Stardom - 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 11. Stardom

EVERY SUNDAY AT THE MAXINE ELLIOT THEATER a furious burst of activity began sometime around 7:00 A.M. With that evening’s broadcast looming, Sullivan staffers hustled with intense focus. Handling myriad tasks was a team of young secretaries who worked all day long on Saturday and Sunday. One, having met with that evening’s singers to get their exact lyrics—the album version couldn’t be trusted—transcribed all the words. She gave the lyrics to director Johnny Wray, who planned camera angles to accent the singer’s words; with just three cameras his choices were limited, yet Wray conceived of new shots for each verse. Another secretary, who maintained the show’s master script, typed and distributed copies to the production staff; this was revised and redistributed constantly. Throughout the morning, Marlo Lewis worked with set designer Grover Cole to plan the logistics of moving sets on- and offstage quickly; everything had to be assembled during commercial breaks.

When Ed arrived in the early afternoon, carrying that evening’s suit over his shoulder, all action began revolving around him. Stowing his suit in his dressing room, he picked up a pencil and an unlined notepad and started preparing for the 4:00 P.M. rehearsal. On his notepad were instructions about virtually every aspect of the show. Some of the notes were for Marlo or the director, but most were for that evening’s performers. Comedians new to the show were required to audition in his Delmonico apartment, so his notepad contained edits for their routines. He wrote suggestions for animal or acrobatic acts and ideas for singers, and he frequently issued orders to cover a female guest’s cleavage—Ed forbade cleavage, not wanting to offer prurient fare to a family audience. (After viewers wrote to complain, he told the staff to keep yards of tulle for inventive cover-ups.) Additionally, Sullivan used his notepad to write his brief introductions, rewriting them four or five times, then dictating them to a secretary who copied them to the master script.

The heightened energy that the crew buzzed with on Sunday was a kind of happiness, as many recalled. Creating the show carried a very real excitement. Although they worked at least a twelve-hour day there was no complaint—most felt honored to be there. The staffers were always nicely dressed; Ed expected it. None of them were seen on camera, yet in his view the television studio was no place for casual dress.

Ed himself, depending on his mood, might be intense and focused, or moody and sour, or—if the ratings were trending upward—lighthearted enough to indulge a mischievous sense of humor. During one rehearsal he was headed out for a short break and asked a secretary if she wanted anything. Tongue-in-cheek, she requested a scotch and water; Ed brought her back a small container full of scotch.

As Sullivan continued to call out instructions and write notes on his pad, the master script was amended. If he made last-minute changes, as he often did, there wouldn’t be enough time to retype it before broadcast. The secretary then resorted to putting small pieces of tape with Ed’s comments over the original master, hurriedly copying it on a ditto machine, then rushing around the theater to redistribute it. She sometimes found herself at the ditto machine ten minutes before broadcast.

On certain evenings, Ed even made changes during the show. If his instinct told him the program was dragging, he suddenly reshuffled the running order during a commercial break, moving up a musician or a comic to provide extra spark. This prompted panic backstage, as stagehands scrambled to move sets or reposition animal acts, and production assistants told performers their timing needed to be adjusted. Even if Sullivan didn’t scramble the running order in mid broadcast, timing shifts during the hour often meant performers were told to shorten or lengthen their routine just minutes before going on live.

This would remain true throughout the life of the show; as many programs shifted to taped broadcasts in the 1960s, the Sullivan show stayed live. Comedian George Carlin, a regular in the 1960s, recalled that playing the show was like performing without a net. “The thing I remember most about The Ed Sullivan Show was the great fear I had going over there from the hotel with my garment bag … walking over there was ritualistic on a Sunday afternoon before dress rehearsal. I would stop at a little deli store and buy a couple of cans of Rheingold beer. I’d take them up to my dressing room and they took the edge off.” The jitters came from two factors: “First of all, it was live, which produces a certain higher nervousness quotient than something that can be done over.” Additionally, “The Sullivan staff was notorious for coming to you during the air show and saying, ‘the monkey skated too much, and you have to give us back thirty seconds or a minute.’ The problem for me was, I didn’t do things that were chopped up into segments, I did things that had a thread, so that made it all the more panicky.”

At 4 P.M. Ed ran a full dress rehearsal. That evening’s show played from beginning to end without stop, including the showman’s introductions. Even the commercials were played, with a staffer timing all the segments with a stopwatch. Sullivan brought in a live audience and their applause, in theory, made the timing more accurate. Before rehearsal began, Ed walked onstage and bantered with the crowd, asking people where they were from, cracking a few jokes to warm them up. As the dress rehearsal ran, he stood just offstage, watching on a television monitor, making more notes. Comedian Jack Carter recalled that Ed sometimes stood right onstage, which confused the audience because they also watched Sullivan. Since he was invariably deadpan during a comic’s performance, getting a laugh became that much harder.

However reliable the rehearsal audience’s response was, Ed read it as he had read the reactions of countless audiences at his Loew’s State vaudeville shows, using his sense of the crowd to write still more notes. As the run-through ended he asked the audience for comments and many were shouted out, after which the crowd was ushered out. That evening’s show was seen by a fresh audience.

Displaying his sentimental side, Ed invited Johnny Dundee to dress rehearsals. The onetime boxing champion, who had shown Ed around New York when he was a cub reporter, and who had been best man at Sullivan’s wedding, was nearly destitute by the 1950s. Ed reserved seats for the boxer and his daughter Lucille, and instructed the staff to treat them as guests of honor. After the afternoon rehearsal, Ed invited Johnny, now a wizened old man who was nearly blind, up onstage. After Lucille helped him up, Ed asked, “What did you think of the show, Johnny?” In his gravelly whiskey voice, Dundee invariably said something like, “I liked it Ed, I really liked it.” Ed prompted him for suggestions, and after Dundee gave his comments Ed opened his wallet and put cash in Johnny’s hand as payment for his advice. Sullivan sent Dundee a weekly check for the remainder of the boxer’s life.

After rehearsal, Ed used his notes to take the show apart and put it back together again. First, the bad news: not infrequently, he canceled a performer’s appearance. Ed likely booked that entertainer because he or she was a proven crowd pleaser. Yet if he felt the performer wasn’t going to delight his viewers on that particular evening, he cut them without hesitation—just hours before showtime. Marlo Lewis had the unenviable task of informing the performer’s agent that their client’s moment of national television exposure was being nixed.

