Prologue - Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan - James Maguire

Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan - James Maguire (2006)


ON AN OVERCAST SUNDAY MORNING he sat in his robe and hurriedly typed his column. Next to the typewriter sat his usual breakfast—a lamb chop ordered from room service, an artificially sweetened pear, and iced tea—and he ate while he worked. Sundays were the longest days. He cranked out his New York Daily News column late morning, his driver picked him up early afternoon, then it was dress rehearsal—in which he pummeled the show into shape—followed by a lengthy production meeting, numerous last minute details, and finally, at eight o’clock … the cameras blinked on and he walked into fifteen million living rooms. So this morning, his poodle Bojangles (named after storied tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) went neglected. And he could not so much as glance at his clutter of office mementoes: the caricature of him drawn by Walt Disney, a framed copy of Time magazine with his face on the cover, and, by the typewriter, a photo of his wife, Sylvia, inscribed To Ed with love—till the winds stop blowing.

Sylvia. When he and Sylvia Weinstein began dating in 1926, she told her parents she was seeing a boy named Ed Solomon, who worked as a sports reporter for the New York Evening Graphic. “Oh,” her brother said, “you mean Ed Sullivan.” The possibility of a Jewish-Catholic marriage made both families apprehensive—Ed’s much more so—and the romance was on-again, off-again for three years. Now, however, Sylvia and Ed formed a unit. Yes, there had been rumors of Ed and other women, but they never derailed the marriage. The couple went out to eat five nights a week, rotating through their favorite Manhattan nightspots—trendy places like Danny’s Hideaway or Jimmy Kelly’s. Like the show he produced, the marriage was a union of supposedly dissimilar elements that was larger than the sum of its parts. Ed called Sylvia every Sunday night immediately after the show—she watched at home—wanting to know how it had gone, but she understood he wanted only reassurance. Sylvia was a cheerleader, a supporter, tolerant of his moods, a safe harbor in a world filled with critics.

And, on that day in late 1969, she was the wife of the greatest impresario television had ever known. On that evening’s program would be the Rolling Stones, whose lead singer, Mick Jagger, was four years old when Sullivan debuted his program. Throughout all those years Sullivan had beaten the odds, the critics, the network executives, the talent agents, the well-financed competition. That so many people across boundaries of age and class were captured for so many years by one individual’s idea of entertainment was a cultural first, and perhaps a last. He created a strange alembic of highbrow and corn pone, Borsht Belt and middle America, shaping it week after week down to the last punch line. And the folks at home, regardless of the critical carping, loved it.

Later that day, as part of his Sunday ritual, he took a walk prior to showtime. A little night air on Broadway, invariably running into fans, some pressing of the flesh to get the juices flowing for live TV. Ed walking up Broadway was like a creature in its most natural habitat. It was some seventy blocks uptown, in a Jewish and Irish neighborhood in Harlem, that he had been born. And it was in this very neighborhood, the heart of the theater district, that he had earned his stripes as a gossip columnist, making side money by producing countless vaudeville shows. Over on 48th, in his early twenties he lived above a tavern, driving a new Durant roadster and dating flappers. It was on 53rd at the Stork Club that he had, according to Broadway lore, dunked the head of gossip king Walter Winchell into a toilet. With a few exceptions—childhood years in rural Port Chester, a three-year stint in Hollywood—he had lived his entire life within a hundred-block area of Manhattan. When he made big money in the mid 1950s, he and Sylvia bought a 180-acre estate in Connecticut, but later sold it because, as he put it, he was “temperamentally unsuited to country life.” Clearly, the street he was walking down was where he was meant to be. As he finished his walk and neared the theater, he saw his name up in lights; CBS had renamed Studio 50 the Ed Sullivan Theater. It was everything that he had ever dreamed of.

