- 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 Ed’s career the popular arts devolved from something vital but dangerous to something consoling.
Although an uncle offered to pay his way through college, the Port Chester Daily Item would pay him to go to games. Who wants more school when you can talk to Babe Ruth? From the ballpark he graduated to the police court and the undertaker’s. From Port Chester he graduated to New York in 1922, to two-finger typing about college sports for the Evening Mail. On seventy-five dollars a week he lived over Duffy’s Tavern, dated flappers, and bought himself a Durant to drive to Flushing for a round of golf each dawn, after Ruby Keeler closed the Silver Slipper. Having sent him to Florida for winter sports in 1924, the Mail promptly folded. He spent the next three years bouncing from Associated Press stringer to hotel PR man to the Ledger in Philadelphia to the World and Bulletin in New York; from the Leader, a socialist paper, to the Morning Telegraph, a racing paper. The Graphic, where Winchell invented the gossip column, hired him in 1927. Though sports editor Ed still cared more about fun and games than playacting, how he envied Winchell, the column syndicated in so many papers and the radio show across the nation, not just for the money but also for the inside hobnob and the mermaid splash. For four years they feuded, until Winchell was lured away by the Mirror, and Louis Sobol by the Journal-American. Ed was suddenly out of the locker room and onto the Great White Way—as a writer instead of a sport. In his first column in 1931, he attacked all the other gossip columnists for dishing dirt. But dishing dirt was the reason for a column, and almost immediately Ed himself was Winchell-izing: “Jean Malin belted a heckler last night at one of the local clubs. All that twitters isn’t pansy.” The Graphic folded a year later. A week before it did, Ed was hired by the Daily News, where his “Little Old New York” column would appear for the rest of his life.
The rules for the column were: Lead With Your Scoop; Speed It Up; an Item for Everybody. The rules for CBS would become: Open Big; Keep It Clean; Stick In Something the Kids Will Like. In the lifetime of Ed’s career, the popular arts devolved from something vital but dangerous to something safe and consoling, until rock came along to rattle the cage. But on Sullivision there was to be no sex, not even cleavage, nor an unkind word about the people we were soon to meet. On television everyone was always wonderful. Even the chimps were wonderful. So was Fidel Castro. A genuine journalist would not have gone so innocently to Cuba in January 1959 and paid Castro to tell America, between a trained dog and Alan King, that “We are all Catholics! How could we be Communists?” Nor would even a checkbook journalist, on being told by Cardinal Spellman that he’d made a mistake, then renege on a promise to pay Fidel his ten-thousand-dollar fee. But Ed was an impresario, not a journalist. He sought to give the public what the public wanted. Almost alone among early television performers, he could hardly wait to consult his Trendex or, later, his Nielsens. If Elvis was socko on Steve Alien, Ed bought three of him. When an arrangement with the Metropolitan Opera cost him points, that was the end of opera on Ed. He had no personal use for rock and still less for the hysterical teens it drew to his theater, but for an audience he’d track down Belial in an ashram or an opium den. In doing so, he perfectly anticipated the market-research geeks who decided in 1971 that his day was done. But what a very long day it had been.
He had taken a pay cut, from $375 to $200 a week, to go to the Daily News. He scrambled off his beat to compensate, working double shifts on the short-lived radio interview programs for CBS and NBC, from a table at “21,” with sponsors like Adams Hats and American Safety Razor, introducing George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, and Flo Ziegfeld, or onstage at the Paramount and Loew’s State Theaters as an emcee working five hour-long vaudeville shows a day. At Loew’s State he also emceed something called “Dawn Light Revue.” A glance at the typical program—Peg Leg Bates, the one-legged acrobat and tapper; Rita Rio, a singer “in the accepted hotcha fashion”; Dave Vine, “one of the most observant of Jewish dialect comics”—tells us all we need to know about where the television program came from, besides Port Chester. And when not on the stage at Loew’s State, he ran benefits and dance contests for the League of Catholic Charities, the B’nai B’rith, and a war-bond drive. At one such benefit, the 1947 Harvest Moon Ball, he was discovered, at the awkward age of forty-six, by the adman Mario Lewis.