After Ed’s cuts, he reshuffled the running order to provide the balance he had envisioned when he booked the show. The front of the program might need more humor, or, if he had just cut an act, he allowed a singer a second song. Negotiations were begun with comics. If their routines contained material that Ed didn’t like or understand, or he felt was too blue or too long, he directed edits. But, the comics would retort, that joke leads to the next; I can’t change one joke without changing my whole routine. Back and forth Sullivan and the comic would go, hashing out the act bit by bit. Sometimes Ed gave in and sometimes he demanded changes outright, depending on several variables: his mood, the comic’s level of fame—major stars got hands-off treatment—and the show’s running time. Many comics complained bitterly about the showman’s changes. Comedienne Phyllis Diller, a Sullivan show staple in later years, once quit in disgust after she felt her act had been decimated. “He knew nothing about comedy,” Diller said, echoing an opinion voiced by several comics. (On the other hand, Diller, like many performers who were grateful for the career boost, said, “I have Ed Sullivan to thank.”)

Altering animal acts presented a special challenge because the chimps, tigers, bears, and horses knew their routine by rote. Nevertheless, Ed demanded edits. On numerous Sundays, Sullivan told an animal trainer to trim his act by two minutes, only to get a response like, “How am I going to explain that to the lion?” In one rehearsal an elephant trainer, after Ed insisted he cut two tricks in the middle, replied, “If you can do it, I’ll give you whole damn act,” then shoved the elephant prod at the showman. “Take this too, I’m sure you’ll know what to do with it.”

Singers sometimes offered similar resistance. He had a last-minute showdown with opera star Maria Callas, who decided she wouldn’t render her famed aria from Tosca—the very aria for which Ed had booked her. With Callas on the eve of a much-anticipated Metropolitan Opera performance, Sullivan sought to garner headlines by presenting her first on Toast of the Town. But, she announced in rehearsal, she had decided to save Tosca for the Met; this evening she would sing an alternative. The production crew demurred, knowing Sullivan expected Tosca, but the diva was firm—the answer was no. Finally Ed issued an ultimatum: either you sing Tosca or you’re off the show. Callas argued and threatened a legal suit, and then, that evening, delivered her glorious Tosca. (The eighteen-minute scene from the Puccini opera proved a ratings disaster, so Ed, committed to a series of four opera performances, edited furiously. The last segment, a lengthy duet from La Bohème, was slashed to four minutes.)

By the end of Sunday’s rehearsal, a list of acts on paper had been shaped into a show enjoyed by tens of millions of people. Sullivan’s formula, he explained, was based on creating a program to appeal to a group he described as the four dominant women in his life: his mother, his older sister Helen, his wife Sylvia, and his daughter Betty. To whatever extent this was his guiding principle, certainly Ed’s connection to his viewers was a big part of his success. Although he made plenty of booking mistakes, he rarely needed to guess his audience’s response. He wasn’t apart from them; he was them. If he understood and liked an act, they would; if he didn’t, his audience probably wouldn’t either. “He sure had his finger on the pulse of the country,” recalled comedienne Carol Burnett, who first appeared on Sullivan’s show in 1957.

In later years, advertising firms began using focus groups to determine mass taste. Ed would have had no need for these groups, even if they had been available. In the mid 1950s the response of a roomful of average Americans would have been all but identical to his own. Like them, he was square, and that was something to be proud of, not uncomfortable with. He was a square, however, who had lived in the entertainment business for twenty-five years, providing him with an unparalleled education. Most importantly for his current job, his decades spent hobnobbing with New York and Hollywood performers hadn’t removed his small-town Port Chester roots. While his success meant he looked at life from an eleventh-floor suite overlooking Park Avenue, he still saw the world with the same eyes as his audience.

Shortly before showtime he again walked onstage to warm up the crowd. Having taken control of every aspect of the program, he would now browbeat even the audience into playing their role properly. One evening in the mid 1950s, a reporter from Time magazine recorded the scene:

“Again he leans into a gale of applause. ‘How are you all?’ he asks. ‘How many are here from out of town?’ He recoils from the forest of hands, crying, ‘Wow! New Yorkers can’t even get seats!’ He waggles a finger at his people onstage. ‘Heads will roll.’ The audience loves it. Ed continues: ‘Everybody in this audience is duty bound to be happy. So look happy!’ They do. ‘In thirty seconds Art Hannes is going to introduce me and he will be absolutely astonished that I showed up. They didn’t think Old Smiley would do it!’ ”

In November 1954, Sonny Werblin paid a visit to Bill Paley. It wasn’t often that the MCA talent agency’s New York president visited the head of CBS. Werblin relegated most of the in-the-trenches negotiations work for individual performers to his underlings. He handled only the agency’s biggest clients. But the MCA president knew a lucrative deal when he saw one. Sullivan’s five-year contract would expire the following year, and it was time to lay new ink to paper.

A recent development gave Sullivan greater leverage. Raising eyebrows across the industry, NBC had made him an offer, attempting to lure him away from CBS. Just a few years earlier this would have been unthinkable, but something unthinkable had happened. While Comedy Hour had topped Sullivan in the overall yearly ratings for the last four seasons, his show won enough weeks to stay near the top, and had steadily gained on its NBC rival. Now in the fall of 1954, Sullivan was besting it week after week—at a fraction of the cost. With his updated vaudeville format and an annual budget of about $2 million, he was embarrassing a show hosted by the biggest names in show business pulling down in excess of $6 million in talent fees. Comedy Hour’s sponsor, Colgate-Palmolive, was growing disenchanted. In response, NBC attempted a novel solution: couldn’t we just hire Sullivan?

Ed had slain the Comedy Hour dragon at just the right time. His contract would expire as his show was overtaking the most expensive program in the industry. Werblin knew it, Sullivan knew it, and Paley was forced to acknowledge it. So Ed, with the help of his lawyer Arnold Grant, and with negotiations led by Werblin, struck a deal.

In contrast to his last contract, this agreement—drafted by Werblin—treated Sullivan like a star. Its language fairly gushed. Stating that Ed had “built and maintained an outstanding reputation” as a “master of ceremonies, performing artist, and producer,” it continued, “Whereas, CBS Television is anxious to have Artist’s active services for as long a term as possible and to immobilize Artist as a competitor for as long a term as possible.…” To secure those long-term services, the contract stretched as far as the eye could see, no less than twenty years. CBS, having considered selling the show to advertisers without him just a few years before, now never wanted to let him go. Ironically, it was the executive who had offered the show to sponsors “with or without” Sullivan, Jack Van Volkenburg, who sent Ed a letter formally accepting the new terms. “I just want you to know how happy we all are at completing arrangements for our long-term marriage,” Van Volkenburg enthused.

For the contract’s first seven years, his salary would be $176,000 a year; for the following thirteen years, the network guaranteed him $100,000 a year regardless of whether he produced a show, as long as he didn’t work for a competing network. He was given an expense account and eight weeks of vacation. Ed also negotiated an increase for Marlo Lewis, up to $1,000 a week.

