The Ed Sullivan Show was an American television variety show that ran from June 20, 1948 to June 6, 1971, and was hosted by entertainment columnist Ed Sullivan. It ran on CBS every Sunday night at 8 p.m., and is one of the few shows to have been run in the same time slot, weekly on the same day of the week, and on the same network, for more than two decades. Virtually every type of entertainment appeared on the show; opera singers, rock stars, songwriters, comedians, ballet dancers, and circus acts were regularly featured. The format was essentially the same as vaudeville, and although vaudeville had died a generation earlier, Sullivan presented many ex-vaudevillians on his show.
The show was originally titled Toast of the Town, but was widely referred to as The Ed Sullivan Show for years before September 25 1955, when that became its official name. In its debut, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis performed along with Broadway composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II previewing the score to South Pacific.
The show was broadcast live from CBS-TV Studio 50 in New York City, which is now named The Ed Sullivan Theater and is the home of The Late Show with David Letterman. The last Ed Sullivan Show was episode #1071, aired on March 28, 1971. It featured the following musical acts: Melanie, Joanna Simon, Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass, and Sandler and Young.
On the occasion of the show's tenth anniversary telecast, Sullivan commented on how the show had changed during a June 1958 interview syndicated by the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA):
The show enjoyed phenomenal popularity in the 1950s and early 1960s. As had occurred with Amos 'n Andy on the radio in the early 1930s, the family ritual of gathering around the television set to watch Ed Sullivan became almost a U.S. cultural universal. Ed Sullivan was regarded as a kingmaker, and performers considered an appearance on his program as a guarantee of stardom. The show's iconic status is illustrated by a song from the 1960 musical Bye Bye Birdie. In the song "Hymn for a Sunday Evening," a family of viewers expresses their regard for the program in worshipful tones.
In 1965, CBS started televising the programs in compatible color, as all three major networks began to switch to 100 percent color prime time schedules. CBS had once backed its own color system, developed by Peter Goldmark, and resisted using RCA's compatible process until that year.
In the late 1960s, Sullivan remarked that his program was waning as the decade went on. He realized that to keep viewers, the best and brightest in entertainment had to be seen, or else the viewers were going to keep on changing the channel. Along with declining viewership, Ed Sullivan attracted a higher median age for the average viewer as the seasons went on. These two factors were the reason the show was canceled by CBS after the end of the 1970-1971 season. Because there was no notice of cancellation, Sullivan's landmark program ended without a series finale. Sullivan would produce one-off specials for CBS until his death in 1974.
Many episodes still exist; reruns aired on TV Land in the late 1990s.
The program did not shy away from airing performances from black entertainers. Sullivan also commented on this during his NEA interview:
The show included frequent performances from black entertainers such as Diahann Carroll, Dionne Warwick, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Bo Diddley, The Fifth Dimension, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, The Supremes, The Four Tops,The Miracles, Little Anthony & The Imperials , The Jackson 5, Jackie Wilson , Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & The Pips , and The Temptations. One telecast included black bass-baritone Andrew Frierson singing Ol' Man River from Kern and Hammerstein's Show Boat, a song that, at that time, was usually sung on television by white singers, although it was specifically written for a black character in the musical.
However, Sullivan featured "rockers", particularly black musicians, on his show "not without censorship." For instance, he scheduled Fats Domino "at the show's end in case he had to cancel a guest – a year later he would do just that to Sam Cooke, actually cutting him off in the middle of 'You send me.'... Aware that many white adults considered Domino a threat, Sullivan hid his band behind a curtain, reducing the number of black faces. He presented Fats alone at his piano singing the Tin Pan Alley ballad, as if he were a young Nat 'King' Cole or Fats Waller," and he "had Fats stand up during the last verse of the song to reveal his pudgy figure.
In that same 1958 NEA interview, Sullivan noted his pride about the role that the show had had in improving the public's understanding of mental illness. Sullivan considered his May 17 1953 telecast to be the single most important episode in the show's first decade. During that show, a salute to the popular Broadway director Joshua Logan, the two men were watching in the wings, and Sullivan asked Logan how he thought the show was doing. According to Sullivan, Logan told him that the show was dreadfully becoming "another one of those and-then-I-wrote shows;" Sullivan asked him what he should do about it, and Logan volunteered to talk about his experiences in a mental institution.
