Sullivan, Ed (1902-1974)

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Sullivan, Ed (1902-1974)

Ed Sullivan, who could not sing, dance, or act, was television's greatest showman in its early years. For twenty-three years, from 1948 to 1971, he hosted America's premiere variety show every Sunday night on CBS, on which he introduced an eclectic array of talent that included everything from opera singers to dancing bears to Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Sullivan, a former newspaper columnist, appeared on the nation's television screens as a most untelegenic presence. He was everything that a professional television host is not supposed to be—awkward, stiff, and prone to frequent malapropisms. His real talent was behind the scenes, as a man who had his finger on the pulse of America's cultural tastes. He understood instinctively that a variety show should present acts that would appeal to the various demographic segments of its audience. Only on The Ed Sullivan Show could you see such diverse talents as Van Cliburn, Rudolf Nureyev, Robert Goulet, Richard Pryor, a plate spinner, and The Rolling Stones. With his distinctive nasal voice, Sullivan regularly promised audiences "a really big shew" and delivered by offering up virtually every form of twentieth-century entertainment.

Edward Vincent Sullivan was born on September 28, 1902, in the Harlem section of Manhattan, New York City, the son of a customs inspector. He was one of seven children (his twin brother, Daniel, died in his first year) and was raised in Port Chester, New York. Young Edward was a poor student, but a strong athlete who won ten letters in sports. Upon graduating from high school he became a newspaper sports reporter. In 1932, he joined the New York Daily News as a Broadway columnist and soon came into contact with many figures in the entertainment industry. While serving as emcee of the newspaper-sponsored Harvest Moon Ball dance contest in 1947, he was "discovered" by Worthington Miner, a general manager at CBS-TV, who asked Sullivan to host a planned variety series called Toast of the Town. The series debuted on June 20, 1948, reflecting from the beginning Sullivan's keen sense of diversity in programming. That initial episode featured Broadway's Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, the rising comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in their first TV appearance, classical pianist Eugene List, ballerina Kathryn Lee, a group of singing New York City firemen, and six June Taylor dancers (called the "Toastettes"). Within that single hour was something for everyone, from the highbrow to the most common man.

During his 23-year run on CBS, Ed Sullivan served as the cultural arbiter for much of middle America. He worked constantly to insure that his audience witnessed the very best entertainment available, as he was deeply involved in all aspects of the show. He booked all the acts himself, helped edit each performer's material, and frequently juggled the show's running order. Some claimed he was a dictatorial taskmaster, but Sullivan took full responsibility for the success or failure of each week's episode. In 1967 he revealed his show-business philosophy when he stated, "An audience will forgive a bad act but never bad taste." For a man who sought perfection in even his silliest performers, Sullivan always presented himself as a rather bumbling persona. An article in TV Guide once described him by writing: "Not since radio's Major Bowes have the airways been subjected to such a bumbling Barnum. Cod-eyed, cement-faced and so scaredy-cat stiff that he's been suspected of having a silver plate in his head, Sullivan has yet to complete gracefully the smallest gesture, unravel his vowels, or conquer a simple introduction." Sullivan's distinctive voice and mannerisms made him the target of many comics and impressionists, including John Byner and Will Jordan. While he may have been awkward, Sullivan knew his job was to introduce the talent and leave the stage so they could shine.

The format of Sullivan's show, which was re-titled The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955, changed little over its many years. It was basically a filmed vaudeville show with acts chosen to appeal to the broadest possible audience. Guests from the world of the classical arts included violinist Itzhak Perlman, dancer Margot Fonteyn, and opera star Roberta Peters. For a rare TV appearance by diva Maria Callas, Sullivan staged a full scene from Tosca. Guests designed to attract more middle-class audiences included Broadway and movie stars, such as Richard Burton and Julie Andrews performing a scene from Camelot, songs by Barbra Steisand, Dinah Shore, and Eddie Fisher, and Henry Fonda reading Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Sullivan was very fond of comics and often invited Borscht Belt veterans like Alan King and Henny Youngman to perform. His most frequently returning comedy guests, however, were the Canadian team of Wayne and Shuster. For the youngsters in the audience, Sullivan was always sure to include a novelty act. These included acrobats, mimes, animal acts, and much more. The specialty act most associated with Sullivan was the lovable Italian mouse puppet, Topo Gigio, who frequently exclaimed, "Hey, Eddie, kees-a-me goodnight!" Occasionally, Sullivan would devote an entire show to one subject, such as honoring the works of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Walt Disney.

By the mid-1950s Sullivan became aware that American popular culture was changing drastically. He helped to promote racial diversity by showcasing black performers, such as Pearl Bailey, Nat "King" Cole, George Kirby, and Leontyne Price. Other television shows refused to present African-American guests due to sponsor complaints. Furthermore, Sullivan began inviting rock and roll stars onto the show to raise its appeal to the demographically important teen audience. Elvis Presley made three memorable visits in 1956. Although cameras showed him from only the waist up on his last appearance to calm adult fears of the singer's swiveling pelvis, the fact that Presley was on the show seemed to legitimize rock to the adult audience. On February 9, 1964, an appearance by the Beatles earned Sullivan his highest rating ever. That broadcast is considered a milestone event in television history. Throughout the 1960s, more members of the counterculture appeared with Sullivan, such as Janis Joplin, Marvin Gaye, and The Rolling Stones. While he liked the ratings they brought, he was often uncomfortable with their attitudes and material. He had heated confrontations with The Doors and Bob Dylan over his attempts to censor their songs. Younger comedians like George Carlin, Woody Allen, and Bill Cosby were also more visible in the 1960s. After 1087 episodes that presented over 10,000 performers, The Ed Sullivan Show left the air on June 6, 1971. Ed Sullivan died in October, 1974.

Ed Sullivan and his variety program are monuments to a form of entertainment that no longer exists. Today, the mass television audience has nearly disappeared and has been dispersed with the advent of cable and more specialized programming. The Ed Sullivan Show provided one of the last opportunities for the entire family to gather round the tube and be entertained by a single program. The show was immortalized by the hit Broadway musical Bye, Bye Birdie as the emblem of all that was good with television. For contemporary viewers it offered a rare opportunity to witness the performances of many of the twentieth century's greatest artists. As authors Harry Castleman and Walter Podrazik wrote of Sullivan in 1989, "He was good because he was a good packager of entertainment… He could spot talent, knew how to balance an hour program, and didn't waste time calling attention to himself. We could use more hosts like him now." Sullivan's legacy is enshrined in the many "really big shews" that entertained a generation.

—Charles Coletta

Further Reading:

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

Brooks, Tim. The Complete Directory to Prime Time TV Stars. New York, Ballantine Books, 1987.

Castleman, Harry, and Walter Podrazik. Harry and Wally's Favorite TV Shows. New York, Prentice Hall Press, 1989.

Harris, Jay. TV Guide: The First 25 Years. New York, New American Library, 1980.

Marschall, Rick. The History of Television. New York, Gallery Books, 1986.

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Sullivan, Ed (1902-1974)

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Sullivan, Ed (1902-1974)