- Historic Sites
The Ed Sullivan Age
He took vaudeville, Broadway, the tabloids, and, with his strange, gray, tongue-tied genius, melded them into a working model of a better America
May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
Each week since October 1988 I’ve delivered myself of a five-minute “media criticism,” a sort of sermonette, on “CBS Sunday Morning.” A dozen times in those eight years a stranger has stopped me on the street, at a movie, or waiting in line for a glimpse of Matisse to ask: “Do you write your own stuff?” To which I have learned to reply, passively aggressively, “Well, they didn’t hire me for my looks.” But at least it’s a human question. More frequent and more mystifying is the suspicious stare, the abrupt nod, the pointed finger, and the accusation “I saw you on television.” After which nothing . Not “I like what you said” or “You’re full of crap” or “How much do they pay you?” Just “I … saw-you .” And then the usual New York vanishing act, like Shane. This used to bother me a lot, as if the medium lacked substance, or I did, or the spectral street, maybe even Matisse. Lately, though, I’ve begun to wonder whether what such strangers really seek on the surprising street is assurance. The problem is epistemological. They saw me on television. I am real. Television might also be . After almost half a century of looking at the ghosts in our machines, we are agnostics about reality itself.
Never mind docudramas, re-creations, staged news, computer enhancements, or commercials that sell us cars by promising adventure and sell us beer by promising friendship. Our dubiety about television probably started with the quiz-show scandals in 1959. Oh how they wept, like Little Mermaids. That’s one of the things I remember most about television in the fifties. Nixon cried in his Checkers speech. Jack Paar cried about his daughter. And Charles Van Doren cried because he’d been caught. So did Dave Garroway cry on the “Today” show because he was upset about Van Doren, who’d parlayed his “Twenty-one” winnings into a job as a “guest host” on Garroway’s very own program. And because Dave was upset, so was his chimp, J. Fred Muggs. Who says men don’t have feelings?
Enough fifties nostalgia. As much as we may have loved Lucy, what we did to our children was Howdy Doody and Captain Video. When John Cameron Swayze died recently, we ought to have been reminded of how bad television news used to be back when his “Camel News Caravan” was “hopscotching the world for headlines,” before he went on to pitch Timex (“takes a licking and keeps on ticking”). Even the Golden Age of television drama was full of home-shopping Ibsens like Paddy Chayefsky and greeting-card Kafkas like Rod Serling, of bargain-basement Italian neorealism and kitchen-sink Sigmund Freud, where everybody explained too much in expository gusts, yet all were simultaneously inarticulate, as if a want of eloquence was a proof of sincerity and an excess of sincerity guaranteed nobility of sentiment, like a bunch of clean old Tolstoy peasants. And how clean were they, really? So clean you never saw a black face, not even on a railroad porter. So clean that Chayefsky’s own family in “The Catered Affair” had to be Irish instead of Jewish, as the butcher in “Marty” was somehow Italian. So clean that when Serling wanted to tell the story of Emmett Till, a black Chicago teenager lynched for whistling at a Mississippi white woman, “U.S. Steel Hour” turned it into a pawnbroker’s murder in a Thornton Wilder sort of Our Town . So clean that the Mars candy-bar company would not allow a sin- gle reference on “Circus Boy” to competitive sweets like cookies or ice cream, and “The Alcoa Hour” was so solicitous of a good opinion about aluminum it wouldn’t let Reginald Rose set a grim teleplay in a trailer park, and, most famously, the American Gas Company insisted on the removal of any mention of “gas chambers” from a “Playhouse 90” production of “Judgment at Nuremberg.” A better beginning for any discussion of American television’s childhood and prolonged adolescence in the Age of Faith is the original Mr. Ed. They didn’t hire him for his looks.
For twenty-three years a man who couldn’t sing or dance or spin a plate entertained fifty million Americans.
“To think that you’re gonna be on television with Ed Sullivan,” said Jackie Mason, “was comparable to a nightclub comedian in those days playing the epitome of a nightclub like the Copacabana. Or an opera singer being at the Met. Or if a guy is an architect that makes the Empire State Building. Or it was a guy that was a Nazi to be Adolf Hitler. This was the biggest.”
This “biggest” lasted twenty-three years. From 1948 to 1971, every Sunday night at eight o’clock, a man who couldn’t sing or dance or spin a plate entertained fifty million Americans. Never before and never again in the history of the Republic would so many gather so loyally, for so long, in the thrall of one man’s taste. As if by magic, we were one big family. And what a lot of magic there was, as well as animals and acrobats, ventriloquists and marching bands, David Ben-Gurion, Brigitte Bardot, and the Singing Nun. All by himself on CBS, handpicking every act, Ed Sullivan was a one-man cable-television system with wrestling, BRAVO, and comedy channels, Broadway, Hollywood, and C-SPAN, sports and music video. We turned to him once a week in our living rooms for everything we now expect from an entire industry every minute of our semiconscious lives.