Sullivan took him up on the offer, and in retrospect believed that several advances in the treatment of mental illness could be attributed to the resulting publicity, including the repeal of a Pennsylvania law about the treatment of the mentally ill and the granting of funds for the construction of new psychiatric hospitals.
"I wouldn't have Presley on my show at any time" — Ed Sullivan, early 1956
"And now, here is Elvis Presley!" — Ed Sullivan, October 28, 1956
On September 9 1956, Presley made his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (after earlier appearances on shows hosted by the Dorsey Brothers, Milton Berle, and Steve Allen) even though Sullivan had previously vowed never to allow the performer on his show. According to biographer Michael David Harris, "Sullivan signed Presley when the host was having an intense Sunday-night rivalry with Steve Allen. Allen had the singer on July 1 and trounced Sullivan in the ratings. When asked to comment, the CBS star said that he wouldn't consider presenting Presley before a family audience. Less than two weeks later he changed his mind and signed a contract. The newspapers asked him to explain his reversal. 'What I said then was off the reports I'd heard. I hadn't even seen the guy. Seeing the kinescopes, I don't know what the fuss was all about. For instance, the business about rubbing the thighs. He rubbed one hand on his hip to dry off the perspiration from playing his guitar.'
At the time Presley was filming Love Me Tender so Sullivan's producer Marlo Lewis flew to Los Angeles, California to supervise the Hollywood side of the show taping. Sullivan, however, was not able to host his show in New York City because he was recovering from a near fatal automobile accident. Oscar-winner Charles Laughton guest-hosted in Sullivan's place. Laughton appears in front of plaques with gold records and states, "These gold records, four of them... are a tribute to the fact that four of his recordings have sold, each sold, more than a million copies. And this by the way is the first time in record making history that a singer has hit such a mark in such a short time. ... And now, away to Hollywood to meet Elvis Presley.
However, according to Greil Marcus, Laughton was the main act of Sullivan's show. "Presley was the headliner, and a Sullivan headliner normally opened the show, but Sullivan was burying him. Laughton had to make the moment invisible: to act as if nobody was actually waiting for anything. He did it instantly, with complete command, with the sort of television presence that some have and some — Steve Allen, or Ed Sullivan himself — don’t.
Once on camera, Elvis cleared his throat and said, “Thank you Mr Laughton, ladies and gentlemen. Wow”, and wiped his brow. “This is probably the greatest honor I’ve ever had in my life. Ah. There’s not much I can say except, it really makes you feel good. We want to thank you from the bottom of our heart. And now..." "Don't Be Cruel," which was, after a short introduction by Elvis, followed by "Love Me Tender. According to Elaine Dundy, Presley sang "Love Me Tender" "straight, subdued and tender ... – a very different Elvis from the one in the Steve Allen Show three months before", when Allen smirkingly presented him "with a roll that looks exactly like a large roll of toilet paper with, says Allen, the 'signatures of eight thousand fans.'
When the camera returns to Laughton, he states,“Well, well, well well well Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis Presley. And Mr Presley, if you are watching this in Hollywood, and I may address myself to you. It has been many a year since any young performer has captured such a wide, and, as we heard tonight, devoted audience.”
Elvis's second set in the show consisted of "Ready Teddy" and a short on air comment to Sullivan, "Ah, Mr Sullivan. We know that somewhere out there you are looking in, and, ah, all the boys and myself, and everybody out here, are looking forward to seeing you back on television." Next, Elvis declares, "Friends, as a great philosopher once said, ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a Hound Dog...,' " as he launches into a short (1:07) version of the song.
