David vs. Goliath - THE BIRTH OF TELEVISION - Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan - James Maguire

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


Chapter 10. David vs. Goliath

BY THE SPRING OF 1950, Ed and Marlo Lewis could point to Toast of the Town as a success. It had been on the air close to two years, and while Ed himself still drew negative reviews, the show was a clear hit. The previous August, New York Times critic Jack Gould had written a satirical piece about the difficulty of taking a vacation without television: “It was toward the end of the evening that one most missed Ed Sullivan … all in all it was pretty nerve racking, never getting the signal when to applaud, and meeting people who were not Ed’s friends.” While Gould meant that tongue in cheek, he also knew his readers would understand the reference. Television ratings for October 1949 published by Variety identified Toast of the Town as the number two show on television, second only to Berle’s Texaco Theater. It even bested Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, whose beloved host benefited from years of national radio exposure. To give the show an extra ratings boost, Ed produced fresh episodes of Toast of the Town year-round, with guest hosts filling in during his three-week vacation—there was no time to rest when an audience was being built.

Ed and Marlo had, finally, begun to make money from the show. With Ford’s continued sponsorship, CBS knew it had to make a real investment in the program, and the show’s weekly talent budget jumped to several thousand dollars. It was time for Ed and Marlo to start taking home more than token payment. But how much would it be?

The two, by Marlo’s account, had signed an agreement before the show launched to split any profits equally. Since there had been precious little profit, the issue had been moot. But by early 1950 the success of Toast of the Townprompted a discussion. One day in April, Ed asked Marlo to have lunch with him in the Delmonico’s dining room to talk about the show’s future. When Marlo arrived he was surprised to find that Ed had also invited his lawyer, Fred Backer. Ed was talkative through lunch, regaling Backer with tales of how he and Marlo had run the show on a shoestring. As lunch ended, though, Ed’s mood took a serious tone. He removed a piece of paper from his pocket, the original agreement between Marlo and him; he paused for a moment, not sure of how to handle the subject. “I don’t want you to misunderstand, but the fact is—I’ve got star status now,” Ed said, according to Marlo. “I’ve worked like a dog, paid my dues … and our deal is not equitable. Lord knows, you’ve done a great job, and we’re a great team. But this old agreement of fifty-fifty doesn’t make sense anymore.”

At that point Ed’s lawyer took over the conversation. “What Ed is getting at is that he wants to change the deal. It’s no longer fair to him. We want it to read seventy-five percent for him, twenty-five percent for you. That’s it in a nutshell.” Lewis was dumbstruck. He conceded that Ed deserved more for his starring role, but he pointed out that he, like Ed, had worked for almost nothing since the show’s debut. Complicating the issue was the fact that Lewis had quit his job at the Blaine Thompson agency to devote himself to the show. He asked for a few days to think over the matter. Backer agreed, but, he said, “that won’t change our position.”

While Marlo glared at Backer, Ed reached over and took hold of his arm. As Marlo recalled the meeting—Ed never made reference to this discussion—Ed said, “Come on, Marlo. You’re gonna get rich on this show. Don’t take it so big. I need you, you need me. You gotta remember, I’m a lot older than you, and without my muscle there never would’ve been a show in the first place.” He told Marlo to have his own lawyer get together with Backer and rework the contract. “I’ll see you Sunday, same time, same station.”

Marlo left the Delmonico in a daze, feeling betrayed and unsure of what to do. Ed, of course, had a point: the show was his, from conception to choice of talent; he created the onscreen product down to the minute, shaping many of the comics’ acts and selecting many of the vocalists’ songs. And Sullivan’s column enabled the show to attract talent long before Lincoln Mercury provided major backing. But Marlo couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being taken advantage of, that the deal was changed only after he invested countless hours. Full of doubts about continuing on the show, he went to see Hubbell Robinson, CBS executive in charge of programming. Robinson, understanding that the Lewis—Sullivan conflict threatened the network’s Sunday night flagship, went to CBS head Bill Paley, who decided to take control of the situation.

Paley called a meeting at his St. Regis apartment, inviting Sullivan and Lewis along with Robinson and network president Frank Stanton. He kept the meeting light, making no allusion to the contract conflict, instead complimenting Ed and Marlo on the job they had done. Toast of the Town, Paley said, might be just the beginning; he wanted both men to become integral parts of the network. To cement their relationship with CBS, he made each of them an offer. To Marlo, he offered a position as an executive producer for the network; Lewis would work on Toast of the Town and might also produce other shows. To Ed, he offered a five-year contract as the producer of Toast of the Town. Sullivan would not be a CBS staff member, but instead would work as an independent contractor. The answer from Ed and Marlo was unequivocal: we accept.

Ed’s new contract set his pay at a minimum of $1,500 a week until September 1955. His compensation would increase if sponsorship revenue increased; that is, if the show’s ratings allowed CBS to charge Lincoln Mercury more, then Sullivan would make more. If the program was still on the air in 1955, he would begin to receive a one-percent share of sponsorship revenue in addition to his weekly pay.

The talent budget was set at $10,000 per show for the first year, increasing to $12,000 over the following two years. The amount wasn’t stated for the contract’s last two years—apparently the network felt it wasn’t reasonable to guess talent budgets more than three years out.

While the contract specified that both Ed and Marlo would work on Toast of the Town, it clearly placed Ed in charge. Oddly, in the document’s language, Ed was referred to as “Producer,” while Marlo was referred to by his own name. One clause specified that Marlo would be the show’s coproducer, to which Ed insisted upon an amendment; this was handwritten in and initialed by all parties: “Any successor to Mr. Lewis shall be subject to Producer approval.” In other words, Toast of the Town was Sullivan’s show.

The terms agreed upon, CBS issued a press release, picked up by The New York Times in a terse one-paragraph news item. Reporting that the two had been hired as producers, the paper noted, “They will work as a team, creating new productions and working on existing programs.” The news, for those watching, announced that Sullivan and Lewis weren’t arrivistes anymore; they had earned the blessing of a major network. For Marlo, it was both a relief—a way around what he saw as Ed’s arm-twisting—and a step up; the door was open for him to produce other shows. For Ed, it was a dream come true. He had won the support of CBS. He was no longer a mere columnist; he had achieved what he most hungered for: a solid foothold in broadcasting.

Rumors started sometime in the spring of 1950 about a monster being created in the NBC studios. It was to be one of the most lavish television shows, perhaps the most lavish show, to date—a jewel in the NBC lineup. It would be a weekly variety program, mixing comedy and music and celebrity, starring the brightest names in show business. The extravaganza would be backed by a budget large enough to fell Rocky Marciano in a single blow: $50,000 an episode by some accounts, still higher by other reports. To be called The Colgate Comedy Hour, it was scheduled to debut that fall. Its time slot was one that the television industry had learned was particularly desirable, when families were most likely to gather around the set: Sunday at 8 P.M.

In short, NBC decided to end Sullivan’s dominance of Sunday evening. The network had seen Toast of the Town own Sunday night since its 1948 debut. In the 1949-50 season, Sullivan had easily bested NBC’s Sunday evening program hosted by singer Perry Como. (ABC, perpetually third-ranked, wouldn’t have a show in the Top 20 until 1955; a fourth network, Dumont, offered little competition and ceased broadcasting in 1954.) NBC apparently took a look at Toast of the Town and figured, if he can do it, we can do it better. Comedy Hour, by sheer weight of budget, was the network’s move to grab the coveted Sunday 8 P.M. slot. If the public wants a variety show, NBC’s strategy appeared to be, we’ll give them the best variety show money can buy. Sullivan would be buried.