The following fall, the show’s weekly production budget would increase to $50,000. About $24,000 of that was specified as talent budget, which Sullivan could juggle between weeks, spending more on one week and then producing a less-expensive show the following week.

Werblin did particularly well in the deal. Sullivan’s contract with MCA stipulated that the agency would receive ten percent of all his earnings from radio and television “for the duration of your life.” Additionally, the agency would receive $3,500 from the show’s weekly $50,000 production budget.

Ed happily told reporters about his new contract, so its details were soon widely reported, even down to the salary difference between the first seven years and the following thirteen. As industry observers realized that CBS had offered him a twenty-year contract, the news was clear: Sullivan had made it.

Apart from the money, the showman made one major demand: the program had to be renamed The Ed Sullivan Show. It would finish the 1954-55 season as Toast of the Town and adopt the new name with the start of next fall’s season.

The contract was everything he had ever wanted. In contrast to his many failed radio shows, he now had a lock on a major broadcast berth—signed after two networks engaged in a bidding war for his services. Most importantly, at age fifty-three he was set to place his name in lights above a top-rated national television show.

Negotiations completed, and the alliance with Werblin formalized, Ed set out to finish off the Comedy Hour. But first he had a score to settle. During Sunday rehearsals, talent agents had always roamed the theater freely, watching their star clients perform, kvetching backstage, and socializing with the crew. But no more. In Ed’s view, they had taken advantage of him, so he now forced a petty indignity on them. Henceforth they were denied access to the theater; if they wanted to talk with their clients on Sunday they had to wait in a cramped, uncomfortable area outside the stage door. MCA agent Marty Kummer nicknamed the area “The Wailing Wall,” because performers cried or cursed there after hearing of Ed’s changes or cancellations.

The agents hated having to wait outside, and many “prayed that Sullivan dropped dead,” Marlo Lewis recalled. Years later, Sullivan claimed that he laid down this edict because Sylvia and Betty had once visited the theater and none of the agents offered to give up their seats to allow them to sit. In truth, Sylvia and Betty virtually never visited the theater, preferring to watch the show on television, and at any rate there were hundreds of seats in the Maxine Elliot. But in Ed’s mind, talent agents were the kind of men who wouldn’t even give a lady a seat.

The minor irritations of talent agents aside, the 1954-55 season was a winning one for Sullivan. The year’s Nielsen figures indicated that Toast of the Town had climbed to be television’s fifth-rated show. On top was I Love Lucy, followed by The Jackie Gleason Show, Dragnet, and You Bet Your Life, the humorous game show hosted by Groucho Marx. Incredibly, Sullivan was higher ranked than The Bob Hope Show, seventh-rated, and The Jack Benny Show, eighth-rated. Milton Berle, who had run just ahead of Sullivan between 1948 and 1950, had fallen to thirteenth. Comedy Hour had tumbled out of the Top 20, bested by Toast of the Town almost every Sunday.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, playing off Sullivan’s ascendant popularity—and helping promote another CBS property—performed a sketch from I Love Lucy on Sullivan’s show. Lucy hears remarkable news, which she reports to Ricky: “Ed Sullivan is going to do the whole show about us!” The couple, comically, fall all over themselves in an attempt to remain calm in the face of such a portentous development. When Ed himself rings their doorbell, Lucy emits a trademark shriek, and Ricky is so excited he drags Ed through the living room in a manic attempt at hospitality. Lucy shoves him into an easy chair and manhandles him into crossing his legs so he’ll be more comfortable. Both try to pretend they hadn’t heard the news, waiting to hear it directly from Ed. Finally, amid great fussing by Lucy, he gets out his invitation: he wants to do a show about them. In response, Lucy and Ricky intone in unison: “About us?” Ed as straight man played his part with reasonable aplomb, projecting ease with his role as the all-powerful television producer, if not his role as an actor in a comedy skit. At the end he flashed a big smile, yet he managed to look almost completely away from the camera.

Lucy and Desi felt fondly toward Sullivan after he had pitched in to sway public opinion when Ball’s career was imperiled. In 1953 she had been called to testify about her alleged communist affiliation before a secret session of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Ball admitted that as young woman she had once registered to vote as a communist. But she had done so, she explained, merely to placate her grandfather, a committed socialist. HUAC, satisfied with her explanation, let the matter drop.

However, news of her closed-door testimony leaked to Walter Winchell. In a blind item on his radio broadcast he announced, “The most popular of all television stars was confronted with her membership in the Communist Party.” Although he didn’t name her, in 1953 that description fit exactly one performer. Suddenly Ball’s phone began ringing nonstop for comment. The Herald Express printed a copy of her 1936 voter registration card, proving she had planned to vote for the Communist Party. With the story’s coverage exploding, and Hearst columnist Westbrook Pegler writing that Ball had to be “tracked down and exposed,” the comedienne’s career was in serious jeopardy.

But the momentum of her ever-growing popularity, and the helping hand of several columnists, saved her. Ed weighed in firmly with those who felt the issue should be dismissed—no doubt partially driven by his dislike of Winchell. Since Winchell had ignited this controversy, Ed was happy to douse it. As he wrote in his Daily News column, “It’s a singularly fortunate thing for Lucille Ball that she’s been a weekly visitor to millions of American living rooms.… TV cameras being as revealing as they are, the Jury of Public Opinion is an informed jury as it renders its verdict on a silly thing she did 17 years ago.”

Indeed it was: after the first broadcast of I Love Lucy following Winchell’s leak, Trendex figures revealed that Ball continued to star in television’s top-ranked program.

The trappings of fame arrived quickly now. Ed acquired what every successful Manhattan executive was expected to own, a Connecticut estate. He bought Kettletown Farms, a one-hundred-eighty-acre property in bucolic Southbury, with a ten-room house, swimming pool, two lakes, and an orchard. The family’s primary residence continued to be their apartment in the Delmonico, at Park Avenue and 59th Street; the Connecticut estate was a weekend retreat. The problem was finding the time to be there. Ed continued to log miles as a spokesman for Lincoln Mercury, and his Daily News column (now syndicated to thirty-five papers) kept calling him to the city.

In his tours for Lincoln Mercury, at every ribbon cutting, store opening, and civic event, the crowds mobbed him like some kind of national folk hero. Benson Ford remarked, “Wherever he goes, women hold up babies for him to kiss, traffic stops, policemen smile.… Sullivan is a one-man interfaith council, a chamber of commerce, and an unequaled sales force. The crowds love him.” As Ed frequented his many Manhattan haunts—he remained a night owl, making the rounds of clubs like the Copacabana and Lindy’s—he was met with squads of autograph hounds. He happily obliged them.

