- 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
It’s instructive, if not surprising, to note how many pioneers of early television, as of early radio, came directly out of advertising, just like the Jazz Age novelists: Pat Weaver, the father not only of Sigourney but of the “Today” and “Tonight” shows; Grant Tinker, who invented MTM; and the wonderful folks who gave us the quiz-show scandals, after which the networks took the programming away from the ad agencies. William S. Paley bought CBS to begin with, in 1928, because radio advertising had doubled his cigar-company sales. No other nation in the world had turned over its airwaves to advertisers, in a tidy-wrap package of mass production and mass persuasion. These men didn’t know exactly what to do with their new toy except to make it spin and sizzle so that the public would sit still staring at it long enough to be stupefied into desiring all the goodies a feverish market might disgorge. Like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, they wanted to put on a show in their garage. Ed already did so.
Except with critics and sponsors, his television show, “Toast of the Town” was a hit from its get-go on June 20, 1948. Nobody knew why, nor did anyone credit Ed. Emerson Radio hated him, and CBS shopped the show, with or without the host, to anybody who’d take it. (When, after three months, Emerson bailed out and Lincoln-Mercury took over, Ed was so grateful to the Ford Motor Company that he logged more than a quarter million miles in the next five years as its “ambassador,” landing on Boston Common in a chopper, floating down the Mississippi on a royal barge to the Memphis Cotton Festival. From Paris he sent picture postcards to every Ford dealer in the nation.) But that first Sunday, from that firetrap studio on Broadway, came the prototype for the next 1,087: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, headliners; Rodgers and Hammerstein, volunteer guests; pianist Eugene List; ballerina Kathryn Lee; singing fireman John Kokoman; boxing ref Ruby Goldstein; Ray Bloch; and six of June Taylor’s neediest dancers, calling themselves Toastettes.
As on every other Sunday to come, Ed had decided how many minutes each of them got at the morning dress rehearsal, after which one audience was chased out of the studio and another seated for the real thing. Over two decades much changed in the technical production of the hour: It was the first show with a permanent chorus line, the first to introduce celebrity guests from the audience, the first with overhead cams and rear-screen projection, the first to hit the road for remote telecasts, and the first to play with high-resolution cameras, a zoom lens, and videotape—but not in the dreaded rehearsal, which was Ed’s initial look at the lineup. As quick as his temper, so too was his judgment snappy. If a rehearsal audience didn’t laugh, a wise guy was gone, and the singer got an extra song. Add a mime; lose the hippo. Ed agreed with George Arliss: When crowds assemble together, “their mass instinct is perilously close to intelligence.” Public opinion, he said, “is the voice of God.” What’s amazing in retrospect is how seldom God, Ed, and the mass intelligence missed the royal barge to Memphis. If Nat “King” Cole and Dinah Shore got booted off the show because they wanted to plug their new songs instead of singing Ed’s hit-parade favorites, well, Pearl Bailey rose from a sickbed fever of 103 degrees to perform, and Alan King could be counted on to fill any other sudden holes. King was so reliable he didn’t even have to rehearse, and he refused to appear on any program with a rock group.
Nothing pleased Ed’s critics. Fred Alien: “Sullivan will be a success as long as other people have talent.” Joe E. Lewis: “The only man who brightens up a room by leaving it.” Jack Paar: “NBC has its peacock, and CBS has its cuckoo.... Who else can bring to a simple English sentence such suspense and mystery and drama?” Even Alan King: “Ed does nothing, but he does it better than anyone else on television.” But when Fred Alien came back to shoot the wounded—"What does Sullivan do? He points at people. Rub meat on actors and dogs will do the same"—Ed was stung to reply, and did so tellingly: “Maybe Fred should rub some meat on a sponsor.”
So he looked funny. Even his best friends called him Rock of Ages, the Great Stone Face, the Cardiff Giant, Easter Island, and Toast of the Tomb. He had been, in fact, a handsome man before an auto accident in 1956 knocked out his teeth and staved in his ribs. In his early days he’d often been mistaken for Bogart. But after the crash there was always about him a shadowy wince, like Richard Nixon’s, or Jack Nicholson’s in the Batman movie, playing the Joker as Nixon. An ulcer didn’t help, despite which he drank and smoked. (Like his old enemy Runyon, he would die from cancer.) Nor did the belladonna he took in his dressing room help: While it expanded the duodenal canal, it also dilated the eyes. Later, hearing problems and arteriosclerosis accounted for some forgetfulness and those famous malapropisms. Introducing singer Dolores Gray: “Now starving on Broadway....” Or forgetting Sergio Franchi’s name: “Let’s hear it for ‘Ave Maria'!” Mixing up Antipodes: “the fierce Maori tribe from New England....” Right here in our audience: “The late Irving Berlin!” Once: “I’d like to prevent Robert Merrill.” On another occasion: “Let’s hear it reeelly big fer singer José Feliciano! He’s blind—and he’s Puerto Rican!”