In a novel approach, Comedy Hour would rotate hosts, each starring for a week. Hosting week one was Eddie Cantor, who was not just wildly popular but almost an institution, having conquered Broadway, vaudeville, radio, and Hollywood as a singer, comedian, and actor; three years later Warner Bros. granted him the ultimate honor, producing The Eddie Cantor Story. Lined up for week two was comedy team Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, the suave paesano and the overactive adolescent, whose fame had zoomed skyward since their television debut on Toast of the Town for $200; the duo were paid a breathtaking $100,000 for their first night, and $150,000 per show after that. Week three was hosted by Fred Allen, whose jaunty, cerebral wit had made him a top radio comic for more than a decade. He had, for example, invited boxer Joe Louis on his show to help him train for an imaginary bout with Jack Benny; the final Fred Allen-Jack Benny showdown had been a gargantuan ratings success, near that of the highest-rated Roosevelt fireside chat. The fourth week featured vaudeville-Hollywood comic Bobby Clark, the least famous of the crowd. However, he was scheduled to alternate with comedic powerhouse Bob Hope.

These celebrity hosts would emcee live variety revues—showcasing still more big names—that broadcast from a huge New York theater with flashy sets and first-rate orchestras. Comedy Hour, it seemed, planned not only to dominate Sunday night but to push television itself to a higher level.

CBS, seeing the freight train rushing toward it, told Sullivan there was more money if he needed it. As the network knew, the stakes in this competition were high. In the early days of television, many local stations were deciding which network to affiliate with; each of the networks knew it was vitally important to offer a successful lineup to attract long-term affiliates. Still, Toast of the Town’s budget, even with the infusion from CBS, would hover around $20,000 per program in the early 1950s, far smaller than Comedy Hour’s—which seemed to balloon markedly with every new report.

In fact, CBS appeared to be hedging its bet. The network, perhaps thinking it needed to work on securing a new night in the face of NBC’s assault on Sunday, poured money into Saturday evening. Set to launch that fall on CBS on Saturday nights was The Frank Sinatra Show, a variety show that guaranteed its star $250,000 for the first thirteen weeks. (The show was canceled after thirteen weeks; Frank sang brilliantly but his ability to work with others proved negligible.)

When The Colgate Comedy Hour debuted on September 10, it sparkled with all the transporting brilliance its massive prepublicity had promised. Eddie Cantor was as charming as he had been in vaudeville in 1925 or Hollywood in 1935, weaving a story line between the show’s variety acts, interacting with each as he sang, danced, and told jokes; the show culminated with Cantor in blackface singing one of his signature hits, “Ain’t She Sweet.” The following week, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin turned the small screen into a spirited night at the Copacabana, mugging and cracking wise through a lighthearted romp of an hour. Suddenly television had a new hit, and critics labored to find enough superlatives to laud it.

In contrast, Toast of the Town experienced a ratings collapse. Ed had been sanguine that summer, telling Marlo not to worry. “For the most part, all they’ve got are the same old clowns doing the same old shtick. Eddie Cantor will clap his hands and sing ‘Susie’ and talk about Ida and the five daughters. Fred Allen will fall back on his old radio material.… Sure we’ll take it on the chin a few times. Martin and Lewis and Hope will win their rounds the first time out. But I’m not worried one bit about the rest of ’em.” However, his show’s ratings tumble clearly required him to counterpunch if he expected to stay on the air.

The weakness in Comedy Hour was those weeks when its less-popular hosts emceed; when Fred Allen or Bobby Clark took the stage, Toast of the Town surged back in the ratings. Ed exploited this advantage to its fullest. In October, against a Bobby Clark Comedy Hour, he booked Margaret Truman, the president’s daughter, who aspired to a career as a classical soprano. The twenty-six-year-old singer had performed only on local television, which to Ed presented an opportunity. He took her to lunch at the fashionable restaurant Sardi’s and asked her: would you like to make your national TV debut? When she agreed, Ed paid her $2,000 and touted it as her professional debut. Headline writers obliged, providing waves of free publicity. For that evening’s performance the backstage area was thick with secret service agents, who insisted that Sullivan (who was frisked by the agents) give his dressing room to Margaret for security reasons; several hours later they reversed themselves after deciding a nearby alley posed a risk, and the dressing rooms were switched back. The attendant publicity lifted Sullivan to an easy ratings win against that evening’s Comedy Hour.

Two months later, Margaret Truman was again thrust into the news. After Washington Post music critic Paul Hume panned one of her recitals, President Truman dashed him off an angry letter that was reprinted in many national newspapers: “I’ve never met you, but if I do you’ll need a new nose and plenty of beefsteak and perhaps a supporter below. Westbrook Pegler, a guttersnipe, is a gentlemen compared to you.” Ed, sensing a ratings spike in the petty tempest, offered Margaret $3,000 for a return appearance, allowing him to trounce a Bobby Clark Comedy Hour. After her performance, the president called Sullivan to thank him for the gracious way he had presented his daughter.

In the late fall, Ed began to go after Eddie Cantor. He again used his newshound’s instincts to exploit headlines. Roberta Peters, an understudy in a Metropolitan Opera production of Don Giovanni, stepped into the lead role and earned a full-throated standing ovation. The almost fairy-tale story of the young coloratura—from a modest home in the Bronx—triumphing at the Met made headlines across the country. Ed instantly booked her to reprise her Don Giovanni role opposite a Cantor Comedy Hour the following Sunday, riding the publicity for a ratings boost. Peters proved so popular that Ed booked the opera singer forty-one times over the years.

In another effort to dislodge Cantor, Ed booked Milton Berle against one of Cantor’s Comedy Hour nights. CBS executives must have been flabbergasted to present NBC’s biggest star, unless they laughed along with Sullivan as the Trendex ratings proved it worked. Showcasing the competition’s heavyweight was not only counterintuitive, it sent a signal. Due to the gaping budget disparity between Toast of the Town and Comedy Hour, it didn’t look like Sullivan could win the ratings battle—the NBC show could hire bigger names week after week. But the Berle booking revealed he was willing to try most anything.

Berle was electric that evening. As Sullivan introduced him, Berle bounded onstage and pumped Ed’s hand. “Thank you, Ed Solomon,” he said, as the emcee faded offstage. Without taking a breath, Berle whirled into a comedic tornado, interrupting himself, ad-libbing, inserting jokes within jokes, making fun of himself, and scolding the audience for not laughing enough—“these are the jokes, let’s face it”—although the laughter was almost continuous. As he bobbed and weaved, the camera had to swivel to keep him in the frame. His punch lines were like short jabs, with few of his setups longer than five or six words; as a boy named Milton Berlinger he had grown up in vaudeville, and his style was straight from the Keith-Albee circuit.

He took great pleasure in pointing out that his own hit show ran on a competing network. “You know what CBS means? Catch Berle’s show”; “I only have two words to say to each Mercury Lincoln dealer—buy Texaco”; “Wait a second—What are these cameras here?—Is this show televised? Gee, I didn’t know that Sullivan’s show was televised”; “C’mon now, if you’re going to applaud, applaud all together!… (looking skyward)…. Oh Milton, you’re wonderful!”