On October 10, 1955, the cover of Time featured Richard Nixon, the apple-cheeked vice president projecting a confident smile. On the cover the following week was Ed Sullivan, the showman smiling with a similar sense that all was well with the world. Underneath his portrait was a small cartoon of a television, out of which tumbled a crowd of miniature performers and a flurry of dollar bills. Sullivan, noted Time, “is about the longest shot ever to have paid off in show business. It is as if Featherweight Willie Pep knocked out Rocky Marciano with a single punch in the second round.”

The cover story detailed Ed’s rise, from his Port Chester days to, as Time portrayed it, the very top of the television industry. The article quoted TV executives about the medium’s potential—its revenues had zoomed to $1 billion annually—then noted Ed’s response to their promises of coming attractions: “Everything they’re promising to do is something I’ve already done.” Time listed the many entertainers whose shows had come and gone during Sullivan’s tenure, including Red Buttons, George Jessel, and Bing Crosby. In the section on his background, Ed took the opportunity to jab his perennial rival: “Winchell’s all through—and I’m an expert on Winchelliana. I’ve followed him like a hawk. He’s a dead duck. He couldn’t be resuscitated by injections at half-hour intervals.” (The powerful columnist was indeed beginning to decline. His first attempt at television in 1952, though lauded by critics, had been canceled. Winchell’s rat-a-tat-tat insistency didn’t translate to the restrained 1950s.)

In the spring of 1955 came the big news: Warner Bros. was planning a film about Ed. As proposed by the studio, The Ed Sullivan Story would recount the showman’s journey to national stardom. He had been a flop in Hollywood fifteen years earlier, but now Warner Bros. felt his life warranted a major bio-picture. Moreover, they wanted him to produce the film as well as star.

Studio head Jack Warner professed great faith in the film. “Mr. Sullivan’s motion picture will be one of the most important forthcoming pictures on our release schedule,” he told reporters. He wasn’t just posturing: the studio budgeted $1 million for the film, which was higher than the average movie budget in the mid 1950s (though plenty of epics and star vehicles had surpassed this level). As with all his projects, Jack Warner’s investment was more than financial: he would oversee the Sullivan film’s production, with his usual firm hand. Warner was a man who felt supremely confident in his opinions. Having grown up in vaudeville—he was a boy soprano who sang between acts—and been a film producer since the medium’s birth, he had an innate sense of the public’s tastes, and in fact had helped mold those tastes. When he barked he expected others to jump, and he was known for his battles with stars like Bogart and Cagney, as well as for steamrolling producers and writers. On the night that Casablanca won the Oscar for Best Picture, Warner jumped up onstage to accept it before Hal Wallis, who was the film’s producer, which led Al Jolson to quip, “I can’t see what J. W. can do with an Oscar. It can’t say ‘yes.’ ”

Sullivan’s representative in his negotiations with Warner Bros. was his lawyer Arnold Grant, not his talent agent Sonny Werblin. According to Ed’s contract with MCA, the agency only got a percentage of his radio and television work—film wasn’t mentioned in the contract. Werblin was likely kicking himself for not including film; it cost him ten percent of Ed’s lucrative movie payday. But Werblin’s oversight was understandable. That Sullivan would be a highly paid television star was already far-fetched; that he would also be a well-compensated film star almost exceeded the boundaries of imagination. Ed’s pay was $100,000, and he retained the television rights to the film.

Ed and Arnold Grant flew out to the coast to sign the paperwork and meet with Warner Bros. executives. While Ed was out there, Sylvia left a phone message for him at Arnold Grant’s office: “Mrs. Sullivan called about 6:15 last night and said she had purchased a Renoir and would like you to get a $15,000 advance from Warner in order to pay for same.” Ed’s agreement with Warner Bros. however, specified that he wouldn’t be paid until 1957. The studio, apparently seeking to limit its risk, wasn’t going to pay him until after the film was released.

Jack Warner wanted to move quickly on the project. He hoped to get the script written over the summer and begin production on October 1. Warner asked Ed to write a script treatment, and in mid July Ed sent him a six-page synopsis. As he conceived of it, the movie would be a glorified version of his weekly show, a fast-paced array of acts with only a thin narrative about his and the show’s history.

Ed’s letter to Warner told the real story of why this film was being made. “I believe this will be a tremendous grosser, with a ready-made audience plus the exploitation I can give it on our show.” Undoubtedly, Jack Warner saw the potential. Regardless of how unlikely a film star Ed was, with the showman pushing the movie every week to his audience of thirty million, generating box office success wouldn’t even require an advertising budget. Ed’s earlier alliance with Sam Goldwyn had been based on the then-counterintuitive idea that television and Hollywood could work together; now Sullivan’s own bio-picture was about to be the best proof of that.

Warner all but ignored Ed’s synopsis. He conceived of the film as a dramatic story, not merely an elaborately produced Toast of the Town. In mid August he sent screenwriter Irving Wallace to New York to spend a week with Ed and observe him producing the show. Wallace was a good fit for the project. As a short story writer and novelist, he was adept at crafting stories based on current events; he would write a series of best-selling novels based on contemporary trends. Also an experienced screenwriter, he wrote 1950’s The West Point Story, starring Jimmy Cagney, as well as a number of TV scripts.

Wallace completed the Sullivan script by late September. Having seen Ed in action, he developed a fictional treatment based on real life. A character named Robbins was inspired by actual CBS executive Hubbell Robinson; Ed’s first sponsor was Grimsley, “a large florid, booming man,” who owns an appliance firm, much like Ed’s real first sponsor, Emerson Radio; his second sponsor was “the chairman of the board of a leading automotive firm.” The antagonist was Joyce Jekyll, “a feline slob who dips her pen in arsenic and writes TV tattle for a Manhattan daily.”

In Wallace’s story, Ed launches the show despite harsh critical barbs. After an initial period of success, his ratings fall as a heavily financed competing program draws viewers away. Things get so bad that Sylvia leaves him. Finally, the show is about to go off the air—but, at the last moment, Sylvia reappears. She hasn’t left him; she secretly went to Las Vegas to bring back a singer who will revive ratings. The young singer goes on, the Trendex rating jumps skyward, and everything ends happily ever after.

Ed hated it. Sylvia’s disappearance and show-saving last-minute return created dramatic tension, but it embarrassed him. Wasn’t the show his creation? (Wallace, despite the odd story twists, was accurate in depicting how supportive Sylvia was of Ed.) Sullivan told Jack Warner the script needed to be rewritten.