Yet he remained oddly insecure. He pretended to laugh off the critics but they bothered him terribly. He wrote long harangues back at any reviewer who took sport with him, explaining that it was unfair to suggest a man be put out of a job, that they did not understand the first thing about show business, that the very job they had was almost immoral. Sylvia pleaded with him to merely write the letters then throw them away, but he would send them. He was furious at the critics, for whom acerbic pokes at this famously monochromatic emcee were a given. Like reviewer Harriet Van Home, to whom he wrote an uncharacteristically short missive: “Dear Miss Van Home. You Bitch. Sincerely, Ed Sullivan.”

Early on, in an act of creative defensiveness, he hired a Yiddish comic from vaudeville to heckle him—to yell comments like “Come on Solomon, for God’s sake, smile, it makes you look sexy”—hoping the resulting exchange would make him appear more natural. Later, he booked a succession of impressionists who skewered his stiff onstage persona. Will Jordan built a career on this, coming on the show and replicating the Sullivan trademark arms-crossed gesture, contorting his face as if he had just sucked a lemon: “Tonight on our rilly big show we have seven hundred and two Polish dentists who will be out here in a few moments doing their marvelous extractions.…” The audience roared and Ed laughed along, although in truth he had never used the phrase “really big show” in quite that way. Attempting to imitate Jordan’s imitation of himself, he kept mangling the words, only growing comfortable with the phrase later.

His persona as the maladroit master of ceremonies prompted Time magazine in 1955 to call him “about the longest shot ever to have paid off in show business.” That may have been true if he was merely the stone-faced host the impressionists lampooned. What many observers missed was his real role: the man behind the curtain, the show producer, the shaper, the impresario who assumed dictatorial control. His talent lay not in being a charismatic emcee—which he certainly was not—but in his ability to understand a changing audience. “Public opinion,” he explained, “is the voice of God.” In the end he had understood that voice so well and so long that The Ed Sullivan Show was not just a success but an institution. All of his original competitors, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor, Jerry and Dino—the list goes on—saw their shows canceled. But Sullivan ran nonstop from 1948 to 1971, from Harry Truman to Jim Morrison, from the arrival of television to man on the moon. In human terms that’s a generation, but in TV years it’s closer to an epoch.

The story of Ed Sullivan’s life is one of the core stories of the birth of mass communications in the twentieth century. His unlikely tale—where he came from, what forces molded him, how he in turn influenced his audience—is the story of the education and fulfillment of a pioneering showman who largely invented the rules of a new medium as he went along.

Television, of course, has been a force of oceanic power and influence in American culture, and he, in the small screen’s frontier days, proved remarkably adept at harnessing this power. That a mass audience would follow one man’s vision of cultural life for nearly a quarter of a century was testament to his odd, almost unconscious genius at sensing and gratifying his audience’s desires. It was as if he possessed some hypersensitive awareness that allowed him to feel an audience’s every fidget and thrill, what transported them, what might offend them. In the early years of his variety show, which was always broadcast live, he sometimes changed the running order during the broadcast, sending stagehands scrambling, because he sensed the audience might be drifting away.

More accurately, he didn’t need to rely on sensing the audience’s desire—he knew its desire. He was the audience itself, a middle American Everyman, needing no focus group because his sense of what worked and what didn’t—honed through producing countless vaudeville shows in Depression-era New York—fell in lockstep with the larger public taste. This experience, and his intuition (and a constant scan of the hit charts) kept him in perfect harmony with what viewers wanted, making the twenty-three seasons of his show a perfect cultural mirror of his time.

A central paradox of his life was that he was simultaneously the ultimate establishmentarian and an agent of social change. As the great guardian of the status quo, he ran his national showcase with a puritan’s nose for what might offend, using his total control over the program to bar the slightest suggestion of a blue joke, keeping fabric backstage to cover up female cleavage. The audience, which in his earliest days was allowing a large noisy box into the sanctum of the family living room for the first time, quickly grew to trust him. They understood that he would guard their sensibilities with all of his being. This audience trust granted him a major power. Any performer invited on the show had earned a sort of Good Housekeeping seal of approval. As comedienne Joan Rivers said, “If he put his arm around you, you knew you had made it. The power he had was enormous.”

