If any program in the history of American History could be called an institution, it would probably be The Ed Sullivan Show
. Every Sunday night for more than two decades this homely newspaper columnist with peculiar diction and awkward gestures brought an incredible variety of entertainment into American homes. No pandering to the lowest common denominator here – there was grand opera and the latest rock stars, classical ballet and leggy Broadway showgirls, slapstick comedy and recitations from great dramatic writings, often juxtaposed on a single telecast. Viewers loved it.
It began simply enough. Originally titled Toast of the Town
(it was going to be called ‘You're the Top’, but that title was dropped before the first telecast), the program was one of many variety shows on early television most of which had noticeably short lives. The first telecast, in the summer of 1948, was produced on a meager budget of $1,375. Only $375 was allocated for talent, and the two young stars of that show, Dean Martin
and Jerry Lewis, split the lion's share of that $200. But Ed had class. Also on that first telecast was concert pianist Eugene List, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and the six original June Taylor Dancers (then called the Toastettes). The critics of the early Sullivan shows were not kind. They complained about his deadpan delivery, his lack of any noticeable talent as a performer and the strange collections of acts he put together for a single program. That very variety and a newspaperman's nose for "events," made Sullivan’s show a resounding success. The format only seemed to be that of an old-fashioned vaudeville revue (Ed himself stoutly denied that it was "vaudeo"). Where in vaudeville would you have the Bolshoi Ballet one week, scenes from a hit Broadway show with the original cast on another and dancing bears on a third?
Numerous performers made their American television debuts on the show, including Charles Laughton, Bob Hope, Lena Horne, Martin and Lewis, Dinah Shore, Eddie Fisher, The Beatles
and Walt Disney. Disney's appearance was ironic. He was featured in a full-hour special edition of Toast of the Town
on February 8, 1953. The following year he began his own show, on ABC and it was that program that finally surpassed Ed Sullivan as the longest-running prime-time network show. It will be noted that Elvis Presley
is missing from the above list of firsts, although he is best remembered for his appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show
in the fall of 1956. Elvis actually made his TV debut in January 1956, on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's Stage Show. No matter. To play Sullivan was to make headlines and Presley's appearance just at the moment he was revolutionizing popular music did just that. So did The Beatles seven years later.
In addition to the firsts, virtually every "name" act in American music, comedy, theater and film appeared over the years. There were also a few who never did make it out from under Ed's wing: Topo Gigio, the mechanical Italian mouse and Señior Wences and his talking box ("S-all right?" "S-all right!"). Those celebrities not appearing on the stage were in the audience. To be picked out by Ed from the stage and introduced on nationwide television was a high honor indeed.
Sullivan's mannerisms became legendary, the butt of a thousand comics. He himself participated in a parody record called "It's a Reeally Big SHEW Tonight!" in the mid-1950s and his program was brilliantly satirized in the Broadway musical ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ in the early 1960s—in which an all-American family reaches spiritual ecstasy when they learn, "We're going to be on . . . Ed Sullivan!"
The show itself changed little over the years, though its scope certainly widened. The title was changed officially to The Ed Sullivan Show
on September 18, 1955. Some telecasts and segments originated from foreign countries, including Japan, the Soviet Union, Italy, France, England, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Mexico, Israel, Cuba, and Hong Kong. Some shows were mini-spectaculars, such as the 90-minute tribute to songwriter Irving Berlin, which ended in true Sullivan fashion with a huge American flag in fireworks and the entire cast singing "God Bless America."
Sullivan's run finally ended in 1971, the victim not so much of falling ratings as of a desire by CBS to "modernize" its programming (Ed's appeal had increasingly been to older viewers). There followed some Ed Sullivan specials and a 25th-anniversary special in 1973, but shortly thereafter Sullivan was dead. He will not soon be forgotten.