Warner agreed, but he was becoming anxious about the film’s production schedule. He moved the shooting back to February, but even the delayed date required that the script be rewritten quickly—actors couldn’t be hired and acts lined up until the studio had a script. In mid October, Warner dispatched Wallace back to New York to spend a second week with Sullivan, with instructions to turn out a script posthaste. The screenwriter completed his second draft by November 1.

This time Wallace wrote a story line custom-made for Ed’s vision of his show. At the plot’s critical turning point, with the show imperiled, instead of Sylvia stepping in, Ed’s own ingenuity as a producer saves the day. The script shows him breaking precedent by combining jazz and opera in the same program, presenting prerelease Hollywood film clips, producing lavish show business biographies—the first of their kind—and introducing fascinating celebrities in the audience. It portrays him as a driven, competitive showman who assesses the opposition and out-produces it at every turn.

If Wallace’s intent was to create a script that so flattered Ed that he had no choice but to approve it, this was a well-aimed arrow: “As these acts go on, we go to a series of flash cuts of Ed’s TV audience around the country. We see people phoning neighbors and relatives, excitedly telling them to switch from the opposition to ‘Toast of the Town.’ … Ed winds up in a blaze of glory.” At the story’s conclusion, CBS is so overjoyed at Sullivan’s performance they decide to rename the show in his honor—it will now be called The Ed Sullivan Show. They inform him of this in the final scene by changing his cue card text without telling him, so he learns of it only as he announces it to a national audience. As he informs viewers of the show’s new name, “Ed looks off into the thunderous ovation.…”

Wallace submitted the new script to Jack Warner, who swiftly approved it and rushed it to Ed by airmail. In his cover letter, Warner preempted any concerns Ed might have, in case the script’s fawning wasn’t enough. “Naturally, this was done in great haste,” he wrote. “We will have these incidents slanted so we can get some good heart tug and humor.” The studio head closed his letter with a reminder of the pending schedule: “I would like to get your reaction as quickly as possible.”

But Ed wasn’t feeling the urgency. Moreover, despite all the script’s flattery, he didn’t like it. He decided he had to toss out Wallace’s work and write the script himself. As Jack Warner fumed, Ed sat down to work from scratch.

Two things bothered him about Wallace’s script. First, he felt it didn’t fully portray the powerful forces that threatened his television survival. Additionally—contradicting his first concern—he did not want to be depicted as so fiercely competing against these forces.

A long month later, he sent his half-finished script treatment to his lawyer Arnold Grant, to pass along to Warner. As Ed noted to Grant in his treatment, “The greatest European pictures, ‘The Bicycle Thief,’ ‘The Baker’s Wife,’ were built around a deep, fundamental issue.… For our picture, Hollywood writers have an equally simple and fundamental premise … the powerful and subtle forces that threaten a man’s employment.” In short, Ed wanted the film to dwell still more on how he had persevered in the face of a critical onslaught—though Wallace’s script already included this element.

As Ed wrote in his synopsis: “So this is the story we have: the story of a guy who worked like a bastard in TV and found his employment jeopardized by the critics, some of the network brass, and others.” Families across the country would relate to this theme, he wrote, because it mirrored their own breadwinners’ struggles in the working world. Ed conceived of two strong characters who were set to undermine him: one was a composite of all the critics who skewered him, and another represented the network brass who didn’t believe in him. As he envisioned it, the movie of his life would portray him as surrounded by challengers on every side.

However, in Ed’s version his own character’s triumph over these obstacles wasn’t due to his competitive spirit, as Wallace had portrayed. Instead, his success was a result of how accurately his show reflected what viewers wanted. He even suggested that the film include interviews from typical American living rooms, with families talking about why they liked the show. Ed’s script was somewhat contradictory: he wanted to include powerful characters arrayed against him, but he didn’t want to be seen as fighting against them. Instead, he portrayed himself as triumphing by transcending them, by going directly to the public.

Wallace’s emphasis on his competitive nature made Ed uncomfortable. Although his column readers knew he was no stranger to confrontation, his television audience saw him as reserved and avuncular. As early as 1951, Timepointed out, “The TV Sullivan is a strange contrast to the bumptious know-it-all of Sullivan’s Broadway column.” Onstage, the audience saw an emcee who was nonthreatening and eager to please, bearing a gift bag of acts that offered something for everyone. He was stilted and awkward, yet safe—perhaps even safer because of his stiffness. His lack of slickness led many viewers to believe he was onstage by happenstance, as if whoever was really in charge had picked him at random from the audience. As a fan letter said, “We were discussing your program the other night and all of us agreed that my brother Charlie could do exactly what you do.” Families trusted this good-natured uncle enough to invite him into their living rooms every Sunday night. He was one of them. The Warner Bros. script, however, portrayed the other man, the one behind the curtain, the competitor, the ambition-driven workaholic. This was a more interesting man, surely a better film subject, but it wasn’t the persona that Ed brought into living rooms on Sunday night. And it wasn’t the persona he wanted splashed on movie screens across the country.

So Ed’s new script included no scenes of him as a competitor, instead emphasizing the show’s allures; the script was close to his original concept of the film as a cinematic version of his TV show. Ed’s treatment had an open-ended quality, interweaving his theme of triumph over great odds with many stars’ performances, from showy Broadway numbers to cameos by sports figures. Rather than finalize his outline, he planned to bring the film together as he produced it, much as he did with his television show.

When Jack Warner realized that Sullivan had completely thrown out Wallace’s second version—and that Ed’s replacement script was just a work in progress—he was apoplectic. In Warner’s view, the production schedule had turned into a series of delays with no end in sight. From his vantage point a troubling specter loomed: with the constant delays, by the time the film was released Sullivan’s ratings might have tumbled, or worse, the show might be canceled, making his investment an embarrassment. In early December, Warner wired an angry telegram to Arnold Grant: “We will have to be a magician to put this together. As you know, this is not like putting on a TV show. People expect to see something.… If he is going to try and ad-lib this picture as he does his TV show it won’t come off, nor will we produce it that way.”

Still, notwithstanding Warner’s impatience, the studio bent to Ed’s conception. Sullivan’s script called for a less-fictionalized approach than Wallace’s, using more of the showman’s actual words. So between late November and mid January, Wallace and two other writers labored to develop a script that included all of Ed’s ideas. On January 12 they sent him a draft for his approval. The start of shooting had been pushed back yet again, to March 1, and by this point script approval needed to happen shortly. The studio executive supervising the script wrote to Sullivan: “We will be most anxious for your reaction—by phone, if possible.”

Instead of approving it, Ed set to work—yet again—rewriting the script. Four days later, he sent a note to Arnold Grant, noting that he had boiled the first five pages down to three, and complaining, “I don’t think that Irving Wallace will ever be able to write the story.”

