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
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.
Tiresome as the boomers are, celebrating from their electronic nursery the nit-witticisms of “Leave It to Beaver,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Brady Bunch,” “The Partridge Family,” and “Happy Days,” they have intuited a truth about television as a time line in our secret lives. It’s as if this reservoir of images, consumed since childhood, stored on memory tape, amounted to something like the “pottery clock” of the archaeologists, like clam-bed fossils and dinosaur teeth. We carbon-date ourselves. I was ten years old when I first saw Sullivan, in 1949, talking to Jackie Robinson on a tiny flickering screen in my uncle’s Long Beach, California, rumpus room. I was twelve when I realized that he’d be around forever, or at least a lot longer than your average stepfather. We were living then in Queens, New York, behind a tavern, lullabied to sleep each night by Johnnie Ray on a jukebox, singing “The Little White Cloud That Cried.” On the portable Zenith my mother really couldn’t afford, except that her latchkey children needed something warm to come home to after P.S. 69, there was Ed, chatting up Margot Fonteyn before she became a dame. As the following year he’d chat up Audrey Hepburn—before or after, I can’t remember which, he laughed out loud when an Automat ate Jackie Gleason. How could he have been back there in California and right here in Queens? And around, too, later on with Elvis in 1956, when I was flunking Volleyball and puberty rites in high school? As, like the FBI, he’d find me wherever I went, in Cambridge, Berkeley, even Greenwich Village, chatting up Buddy Holly, Ernie Kovacs, Noel Coward, Stevie Wonder, Sonny and Cher, Cassius Clay, Eskimos, and Beatles. Ed was my first inkling that henceforth all of us everywhere would simultaneously experience everything that is shameful or heroic about our country on one big headset, as if, in a nomadic culture, the television screen were the windshield of our mobile home, and all America a motor lodge.
There were only three channels to turn to at the start, duking it out for the most desirable hour of the television week. Ed’s prime-time competition took the high road (“Philco TV Playhouse” and Steve Alien) and the low (“Bowling Stars” and “The Tab Hunter Show”). Jimmy Durante, Perry Como, Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, “The Adventures of Sir Francis Drake,” “The Bill Dana Show,” “Dragnet,” “National Velvet,” “Jamie McPheeters,” “Broadside,” “Buckskin,” and “Wagon Train” came and went while Ed stayed put. James Garner in “Maverick” beat him two years running in the ratings, then collapsed from nervous exhaustion. Back in the days when corporations owned entertainers like trademarks or tropical fish—Arthur Godfrey belonged to Lipton tea, Milton Berle to Texaco, Bob Hope to Pepsodent, Dinah Shore to Chevrolet, and Jack Benny to Jell-O; Kraft, Lux, Revlon, G.E., Westinghouse, Magnavox, Budweiser, Armstrong Circle, and Johnson’s Wax all had “Theaters”; Bell Telephone, Twentieth Century-Fox, and U.S. Steel had “Hours”; Philco, Schlitz, and Prudential had “Playhouses”; Geritol had an “Adventure Showcase,” DuPont its “Show of the Week,” Hallmark a “Hall of Fame,” Toni Twin a “Time,” Firestone a “Voice,” and Pabst Blue Ribbon “Bouts”—Colgate Palmolive spent fifty million dollars on a “Comedy Hour” to knock Ed out of his Lincoln-Mercury. But he won his time period every week until Colgate bought a slice of him itself.
Like Eddie Lopat, the crafty Yankees southpaw, Sullivan seemed to throw nothing but junk, and still they couldn’t hit him. How did he do it, this spinning of the public like a plate?
They were making up television as they went along by accident and some sort of bat sonar, without focus groups, market surveys, “Q” ratings, or Betsy Frank at Saatchi & Saatchi. “A door closing, heard over the air,” wrote E. B. White at television’s dawn, “a face contorted seen in a panel of light, these will emerge as the real and true. And when we bang the door of our own cell or look into another’s face, the impression will be of mere artifice.”