Berle brought onstage a young trumpet player named Leonard Souse, who acted as a straight man, and then he produced his own trumpet. “Don’t laugh,” he said, “I used to be with Dorsey.” “Tommy or Jimmy?” asked Souse, to which Berle responded: “Fifi.” Souse riffed through a showy version of “Blue Skies,” after which Berle danced an impromptu classical ballet, mock-pirouetting around the stage and pulling up his pants legs to reveal tall black socks.

Ed came back onstage to join Berle, attempting to smile with limited success. “There’s the camera, Eddie,” Berle instructed, placing his body in front of Sullivan’s to shield him from the painful sight. They horseplayed with each other, each jostling to monopolize the camera’s eye, as the audience roared.

Bantering back and forth, Berle handily one-upped Sullivan, throwing a final barb as he exited the stage: “Eddie, you know we made a pact, I said I’d never become a columnist, and you said you’d never become an actor—well, you’ve kept your promise.”

Following Berle’s raucous act that evening was the ever-mellow Nat “King” Cole, in a booking that displayed Ed’s audacity in pushing the era’s racial boundaries. The showman gave the singer a big introduction: “And now let’s hear it for the calypso blues and Nat … King … Cole!—Let’s hear it for Nat!

In a tropical set with palm trees and a painted island backdrop, the tall and dapper Cole rhythmically crooned a calypso tune, his silky voice as smooth as an ocean breeze. Four female dancers shook their hips in time to the music, their long skirts flowing with the Caribbean groove.

While highly pleasant for many audience members, Ed surely knew that the performance prompted dark stirrings in living rooms across the land. White women onstage with a black man—moving their hips in time to his voice, no less—was, at the very least, the height of exoticism in November 1950. And to some viewers it proved that America was becoming a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. Helping make this mixed-race performance palatable was Nat “King” Cole’s milquetoast charisma and his ability to cover himself with a blanket of profound deference. The handsome singer never once glanced at his attractive stage mates. Even so, that Ed booked this number revealed an odd fearlessness in a man who was otherwise hypersensitive to his audience’s comfort level. He was exporting a sight that hitherto had been seen chiefly in Manhattan nightclubs.

Not that Cole gave the slightest indication that what had just gone on was revolutionary. As he performed his own fade-out, doffing his hat and singing ever more softly while strolling offstage, his smile beamed large and genial. Ed led the applause and brought the singer back out to shake his hand.

In case Ed harbored any doubt about how some of his viewers regarded such performances, the show received regular waves of hate mail to this effect, which continued through the decades. The southern Lincoln Mercury dealers—and they were far from alone—furiously insisted he stop shaking hands with and hugging black performers, but he never gave in to their demands. “I’ll never forget when Ed kissed a black girl” on the air, recalled Mike Dann, who worked in NBC’s programming department in the 1950s. “Ed was certainly not a racist—particularly if [the performer] was good.”

Sharing the bill with Cole that evening was vocalist Nanette Fabray, recreating a number from the recent Broadway show High Button Shoes. Clad in a full-length bathing gown, she sang the up-tempo tune on a beach set decorated with ocean-side dressing huts. In mid song, she and her four dancers shimmied out of their gowns to reveal summer jumpers, and a verse later they removed their jumpers to reveal 1919-era bathing suits. For all the outfits’ modesty, there was a lot of well-turned gam on display as the dancers posed and strutted. Fabray wrapped it up with a coy smile amid great clapping and cheering.

Lest the evening get too racy, Sullivan booked the Boy’s Town choir—forty boys dressed in angelic robes harmonizing a church hymn—after which Ed introduced Father Schmidt, a Catholic priest from Boy’s Town. Next, Sullivan presented Buster Keaton, who with Charlie Chaplin had been a comic giant of silent film. His career had collapsed with the advent of talkies but he was making a comeback. Keaton performed a slapstick routine without speaking, in a set made up as a rural fishing hole, complete with a small swimming pool. Every time he attempted a fishing maneuver—splash—he fell face first into the water. Ed, offering high art after low comedy, followed Keaton with international ballet stars Andre Eglevsky and Rosella High-tower, who floated through a six-minute classical ballet.

No Sullivan broadcast was without something for the kids, which that evening was Spanish acrobatic duo Montez DeOcha. Midway through their routine, Ed walked onstage to pump up the excitement: “This trick here is a thirty-foot leap in the air by Lolita, and Montez, with his back turned, will catch her—I hope.” The audience chuckled at his tag, but this was live television and there was no net so the chuckle was more anticipatory than humorous. Lolita climbed the ladder and Montez turned his back to her—he would have no way to compensate if she didn’t leap just right. She jumped, bounced on a trampoline and sailed forth some thirty feet in the air, landing in a perfect headstand on top of his upraised arms. He twirled her over his head as Ed led the cheers—“That’s really something, huh?”

Throughout the hour were Lincoln Mercury ads; Ford was Toast of the Town’s sole sponsor. As the auto line’s spokesman, Ed always set up the commercials himself, with intros like, “You know, nostalgia has its place, but if you’re thinking of buying a new car, don’t settle for anything less than a great, new, 1951 Mercury.” The Ford ads were ninety seconds long, with sunny images of bulbous sedans driving at moderate speed on clean, wide roads. As each spot concluded, the camera cut to the studio audience, which clapped with great enthusiasm.

By the end of the 1950 fall season, NBC canceled Fred Allen as host of Comedy Hour. His intimate, offbeat humor hadn’t translated to television. Absurdly, his popular characters, which in radio he brought to life in the listener’s imagination, were turned into hand puppets for television. Allen, bitter, quipped about his competitor: “What does Sullivan do? He points at people. Rub meat on actors and dogs will do the same.” To this, Ed riposted: “Maybe Fred should rub some meat on a sponsor.” Bobby Clark, too, was soon dropped from Comedy Hour. But the challenge to Sullivan remained intractable. Comedy Hour’s glittering pay scale ensured that a long list of stars—brighter stars—stood ready to replace Allen and Clark. Bob Hope, Abbot and Costello, Spike Jones, Jackie Gleason: each hosted Comedy Hour by the end of the 1950-51 season. Competing against the NBC program was like trying to win some mad carnival game; as soon as Sullivan shot down one target, several more appeared.

Attempting to find a creative alternative, he began presenting shows from remote locations, which strained television’s primitive technical capabilities. In the 1950-51 season, he hosted shows from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Boston. The power went out during the Boston show, halting Toast of the Town in the middle of its live broadcast. In the darkened theater were two-hundred wounded veterans from the Korean War; Ed asked the audience to allow them to leave first. In each remote show, he catered to the city itself, spotlighting its native attractions as if he were a visiting politician courting the locals.

Seeking more ways to outpoint Comedy Hour, he began offering something beyond the purview of the NBC program: legitimate theater. Ed used the natural resources of Manhattan, culling from among the city’s dozens of current stage productions to present excerpts geared for the television audience.

He chose a scene from Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, which won the 1950 New York Drama Critics’ prize for best American play. The scene was one in which Julie Harris sat on Ethel Waters’ knee as Brandon De Wilde leaned tenderly against them. As Marlo Lewis recalled, this broadcast stirred controversy because it involved a black performer having physical contact with a white performer.

Ed mined Broadway throughout the season, presenting a who’s who of stage stars, from Sarah Churchill and Charles Laughton to Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronin. Among the notable performances were James Barton in Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, Flora Robson in Lesley Storm’s Black Chiffon, Eva Le Gallienne in Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, and Judith Anderson in Euripides’ Medea. On the lighter side, Ed booked a medley of songs from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, currently playing to full houses on Broadway. All these stage excerpts, of course, shared billing with contrasting performers on the Sullivan stage. So Anton Chekov was followed by acrobats, Euripides was preceded by a comic, and Guys and Dolls shared billing with an animal act.

