Here, as the first in a series of posts that we’ll have marking the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ U.S. debut, is an essay by Bill King on the man who made it possible for 73 million Americans to get to know the Fab Four on Feb. 9, 1964. This piece is reprinted from Beatlefan #62, February 1989. A slightly different version of this article previously appeared in Beatlefan #32.
It sometimes takes you a while to realize when something is over. The excitement of the 1960s was that way, spilling over into the much duller ’70s. On a Sunday night in October 1974, though, the realization that the ’60s era was truly over came with the news report on the radio.
They said Ed Sullivan had died.
Granted, Sullivan was not just a symbol of the ’60s. In 24 years on TV, beginning with the “Toast of the Town” show in 1948, the man they called the “Great Stoneface” became synonymous with Sunday night TV itself. But to those of us who grew up in the ’60s — especially those of us whose lives were changed by the arrival here of The Beatles — Ed Sullivan’s name always will conjure up that decade, and the impact he had on those years.
By the time we who were born in the latter half of the Baby Boom began watching TV, Sullivan already was an institution. The man with the hangdog countenance and wooden gestures couldn’t act or sing or dance or even do a very good job of saying someone else’s name. Said an early rival, Fred Allen: “What does Ed Sullivan do? He points at people. Rub meat on actors and dogs will do the same.” Comedian Alan King, a frequent Sullivan guest, put it more kindly: “Ed does nothing, but he does it better than anyone else on television.”
Sullivanisms were legendary. Like the time he got his afflictions confused and closed a show saying, “Goodnight and help stamp out TV.” Or his coaxing the crowd on a 1965 show: “Let’s hear it for the Lord’s Prayer.” And then there was the time he was chatting with singer Jack Jones during the dress rehearsal and said, “Wasn’t Allan Jones your father?” to which Jones replied, “He still is.” It got a laugh, so Sullivan decided to keep it in for the broadcast. But when the cameras were on and Jones came over to chat, Sullivan’s question came out instead as, “Is your father still alive?”
Despite all that, this wooden, nasal-voiced newspaper columnist somehow managed to make himself the king of variety television.
Variety was the operative word. he stuck in something for everyone and pretty soon he had the whole country watching his Sunday night hour on CBS.
It wasn’t just the variety of acts, however, that made Sullivan’s show so popular or made him such an important figure in TV history. Sullivan’s real talent was in seeing talent in others — especially unknowns — and acting on his instincts.
Fred Allen got it almost right when he jibed: “Ed Sullivan will be a success as long as other people have talent.”
The names of the show business figures launched by Sullivan are too numerous to list completely. But Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Anka, the Tijuana Brass and even Elvis Presley (whose Sullivan appearances had more national impact that his earlier TV shots) entered the American viewing audience’s consciousness through their Sullivan exposure. Sullivan also was the first TV variety host to feature black performers prominently.
Because of the pervasive power of TV and Sullivan’s willingness to sign new, up-and-coming performers, he helped mold the pop culture of a nation. And never was that more true than in February 1964, when Sullivan took a chance and headlined four young musicians from Liverpool, England, thus helping to touch off a musical and cultural revolution that was to make the ’60s the chaotic but vital decade we now remember so fondly.
The key to Sullivan’s longstanding success was his innate understanding and democratic presentation of mass culture during the years before our tastes became so narrow and splintered as to render video vaudeville a thing of the past.
Sullivan had his competitors — Steve Allen and Jack Paar among them — but he outlasted them all. Only on the Sullivan show could you find the Bolshoi Ballet, a dancing bear, the latest pop music sensation, show biz evergreens like Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, poet Carl Sandburg and the stars of Broadway plays — entertainment spanning decades and continents — all in the same 60 minutes.
Watching the Sullivan show was a painless education in pop culture. Teenagers anxiously awaiting The Beatles or The Rolling Stones had to listen first to the likes of Robert Merrill singing one of the great operas or watch a folk dance being performed.
Sure, Sullivan’s show had its clinkers. Rarely will you ever encounter anything as intrinsically bad as George Hamilton — clad in a white Nehru jacket and black turtleneck — frugging his way through a white-bread rendition of “Dock of the Bay”. But at the same time, it was only through the Sullivan show that millions of non-New Yorkers got to see Richard Burton and Julie Andrews performing excerpts from their memorable Broadway performances in “Camelot”. And without Sullivan, how many of us would have gotten to see the brilliant Rudolph Nureyev dancing with Dame Margot Fonteyn? When was the last time you saw ballet on prime-time commercial network TV?
Perhaps it was his newspaper background that made Sullivan view TV as an opportunity to present a little of everything; perhaps it was just a calculated effort to grab the largest audience possible. Whatever the reason, Sullivan’s eclectic style widened the scope of TV variety and the viewing experience of his audience.
Eventually, part of the show’s appeal became Sullivan himself. Not because he ever became a polished performer, but because he did just the opposite, staying the same “stumbling, bumbling, fumbling perpetual amateur” the critics blasted when he first took to the airwaves. People loved watching Ed Sullivan mispronounce a great star’s name (he never did figure out Dionne Warwick).
Said Carl Reiner: “Love is like Ed Sullivan. You can’t explain its hold on you, but after a while, you take it for granted.”
We took him for granted then, but anyone looking back at the ’60s must conclude that TV had a tremendous — probably the greatest — impact on that period, and Ed Sullivan had a tremendous impact on both TV and those who watched it. Without Sullivan, could The Beatles possibly have conquered America so quickly and had such an immediate acceptance in this country? Sullivan knew their potential, based on Britain’s experience. But he was the one with the mass audience in this country — an audience that became The Beatles’ on three successive Sunday nights in February ’64.
Of course, life changes constantly and TV changes with it. Variety shows, including Sullivan’s, began to go down in ratings as the maturing TV generation became jaded and nightly reports of killing halfway around the world and the realistic comedy of “All in the Family” ushered in the New Television. And so Ed Sullivan went off the air in 1971 — dumped unceremoniously by CBS — and Sunday night became just another TV night.
Still, like the ’60s themselves, it didn’t really seem Sullivan was gone at first. He hosted occasional specials, and impressionists continued their stiff-necked mimicry of him. Then, before we’d really had a chance to say thank you properly, came the reports. Ed Sullivan was dead at age 73.
The pillars of the ’60s have long since crumbled one by one. LBJ’s Great Society is now only an almost-forgotten phrase. Revolution is passé and college students worry about getting a good enough job. Former ’60s radicals worry about getting a BMW. Disney is the name of a conglomerate that makes adult-oriented movies. John Lennon is dead. And Sunday night is now the domain of detectives and video wanted posters.
That may be fine for some, but I miss the dancing bear.