1902 - 1974
He was America’s unofficial ambassador of entertainment, with a platform that reached millions of viewers every Sunday night. Ed Sullivan hosted the most democratic variety series in US television history. There was something that appealed to young and old; to men and women; to families and singles. The Ed Sullivan Show was a mixture of popular American art, carefully stirred with commercials, and kept warm for an entire hour every Sunday night for 23 years.
Sullivan was not chosen as the show’s host because of his talent ("stiff" and "wooden" were two ways to describe his mannerisms). He was picked because he had a nose for fresh new talent. Ironically, Sullivan’s deadpan style became almost endearing, like a favorite uncle. As the legendary comic Fred Allen pointed out, "Ed Sullivan will stay on the air as long as other people have talent".
Edward Vincent Sullivan was born in New York City on September 28th, 1902, the son of a customs inspector. He was apparently drawn to journalism, covering sports in his early newspaper career before working as a reporter or columnist for a number of papers. His great fame came as a gossip columnist and entertainment reporter for the "New York Daily News", starting in 1932. Then came television.
In 1947 or 1948, Sullivan had just hosted a telecast of the annual Harvest Moon Ball in New York City, when a CBS executive named Worthington Miner approached him with an offer to host a weekly variety series on the network. Sullivan had two short-lived radio programs to his credit, and agreed to the job. The Toast of the Town, initially sponsored by Emerson Radio, was launched June 20th, 1948. A vaudeville program by nature, Sullivan’s first show featured the Broadway team of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, along with the increasingly popular nightclub comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. That show also featured ballerina Kathryn Lee, a group of singing New York City firefighters, and six dancers known as the "Toastettes". (The talent budget for that first show was $375; of that, $200 went to Martin and Lewis!)
Sullivan seemed to have an instinct of what acts would appeal to his diverse audience. In its first full season, The Toast of the Town ranked right behind NBC’s Texaco Star Theater with Milton Berle and quickly became a Sunday night institution. Ed’s job was simple: Introduce the guests, do the commercials, and close the show. It was, in his words, a "really big shew".
In the early days of television, when getting the widest possible audience was paramount, Sullivan tried to appeal to everyone-highbrow and lowbrow, teen sensation and old favorites, comedy and drama, musicals and serious readings, performed by the best-known entertainers and the most promising new talent around.
To his credit, Sullivan was color-blind, showcasing African-American performers in a period when segregation was the norm. Unfortunately, Sullivan also succumbed to the anti-Communist hysteria of the early 1950’s, allowing blacklisted dancer Paul Draper on his show, then apologizing when conservative critics denounced the appearance. (He continued banning 'blacklisted' acts for several more years.)
In the fall of 1955, Toast of the Town became The Ed Sullivan Show, now sponsored by Lincoln and Mercury automobiles, with Sullivan himself doing the ads. Several months later, NBC finally grew tired of playing second fiddle to “Sullivan” in the Sunday ratings. It moved talented Steve Allen from the network’s successful Tonight show to do battle against Ed. And Allen was no slouch; he could sing, dance, do stunts, tell jokes. In fact, The Steve Allen Show leaned heavily on comedy with a group of regular characters. On Allen’s second show, the rock and roll sensation Elvis Presley made a guest appearance.
Presley had appeared on some local TV shows, along with the national series Stage Show and The Milton Berle Show, but a growing number of critics were denouncing the music and the hip-swiveling performance of Presley. To appease the critics and the censors, Allen had Presley wear a tuxedo and serenade a basset hound with his latest hit "Hound Dog". Presley fans were aghast (and Elvis himself was not happy) but Allen’s audience was twice as large as Sullivan’s that night.
The always-competitive Sullivan swallowed any misgivings he had about the singer and arranged to have Presley perform three times on his show, starting in the fall of 1956. Even today, many fans wrongly believe Presley made his national TV debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. (For the record, that honor went to the short-lived Jackie Gleason-produced variety program Stage Show, hosted by bandleaders Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey. It aired during the 1955-56 season on CBS.)
At the time of the first scheduled appearance Presley was filming "Love Me Tender" so Sullivan's producer Marlo Lewis flew to Los Angeles, California to supervise the taping of Elvis' performance. Sullivan, however, was not able to host his show in New York City because he was recovering from a near fatal automobile accident. Actor Charles Laughton hosted in Sullivan's place, introducing Presley with "And now away to Hollywood to meet Elvis Presley" to which Presley eventually responded "This is probably the greatest honor that I've ever had in my life."
Elvis drew the expected high ratings for CBS, but the network was still nervous over the singer’s rock music and pelvic gyrations. For his third and final “Sullivan” appearance in early 1957, CBS instructed the producers to shoot Elvis above the waist. That angered Presley fans; after watching busty actress Jayne Mansfield on the network’s variety hour Shower of Stars, one Elvis backer wrote CBS: "If you can’t show Elvis Presley from the waist down, don’t show Jayne Mansfield from the waist up".