But it wasn’t enough. When the Nielsen ratings for the 1950-51 season were tallied, Toast of the Town was soundly bested by Comedy Hour. In its first season, Comedy Hour grabbed the number five ranking—impressive given that television now had a full schedule of competently produced programs. And since Comedy Hour ran directly opposite Toast of the Town, its high ranking necessarily meant fewer viewers were watching Sullivan. Having produced the number two-ranked show the previous season, Ed now tumbled to the fourteenth spot.

In a field of one hundred ten prime-time programs, Toast of the Town still sat near the top, but hadn’t won the majority of Sunday evenings. Sullivan’s ratings for the year were higher because he offered new shows throughout the summer, unlike Comedy Hour. But if he was to stay truly competitive, he needed a fresh strategy—some novel way to capture viewers.

While he was rolling out this new strategy, which debuted in the 1951-52 season, he encountered an old rival. The Comedy Hour wasn’t the only thing he battled in 1951.

By the early 1950s, Ed began to be, in a sense, two men. On one hand, his immersion in the new world of television meant an entirely new audience knew him only from the small screen. The world he chronicled in his Broadway column existed in a universe far from that of most middle-class viewers. To them he was the avuncular host, the stiff-but-sincere purveyor of opera, comedy, and jugglers. He fully embraced this new world as he began to receive the national notoriety he had long craved. He stopped producing his Loew’s State vaudeville shows. His daily column for the Daily News lost its spark as he handed off more of its legwork to his assistant Carmine Santullo. On the other hand, the old Ed still very much existed, the two-fisted gossip columnist, the acerbic New Yorker who was always at least a little dissatisfied. He hadn’t given up membership in the local Broadway tribe. And, as an episode from the early 1950s revealed, he remained fueled by jealousies that had driven him since the 1930s.

In October 1951, famed stage performer Josephine Baker returned to the United States for a series of appearances. A star of black vaudeville as a child, and of Paris’ La Revue Negre at age nineteen, Baker’s buoyant charm and exotic eroticism—she once gyrated through the Charleston clad in only a girdle of bananas—made her a popular figure in France, where she took citizenship. Picasso, for whom she posed, described her as having a smile to end all smiles. Now age forty-four, she had become a symbol of black advancement after succeeding in integrating a whites-only nightclub in Miami, and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) organized a party to celebrate her return to New York.

Baker and her entourage stopped at the Stork Club for a late-evening dinner, which didn’t go as planned. For all its glamour, the Stork’s attitude toward black patrons was decidedly backward. The service she received was, at best, slow, and by her description, contemptuous. The owner, Sherman Billingsley, refused to acknowledge her—unusual for a major star, but Billingsley’s reputation as a racist was well established. Baker claimed Walter Winchell, who used the Stork as his office, “looked right through me.” Baker ordered a steak, a crab salad, and a bottle of French wine; after waiting an hour she inquired about her food and was told the kitchen was out of both steak and crab salad. One of her fellow diners urged her to call the NAACP to complain. She went to the phone but the attendant claimed to be too busy to dial. Baker dialed the phone herself to report that the Stork had refused to serve her, though when she returned to her table “a pathetic little steak finally appeared,” as she described it. Angry, she and her party stormed out of the Stork.

What exactly happened at the Stork was unclear; there were various conflicting accounts. Some claimed Baker had visited the club with intent to expose its racist door policy, and had deliberately created a scene—the Stork’s service was always slow, according to some. At any rate, in the ensuing controversy the NAACP picketed the nightspot and the mayor ordered an investigation. The Baker camp wanted Winchell to denounce the Stork in his hugely influential radio show. But Walter, for whom the Stork was his home away from home, and who was upset at being pulled into the contretemps, instead broadcast a segment defending himself and his civil rights record.

As the incident divided the city into warring factions, Winchell was forced to choose between supporting Baker and his loyalty to the Stork. He not only chose the Stork, he launched a broadside against Baker, printing a fifteen-year-old news item about her offer to recruit a black army for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Worse, he charged her with communist sympathies. Among the chattering classes, the conflict devolved into Winchell versus Baker, and, by extension, Winchell versus civil rights. This was the irony of the conflict: the powerful columnist had a strong civil rights record and often aided black causes.

In Ed’s view, Winchell’s entanglement in the Josephine Baker melee provided a welcome chink in the gossip’s armor. After Baker went on Barry Gray’s radio show to attack Winchell, Sullivan appeared on the program the following night to blast the columnist. Gray’s show broadcast from the front table of Chandler’s restaurant, and a standing room—only audience gathered to watch Sullivan denounce Winchell. “I thought a shameful thing had been done,” Ed said, claiming that Winchell had attempted to deny Baker’s fundamental right to protest. “I despise Walter Winchell because he symbolizes to me evil and treacherous things in the American setup.” Sullivan said that Winchell had launched a journalistic attack against Baker “recklessly and with great abandon … confident in his power and buoyed by the fact that no New York newspaper except one had taken this thing up, because they didn’t want to give him publicity on it.… I say he’s a megalomaniac and a dangerous one.”

Not satisfied, Ed appeared on Gray’s program a second time. “I don’t think that Winchell is a great American anymore,” he declaimed. “I think that something has happened to him. I don’t know what it is, but I think the effects of it are evil.” Some of this was far afield from the issue of racism, particularly the charge of megalomania. But Ed, while indulging his own longstanding grudge, gained extra currency by voicing a commonly held opinion of Winchell: his enormous power had no counterbalance. Most performers were afraid of him, as were an array of public figures in several walks of life. These otherwise influential people felt they had no recourse against the off-the-cuff judgments he rendered in his column and on his radio show. Ed knew he tapped a wellspring of tacit approval as he attacked Walter.

After Sullivan’s attack, Broadwayites waited for Winchell’s counterpunch. One Winchell associate urged the columnist to sue Sullivan for libel. But when a reporter for Time asked Winchell for comment, the normally vindictive columnist feigned indifference. “I didn’t hear what Sullivan said,” he claimed. “I do not want to engage in bouts with small-timers. I would rather hear what the president has to say about me.” In his column he remained curiously mum, going only so far as to print a poem by sportswriter Grantland Rice that ended, “They rarely ever knock a guy / Who doesn’t matter much.” This was a pulled punch by Winchell’s standards.

The rumored reason for Winchell’s quiet was that Sullivan held a weapon in reserve against his rival. According to Mario Lewis, it was a document “so devastating that Winchell knew he could never tangle with Sullivan publicly and survive.” Ed never confided to Marlo what the item was, saying only, “I’ve got it—and Walter knows I’ve got it. He also knows that I’ll never use it unless he tries to push me too far. That’s all I’m ever gonna say about it.” Winchell biographer Neal Gabler speculated that the document was a copy of Winchell’s divorce decree, the date of which may have shown that Winchell’s daughter was illegitimate.

