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Anyone who watched television in America between 1948 and 1971 saw Ed Sullivan. Even if viewers did not watch his Sunday night variety show regularly, chances are they tuned in occasionally to see a favourite singer or comedian.
Milton Berle may have been “Mr Television” in the early years of TV, but for almost a quarter-century Sullivan was Mr Sunday Night.
Considered by many to be the embodiment of banal, middle-brow taste, Sullivan exposed a generation of Americans to virtually everything there was to offer in the field of art and entertainment.
Sullivan began as a journalist, and it was his column in the New York Daily News that launched him as an MC of vaudeville revues and charity events.
This role, in turn, led to his selection to front a regular televised variety show in 1948. Known as the Toast of the Town until 1955, it became The Ed Sullivan Show, in September of that year.
Ed Sullivan’s stiff physical appearance, evident discomfort before the camera, and awkward vocal mannerisms (including the oft-imitated description of his programme as a “reeeeeelly big shoe”) made him an unlikely candidate to become a television star and national institution.
But what Sullivan lacked in screen presence and personal charisma he made up for with a canny ability to locate and showcase talent.
He did so by booking acts from every spectrum of entertainment – performers of the classics such as Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev; comedians such as Buster Keaton, Bob Hope and Joan Rivers; singers like Elvis Presley, The Beatles, James Brown and Sister Sourire, the Singing Nun.
Elvis was instructed by Sullivan to tone down his swivelling pelvic motions, which TV censors of the time considered too obscene to be seen on television. Cameras showed the singer only from the waist up, much to the disappointment of his adoring female fans . . .
Sports stars appeared on the same stage as Shakespearean actors. Poets and artists shared the spotlight with dancing bears and trained dogs.
There were the “speciality acts” too, such as Topo Gigio (pictured at left), the marionette mouse with the thick Italian accent and Senor Wences, a ventriloquist who talked to his lipstick-smeared hand and a wooden head in a box. Sullivan’s programme was a variety show in the fullest sense of the term.
Elvis Presley and many other performers had appeared on network television before ever showing up on the Sullivan programme, but taking his stage once during prime time on Sunday night meant more than a dozen appearances on any other show.
Although Sullivan relented to the blacklist in 1950, apologising for booking tap dancer and alleged communist sympathiser Paul Draper, he was noted for his support of civil rights.
At a time when virtually all sponsors baulked at permitting black performers to take the stage, Sullivan embraced Pearl Baily over the objections of his sponsors. He also showcased black entertainers as diverse as Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Richard Pryor, Duke Ellington, Richie Havens and The Supremes.
Sullivan attempted to keep up with the times, booking rock bands and young comedians, but by the time his show was cancelled in 1971 he had been eclipsed in the ratings by hip variety programmes like Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and The Flip Wilson Show.
Since it ended in 1971 no other programme on American television has approached the diversity and depth of Sullivan’s weekly variety show.
Periodic specials drawing from the hundreds of hours of Sullivan shows as well as the venue of The Late Show with David Letterman continue to serve as a tribute to Sullivan’s unique place in broadcasting.
Ed Sullivan remained an important figure in American broadcasting because of his talents as a producer and his willingness to chip away at the entrenched racism that existed in television’s first decades.
Ed Sullivan died on 13 October 1974, three years after his last telecast.
The budget for the very first Toast Of The Town was $1,375 – including $375 for “talent”.
When The Beatles appeared on the show on 9 February 1964, 50,000 requests were received for 700 seats. The show was watched by an estimated audience of 75 million.