Jack Warner, hearing of Sullivan’s plans for still more rewriting, was livid. He canceled the film—that very day. Eight months after the project’s start, both parties signed an agreement to mutually void the contract. Warner Bros. would never release The Ed Sullivan Story. When reporters asked Ed why the movie was canceled, he claimed that he didn’t want to interrupt his show’s schedule long enough for filming.

The project had been a train wreck between two controlling men, and one in particular—Sullivan—who could not for a moment relinquish his producer’s role. Given a chance to star in a feature film that glorified his life and career—and be paid $100,000 to do so—he was unable to compromise enough to complete the project.

His controlling nature worked well for him in television. It allowed him to pull together, on the fly, week after week, a highly popular one-hour variety show. That same controlling nature doomed The Ed Sullivan Story. He had, remarkably, once again proven to be a failure in film, even with a major studio lending every possible support.

Although Sullivan’s alliance with Hollywood usually ran much smoother than his attempted project with Warner Bros., in April 1955 it precipitated yet another run-in, this time between the showman and Frank Sinatra.

Ed, continuing to show his viewers a steady diet of film previews, negotiated with Samuel Goldwyn to present excerpts from Guys and Dolls, starring Sinatra, Marlon Brando, and Jean Simmons. Ed planned to produce a half hour piece using the excerpts along with interviews of Brando and Simmons. Sullivan paid Goldwyn $32,000 for the excerpts, and he also paid Brando and Simmons for their interviews. He did not, however, ask Sinatra for an interview. Ed explained this by noting that the Simmons interview would be her television debut, and that Brando was the hottest thing in show business, yet Sinatra “is not exactly a TV novelty.” In other words, the vocalist had recently appeared opposite Sullivan on an NBC “spectacular,” as well as on Comedy Hour, and Ed viewed him as a competitor.

As Ed’s plans coalesced, the studio let it be known that it expected Sinatra to appear for a Sullivan interview, paid or not, to help promote the film. At this point Sinatra balked. In his view, since Sullivan was paying Brando and Simmons but not him, the showman was attempting to arm-twist him into making an unpaid appearance. That the pressure came from the studio, not Sullivan, wasn’t reported in most news articles about Frank’s unhappiness. Samuel Goldwyn pointedly told reporters that his actors’ contracts required them to make unpaid promotional appearances. But that contractual fine point was lost as the story devolved into a conflict between two egos, Sinatra’s and Sullivan’s.

The two had once enjoyed a warm friendship. The singer appeared on Sullivan’s 1943 radio show and in his war bond rallies. Ed defended Sinatra in his column when the singer came under fire from columnist Westbrook Pegler for not serving in the military. In April 1947, after Sinatra punched Hearst columnist Lee Mortimer, resulting in a spate of bad press—as Look magazine archly observed, “The number of things he does besides sing is astounding”—Ed again came to his rescue. “Basically, Sinatra is a decent, warm-hearted person and I think it’s about time they stop kicking him around,” he wrote. (Ed, for his part, appreciated anyone who slugged Hearst columnists.) Deeply grateful, Frank sent Ed an effusive letter of thanks, along with a gold wristwatch inscribed, “Ed, you can have my last drop of blood. Frankie.”

Yet now, upset by the Guy and Dolls dispute, Sinatra complained to the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) about unpaid promotional appearances. SAG quickly passed a new regulation prohibiting unpaid appearances on commercial television shows. Not satisfied, the singer went on the attack against Sullivan, decrying “newspaper personalities on TV” who use movie actors “without paying for their services.”

Ed counterattacked by taking out full-page ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter to print his open letter to SAG president Walter Pidgeon: “Let us overlook the fact that Sinatra, regularly trounced by us when he becomes part of the rival network’s ‘spectacular,’ hardly qualifies as an impartial or disinterested witness. What I particularly resent is Sinatra’s reckless charge that Toast does not pay performers.” His show had paid over $5,000,000 in performers fees, he claimed, rendering “substantial benefits to motion pictures.” Additionally, “If Sam Goldwyn approached Sinatra, that hardly is my concern or problem. Certainly, I never approached Sinatra. My negotiations with Mr. Goldwyn involved an offer by me to pay a substantial sum of money … to represent, on film, thirty minutes of Guys and Dolls as an exclusive preview. Sincerely, Ed Sullivan.

P.S. Aside to Frankie Boy—never mind that tremulous 1947 offer: ‘Ed, you can have my last drop of blood.’ ”

The letter sent Sinatra into a sputtering rage. He took out full-page ads in the same trade publications, stating, “Dear Ed: You’re sick. Frankie. P.S. SICK! SICK! SICK!” To drive the point home, the word “sick” grew larger as it descended the page. The dueling full-page ads gave newspapers the fodder to nurture the story for an additional two weeks. Sinatra did not appear as part of Sullivan’s promotion of Guys and Dolls (though he was in a film clip that Ed showed), and in the short term their erstwhile friendship foundered.

In the 1955-56 television season, the first year the program was called The Ed Sullivan Show, a number of factors combined to make Sullivan’s showcase a cultural focal point. In the previous season it had ranked number five among the 122 shows in prime time, and this season’s ratings were trending still higher, drawing the attention of not only viewers but entertainers. Performers now practically clawed to get on the show; musicians knew an appearance sent their vinyl sales soaring, and comics knew a Sullivan introduction pushed their nightclub fees skyward. Moreover, MCA president Sonny Werblin provided Sullivan with an open door to his rich hoard of talent, so it was easier to get bigger names, which in turn made the show more attractive to other high-profile performers. Adding momentum was the increased production budget of $50,000 per episode.

With his now-larger budget, Ed often gave Lincoln Mercury automobiles to stars as inducements to appear: Henry Fonda got a black Thunderbird, Robert Mitchum got a black Lincoln Coupe, Bing Crosby got a red station wagon, Gene Kelly got a blue Lincoln convertible, and Gary Cooper got a champagne-colored Premiere.

Many Sundays now included a lavishly produced scene from a current Broadway play, performed by original cast members. In October, for example, actors Tony Randall, Melvyn Douglas, and Ed Begley performed a scene from Inherit the Wind, a play about the Scopes Monkey Trial written in response to the hysteria of McCarthyism. That same show saw performances by the Dave Brubeck Jazz Quartet, bejeweled pianist Liberace, vocalist Rosemary Clooney, and animal trainer Robert Lamouret with his talking duck.