Not long after the Baker affair, whenever Ed and Sylvia went to the Stork Club, Ed requested a table close to Table 50, Winchell’s roost. Ed would sit at a nearby table and glare at his foe. According to Broadway lore, one evening he and Sylvia were at the club with a young television production assistant who once worked for Winchell (and who referred to the experience as “the most miserable year of my life”). When Winchell got up to go to the bathroom, Sullivan, as if waiting for the moment, stood up, said, “Excuse me,” and walked down the hall after Walter. Sylvia panicked, knowing Ed’s volatile temper and knowing, too, that Winchell carried a pistol (he accompanied police on late evening calls). She hurriedly told the production assistant to follow them. The young man walked to the restroom and opened the outer door discreetly. He stood in the anteroom for a moment, listening, then slowly opened the second door. He claimed that he saw Sullivan holding Winchell’s head in a toilet bowl and flushing, continuously, with maniacal glee. Winchell, though it was hard to tell above the flushing roar, seemed to be sobbing. The young assistant watched for a moment, then quietly slipped out of the bathroom.

Whether the incident actually took place is unclear. The production assistant’s name is unknown and the story’s source is unverifiable, although by Sullivan’s own account he often took a table at the Stork that allowed him to glare at Winchell. But if the anecdote is invented, or exaggerated, it does contain a kernel of truth, in that it describes the changed relationship of the two men. After years of walking in Walter’s shadow, Ed, buoyed by a taste of success on television, was clearly ascendant. Walter, after two decades of supremacy, was faltering, and by the end of the decade would be sinking toward oblivion. Whether this emboldened Ed to the point where he stuck Walter’s head in a toilet is certainly possible—his jealous rage had long simmered—yet the story may be merely apocryphal.

The same combative spirit that fueled Ed’s feud with Walter Winchell also drove his approach to the 1951-52 television season. Like Winchell, Comedy Hour had outshone Sullivan, using its gargantuan budget to top his ratings. The question now was: how to compete against a far larger opponent?

In his first year against the NBC show, Sullivan realized that beating it on its own turf, the variety format, was unlikely. With Colgate-Palmolive’s deep-pocketed sponsorship, now grown to $3 million per year, Comedy Hourcould always field a more compelling variety lineup than Toast of the Town. So in the 1951-52 season Ed took a new tack, in certain weeks dispensing with variety altogether. In its place he produced specials—hour-long biographies of entertainment icons, the first of their kind on television. He wrote the scripts for the programs, interviewing their stars and narrating the story line in each episode.

He kicked off the season with a two-part special dedicated to Broadway giant Oscar Hammerstein. Along with Hammerstein himself, Ed presented an ensemble of singers and dancers performing highlights from his work, such as Show Boat, Oklahoma, South Pacific, and Carousel. At the second evening’s dramatic high point, Hammerstein stood on a darkened stage in a pin spotlight, reciting the melancholy lyrics to his “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” accompanied by a small ensemble and Richard Rodgers on the piano.

Two weeks later, Ed presented a tribute to Helen Hayes. An acclaimed film star, the fifty-year-old actress was best known as the first lady of the American stage (when she died in 1993, the lights on Broadway were dimmed for one minute at eight P.M.). At the evening’s conclusion, Sullivan and Hayes chatted about her life, and the actress played the moment for high drama. She told the audience that when the final curtain came down on her, she hoped someone would shout—and here she quoted from Victoria Regina, one of her great stage triumphs—“Go it, old girl! You’ve done it well!” The studio audience members, many in tears knowing that Hayes had lost her daughter to polio not long before, thundered their approval.

The Hammerstein and Hayes specials boosted Sullivan’s Nielsen ratings, prompting him to keep interspersing specials with his usual variety format. Later that fall, he presented “The Robert Sherwood Story,” producing scenes from the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s works; the stage crew built a life-size replica of a train’s rear platform as a set for Robert Massey’s portrayal of Lincoln in Abe Lincoln in Illinois. In early February, “The Bea Lillie Story” celebrated the Broadway comedienne, and later that month Sullivan’s version of George Whites Scandals recreated the lavish Broadway revue. Ed stretched “The Cole Porter Story” over two Sundays, presenting Porter himself and a cast of vocalists (including Roberta Peters, the young Metropolitan Opera star he had just introduced to television) to reprise the tunesmith’s musicals. The 1951-52 season ended with a ratings blowout: “The Richard Rodgers Story.” Presented on two consecutive Sundays, it featured the composer himself in performances of his hits ranging from the 1920s-era Garrick Gaieties to the current The King and I, still in its debut run on Broadway.

Still, it wasn’t enough. Comedy Hour had culled its weak hosts in the previous season, so it now clicked like a well-honed entertainment machine. While Sullivan’s two-night version of “The Richard Rodgers Story” topped Comedy Hour evenings hosted by Eddie Cantor and Bob Hope, when Cantor or Hope hosted opposite Sullivan’s usual mixed bag, Ed saw his Nielsen numbers fall.

Toast of the Town’s budget at this point, according to Marlo Lewis, was $25,000 per show; Ed told The New York Times it was $15,000. Either Marlo was exaggerating or, more likely, Ed downplayed the number to help him negotiate with talent agents. But even the higher figure was dwarfed by the Comedy Hour’s weekly budget, which had levitated to the $100,000 range. The show was now the costliest on television. Due to the budget disparity, there were nights when Ed showcased mid level performers against true heavyweights. When he headlined Joe E. Lewis, a nightclub comic in late career, against audience magnet Bob Hope, his Nielsen rating was far outpaced by Comedy Hour’s, 49.3 to 24.3. When Ed presented film star Audrey Hepburn and vaudevillian Pearl Bailey against a Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin Comedy Hour, he lost the Nielsen battle by a still more lopsided margin: 56.6 to 24.5. Attempting a creative twist—perhaps inspired by the recent success of I Love Lucy—Ed booked Errol Flynn and Paulette Goddard to play a weekly comic sketch about a constantly nattering couple. But the aging screen idols couldn’t rise above lifeless scripts, and the effort did little for ratings.

Yet while Sullivan wasn’t winning the Nielsen contest, he was surely winning some grudging respect. That he could even stay in the ring with the slugger known as Comedy Hour—and sometimes win a round—earned him kudos throughout the TV industry. NBC head Pat Weaver, impressed by Sullivan’s specials, decided to start developing some of his own. Television critic Jack Gould lauded Ed for injecting new life into television with his specials, and commended him for the creativity behind the Flynn-Goddard experiment, though he noted it failed dreadfully. (And Gould, for the first time, referred to Sullivan as a producer rather than a host, judging him accordingly.) Ed was himself feeling bullish; Toast of the Town’s ratings made it a hit even as it trailed Comedy Hour. That winter he told The New York Times, “I am the best damned showman on television.… I really believe, immodestly, that I am a better showman and have better taste than most and have a better ‘feel’ as to what the public wants because of my newspaper experience. And I know quicker than anybody else on Sunday nights whether we have done a good performance or not.” Ed later tried to backpedal from the “best damn showman” boast, claiming it was taken out of context. But whatever the context, over the years it became clear the quote accurately reflected how he felt about his abilities.

Sullivan went into the 1952-53 season with ever-grander specials planned. For his proposed “The Sam Goldwyn Story” he met with the legendary film mogul and broke new ground. The studios were unequivocally opposed to television; scads of movie theaters across the country had shuttered since television invaded the living room. Consequently, many studios refused to let their movies be shown on the small screen—that would be helping the enemy. Ed, however, talked Goldwyn into the idea of using television to promote his films; TV could be an advertising vehicle for movies, he reasoned, not a competitive force. Goldwyn, impressed, gave him access to a large library of film clips. Not coincidentally, Ed chose clips that featured Bob Hope and Eddie Cantor, provoking protest from NBC—the network was unhappy to see Sullivan present Comedy Hour’s hosts on his show. But Ed paid no heed to the complaints. Sullivan as usual wrote and narrated the continuity to “The Sam Goldwyn Story,” from the early talkies through Laurence Olivier and Gary Cooper, bringing Goldwyn and his wife Frances onstage for a final bow.

