I was five years old when CBS cancelled The Ed Sullivan Show, and eight when Sullivan died in 1974, but let me tell you: that man and his program cast a long shadow. For almost a quarter century, up-and-coming stars appeared on his stage at 1697 Broadway in New York because they knew it was the way to get their name out like nothing else. If someone made a reference to being on a “rilly big shoo,” everyone knew whose catchphrase that was.
Before Johnny Carson came along, comics would vie to get on the Ed Sullivan Show because it was a stamp of legitimacy. Of course, there was Elvis and the Beatles on the musical side. How fitting, then, that when CBS finally got into the late-night variety-show business in the 1990s, hiring David Letterman away from NBC, they put him in the theater named for Ed.
But what did the Sullivan show actually look like? Few of my generation would know. Growing up, I saw occasional clips — there was one with the Jackson 5 that popped up a lot, since they were still happening — but for 20 years CBS rarely dipped into the Sullivan vault for a prime-time special. And forget about reruns. Variety shows are au courant and don’t age well. Besides, who would want to see a long-dead TV host interacting with a puppet named Topo Gigio?
About 30 years ago, a producer of rockumentaries named Andrew Solt purchased the entire Ed Sullivan Show vault, a thousand hours of videotapes and kinescopes. Solt’s company, SOFA Entertainment, quickly turned around a two-hour primetime special on Sullivan for CBS, the first one it had aired in years. It was the second highest-rated special that season behind the Oscars, and Ed’s been big business ever since. SOFA has marketed a ton of slickly produced Sullivan programs for home video, and has a bustling YouTube channel.
Thanks to MeTV, the Ed Sullivan Show is now back on Sunday nights, just as it was for a generation. Instead of a full hour, though, this is a half-hour show of excerpts from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, nicely produced by SOFA Entertainment. Recently I sang the praises of digital networks like MeTV and Antenna TV, which air as side channels to existing network affiliates across America. Many people have discovered these nostalgia-driven channels, which are free and don’t require either a cable subscription or Internet to enjoy.
It’s too bad that SOFA’s YouTube channel doesn’t have full broadcasts, because you really can’t get a sense of one of Ed Sullivan’s most remarkable qualities — his ability to change with the times. CBS hired him at the dawn of television, in 1948, to host a variety show initially called Toast of the Town. The “town” was, of course, New York, which Sullivan had covered for 20 years as a Broadway columnist and popular schmoozer of celebrities.
In the early days, television had no personality of its own, but RCA and other manufacturers wanted to sell a lot of TV sets, so it aimed high. Broadway was considered the gold standard of entertainment, and back then Broadway did it all, everything from drama to comedy to opera to Kiss Me, Kate. So a lot of early TV shows, like Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and the Hallmark Hall of Fame, aimed for that level of prestige, and often had elaborate show numbers and close-up dramatic scenes filling people’s nine-inch TV screens.
Ed Sullivan, though, knew what the people really wanted — a little highbrow, a little lowbrow, a little in the middle. This early broadcast of Toast of the Town, Ed’s second season on the air, is an excellent example. The show from 1950 — a high-quality kinescope recently added to the Internet Archive — opens with a trained-bear act, followed by a Borscht-belt comedian, two-time Oscar winner Luise Rainer in a dramatic reading, and 18-year-old singing sensation Teresa Brewer doing her novelty hit, “Music! Music! Music!”
Over time, as Sullivan evolved his show, the acts became more identified with the screen than the stage. The sets were increasingly designed for the home audience, not the studio audience, and videotape and lip-synching were employed to create a more polished look, which influenced a new wave of variety shows that would become popular in the 1960s and ’70s. Like Arthur Godfrey, Steve Allen, and other TV impresarios, Sullivan knew the public was looking to him to choose America’s next big star. It’s something that comes naturally to the medium, only today it’s done with celebrity judging panels.
Ed relished his role as a tastemaker for the masses, so he couldn’t afford to be too cutting edge. (Case in point: Steve Allen booked Elvis Presley on his primetime variety show several weeks before Ed did.) The only reason the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show first was because the band’s manager Brian Epstein flew to New York and negotiated their appearances with Sullivan, knowing that Ed’s show would be the best way to introduce his boys to American girls.
Though the MeTV version is all clips, you definitely get a feel for how Sullivan used to package his shows. Sunday’s premiere opens with The Beatles performing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” followed by Richard Pryor, Sullivan’s favorite ventriloquist Señor Wences, comedy from Joan Rivers and George Carlin, the aforementioned Topo Gigio, and Elvis Presley doing “Don’t Be Cruel” — all in 22 minutes, plus a commercial or three for reverse mortgages.
Because Ed changed his show incrementally, he didn’t run into problems with the censors. Elvis famously appeared from the waist up in his first appearance, but after America had gotten used to the Pelvis, he appeared at full length in later shows. And while Tommy and Dick Smothers were run off CBS for their anti-war and anti-racist sketches, Carlin was able to perform a couple of minutes of anti-war material to an appreciative audience on Sullivan’s show, albeit a couple of years later.
This go-easy approach, combined with Sullivan’s power at the network, meant that he was able to give Black performers about as fair a shake as anyone in his day. While variety shows hosted by Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte were shut down by Southern affiliates, Sullivan could tell those same station managers, “We put on everything but bigotry,” and get away with it. In particular, Sullivan adored Diana Ross and the Supremes and had them on his show 14 times, including a radiant 1969 appearance performing the last No. 1 song of that turbulent decade. I have watched this fantastic clip over and over and I know Miss Ross was lip-synching, but damned if I can catch her in the act.
MeTV will be airing these best-of Ed Sullivan Show compilations at 9:30 PM ET (8:30 PM CT) on Sunday nights. That’s as it should be. An entire generation of Americans knew one thing about Sunday nights, which is that the Ed Sullivan Show aired from 8-9:00 PM, a time slot it occupied for 22 years. (SVU has changed time slots eight times in 22 years.) Don’t watch it for nostalgia’s sake. Watch it to remember a time when the culture reflected a country whose citizens were more or less on the same page — or rather, the same channel.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.