In an unorthodox variation on his Broadway presentations, Ed booked film actors to recreate scenes from current movies, in essence performing a live trailer. The season opened with Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish reprising a scene from Night of the Hunter, and later in the year Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster reenacted a scene from Trapeze. These film tableaus were always just one of a half dozen acts on any evening; Curtis and Lancaster, for instance, shared the bill with vaudevillian Benny Fields, Metropolitan Opera singer Lily Pons, and trampoline acrobat Larry Griswold.

Rock ’n’ roll was just a squalling infant in November 1955, yet that month the public heard one of its original voices. On the night of November 20, Ed told viewers they were about to hear something novel: “Now ladies and gentlemen, as everyone knows, whenever any new musical trend has evinced itself in the popular trends—the Charleston or the black bottom or any of the rhythm songs—the first area to find out about it in advance is Harlem. A couple of weeks ago I went up to Harlem, I’d seen these shots in the newsreel about thousands of people jamming the streets around the Apollo Theater, all trying to get in to see Dr. Jive’s …”—and here Ed hesitated, unsure of what the music was called, so he riffed a few variations—“rhythm and roll, rhythm and color, rhythm and blues. So here is Dr. Jive!”

Dr. Jive was the stage name for Tommy Smalls, a tall, handsome, nattily attired black disc jockey, promoter, and band manager, who that evening presented his rhythm and blues revue: Bo Diddley, LaVern Baker, The Five Keys, and Wallis “Gator Tail” Jackson. The electrified beat that the four acts laid down formed the foundation of rock ’n’ roll, and that night was the first time that most of Ed’s viewers ever heard such a sound.

Most notable among Dr. Jive’s acts was Bo Diddley. When the Mississippi-born singer-guitarist moved to Chicago’s South Side, he brought a style of polyrhythmic syncopation he learned from black sharecroppers. Called “hambone,” it was a chant that was sung over an intensely physical cross-layered beat—its rhythm was the basis for tap dancing. The hambone chant had been handed down from slaves, who brought it with them from Africa. When Diddley recorded his first song with the hambone rhythm in Chess studios in 1955 (just months before his Sullivan appearance) he dubbed it “Bo Diddley.” This was the song he wanted to perform tonight.

At rehearsal that afternoon, Ed hadn’t liked it. The song was pure rhythm. Instead of a traditional verse and chorus, it was a driving, electrified version of the generations-old hambone chant-song, played over a visceral voodoo beat. Sullivan vetoed the selection. Diddley could remain on the bill, but Ed, casting around for a suitably contemporary alternative, told him to play Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons.” By comparison with “Bo Diddley,” Ford’s tune was a lumbering dirge, yet it was hot at the moment—it held number one on the charts, having sold more than a million copies in three weeks. Diddley apparently agreed with the song change, otherwise Ed wouldn’t have let him on that evening.

Yet during the live broadcast, when the camera cut to Diddley, he jumped into “Bo Diddley” as if he had never considered anything else. He and his three band-mates, dressed in matching light-colored blazers, started with a kick-snare cross-rhythm, then overlaid a percolating maracas; the bass player began thrumming the backbeat, and Bo joined in with rhythm guitar and chant-song vocals. The result was musical combustion, blissful and unapologetic. The tune would reverberate throughout rock ’n’ roll for a generation, with musicians from the Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen proudly claiming to have been inspired by it. Ed, however, was furious—Diddley never again played the Sullivan show.

Not all the shows that season introduced the audience to such otherworldly sounds. For Ed’s program on Christmas Day—he wasn’t going to take the day off—actors Gary Cooper and Rod Steiger performed a scene from their film The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, the Michigan Glee Club sang carols, and Ed presented a taped segment from a holiday ice show featuring Czech skating champion Miroslava Nachodska.

In January’s tribute to America’s songwriters and composers, famed bandleader Cab Calloway tap-danced in black tie and tails with his daughter Layla. In February, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz shared the stage with vocal quartet the Ames Brothers; Desi sang along as Lucy goofed around pretending to be the fifth singer. Later in the hour, Rodgers and Hammerstein chatted with Ed about their music and introduced performances of their favorite songs. Following them was actor Orson Welles rendering a scene from his Broadway production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and ventriloquist Rickie Layne riposting with his dummy Velvel.

The following week, Pulitzer Prize—winning poet Carl Sandburg recited his “A Lincoln Portrait” accompanied by the ever-mellow Andre Kostelanetz Orchestra; actor Hal Holbrook monologued as Mark Twain; and Clayton Moore, who played TV’s Lone Ranger, demonstrated some swift pistol work, after which acrobatic team the Amandis dazzled with a teeterboard.

As winter turned to spring, the Sullivan show presented actors Jimmy Cagney and Jack Lemmon in a scene from the Broadway play Mr. Roberts; Walt Disney gave an award to Fess Parker for his dramatic performance in Davey Crockett; French mime Marcel Marceau re-created the story of David and Goliath; and Ed hosted the Mother of the Year Awards, spotlighting actresses Betty Grable, Deborah Kerr, and June Allyson.

For the show’s eighth-anniversary program in June, Ed arranged for a crowd of celebrities to pay tribute to the show’s longevity. In a group sing-along, Ronald Reagan (host of the popular General Electric Theater), Natalie Wood, Robert Walker, Walt Disney, Lucille Ball, and Desi Arnaz all warbled “Happy Anniversary” in a tribute to Ed. Broadway veteran Ethel Merman belted out “Sullivan for Me,” longtime friend Louis Armstrong stopped by to sing “Happy Birthday,” Harry Belafonte crooned calypso music, and screen star Gregory Peck previewed next week’s lineup.

Peck was a natural choice: the following week Ed dedicated the full hour to director John Huston, and Peck gave a dramatic reading from Moby Dick, a Huston film currently in production in which he starred. Sullivan presented film clips from the director’s work, including Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon, interviewing Huston along with Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, and José Ferrer, who demonstrated getting in and out of makeup for a Hollywood movie. Ed performed mock gangster dialogue with Edward G. Robinson, then Robinson, Ed, and Huston brought on Lauren Bacall, who talked about her husband Humphrey Bogart’s work with the director. (Bogart was seriously ill and in the last months of his life.) In the audience for a bow that night was horror maven Vincent Price.

Over the next few weeks, Ed interviewed Bing Crosby, presented Borscht Belt comic Myron Cohen, and introduced the Iowa Highlanders, a Scottish bagpipe squad. In late July—Ed continued to produce new shows almost all summer long— Sullivan showcased the Barnum & Bailey Circus, spotlighting famed clown Emmett Kelly and the full mélange of aerialists, big cats, and trapeze artists.