And yet this guardian of middle America, this Minister of Culture, exerted a subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—disruptive force on the American living room. The Ed Sullivan Show was based on Ed’s belief in the “Big Tent,” the variety show as all-inclusive three-ring circus, with elephants and movie stars and jazz singers and football heroes all sharing the same bill. In his view, America was one big family every Sunday night at 8 P.M. He offered something for everyone, all blended together with his signature formula that, in theory, kept the divergent voices from being too discordant. Central to this formula was that Ed always wanted to stay one step—but only one step—ahead of where the audience was willing to go. As the longtime newsman that he was, he had a reporter’s hunger for the hot scoop, the act whose appeal was as fresh as that day’s headlines. Therein lay the destabilizing influence of his supposedly staid Sunday night variety show.

In the course of his push and pull with his beloved audience he presented sights and sounds that helped cause a crack in the cultural dam. In the 1950s, when black faces were invisible on television, they were a constant on the Sullivan stage, and he enraged his sponsor by hugging jazz chanteuse Sarah Vaughn. Ed’s urban sensibilities meant that his trove of Manhattan nightclub discoveries, most notably the rich vein of Jewish comedy, was exported to small towns across the country. In the largest sense, his program demonstrated that everything could be integrated; his appreciation for high art, learned as a boy from his music-loving mother, pushed him to offer a highbrow’s cornucopia of ballet, opera, and legitimate theater on the same stage with slapstick and pop crooners. And finally, and most revolutionary, he used his trusted national showcase to allow into the American living room the great flaying id itself—rock ’n’ roll—that unwashed legion of guitar twangers, the Pied Pipers of sex and antiestablishmentarianism, which, by the mid 1960s, appeared ready to fell the walls of Jericho. This became a bedrock element of the Sullivan offering. As one reviewer noted, the showman was “one of the fathers of rock ’n’ roll.”

The viability of Sullivan’s Big Tent philosophy faded toward the end of his career. His “everyone’s invited” formula, the variety show producer as curator of national culture—combining old, young, black, white, Jewish, gentile—was supplanted by a niche approach, a strategy of creating television shows (or magazines, or most anything) to appeal to narrow demographics, like young affluent suburbanites, or urban blacks in the eighteen to thiry-four age group. Whether this is good or bad is an open question, though it certainly separates us into distinct, mutually exclusive camps.

Yet while his Big Tent ethos fell into disrepute, one of the concepts he was an original embodiment of would not only live on, but perhaps be the central legacy of the small screen: the television producer as image maker.

He was a supreme imagist. As television is the home of the manufactured world, Sullivan proved to be one of the most talented wizards of this odd alchemy. He knew how to create the special brand of living room magic known as TV, how to produce a really big show, how to weave an hour of fantasy and escape. Using his signature formula, his combination of high and low, he created the bright and shiny bauble known as The Ed Sullivan Show, entrancing a weekly audience for more than two decades. He changed the elements as the national mood changed, but his image of the well-wrapped package of All-American entertainment would spin on, week after week, year after year.

His own image would be the most manufactured of all. Within the confines of the television screen he appeared as a wooden but sincere emcee, everyone’s Uncle Ed, a believer in the Boy Scouts and the American Way, who probably went home to a big wood-paneled den after the show to spend time with the youngsters, as he called anyone under age thirty-five. In the late 1950s he published a book called Christmas with Ed Sullivan, a collection of reminiscences by his “friends”—from Walter Cronkite to Lucy and Desi Arnaz—suggesting he lived in a world of big warm holidays where everyone gathered ’round the hearth. In reality he was a loner and a driven careerist who was typically too busy to bother with a Christmas tree until 9 P.M. Christmas Eve. In his view, family life was greatly overrated, as were close personal friendships, and he took precious little time for either. He had elbowed his way into television based on the power of his gossip column, which could be surprisingly salacious, and he was every bit as profane as the column’s yellowest tidbit—possessing a sailor’s salty vocabulary, a volcano’s sense of decorum, and a pugilist’s belief in diplomacy. These qualities, however, were kept far offstage (most of the time). And since he presented himself as Uncle Ed on television, so he was seen in the public’s eye. He carved his own image with as much skill as he built every Sunday’s show.

