- 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
He was one of us, not so special that we couldn’t have been there too ourselves, hoofing with Gene Kelly...
Such intimacy! Such presumption! But celebrity is what a democratic society has instead of aristocrats. We may feel today that we’re no longer safe anywhere from the stars and starlets so ubiquitous on “Good Morning America,” the “Today” show, Oprah, Joan, Geraldo, “Entertainment Tonight,” “Live at Five,” the late-night eyewitless news, and Letterman and Leno, who babble on forever about alcoholism, drug abuse, incest, and liposuction in the weeks before, during, and after their new films open for the skeptical inspection of teenaged mutant ninja mall mice. But back then it was magic in our living rooms, as if the gods had come down from their pink clouds, the generals from their white pedestals, and the vamps from our fantasies, to schmooze, giggle, and weep. And this same star-making machinery turned “unstar” Ed into an aristocrat himself. You will have noticed that TV news personalities like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and David Brinkley, from a synopsizing of the quotidian on our small screen, get heavier, taking on the gravity of what they report. Their faces become front pages, etchings of all they have seen. History thickens them to a density that exerts a mighty pull on our frayed attention. Through their images we are accustomed to trafficking with the momentous.
So it was for Ed too, case-hardened and at last secure in his celebrity, a glaze of so much pleasure rendered, so many heroes of the culture having been consorted with; an odd radiance of well-being; the kind of hum heard only in the higher spheres, as if he had levitated out of other people’s talent into a gravity all his own. They sang hymns to him in Bye Bye Birdie, and almost made a movie of his life, and he did show up in the Hollywood version of “The Singing Nun.” Not bad for a boy from Port Chester. But there was a difference too. Ed was not in his celebrityhood the least bit remote. He was one of us, not so special that we couldn’t have been there too ourselves, singing along with Birgit Nilsson, hoofing with Gene Kelly, playing Jack Benny’s straight man. That’s why we forgave him when he found himself suspended in midair by the illusionist Richiardi, or landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier in a helicopter, or riding around in a chariot on the Ben Hur set. If it could happen to Ed, it could happen to anybody. That spinning plate was a flying saucer; I saw you on television.
Ed could get any comic he wanted, from Will Jordan to Mort Sahl, stand-up or skit, Wayne and Schuster doing riffs on Shakespeare or Phil Silvers with a banana. They didn’t have to adapt to a house style of humor; they weren’t competing with their host, who wasn’t a Milton Berle on Tuesday, a Jackie Gleason or Sid Caesar on Saturday. Ed was partial to the Catskills comics he’d grown up on, like Henny Youngman and Jack E. Leonard, and to impressionists, like Jack Carter and Frank Gorshin. His biggest favorites were Stiller and Meara (twenty-seven times), Myron Cohen and Alan King (thirty-nine each), and Wayne and Schuster (an astonishing sixty-seven appearances). We would have seen more of Berle, Gleason, and Caesar, of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Jimmy Durante, and Ernie Kovacs if they hadn’t defected to their own variety shows, or of Woody Alien if he hadn’t gone from writing for Sid Caesar to wanting to be Ingmar Bergman, and Mort Sahl if he hadn’t gotten odd about the Kennedy assassination...
But they all had to audition in advance: up in the elevator at the Delmonico, into the Temple of Karnak. At home with a lamb chop, Ed insisted on hearing every word. As Jackie Mason proved, comics are dangerous. Mason was Ed’s featured comic that infamous evening in October 1964. They had been warned that LBJ would interrupt the show about halfway through, to say something about the war in Vietnam. They had expected him to be brief. He wasn’t. And no one knew how long he’d go. By the time the show was back on “live,” Jackie was in the middle of his monologue and already annoyed at having been placed last on a program where he had to compete with a President. Ed began a frantic series of hand signals: two minutes. The audience, ignoring Jackie’s punch lines, found Ed funnier. So Jackie began making fun of Ed’s hand signals. This is when, according to Ed, Jackie gave him and the audience that storied middle finger. Although the judge ruled later in Jackie’s favor, Ed’s fury cost Mason $37,500 on a canceled contract. All the way back in 1964, Vietnam was already starting to ruin everybody else’s fun.