- 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
During the Cold War he was absolutely typical. When the blacklist hit the entertainment industry, he was as craven as the times and as his own network. (At CBS the Ed Murrows were few and far between. The network fired Joseph Papp as a stage manager because he refused to talk about his friends to a congressional committee.) Throughout a disgraceful blacklist period Ed submitted performers’ names for vetting to the crackpot Theodore Kirkpatrick, editor of Counterattack and author of Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, a report slandering half the entertainment industry, from Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland to John Garfield, Uta Hagen, Lena Home, Burl Ives, Zero Mostel, Dorothy Parker, Howard K. Smith, and Orson Welles.
But then there was the other American obsession, race. At Harry Belafonte, Ed drew the line against the blacklist. From his earliest newspaper days Ed had been a brother. In his column he attacked New York University for agreeing to keep its one black basketball player on the bench in a game against the University of Georgia. When his friend Bojangles Robinson died, he paid anonymously for a funeral at the Abyssinian Baptist Church and organized a parade afterward to the Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn with an all-star cast of foot soldiers that included Berle, Merman, Durante, Danny Kaye, and W. C. Handy. When Walter Winchell savaged Josephine Baker, who had been refused service at his favorite Stork Club watering hole, Ed declared a war on the Mirror columnist that didn’t end till a memorable night in 1952 at that same club, when Ed hustled Winchell into the men’s room, pushed his head down a urinal, and flushed him—as if to signify and celebrate the triumph of television over Hearst. And obliging though he had always been to his sponsor, Ed was contemptuous of those Ford dealers in the South who objected to his hugging of Ella Fitzgerald on camera, his kissing of Diana Ross and Pearl Bailey. With Louis Armstrong, he’d go anywhere in the world: Guantánamo, Spoleto. From Duke Ellington to Ethel Waters there wasn’t an important black artist who didn’t appear on Ed’s show, just like famous white folks.
But as television expanded, the culture fell apart. It was as if the magic once so concentrated in a handful of choices had managed somehow to dissipate itself, like an expanding universe after the Big Bang, into chaos, heat death, and fractals. By the end of the sixties there were twenty variety shows on TV and that wasn’t counting the bloody circus of Chicago in 1968, the porn movies from Vietnam, and Götterdämmerung in Watts. Instead of Irving Berlin, Joan Baez; instead of Broadway, Newark. None of this was Ed’s fault. For more than two decades not only had he kept the faith, but he had every week renewed it, telling us what was funny, who was important, and how we were supposed to feel about the world he monitored on our behalf. But that world had detonated, concussing even our own homes, where we went in separate furious sects to separate electric altars, alien dreamscapes, and bloody creep shows.
Where’s the coherence, much less the consensus, when the people who watch “The X-Files” on Fox and the people who watch ice hockey on Sports Channel and the people who watch the “Lehrer News Hour” on PBS don’t even speak to the people who watch Guns ‘n Roses on MTV? Of the nation’s 95.4 million TV households, 70 percent have more than one set and 11 percent have four or more. Who needs Ed when we can become famous for nothing more compelling than having already been on television? How amazing that such a show ever existed at all: such innocent bonds, such agreeable community, so much Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, and Port Chester.
Sometimes late at night, in the rinse cycle of sitcom reruns, cross-torching evangelicals, holistic chiropodists, yak-show yogis, and gay-porn cable, surfing the infomercials, I think there must be millions like me out there, trying to bring back Ed, as if by switching channels fast enough in a pre-Oedipal blur, we hope to reenact some Neolithic origin myth and from the death of this primeval giant, our father and our Fisher King, water with blood a bountiful harvest and civility.