This would create considerable confusion as to who Ed Sullivan really was. His public face as a stiff but earnest host was actually the far smaller of his two roles on the show. The early critics, new to the sport of television reviewing, mistakenly assumed that his emcee duties were his central role—and panned him accordingly. When Sullivan debuted in 1948, New York Herald-Tribune critic John Crosby wrote, “One of the small but vexing questions confronting anyone in this area with a television set is: Why is Ed Sullivan on it every Sunday night?” That perception would change over the years. In 1965, New York Times critic Jack Gould, who once had wholeheartedly agreed with Crosby, opined that Sullivan “is unquestionably one of the medium’s great intuitive showmen.”

The Ed Sullivan Show was very much his show, his to shape and color as he saw fit. As its producer he not only chose the performers, creating balance and mood by determining their running order, he also took enormous control over their performances. Comedians found their routines reshaped, singers saw their repertoire—or, famously, their lyrics—changed. He told actors which section of a play to reprise, and he overruled his Yale-educated set designer. Even animal trainers, whose chimps and big cats knew their routines by rote, bent to the Sullivan edict. This was not a democracy, nor even a particularly benevolent dictatorship. When opera star Maria Callas refused to sing her famed interpretation of Tosca, Sullivan made it clear: you’ll sing what I tell you to sing or your performance is canceled. The diva had met a bigger diva.

On Sunday afternoons he ran the entire show as a dress rehearsal in front of a full house, standing just offstage, watching both the acts and the studio audience, getting a feel for the relationship between the two. He made notes on his yellow legal pad, and after rehearsal those notes dramatically reshaped what the audience would see and hear that evening. No detail was too small to be controlled. He could compromise, and in fact often did. But he was also known for sending performers to “the wailing wall”—an area outside the theater where they kvetched to their agents after Sullivan had reworked or canceled their acts (and many performers saw their appearance canceled the day of the show). When the cameras began broadcasting live that evening, much in that hour had been molded by the pucker-lipped host who mangled his lines in the spotlight’s glare.

The show was very personal to him—it was him. Said comedian Alan King, a Sullivan favorite who had the temerity to appear on a rival show: “Ed literally came close to slapping me in the face at Danny’s Hideaway. He called me a traitor … for five years Ed didn’t talk to me.” The showman’s visceral attachment to his program gave him something of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde quality. In the theater, shaping an evening’s show to conform to his vision, Sullivan the raging tyrant could erupt; outside the television studio, the glad-handing newsman chatted amiably. “He was a whole different man offstage,” recalled his friend Jack Carter. “He was very charming.”

Because the show so closely reflected the man himself, the story of his early life and education is an essential part of the Sullivan narrative. The way he produced his odd weekly circus reflected everything he had done and everywhere he had been, from the Victorian parlors of his youth to the decidedly non-Victorian celebrity gossip column he penned for decades. Although early television critics skewered him as an unskilled amateur, in reality no more grizzled veteran of a showman existed in 1948. He had skipped college but earned a rough-and-tumble Ivy League education in American show business, from the speakeasy cabarets of his twenties, to his abortive radio and film career, to—especially—his years spent producing sawdust-and-sweat vaudeville shows. And his influential syndicated column made him as much a show business player as a chronicler. In fact, his New York Daily Newscolumn, with its rapid-fire pastiche of items covering many quarters, was his model for The Ed Sullivan Show. Like a daily journalist, the showman opened big and kept a brisk pace. Quipped one comedian: “You wanna know the day Christ died? It was on the Sullivan show, and Ed gave him three minutes.”

