Over the course of two decades, Ed Sullivan (1901-1974) brought 10,000 performers into the homes of American viewers on his Sunday night television program. Some of America's favorite stars gained national exposure for the first time after appearing on his show, most notably The Beatles, but also Woody Allen, Jackie Mason, Phyllis Diller, the Singing Nun, Richard Pryor, and Rowan and Martin.
Ed Sullivan was a stone-faced, awkward man who brought more talent and sparkle to television than perhaps anyone else, reigning as TV's "king of variety" for 23 years. He had a knack for picking the acts that America would enjoy. He could read an audience. If his test audience did not like the performer in question, the rest of the country would not see that performance on their televisions on Sunday night.
Edward Vincent Sullivan was born in an Irish and Jewish section of Harlem in New York City on September 28, 1901. His father, Peter Sullivan, was the son of an Irish immigrant, the oldest of eight children, who never finished high school. He worked as a customs inspector. His mother, Elizabeth Smith Sullivan, was an amateur painter. Sullivan was a twin, but his brother, Danny, died before their first birthday.
When Ed was five, the family moved to Port Chester, New York. There, his childhood was filled with the music his parents loved, and a blend of ethnic culture that included Gypsies and the Catholic Church. Growing up, he witnessed the disappearance of horses and carriages from the streets and their replacement by automobiles. This transformation would make our country seem smaller, much in the same way as Sullivan would later bring us a "consensus culture."
He attended St. Mary's High School in Port Chester where he worked on the school newspaper and earned letters in four varsity sports. Sullivan turned down a chance to attend college, even though an uncle had offered to pay his tuition, and chose to go into the newspaper business instead.
The early years of his career saw him moving in rapid succession from job to job: from 1918-1919 he was a reporter for the Port Chester Daily Item; in 1919 he moved on to the Hartford Post; then, in 1920, he went to the New York Evening Mail where he stayed until the paper ceased publication. In 1924 and 1925, he wrote for the New York World. During the next two years, he wrote for the New York Morning Telegraph and the Philadelphia Ledger, following which he wrote for the World and Bulletin in New York.
In 1927-1929, he served as sports editor at the New York Evening Graphic, the same paper at which Walter Winchell, developed his celebrated gossip column. Sullivan coveted Winchell's influence and wanted to move in the same circles. When Winchell left for the Mirror in 1931, Sullivan stepped in as the new columnist. A year later, the Graphic closed its doors. His journalism career stabilized when he began writing his "Little Old New York" column for the New York Daily News from 1932 until his death in 1974.
Sullivan took on radio interview shows on NBC and CBS to compensate for the pay cut that he took to work at the Daily News. Already wielding some influence, Sullivan introduced Jack Benny as the first radio entertainer on WABC, a CBS affiliate, in 1932.
From 1936 to 1952, he had his own radio show on CBS called "Ed Sullivan Entertains." He also worked as a theater emcee at the Paramount and Loews' State Theaters. He also hosted dances and benefits like the 1947 Harvest Moon Ball, sponsored by the New York Daily News at Madison Square Garden. There, at the age of 46, Sullivan was discovered by an advertising man, Marlo Lewis.
The Toast of the Town
On June 20, 1948, Sullivan hosted his first television show on CBS, Toast of the Town, sponsored by Emerson Radio. The show brought vaudeville to the small screen in living rooms across the country. It was an instant success. The sponsor was not convinced, however, and quickly dropped the show. The show continued when Lincoln-Mercury agreed to sponsor it. Sullivan is rumored to have been so grateful to the Ford Motor Company that he would send postcards to dealers when he was traveling.
The show's name was changed to The Ed Sullivan Show. The formula remained the same for over twenty years: give America a pastiche of high, low, and middlebrow entertainment. It was a mix for the common man. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis performed on that first show, along with dancer Kathryn Lee, pianist Eugene List, Rogers and Hammerstein, and a dance troupe, the Toastettes.
Part of Sullivan's success was that he never upstaged the talent he brought on the show. In fact, he was often criticized for having no personality. The Celebrity Register reported, "the secret of his success is that he has no style to go out of." Likewise, in 1955, Time magazine reported that Sullivan moved about the stage like a sleepwalker: "His smile is that of a man sucking a lemon; his speech is frequently lost in a thicket of syntax; his eyes pop from their sockets or sink so deep in their bags that they seem to be peering up at the camera from the bottom of twin wells. Yet, instead of frightening the children, Ed Sullivan charms the whole family."
Much of Sullivan's strange demeanor owed to the fact that he had a stomach ulcer that he treated with belladonna, which also caused his eyes to dilate. He had also been in a car accident in 1956 that damaged his teeth and ribs.
Ladies and Gentleman, The Beatles!
Sullivan had the most popular acts on his show, but the musical entertainers often generated the biggest audience response. Elvis Presley appeared on the show three times. With his somewhat scandalous reputation as "Elvis the pelvis," he was shown only from the waist up on his third appearance, aired on January 6, 1957, due to public outcry. Originally, Sullivan did not want Elvis on the show, deeming him too vulgar. But when Elvis had been a hit on Steve Allen's show, Sullivan decided to bring him on, working out a $50,000, three-performance deal with Presley's manager, Colonel Parker.