After the success of the Goldwyn tribute, Ed frequently negotiated with the studios to show movie previews on Toast of the Town. Some of them Sullivan paid for; others were free promotion. The alliance created an unusual thawing of relations between Hollywood and television, as Ed helped turned television from a threat into a publicity conduit. Not that everything went well with Hollywood. Following the Goldwyn tribute, Ed planned a show dedicated to Cecil B. DeMille. But the legendary filmmaker, ever the egoist, insisted on narrating his tribute show himself, which the actors union wouldn’t allow—presumably he wasn’t a member—so the program never happened.

The most successful of all Ed’s specials was “The Walt Disney Story,” for which he flew to California in February and spent five days directing filming in the Disney studio. Ed was so excited about the show that he telegrammed President Eisenhower to ask him to record a testimonial for Disney, which the president declined. During the broadcast, Sullivan talked with the film producer about his career, interspersing their conversation with behind-the-scenes footage of the animator’s magic and clips from films like 1950’s Cinderella and 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Ed talked about traveling through Europe and being amazed at the popularity of Disney films there. “After the war, people were hungry for something to believe in, and they could always find this in a Disney picture,” he told the audience. Garnering a whopping 63.4 Trendex rating, the evening was the season’s second-highest-rated Sullivan show, topping any of the year’s Comedy Hour shows, except those hosted by Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin (almost nothing topped Jerry and Dino). Disney, happy with the resulting publicity, hand drew a caricature of Sullivan as a thank-you gift.

The ratings spike produced by the Disney story and Sullivan’s other lavishly produced tribute hours was only part of their value. In addition to being television shows they were news events, as the nascent medium expanded before viewers’ eyes. Newspapers gave Sullivan reams of free publicity for his tribute programs. And no special generated as many headlines as “The Josh Logan Story.”

For Ed’s tribute to the famed Broadway director and writer, he took a risk with controversial material. Much of the evening consisted of live performances from plays like Mr. Roberts and Picnic, with Logan directing an ensemble that included Jimmy Stewart and a still-little-known Paul Newman. During rehearsal, Logan had made a special request: would Ed allow him to talk about his battle with mental illness, how he had suffered from depression and been hospitalized, and how such an ordeal could be conquered? His goal was to break the taboos surrounding mental illness.

Ed discouraged him, fearing the reaction to talk of mental illness, and Logan conceded. But during the broadcast, Sullivan came across Logan backstage looking despondent. The showman asked the director if he still wanted to tell his personal story, and Logan said yes. “Ed was terrified of CBS’s reaction,” Logan recalled. “But he took a chance with me.” Ed abruptly changed the show’s running order to allow time for Logan’s speech. The director went onstage and described, in very personal terms, the history of his mental breakdown, hospitalization, and subsequent recovery. He urged people to view mental illness as a disease that could be treated, not a moral failing. When he stopped speaking, the studio sat in stunned silence—and then broke into a torrent of applause. CBS received a small mountain of appreciative letters.

Ed himself received a letter from a judge on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Justice Michael A. Musmanno (well-known for presiding over the Nuremberg trials), who wrote to say that seeing Josh Logan speak on Toast of the Town influenced one of his recent court decisions. A local woman had been briefly confined in a mental institution, after which she experienced a full recovery. But during her stay her husband took permanent custody of their children, which she contested in court. Justice Musmanno ruled, in part based on Logan’s story of overcoming mental illness, that confinement in a mental institution does not nullify a parent’s rights if that individual can medically certify his or her recovery.

At a later date, Ed recounted the Logan story while speaking to a civic organization in Oklahoma (he accepted countless such invitations). After his talk, the director of a mental health program told Sullivan that the day after Logan’s appearance, his state budget director increased his appropriation due to the star’s emotional appeal. Such was the power of this new medium. In the late 1960s, Ed pointed to the Logan episode as one of the show’s peak moments.

Comedy Hour still led Toast of the Town in overall ratings during the 1952-53 season, yet the balance was starting to shift. While in the fall of 1951 the average Trendex rating for Comedy Hour topped that of Toast of the Town by a comfortable margin, 32.6 to 21.9, by the spring of 1953 that margin had narrowed to 31.3 to 24.7. Comedy Hour’s slip was small, yet that slippage revealed a larger trend. Eddie Cantor suffered a heart attack after a 1952 Comedy Hour performance, and the following season the sixty-one-year-old declared he would quit. The program’s younger hosts were feeling the strain as well. By the 1953-54 season, Comedy Hour’s annual budget ballooned to $6 million. In return, Colgate-Palmolive wanted only the biggest names to host. But the top tier, notably Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin—now making $1,000,000 a year from the program—were hard-pressed to keep their routines fresh during months of broadcasts. They weren’t alone. A man in Long Island, New York, after yet another Abbot and Costello Comedy Hour without new material, shot his television set. (The resultant publicity earned him an appearance on the game show Strike It Rich, where he won a new set.) What had once glittered now began to appear lackluster.

The trend was clear as the 1953-54 season concluded. Comedy Hour’s elephantine budget no longer guaranteed it Sunday night dominance. Under pressure from Sullivan, and suffering from creative exhaustion, the show’s ratings were headed inexorably downward. Although Comedy Hour held the lead over Toast of the Town in the fall of 1953, by the spring of 1954 the two shows’ ratings were running a dead heat. And, as always, Toast of the Town’s Nielsens pulled far ahead in the summer, as Ed continued to produce fresh shows while Comedy Hour ran reruns. If nothing else, he would outwork his NBC competitor.

One Sullivan maneuver that season was especially revealing of how Ed chipped away at Comedy Hour’s ratings. In the fall of 1953, CBS show host Arthur Godfrey was one of the country’s most beloved broadcasters. Some forty million people listened to his morning radio program, and two of television’s top ten shows were his: Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts was the third-ranked show, behind only I Love Lucy and Dragnet; and Arthur Godfrey and Friendswas the seventh-ranked show, right behind The Bob Hope Show and the The Buick-Berle Show. With his butterscotch voice and easygoing charm, Godfrey was responsible for twelve percent of CBS’s annual revenues. He delivered his own ads in a folksy, intimate style, refusing to stick to the copy, talking to viewers like old friends—when he chatted about Lipton Tea, listeners felt he sipped it every day.

Godfrey used an ensemble format, in which a regular troupe of clean-cut young singers interacted week after week. For the audience, he and his performers became a surrogate family. Godfrey played the genial uncle as his viewers, largely female, bonded with each of the personalities. So on October 19, 1953, when Godfrey summarily fired one of his singers during a show, millions of his fans were shocked, even horrified. Dismissed was Julius La Rosa, a cherub-faced ingénue whose vocal talents were modest, but who inspired fierce matronly love in fans. Right after La Rosa finished crooning a song, Godfrey informed viewers, “That was Julius’ swan song with us.” Afternoon newspapers blared the news in headlines across the country.

