- 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
Yet the public loved him, the stars showed up, and his critics couldn’t really attribute the success of his show to his column. Maybe, in the first few years, Sullivan did bully guests into appearing, as Winchell and Louella Parsons and Elsa Maxwell had bullied them onto their radio programs with the promise (or threat) of syndicated clout. But it quickly became obvious that appearing on television was more of a career maker than getting mentioned in any newspaper column. This was good news for CBS and bad news for print journalism.
And his success isn’t so very complicated. He was the best producer of his era. Television is a producer’s medium—as movies used to be a director’s medium, before the bankers took over—which is why all the best writers for the medium, in order to have some control over their own material and some of the profit as well, turn into executive producers, whose names alone are all we see frozen on the screen after each episode of a series program like the sign of Zorro: “Steven Bochco.” It is also why the writing so often declines in the second or third season of even the best series. The executive producer has gone off to dream up another pilot and to executive-produce another series. But all Ed cared about was Sunday night on CBS, forever, reinventing his show each new season for a tribe of ghostly millions. His other talent was the transparent kick he got out of it, as pleased to be exactly where he was as we’d have been. Like Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd, Woody Alien’s Zelig, or Tom Hanks’s Gump, Ed made every crucial scene, and didn’t put on airs about it. If he had to leave town, he brought back something he knew we’d like because he did: a bicycle, a puppet, a Blarney stone. From France, Edith Piaf. From Scandinavia, Sonja Henie. From Mexico, Cantinflas. From Italy, Gina Lollobrigida. From the moon, astronauts.
Ed passed on elvis first time around in 1955, at a loose-change price of $5,000. Then a terrible thing happened.
There used to be more high culture on television because there was less television, and we would watch almost anything, and middlebrows like Ed felt they had some dues to pay. Besides, Ed’s father had loved grand opera and what the twenties had been about was a cross-pollinating of high arts and low: T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx; Freud and Krazy Kat. Maybe as a byproduct of all those passionate nineteenth-century Italian tantrums, divas especially had the star quality prized by the celebrity culture Ed was helping create, even if he had to wait a few years for a Maria Callas to glamorize opera the way Arnold Palmer had glamorized golf. Certainly Roberta Peters, “the little Cinderella from the Bronx,” was a terrific front-page story after her overnight triumph as Zerlina in Don Giovanni. As was Itzhak Perlman, whom Ed discovered on the streets of Tel Aviv. And Van Cliburn, the surprise American winner of a Moscow pianoplaying contest. And Rudolf Nureyev, just off the boat from the Evil Empire. Who will ever forget Jan Peerce, singing “Blue Bird of Happiness”? Or Joan Sutherland, onstage with Tanya the Elephant?
Like the Broadway theater, the Metropolitan Opera House was just a couple of blocks away. In the mid-fifties Ed entered into a hundred-thousanddollar deal with the Met’s Rudolf Bing. Ed promised to devote eighteen minutes each to five different famous operas on five separate Sunday nights. The first such Sunday, November 26, 1956, the first of the operas was Tosca, with Callas making her television debut. This was Ed’s best shot, and it cost him six points off his Trendex average. The second Sunday, January 27, 1957, with Dorothy Kirsten in Madama Butterfly, Ed actually lost his time period. Two equally matched imperial egos, Sullivan and Bing blamed each other for the fiasco. On March 10, the third Sunday, a desperate Ed cut La Bohème down to a four-minute duet by Renata Tebaldi and Richard Tucker. That was it for grand opera; Elvis had shown him another way. We hear a lot about what television’s done to the attention span of the American public. We never hear anything about what the attention span of the American public has done to television.
Hollywood hated TV before TV moved there. It was Ed’s genius to convince a studio tin pot like Gold-wyn that television was free publicity, that clips of forthcoming films would entice millions to neighborhood theaters, that actors on Ed’s stage could promote their careers without dissipating their mystery. Beginning in 1951, long before the rich and famous had “lifestyles,” there were “biographies” of them on Ed. When he decided as a ratings gimmick to devote whole programs to Bea Lillie, Cole Porter, Walt Disney, and Bert Lahr, he inadvertently invented the “spectacular,” by which television graduated from vaudeville, radio, and Broadway into a humming ether all its own. The result was a steady stream of Bogarts, Grables, Hepburns, and Pecks, a Liz Taylor, and John Wayne. Gloria Swanson appeared to tell an astonished nation that she did too believe in God.