According to Marcus, "For the first of his two appearances that night, as a performer Elvis had come on dressed in grandma’s nightgown and nightcap." Concerning the singer's second set in the show, the author adds that there were "Elvis, Scotty Moore on guitar, Bill Black on stand-up bass, D. J. Fontana on drums, three Jordanaires on their feet, one at a piano. They were shown from behind; the camera pulled all the way back. They went into 'Ready Teddy.' It was Little Richard’s most thrilling record," however, "there was no way Elvis was going to catch him, but he didn’t have to — the song is a wave and he rode it. Compared to moments on the Dorsey shows, on the Berle show, it was ice cream — Elvis’s face unthreatening, his legs as if in casts ... When "he sang Little Richard’s 'Reddy Teddy' and began to move and dance, the camera pulled in, so that the television audience saw him from the waist up only.
Although Laughton was the main star and there were seven other acts on the show, Elvis was on camera for more than a quarter of the time alloted to all acts. The show was viewed by a record 60 million people which at the time was 82.6% of the television audience and the largest single audience in television history. "In the New York Times," however, "Jack Gould began his review indignantly: Elvis Presley had 'injected movements of his tongue and indulged in wordless singing that were singularly distasteful.' Overstimulating the physical impulses of the teenagers was 'a gross national disservice.'
Sullivan hosted a second appearance by Presley on October 28 later the same year. Elvis performed "Don't Be Cruel," then "Love Me Tender." Sullivan then addresses the audience as he stands beside Elvis, who begins shaking his legs, elicting screams from the audience. By the time Sullivan turns his head, Elvis is standing motionless. After Presley leaves the stage, Sullivan states, "I can’t figure this darn thing out. You know. He just does is this and everybody yells." Elvis appears a second time in the show and sings "Love Me." Still later he does a nearly four minute long version of "Hound Dog" and is shown in full the entire song.
For the third and final appearance, January 6 1957 Presley performed a medley of "Hound Dog," "Love Me Tender," and "Heartbreak Hotel," followed by a full version of "Don't Be Cruel." For a second set later in the show he did "Too Much" and "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again". For his last set he sang "Peace in the Valley." Although much has been made of the fact that Elvis was shown only from the waist up, except for the short section of "Hound Dog," all of the songs on this show were ballads. "Leaving behind the bland clothes he had worn on the first two shows," Greil Marcus says, Elvis "stepped out in the outlandish costume of a pasha, if not a harem girl. From the make-up over his eyes, the hair falling in his face, the overwhelmingly sexual cast of his mouth, he was playing Rudolph Valentino in The Shiek, with all stops out. That he did so in front of the Jordanaires, who this night appeared as the four squarest-looking men on the planet, made the performance even more potent. Sullivan praised Elvis at the end of the show, saying "This is a real decent, fine boy. We've never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we've had with you.... You're thoroughly all right.
Years later, Sullivan "tried to sign the singer up again... He phoned Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker, and asked about a price. Parker came up with a list of instructions and conditions and after hearing the demands Sullivan said, 'Give Elvis my best—and my sympathy,' and he hung up. The singer never again appeared in Sullivan's show, although in February 1964 at the start of the first of three broadcasts featuring the Beatles (see below), Sullivan announced that a telegram had been received from Presley and Parker wishing the British group luck.
Many television historians consider Elvis Presley's three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show as helping to bridge a large generation gap between Great Depression and World War II era parents and their baby boomer children. Later performers would use this bridge to introduce themselves to millions of American households. Among them were The Rolling Stones, The Doors, and The Beatles.