With Walt Disney in the early 1950s. Sullivan’s tribute show to Disney in 1953 helped him compete with the heavily financed The Colgate Comedy Hour, but years later the two men would vie for ratings in the same Sunday night time slot. (Globe Photos)

As the news coverage snowballed, the reason for the firing was clouded in confusion. Godfrey claimed that La Rosa wanted to be released from his contract; rather than announce this in a press conference, he explained, the host decided to tell viewers on the air. La Rosa disputed this, and Godfrey, in a move he soon regretted, explained that the singer had “lost his humility,” and so needed to be fired. La Rosa conceded that he had lost his sweet deference; at age twenty-three he was getting six thousand fan letters a week and fielding constant offers from record labels. Nevertheless, fans were dismayed to learn that Godfrey had fired someone because he couldn’t stand another star in his stable—was there a controlling egoist under that vanilla charm? The day after Godfrey’s remark about “humility,” the word appeared in numerous national headlines, and comedians soon began using it for laughs. The incident even generated its own moniker, as commentators dubbed it the La Rosa Affair. To date, this was the biggest news story in television.

For Ed the story offered an obvious opportunity. He immediately called La Rosa and invited him to his Delmonico apartment. Heartbroken over being fired, the singer came with his lawyer and his priest in tow. Ed offered him $5,000 per show for a series of guest appearances on Toast of the Town, which La Rosa gladly accepted. Marlo professed amazement at the amount Ed offered the young singer. “He’ll be worth it,” Ed said, “Just wait and see.”

He was right. La Rosa’s appearance on October 25, within the week of his firing on Godfrey, was Sullivan’s highest-rated show since his 1948 debut, earning a jaw-dropping 76.6 Trendex rating. Its viewership dwarfed that evening’s Comedy Hour starring Lauren Bacall, and even topped the season’s highest rated Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin show. Ed kept exploiting the La Rosa controversy over the next several weeks. The November 29 episode of Toast of the Town would undoubtedly have run a distant second to Comedy Hour without the publicity sparked by Ed’s booking of La Rosa. That night Comedy Hour was hosted by Eddie Cantor, with guest stars Frank Sinatra and Eddie Fisher; Fisher had just been offered the unheard of sum of $1 million by Coca Cola to be their national spokesman. Ed’s lineup that evening reflected his smaller budget: La Rosa; Dr. Ralph Bunche, a black Harvard professor and civil rights activist, winner of the 1950 Nobel Prize; Sophie Tucker, a popular vaudevillian now in late career; Sam Levenson, a young comic still on his way up; Joe E. Lewis, an aging cabaret comic; the AU-American college football players; and The Harmonicats, a mouth-organ trio whose 1947 hit “Peg O’ My Heart” sold 1.4 million copies. It was a solid lineup, but it paled by comparison to the Sinatra-Fisher—Cantor triumvirate. Yet that night’s Toast of the Town earned a 54.8 Trendex rating, clearly besting Comedy Hour’s 40.1.

Ed’s adept use of the controversy displayed once again how he used his newsman’s nose for current events to turn a small budget into a ratings winner. He kept it up by booking a raft of former Godfrey regulars, like Pat Boone and the McGuire Sisters—performers who hadn’t reached their later popularity but whose status as Godfrey alumni boosted ratings. CBS was uneasy about Sullivan’s continued one-upping of Godfrey; it was a skirmish between two of the network’s top-rated shows. But Ed rebuffed suggestions by CBS executive Hubbell Robinson that he stop. With the ratings it produced he saw it as a natural strategy. “There’s nothing personal in it,” Ed explained. “If Arthur were fired, I’d hire him.”

One other incident with Godfrey revealed a side of Ed rarely glimpsed by the public. When Godfrey was hospitalized after hip surgery, Sullivan guest hosted his show. The camera captured a man never before seen on television. He danced and sang a tune with the Little Godfreys, accompanied two singers on the zither, warbled a duet with Frank Parker, then topped it off with a soft-shoe routine. It was all light-hearted fun. A reviewer from Variety was aghast: “Why Sullivan can come in strange surroundings and enjoy himself and yet appear so uncomfortable on his very own show is something of an unknown. It’s to be hoped that some of the gold dust carries over from that Wednesday night to Sundays.”

It didn’t. On his own show the effort was too important, too much of a high-stakes struggle, for him to enjoy himself. The self he displayed on the Godfrey show was closer to his Broadway columnist persona, capable of clowning around, comfortable with spontaneity and humor. But that side of Sullivan was stowed backstage when he hosted Toast of the Town. He attempted to explain this in the preface to a 1951 book called The TV Jeebies, a slender volume that described the new medium’s countless pratfalls:

“People often ask me why I don’t smile more when I face the cameras on ‘Toast of the Town.’ In television, unlike any other visual medium, a performer gets only one chance. There are no retakes. He either does it right the first time or the sponsor sees to it that the performer forever holds his peace.… There are literally thousands of tubes, resistors, condensers, and other strange devices in the maze of technical equipment that must not fail. Even the performers can bring on a bad attack of the TV Jeebies with their strapless gown slipping their moorings, ad-libbed jokes that are a bit too salty for television, acts that run over their allotted time and a hundred others things that just couldn’t happen but sometimes do.… In television you get just one chance.”

As Comedy Hour’s ratings continued to slide, Ed worked behind the scenes to rectify a problem that had long bedeviled Toast of the Town. Between 1948 and 1950, network executives learned from the undisputed ratings of Sullivan’s show and Berle’s Texaco Theater that the variety format was a quick path to profitability. In response, a slew of variety hours were launched. Many, like the Dumont network’s Cavalcade of Stars, had short lives. Yet by the early 1950s a passel of programs were hungry for talent: Comedy Hour, Toast of the Town, Texaco Theater, The Bob Hope Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, All-Star Revue—each had variety schedules to fill. In 1948, Varietypredicted that television would run out of performers to present, and that forecast proved prescient. By the early 1950s the competition for talent pushed prices exponentially higher. Where once a Sullivan column mention and $100 was enough to attract guests, those days were now long gone. The relative scarcity of entertainers turned TV talent agents into major players.

The power that talent agents had over Sullivan enraged him. He had a job to do, and in his view they were preventing him from doing it to the best of his ability. As he saw it, Toast of the Town gave early television exposure to many performers, and their agents owed him loyalty. The agents felt differently. To Sullivan’s consternation, they employed a well-choreographed set of maneuvers to push up prices, playing one show off another. If Ed called to request a current hot act, the agent explained that the performer was all booked up—until the price went higher. Or agents refused to even respond to his call until Ed made it clear his bid would go higher. Paul Winchell, a ventriloquist whom Ed booked for a small fee in the show’s earliest days, now expected $2,500—and demanded multiple bookings to appear for that amount. Another popular ventriloquist, Senor Wences, expected a similar fee. A rising young comic named Dick Shawn succeeded in negotiating a guest shot for $10,000 on the condition he get four more appearances at the same price. But Shawn didn’t have enough material and it hurt Sullivan’s ratings.

Most agents first attempted to place their acts with Comedy Hour because of its august pay scale. Ed, with his singular eye for talent, frequently spotted a rising nightclub act or a singer whose music was inching up the charts; after inquiring about their availability, he often got stonewalled, only to see the act sold to Comedy Hour. For this reason, Ed had a fondness for smaller, independent agents, but these representatives didn’t handle the most sought-after performers.