Steve Allen and ABC’s western Maverick managed to give Sullivan a run for his money during the late 1950’s, but as the 1960’s dawned, Sullivan had beaten them both. The show continued its familiar format, now a true Sunday night institution. In fact, the Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie” paid its own tribute by featuring a typical American family singing in ecstasy “We’re going to be on…Ed Sullivan!”
By 1960, Sullivan’s son-in-law Bob Precht took over production duties; he began booking some of the newer, edgier comics who were becoming popular. Mort Sahl, George Carlin, Woody Allen and the team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May were featured on “Sullivan”. But the traditional acts appeared on “Sullivan” more often. The Canadian comedy team of Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster appeared on the show 58 times, helping to boost ratings north of the US border. In second place was funny but conventional comic Jack Carter, who was featured 49 times. Myron Cohen made 47 appearances on “Sullivan”, while Alan King came on 37 times.
Sullivan was not only known for his stiff hosting, he was also a master of bloopers. One night, he urged viewers to help fight tuberculosis by saying "Good night and help stamp out TV". Another time, he forgot the name of The Supremes, and simply called them "the girls." Following a 1965 Christmas show performance by singer Sergio Franchi, Sullivan came on stage and said "Let's hear it for the Lord's Prayer!" British comedy duo Morecambe and Wise were introduced by Sullivan by “Morrie, Combie and Wise”. Up-and-coming female comic Joan Rivers received an inadvertent Sullivan boost; he was supposed to tell audiences the following week’s guests would include singer Johnny Rivers. Instead, he gave this plug: "Next week, Joan Rivers." (Rivers was surprised, but she didn’t want to embarrass Sullivan and appeared anyway.)
Sullivan’s 'stoneface' image was punctured by one particular act: the Italian mouse puppet known as Topo Gigio. Created by Maria Prego, Topo made over 50 appearances on “Sullivan”, each time emploring the host to “Kissa-me good night Eddie." Another act who frequently appeared was ventriloquist Senor Wences; he was best-known to audiences for his puppet in a box Pedro ("S'OK? S'awright!) and the hand puppet Johnny. Wences was 103 years old when he died in 1999.
But Sullivan’s eye for talent never failed him-and his biggest triumph came in late 1963, when he and his wife visited London. The couple found themselves in the midst of Beatlemania. Sullivan quickly contacted Beatles manager Brian Epstein and arranged to have the Fab Four make three appearances on the show-despite the fact several Beatles albums and singles flopped on the American charts!
When the Beatles finally made their first “Sullivan” appearance on February 9th, 1964, the timing was nothing short of brilliant. Their singles finally reached the top of the American hit parade, and millions of teens (and parents) wanted their first look at these four mop tops from Liverpool. That night, Sullivan ran away with a 60 percent share of the television audience, and that episode became one of the most-watched American programs ever. (The Beatles would make three more “Sullivan” appearances, two more the following weeks, and the last in September 1965. Those full shows, including commercials, have since been released on home video.)
Soon after, Sullivan opened the door to more British and American rock stars, including the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, The Supremes and The Doors. The latter group appeared only once; they were barred after lead singer Jim Morrison refused to change the lyric of the group’s hit song “Light My Fire”, which went “girl we couldn’t get much higher”; Sullivan and the producers felt the line was a reference to drug use. (The Stones were a different story; they agreed to change the title of “Let’s Spend The Night Together” to “let’s spend some time together”.)
Perhaps the most publicized incident of a performer being banned from The Ed Sullivan Show came in 1962, when comic Jackie Mason allegedly gave Sullivan “the finger” during his live monologue; Sullivan kept Mason off the show for a year and a half; even after he returned to the show, the incident cast a shadow on Mason’s career for over a decade.
By the late 1960’s, Sullivan’s ratings finally began to fall. CBS executives were becoming worried as the show’s smaller audiences and higher production costs made “Sullivan” an expensive program to air every week. Worse, younger audiences were deserting the variety show for such favorites as The Wonderful World of Disney (NBC) and The FBI (ABC).
In 1971, new CBS Network chief Robert Wood and his chief programmer Fred Silverman began cleaning house, clearing the network of all remnants of rural comedy (The Beverly Hillbillies; Green Acres) and aging favorites (Lassie; Hee-Haw). The Ed Sullivan Show was also shown the door.
In retrospect, CBS may have been too harsh in the way it dismissed one of its longest-running prime time series. Certainly Sullivan felt that way; he was so angry and hurt he refused to do a “final show”. The last regularly scheduled Ed Sullivan hour aired June 6th, 1971; that night’s guests included Gladys Knight and the Pips, comic Robert Klein and Broadway legend Carol Channing.
Sullivan did air several more specials and a 25th anniversary show for CBS, but age and illness took a toll; he died of cancer in October 1974.
Today, thanks to videos of his old series and clips that appear on television, Ed Sullivan is being remembered by his old fans and has become familiar to new generations who were born after the show left the airwaves. His skills as a producer and a talent scout were impeccable; his ability to put on a variety show for a general audience remains unchallenged. But in a world of home video, cable channels and more broadcast networks, it’s unlikely a mass audience will sit in the same room to watch one program like The Ed Sullivan Show again.
Questions Site Information Contact
Return to Top of Page