The story of his life, like the television show he produced, formed a perfect mirror of his time. Born with the century’s birth in 1901, the seasons of his life flowed in tandem with the seasons of American life: running away to join World War I, coming of age in the giddy 1920s, finding his voice as a popular Depression-era columnist, pitching in during World War II, pioneering in the dawn of television, grappling with McCarthyism, becoming an unofficial Minister of Culture in the conformist 1950s, ushering in the rock ’n’ roll era—including its seminal moment, the Beatles’ 1964 U.S. debut—and, finally, seeing changes in television that presaged the medium’s defining ethic on into the twenty-first century. If the century itself had written a diary from an American perspective, he could well have been its protagonist.

As his show combined dissimilar elements—jazz with rock ’n’ roll, boxers with ballerinas—so he himself carried a mass of contradictions. He was, at one time or another, a melancholic introvert, a frustrated performer who craved a mass audience, a columnist for a socialist newspaper, a Red baiter, a peacenik who led a tour of the Soviet Union, a small-town boy, an urban sophisticate, a street fighter who played by his own rules, a Puritanical moralist, a racetrack habitué, an opera promoter, a single-minded bully, a tender sentimentalist, and a self-contained egoist whose greatest joy came from pleasing others, that is, his tens of millions of viewers.

Fame and his long-frustrated hunger for it was a central theme of his life, as this man who could neither sing, dance, nor tell jokes strove tirelessly to thrust himself center stage, in newspapers, vaudeville, film, radio, and finally, television. This hunger, his own gut-devouring desire to put his name atop the marquee, was his primary psychic gasoline. Yet while he became hugely famous, he remained—again, the contradictions—a regular Joe, transporting his own wardrobe, speaking as an equal to doormen and network executives alike. He carried his fame, as one associate described it, “like it was built-in,” never indulging in the smallest moment of pretentiousness. He eschewed an entourage or the requisite limousine, instead taking cabs, invariably quizzing the driver, “What did you think of the show?”

Approaching the stage door after his preshow walk, Sullivan stamped out his cigarette and was immediately surrounded by autograph seekers. These admirers would be in tonight’s studio audience, a mix of young couples in their Sunday best, some older folks, a few servicemen in uniform, and teenage rock fans. The Sullivan show was one midtown Manhattan event that never attracted the tuxedo and evening dress crowd. It was only a couple of hours before showtime yet he took the time to sign several autographs, as he would again after the show. He never stopped being willing—happy—to sign autographs. During a tour with Frank Sinatra, while the singer avoided the crowds, Sullivan stood for lengthy periods not just signing but asking fans how they wanted them inscribed. When it came to his audience, his energy appeared boundless.

In truth, the sixty-eight-year-old producer was feeling his years. In the old days he never would have taken a nap after dress rehearsal, as he now did. Privately, his family saw signs of senility; the forgetfulness had become frequent. So tonight after the show, dinner at Danny’s Hideaway, a short Courvoisier at the Colony, then home.

As the guard let him into the theater, there it was. The nerves. He still felt the butterflies after all these years. But there was no time to worry. On to room 21, his dressing room, where the makeup artist worked her magic, during which the celebrities he would introduce from the stage stopped by. Then, several last-minute changes with show staffers and a flurry of details; tonight he would perform a humorous sketch with the Italian hand puppet Topo Gigio—were his lines ready? As always, he touched up his introductions; he would rewrite many of them four to five times the day of the show, sending his assistant scurrying to the copy machine to remake the master script.

Then, at 7:50 P.M., backstage went dark. The telephone bell was turned off. He stood in the wings, where he could hear the studio audience. He was in his own world at this point, focused on his introduction and the myriad aspects of the show, unaware of the last-minute movements of stagehands. All across America, people were expecting to see him: tens of millions of people, sitting in their living rooms with the TV tuned to CBS—the teenagers, the parents, the little ones. And then it was eight o’clock sharp.

Tonight, from the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway … The Ed Sullivan Show … and now, live from New York … Ed Sullivan!…”