The Beatles appeared on three consecutive Sundays in February, 1964, to great anticipation and fanfare as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" had swiftly risen to #1 in the charts. Their first appearance on February 9 is considered a milestone in American pop culture and the beginning of the British Invasion in music. The broadcast drew an estimated 73 million viewers, at the time a record for an American television program, and was characterized by an audience composed largely of screaming teenage girls in tears. The Beatles followed Ed's show opening intro, performing "All My Loving," "Till There Was You (featuring the Beatles names imposed on the screen and the famous "SORRY GIRLS, HE'S MARRIED" caption under John), and "She Loves You." Then, late in the hour, they returned to perform "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
The Beatles returned to the show, this time broadcast from Miami Beach, on February 16. A crush of people nearly prevented the boys from making it on stage in time. A wedge of policemen was needed, and the band began playing "From Me to You" only seconds after reaching their instruments. They continued with "This Boy," and "All My Loving," and returned later to close the show with "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
They were shown on tape February 23 (this appearance had been taped earlier in the day on February 9 before their first live appearance). They followed Ed's intro with "Twist and Shout" and "Please Please Me" and closed the show once again with "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
The Beatles appeared for the final time on September 12 1965 and earned Sullivan a 60 percent share of the nighttime audience for one of the appearances. This time, they followed three acts before coming out to perform "I Feel Fine," "I'm Down" and "Act Naturally," then closed the show with "Ticket to Ride," "Yesterday" and "Help!." Although this was their final live appearance on the show, the group would for several years provide filmed promotional clips of songs to air exclusively on Sullivan's program. Such as in 1966 and 1967 airing clips of "Paperback Writer," "Rain," "Penny Lane," and "Strawberry Fields Forever."
Although the appearances by The Beatles and Elvis are considered the most famous rock and roll performances on Ed Sullivan, several months before Elvis debuted, Sullivan invited Bill Haley & His Comets to perform their then-current hit "Rock Around the Clock" in early August 1955. This was later recognized by CBS and others (including music historian Jim Dawson in his book on "Rock Around the Clock") as the first performance of a rock and roll song on a national television program.
On October 18, 1964, Jackie Mason allegedly gave Sullivan the finger on air. A tape of the incident shows Mason doing his stand-up comedy act and then looking toward Sullivan, commenting that Sullivan was signaling him. Sullivan was reportedly telling Mason to wrap it up, since CBS was about to cut away to show a speech by President Lyndon Johnson. Mason began working his own fingers into his act and pointed toward Sullivan with his middle finger slightly separated. After Mason left the stage, the camera then cut to a visibly angry Sullivan. Sullivan argued with Mason backstage, then terminated his contract. Mason denied knowingly giving Sullivan the finger and later filed a libel suit. Sullivan publicly apologized to Mason when he appeared on the show two years later. At that time, Mason opened his monologue by saying "it is great to see all of you in person again." Mason dropped the lawsuit, but never appeared on the show again.
Bob Dylan was slated to make his first nationwide television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on May 12, 1963, and intended to perform "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," a song he wrote lampooning the John Birch Society and the red-hunting paranoia associated with it. During the afternoon rehearsal that day, CBS officials told Dylan they had deemed the song unacceptable for broadcast and wanted him to substitute another. "No; this is what I want to do," Dylan responded. "If I can't play my song, I'd rather not appear on the show." He then left the studio, walking out on the stint.
The Doors were notorious for their appearance on the show. CBS network censors demanded that lead singer Jim Morrison change the lyrics to their hit single "Light My Fire" by altering the line, "Girl, we couldn't get much higher," before the band performed the song live on September 17, 1967 . The line was changed to, "Girl, we couldn't get much better". However, Morrison sang the original line, and on live television with no delay, CBS was powerless to stop it. A furious Ed Sullivan refused to shake the band members' hands, and they were never invited back to the show. According to Ray Manzarek , the band was told they would never do the Ed Sullivan show again; Morrison replied, "So what. We just did the Ed Sullivan Show—at the time, an appearance was a hallmark of success. Manzarek claims the band agreed with the producer beforehand but had no intention of altering the line.
In contrast, the Rolling Stones were instructed to change the title of their "Let's Spend the Night Together" single for the band's January 15 1967 appearance. The band complied, with Mick Jagger ostentatiously rolling his eyes heavenward whenever he reached the song's one-night-only, clean refrain, "Let's spend some time together."
Ironically, Diana Ross & The Supremes, frequent guests on Sullivan's show, performed their then-release and eventual controversial #1 hit song "Love Child" on Ed's show, but nothing about its title or content seemed to faze Ed or its producers, or the network.
All of these artists performed their songs wearing the same makeup and costumes that they wore in the shows, in order to preserve the illusion that one was actually seeing the musical in question. This was also extremely rare on television at the time. (Several of these performances have recently been released on a DVD).