The Ed Sullivan Show

          Ed Sullivan was an unlikely television star with a stiff stage presence, an interesting way of slurring his words, and a lack-luster on screen personality yet he somehow found his way into American’s hearts and homes.  Ed Sullivan was born on September 28, 1902 in New York.  Before he hosted the show, he had been a sports writer, gossip columnist, and even hosted a short-lived radio show.  CBS hired Ed to host its first variety show endeavor and on June 20, 1948 Ed Sullivan started his 23 year stint as Mr. Sunday Night.  At first, the show was called “The Toast of the Town” and in 1955 was changed to “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the next year followed with its biggest ratings ever.

            For his first show, Sullivan had a wide variety of guests including Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Rodgers and Hammerstein, a piano player, a ballerina, a troupe of crooning firefighters, and a boxing referee.  This was only an indication of what was to come.  Ed Sullivan had a variety show planned that had something for everyone and was a marriage between vaudeville and television.

            From the beginning Sullivan was a huge part in every aspect of the show deciding who would be on the show, booked acts, decided in rehearsal how many minutes each act would perform, and even served as executive editor of the show.  He exposed the American culture to everything the culture had to offer in art and entertainment.

            The Ed Sullivan show was filled with variety from novelty acts such as a plate spinner, chimps on motorcycles, and a dancing bear to comedians to sport heroes to opera and Shakespearean actors.  Another large aspect of the show was music, such acts like Elvis, The Doors, Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, and probably the most celebrated The Beatles.

            The Beatles appearance on February 9, 1964 was a defining moment for American popular entertainment.  It was their first appearance on television in the United States-73 million viewers tuned into watch their American debut.  Their debut had such an impact that most normal activities in America came to a standstill- getting a taxi or a bus in New York City proved to be almost impossible and even criminal activity in America was temporarily on hold.  Beatlemania made its presence known in America on that night with their performance on that famous Sunday night.  The Beatles went on to appear eight more times as guests of Ed Sullivan. 

            Elvis’s appearances on The Ed Sullivan show boosted his popularity and the pandemonium that surrounded him.  On his third and final appearance, Ed only allowed Elvis to be filmed from his waist up alleging Elvis’s hip gyrations and dance moves were drenched in sexual innuendo.  This was a definite force behind the sexual revolution that would sweep across America just a few years later.  Elvis represented the forbidden fruit of sexual freedom youth of that time had previously little exposure to on prime time television or other mediums for that matter.

            Another group that made one and only performance before being banned from the Ed Sullivan show was The Doors.  The agreement between the band and producers was that the line “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” from “Light my Fire” would not be sung on air.  The band agreed but then went on to sing the line, which led to their banishment.

            Sullivan had a keen understanding of what the mass audience, especially teenagers, wanted to see and his show defined television and popular culture of the time.  His show reflected what was going in America involving race relations and the turmoil the country.  Ed Sullivan was an advocate for the Civil Rights movement and one of the first to present black performers on television (despite conservative sponsors and producers opposition).  Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, and Pearl Bailey all made their debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

            Sullivan had his finger on the pulse of what was hot and intriguing and had an undeniable way of picking talent.  He became a talent scout and cultural liaison for the entire country, introducing more than 10,000 performers throughout his career.  The Ed Sullivan Show launched careers like the Beatles – boosted careers such as Elvis, and could destroy one’s career ambitions.  It could be the realization or the dissolution of one’s dreams.

            Even though his show defined an era of television and was the epitome of a variety show his critics were always close at hand.  He was criticized mainly for his demeanor onscreen- stiff and awkward.  Critics called him “the great stone face,” “rock of ages,” and “Mr. Rigor Mortis” mocking his wooden appearance.  At first Sullivan took the critics words to heart and wrote newspaper writers who mocked him.  Then he started to use his flaws as assets.  He encouraged performers to imitate him, people in the crowd to heckle him and outright insult him.

            The Ed Sullivan Show had a huge impact on television during its time that can still be felt today.  The show had a huge impact on careers and it reflected and created American popular culture of it’s time.  Until June 6, 1971 when it went off air due to the waging war in Vietnam and his type of variety entertainment was not needed as cable found its way into American homes offering access to any kind of programming.  No program since has been able to duplicate the diversity and depth of the Ed Sullivan show.  It was the variety show of all variety shows and set a standard that even people of today like Jay Leno and David Letterman have to live up to.  Despite his unorthodox style of hosting, Ed Sullivan was one of the best at what he did and created a show that was the definition of American Popular Culture.


The Ed Sullivan Show  

Host-Ed Sullivan                                                                                                                                                          

Music-Ray Bloch and His Orchestra

Dance-The June Taylor Dancers

Producers-Ed Sullivan, Marlo Lewis, and Bob Precht

History:  The show aired on CBS from June 20, 1948 until June 6, 1971


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