Shribman: Fifty Years After Sullivan’s Greatest Show | Columns
Today nobody remembers Topo Gigio or Senor Wences. Today, no one thinks Alan King’s riffs are the gems of comedy. Today, no one would consider it appropriate to only film a performer like Elvis Presley from the waist down. Today, no one would even think of telling Mick Jagger to turn “Spend the night together” into “Spend time together”. Today, no one finds it remarkable to have a black artist on television.
Today there is no remote TV show like “The Ed Sullivan Show”.
This is not your usual retrospective on a cultural icon, published on the occasion of the anniversary of its emergence on the American cultural scene. Rather, it’s a meditation on the end of Ed Sullivan’s variety show 50 years ago this week.
By June 1971, it was clear that the appeal of mass cultural institutions such as LIFE magazine – which would only survive 18 more months – had waned. “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which you might consider the LIFE of the air, flourished when American families watched TV together, and when all three TV networks craved shows that offered something for all ages. : Big Bird for the children, the Suprêmes for the teenagers, Robert Goulet singing “If I ever would leave you” for the adults.
But times have changed, tastes have diverged, entertainment options have multiplied. Just as the department store – with its multiple offerings under one sprawling roof, a sort of retail analogue to “The Ed Sullivan Show” – would fade in the New Era, the 8 pm variety show would air. at 9 p.m. every Sunday. Over the next 50 years, America could become a niche nation, where Penzey’s spice shop thrived while JCPenney struggled, where ESPN broadcast sports all day while CBS – once the home of “The Ed Sullivan Show” – had a variety of offerings, but is no longer a variety show.
“Its end marked a transition and a transformation,” said Glenn C. Altschuler, the Cornell professor whose “All Shook Up: How Rock ‘n’ Roll Changed America” was released in 2003. “An Era of Marketing Mass of popular culture ended and niche marketing began. In the 1950s, entertainment was family entertainment. There was something for everyone. “
And then times changed. Older viewers were heartbroken. The same was true of Sullivan, whose show had aired for 23 years from 1948, the first seven under the name “The Toast of the Town”. His first show included Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and the Broadway crew of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who introduced the score for “South Pacific”. Gladys Knight and the Pips performed “If I Were Your Woman” at the last show in front of a live audience.
And that was the end.
“He was very disappointed,” said his granddaughter, Margo Precht Speciale, who is working on an Ed Sullivan documentary, in a recent conversation. “American tastes changed and there were other shows that had better ratings. He hoped to be 25 – a personal goal. He didn’t.”
But he had marked the spirits. And as unlikely as it sounds today, a man with the stooped posture and reserved personality of Richard Nixon – a president who this month would declare a “war on drugs,” the stimulants that were prevalent among many artists. de Sullivan – makes a difference in American cultural life.
Long before it was fashionable to do so, Sullivan normalized the appearance of black performers on prime-time television. He had met jazz musicians in Harlem during his time as a traveling nightlife columnist in the shadow of Walter Winchell, and he introduced artists such as Pearl Bailey and Aretha Franklin to mass audiences. 55 years ago, he invited young Richard Pryor to the show, whose number dealt with the dangers of bad breath and the virtues of “being cool”.
“Anyone who wanted to say anything – intellectuals, intellectuals, but mostly intermediaries – were on this show,” said Gary Edgerton, dean of the College of Communication at Butler University and author of “The Columbia History of American Television”. “He brought to American culture the artists who would define that culture, including black artists. When television was essentially segregated, he was an equal opportunity host.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that “The Ed Sullivan Show” was an institution – and that by welcoming black performers to its stage, it pushed other American institutions to do the same.
“Of course he knew America didn’t treat African Americans the same as whites, but he didn’t care,” his granddaughter said. “Despite opposition from sponsors and network executives at the time, he showcased black talent and treated them with dignity and respect – challenging America to do the same.”
But Sullivan was just as important to new popular music.
He validated rock ‘n’ roll artists to distrust parents and grandparents, first by starring Elvis Presley, then telling a national television audience in 1957: “I wanted to tell Elvis Presley and back home that he’s a real boy, and wherever you go, Elvis, we mean we’ve never had a more enjoyable experience on our show with a big name than the one we’ve had with you. So now let’s have a great hand for a very nice person! “
Over the years, his guests have included Carol Channing, Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera, the Bolshoi Ballet and the Muppets. During his solo show on December 12, 1962, Sullivan hosted Barbra Streisand, the Clancy brothers, Liberace, Xavier Cougat, a circus act, a trampoline act and Linon the clown.
“He exposed people like Elvis, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to huge audiences all at once,” said David Shumway, professor of literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. “These performances were kind of like the Super Bowl. Everyone was watching them, not just the kids. The parents were complaining about them, but they were watching. There was something really exciting about seeing them play live, because rock was really a visual medium. On this show, rock music wasn’t just sound. “
By the way, Topo Gigio was an Italian mouse and Senor Wences was a ventriloquist. But it’s almost useless to explain. If you knew, you are reading this far. If you didn’t, you dropped this column there are paragraphs ago. But if you missed Ed Sullivan on TV, you missed a really big show. At least that’s how he would have described it, and that’s how we remember it.
A North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.