every sense "the beginning of a revolution in music, fashion, and attitude." Paul McCartney, in a British Broadcasting Corporation interview with Michael Parkinson (2002), said that although going to America launched the group, it was Ed Sullivan who catapulted them to fame and fortune.
Sullivan was an intense individual who wrestled with several demons. He steadfastly supported African-American entertainers during a period when there were Americans, and portions of America, committed to a policy of being separate and unequal. The tenor of the times can be gauged by Alabama governor George Wallace's 1963 statement, "I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," which was roundly applauded in many quarters. The top television shows of 1965 give some sense of the whiteness of American entertainment: Bonanza, Gomer Pyle, Bewitched, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Red Skelton Hour. So Sullivan has to be seen as an activist in that he welcomed onto his show Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, and Diana Ross. A major negative is that he was rabidly "anti-red" and a supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy, not reticent about the public naming of entertainment people with any supposed Communist allegiance.
Although Sullivan remains best known for showcasing Presley and the Beatles, his support of homegrown comedy (people like Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin) and his easy rapport with sports folk heroes (Mickey Mantle and Ben Hogan) widened the appeal of his variety show and helped it reach every American constituency.
The Ed Sullivan Show reflected an era of network television when a mass audience and even a national consensus seemed possible. Sullivan became a talent scout and cultural commissar for the entire country, introducing more than ten thousand performers throughout his career. His show implicitly recognized that Americans should have an electronic exposure to all forms of entertainment, from juggling to opera.
In the late 1960s Sullivan's Nielsen ratings dropped, and the show was canceled in 1971. Sullivan's wife, Sylvia, died suddenly on 16 March 1973, and Sullivan died in New York City a year later from cancer. He is buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
At the show's peak in the mid-1960s, advertisers paid $162,000 for a minute of advertising time, and Sullivan's honorarium was $20,000 a week. Until almost the end of his life he wrote two weekly columns for the New York Daily News. In 1971 the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences presented Sullivan with a special Emmy Award. They spoke of him as "pioneering," commended him for his "showmanship, taste, and personal commitment," and saved the most fulsome praise for his position on race. He demonstrated "foresight and courage to provide network exposure for minority performers." On 10 December 1967 CBS renamed its studio at Broadway and Fifty-third Street the Ed Sullivan Theater.
For more information about Sullivan see Michael D. Harris, Always on Sunday (1968), Jerry Bowles, A Thousand Sundays: The Story of The Ed Sullivan Show (1980), and Ron Simon's excellent essay, "The Ed Sullivan Show," in Horace Newcomb, ed., Encyclopedia of Television (1997). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times (both 14 Oct. 1974). Paul McCartney's interview with Michael Parkinson was shown on BBC America (16 June 2002).
Scott A. G. M. Crawford