As the competition for talent tightened in the early 1950s, Ed constantly railed to Marlo about what he saw as the lowest form of life, the talent agent. He had a special animosity for MCA agent Johnny Greenhut. “That fat-faced bum with the soft-boiled eyes,” he said to Marlo. “I just made an offer … and Greenhut tells me he has to check to see if David Begelman or Freddie Fields sold them to the Comedy Hour. …They’ve even got the little punk agents pulling the same stunt. Everybody’s ‘checking’ to see if an act is available.… You know where that bunch of flesh peddlers would have gone over big? Down at the levee at the auction block, raffling off slaves to the highest bidder!” And then there was George Wood at William Morris. “It’s the old story—George is going with a young broad and he wants to impress her,” Ed explained to Marlo. “He thinks she’d look great in a shiny new Mercury convertible. He didn’t come out and ask for one, but I got the message.… I’ll call the factory and order one for him. We’ll have to pay for it out of our talent budget.”

The chief problem was that Toast of the Town had no agency dedicated to it. The William Morris Agency had a tight relationship with Texaco Theater, and MCA was joined at the hip with Comedy Hour. But Toast of the Town’s smaller budget meant it was left to fend for itself, working with both agencies and others as a leftover outlet for acts who couldn’t be sold to the highest bidder. Ed knew he had to change this to continue to be competitive. He began cultivating a relationship with Sonny Werblin, president of MCA’s New York office, considered the king of talent agents and a fearsome dealmaker. The two entered into negotiations, and, after some haggling, came to an agreement. In effect, Sullivan hired Werblin as his own personal agent, his representative in charge of negotiations with CBS.

As the five-year contract Ed had signed in 1950 approached its expiration date, Werblin was in place to be Sullivan’s advocate with the network. At one level, Werblin’s representation of Ed could have been seen as a conflict of interest. It positioned MCA as the lead talent representative for two direct competitors, Comedy Hour and Toast of the Town. But apparently Werblin, seeing Comedy Hour’s ratings erosion in the 1953-54 season, understood it was time to shift his alliance. Or perhaps he simply saw the value of riding two horses.

Given his reputation as an über-agent, his representation of Sullivan would almost certainly result in a big raise for Ed, as well as a larger talent budget for Toast of the Town. Marlo, however, pointing out that Werblin would take a hefty cut of Ed’s salary for representing him, urged Ed to go directly to CBS head Bill Paley. With no agent as a middleman, you’ll make more money, Marlo told Ed.

But Ed saw a much larger potential in working with Werblin. With the MCA executive as his advocate, he could expect to get choice access to the MCA talent pool. In essence, the deal would provide Ed with the raw material to produce the best program he was capable of. Short-term, it might mean a smaller salary increase, but with Comedy Hour fading, and Werblin lending MCA’s muscle, Sullivan saw a chance to take his star to an entirely new level.

In the early 1950s, a young New York comic named Will Jordan started including a Sullivan impression in his nightclub act, invariably breaking up the room with his hunched shoulders, his I’ve-just-sucked-a-lemon facial contortions, and his version of Ed’s signature arms-crossed gesture.

The audience response landed him gigs on local television shows, notably that of Steve Allen, an offbeat wit who later hosted a show opposite Sullivan’s. Allen took great delight in Jordan’s skewering of the stone-faced host, often inviting the comic to perform it. Jordan, always looking for a bigger venue, played up his television success to longtime Sullivan friend Joe Moore, and at Moore’s suggestion Ed tuned in to one of Jordan’s local television appearances.

The showman liked what he saw. Despite his vituperative letters to critics who roasted him for his stiffness, he was eager to find some way to counteract the perception of his stilted stage persona. Booking this impressionist who so mercilessly lampooned him would, Ed hoped, deflate reviewers’ barbs. He would negate the critics by agreeing with them—you bet, I am stiff, and let’s all have a good laugh at it.

For Jordan’s first appearance in March 1953, Sullivan booked him opposite a Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin Comedy Hour, hoping the chatter about a Sullivan impressionist on his own show would draw viewers. But the comic didn’t go over too well. “I did Sullivan as he really was—and it bombed,” Jordan recalled. Overawed by his first appearance on national TV, “I was afraid to do more.” The tepid audience response left Ed unimpressed.

Jordan kept including his Sullivan shtick in his nightclub act, continually riffing on the showman’s persona. Over months of club dates his impression grew ever farther away from the original man—and ever more entertaining. Nightclub audiences loved it, and Hy Gardner, a New York Herald-Tribune columnist, called Ed to tell him he should book Jordan. Ed was skeptical, but he trusted Gardner, so in June 1954 the comic played the Sullivan show again.

This time Jordan let loose, playing a wildly exaggerated character that took Sullivan’s persona to the extreme. “I rolled my eyes up and showed the whites of my eyes, stuck my tongue under my upper lip, and made a monster face,” he recalled. As he moved his shoulders with spastic stiffness, he satirized the host’s verbal style: “Tonight on our rilly big show we have 702 Polish dentists who will be out here in a few moments doing their marvelous extractions.…” The audience roared, and as they laughed the camera periodically cut to Ed, chuckling along—see, the camera shot said, he’s a regular guy.

Ironically, while the audience easily recognized Sullivan in Jordan’s imitation, the comic himself knew that almost all the impression’s details were invented—the knuckle cracks, shoulder shakes, eye rolls, full-body spins; none of these were actual Sullivan mannerisms. “This is the only time I know of where so much of the character is not the real person,” he said. Jordan’s hyperstretched version of the showman became an audience favorite; Sullivan booked him twelve more times. Over the years, Jordan became typecast as the comic who imitated Ed Sullivan. The impressionist would play him through six decades, including in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story, 1991’s The Doors, and 2003’s Down with Love.

Most lasting of Jordan’s inventions was the phrase “really big show,” or, as he played it, “rilly big shew.” Not only had Ed himself never said that prior to Jordan, when Ed tried to mimic Jordan’s imitation of himself, he goofed the line, voicing it as “truly big show.” Only later, after numerous appearances by Jordan and other Sullivan impressionists—all of whom used “really big show”—did the phrase become the showman’s own stock setup, the idiom most identified with his onstage persona.

When Ed used the phrase “really big show,” he was, in fact, imitating his imitators. It was a kind of comfort for him. Instead of being alone in his natural, awkward onstage self, the parade of Sullivan impressionists he booked—Jack Carter, John Byner, Frank Gorshin, Jackie Mason, Rich Little—gave him a role to play. By turning him into an endearing set of idiosyncrasies, they enabled him to be the stock character known as Ed Sullivan. He could take refuge in playing this one-dimensional caricature, however limited a resemblance this sketch bore to the man himself. Certainly it included no sign of the glad-handing Broadway gossip, or the shrewd producer who aligned with power player Sonny Werblin, or the volcano who stormed the halls of CBS. But no matter. The audience understood and liked this cartoon figure. In time, the caricature became the public image of Ed Sullivan, which he was perfectly happy with. He often tossed off a “really big show,” and he kept his trademark arms-crossed gesture long after he learned to avoid other tics.

He took immense pleasure in the fact that these comedians went on other programs and imitated him. It delighted his competitive spirit, knowing that a troupe of impressionists was out there reminding audiences of him and his show. Comics learned that having a good Sullivan impression was a quick way to Ed’s heart, and stand-ups across the country began practicing “rilly big shew” to help them land a booking.

Most compellingly for Ed, these impressionists appealed to his long-held hunger for renown. Being mimicked in front of a national audience meant the entire country knew who he was, and presumably, if the audience was laughing, felt some fondness for him. Bogart was imitated, Cagney was imitated, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart were imitated. For Ed to be mimicked in comics’ routines in 1953 meant he had been inducted into the glorious crowd he had always aspired to join. Will Jordan’s first tentative shoulder hunch was, provisionally, the start of Sullivan’s iconic status. This was fame. This, as much as anything, was what he had always wanted.