Just as the appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show helped Presley's career, one appearance made the Beatles' career in America. Their debut on Sullivan's program (on February 9, 1964), gained the largest television audience in history at that time. The group sang "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" to an audience of 73 million. America had just succumbed to the first wave of the "British Invasion."
The Ed Sullivan Show was also responsible for adding several "catch phrases" to the American vocabulary. Many comedians who appeared on the show, including Rich Little, Jackie Mason, and John Byner enjoyed impersonating Sullivan and would pick up on "Sullivanisms" like "a really big shew." Also, frequent character guests like puppeteer Maria Prego's Italian mouse Topo Gigo would say things like "Hey Eddie, kess-a-me goodnight!" And Pedro, a head-in-a-box hand puppet created by Senor Wences, who would say, "S'all right? S'all right!"
Sullivan's private life was as unconventional as his public life. He married Sylvia Weinstein on April 28, 1930. They were always on the go and lived in a world of convenience and artifice. The two lived in a suite of rooms at Manhattan's Delmonico Hotel. She never cooked. They always ate at restaurants or clubs. The hotel maid did the cleaning. Their daughter Elizabeth ("Betty") ate dinner with a paid companion at a restaurant until she was twelve.
John Leonard wrote of the Sullivans in Smoke and Mirrors: Violence, Television and Other American Cultures, "Ed and Sylvia were children of the Roaring Jazz Age Twenties, that nervy postwar adrenaline-addicted Charleston state of mind confabulated in New York by admen, poets and promoters and then nationally syndicated by Broadway columnists like Damon Runyon, Walter Winchell, Louis Sobol, and Ed himself—men who had gone to newspapers instead of college."
Sullivan carried on some well-publicized feuds. First and perhaps most notably was his feud with Walter Winchell, but also with Steve Allen, Frank Sinatra, Jack Paar, Nat "King" Cole, and Arthur Godfrey. But he was generous to those he liked. For example, he paid for the funeral of dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson who was completely destitute at the time of his death.
Sullivan would use his name and influence for a good cause. Already the first "king of all media," with his own newspaper column, radio, and television shows, Sullivan was also the first to organize and produce shows to benefit wounded servicemen. He put on 46 shows for Army Emergency Relief during World War II. Sullivan was also an active supporter of racial equality. He refused to drop African American acts from the show when his sponsors suggested he try doing so to get a larger Southern audience. In 1951, he wrote an article posing the question, "Can T.V. crack America's color line?" for Ebony magazine. In the 1960s, he also added an African American dancer to his chorus line—she was the first in television history.
Sullivan made television biographies of Rogers and Hammerstein, Helen Hayes, Beatrice Lilley, Walt Disney, Cole Porter, and specials like "The Story of A.S.C.A.P.," "The Story of Samuel Goldwyn," and "The Story of Robert E. Sherwood." He also took roles on screen in films including Mr. Broadway in 1933, Big Town Czar in 1939, Bye Bye Birdie in 1963 and The Singing Nun in 1965.
Sullivan was a complex character, who, whether you loved or hated him, could not be dismissed. He was very much a man of his time, yet his contributions to popular culture continue to resonate, even after he lost a battle against cancer and died on October 13, 1974, in New York City.
Sullivan left his legacy on America's popular culture. On August 30, 1993, The Ed Sullivan Theater became the new home of The David Letterman Show. The theater, built in 1927 and christened the Oscar Hammerstein Theater, was the home of Sullivan's show from the night it debuted as Toast of the Town in 1948. Letterman often referenced Sullivan in his first monologues there.
In March 1998, CBS presented "A Really Big Show: Ed Sullivan's 50th Anniversary," hosted by the Smothers Brothers. The show melded together reminiscences of the late, great, showman, as well as clips from the old shows. That same night, United Paramount Network (UPN) offered a pilot of its computer-generated Ed hosting a new variety show produced by Andrew Solt, "The Virtual Ed Sullivan Show." If Sullivan had not been creepy before, he was now floating about the screen like Max Headroom, his computer-generated image floating over the movements of comedian John Byner.
Also in 1998, the cable T.V. channel VH-1 presented 20 episodes of Ed Sullivan's Rock and Roll Classics, clipping together musical acts from the show in themed segments like Motown and The British Invasion.
Tom Smothers, of the Smothers Brothers comedy duo, said it well, "Ed Sullivan was almost like a non-host. He didn't have all the slick moves and stuff. But what he gave you was entertainment in its purest form. No ulterior motives, no hidden agenda. Just unadulterated presentations from the best performing artists of the time."
Further Reading on Ed Sullivan
American Heritage, March 15, 1997.
Arizona Republic, May 18, 1998.
Business Wire, January 31, 1992.
Cincinnati Enquirer, February 17, 1991.
St. Petersburg Times, May 17, 1998.
San Antonio Express-News May 19, 1998
San Francisco Examiner, February 17, 1991.
Tampa Tribune, May 12, 1998.
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