As the weeks of glittering spectacle and celebrity flew by, The Ed Sullivan Show’s ratings edged ever higher. Having been television’s fifth-ranked show the previous year, Nielsen ratings for the 1955-56 season indicated that it was now the third-ranked show. It ran behind only I Love Lucy and The 64,000 Question, and was one spot higher than Disneyland, The program had reached its loftiest perch yet. By most accounts the show had been second-ranked in the 1948-50 time period, running behind Milton Berle, yet there was very little competition then. Now, the Sullivan show had regained its earlier leading status in a crowded field, in an industry whose production standards boasted the beginnings of sophistication.

Further sign of the program’s ratings dominance was seen in the fate of the show that ran opposite Sullivan’s, NBC’s Comedy Hour, which collapsed that season. As Time reported, “Colgate, which was displeased with the failure of its show to equal the drawing power of the Sullivan show, asked to be relieved of its contract.” Ed, inarguably, had done it. He had reached the pinnacle of the new medium that was taking over the American living room.

At the tail end of the 1955-56 season, for all the dizzying success Sullivan enjoyed, the showman stumbled. In question was his booking of film star Ingrid Bergman. On his July 18 program, Ed made a titillating announcement about the Swedish-born actress: she was scheduled for a guest appearance in October.

Viewers across the country gave a collective gasp. Known for her luminous portrayals in 1942’s Casablanca and 1945’s Spellbound, Bergman had shocked Hollywood and scandalized the public in 1949. Although married, while in Italy filming Stromboli she had fallen in love with the film’s director, Roberto Rossellini. As news of her pregnancy and her decision to leave her husband made headlines, the public turned away from her.

Yet Bergman proved remarkably resilient. After a career trough in the early 1950s, during which she lived outside the United States, she landed the lead in the 1956 big-budget Hollywood film Anastasia. She was in London filming the picture when Ed announced her upcoming appearance. As Sullivan left for London to shoot some footage from the set, reporters deluged him with questions. His announcement of Bergman’s return was a national news item—which was why he made it. Between her earlier controversy, her long self-exile, and her current film role, the prospect of the first live Bergman television appearance touched off a publicity firestorm. How, reporters wanted to know, had Sullivan pulled off such a scheduling coup? Responding to their queries the day before he flew to London, Ed explained that the actress’s guest shot had been scheduled in conjunction with Twentieth Century Fox.

Sullivan’s plans began to backfire on him within the week. His sponsor, Ford, began to grumble about not wanting to be associated with Bergman, and letters from viewers poured in protesting her planned appearance. No small part of his success was his audience’s belief in him as their filter; they trusted him as a kind of Minister of Culture. While Ed could pick and choose from almost anything to entertain his viewers, from poet Carl Sandburg to the Barnum & Bailey Circus, his viewers expected him to be a prudent moralist in his choices. Was he now betraying their trust?

A still-thornier problem was posed by Bergman herself. On location in London, she told reporters that she had never agreed to go on Sullivan’s program. She acknowledged that a clip of Anastasia would be previewed on his show, yet “there was never any question of me going to the States with him.” When Ed returned from London and reporters asked him about the discrepancy, he again said that Twentieth Century Fox had been responsible for the announcement. But the studio declined comment.

Ed was now in a public relations conundrum. Some viewers were upset at the proposed appearance, while others were disgruntled at having been promised a glimpse of the controversial actress only to have it withdrawn. And everyone—including the battalion of reporters now following the story—wondered what was going on. He had to find a way to explain, amid escalating negative publicity, why the star would not appear despite his recent and very clear statement that she would.

The solution he chose reflected his anger at Bergman. She could have made an appearance yet instead had publicly embarrassed him. For her part, she likely remembered that he had joined the chorus labeling her a pariah when she announced her intention to have a child with Rossellini. As Ed had then written in his column, “The Ingrid Bergman-Rossellini baby will be baptized because in such a case, the Catholic Church holds that the sins of the parents cannot victimize the child, born out of wedlock.…” Despite his column’s judgmental excoriation of Bergman, Ed apparently assumed that since he was promoting her film, the studio would strong-arm her into an appearance. But the actress was not to be coerced.

When Ed went on the air on the night of July 29, the public awaited an explanation. Instead, he portrayed the situation as an issue to be decided by the viewers themselves. At the very end of the show he addressed the matter: “Now I know that she’s a controversial figure, so it’s entirely up to you. If you want her on our show, I wish you’d drop me a note and let me know to that effect. And if you don’t, if you think it shouldn’t be done, you also let me know that, too. Because I say it’s your decision and I’d like to get your verdict on it.” He told viewers that Bergman had “seven and a half years of time for penance,” and it was up to them to decide if that was enough.

Sullivan regretted his comments the moment he made them. He was offstage no more than a few seconds when, spotting talent coordinator Jack Babb, he exclaimed, “Why the hell did I say that?” With his intimate knowledge of his audience he knew that viewer mail would vote against having the actress on; in theory this would relieve him of the need to present her. Newsweek reported, presumably based on figures from Sullivan staffers, that mail was running 5,826 for, 6,433 against. But of course the vote meant nothing; Bergman certainly wouldn’t appear after Ed asked viewers to vote on the quality of her morality. His attempt to deflect attention from his own mistake was, at best, clumsy, and at worst, pharisaical.

Not since the show’s debut were reviewers so united in their attitude toward him—and so vociferous. New York Post columnist Leonard Lyons called Sullivan’s handling of the issue “tasteless and shocking.” New York Journal-American critic Jack O’Brian—always Sullivan’s toughest critic—printed a long statement by a Catholic priest who had “never seen anything like it,” and who noted that an individual’s morality could never by judged by public opinion. The New York Times’ J.P. Shanley pointed out that Sullivan had made no reference to Bergman’s morality when he initially announced her appearance, writing, “it would seem the producer’s approach to the subject has changed significantly.” Los Angeles Mirror-News columnist Hal Humphrey, after censuring the showman, snorted, “Incidentally, when is Ed Sullivan up for reelection?”

For once, Ed had no response to the hail of criticism. He knew he had bungled the Bergman affair. In the face of the fusillade of negative publicity he decided to cancel the preview of Anastasia.

Contributing to his awkward handling of the incident was his tendency to keep his own counsel in running the show. Director Johnny Wray supervised camera angles, but he had no veto over Ed’s on-air comments; likewise Marlo Lewis, like much of the staff, sometimes heard things from Ed for the first time when the showman told the television audience. The Sullivan show was run by exactly one person. And Ed, despite great affability in social situations, maintained a reserve between himself and those around him, handling issues as he saw fit. In this case that led to a serious stumble. “Ingrid never forgave me for what I had done,” he told an interviewer in the late 1960s. “And she was right.”

In the short term, if Ed wished to divert attention from the Bergman contretemps, he would succeed. Within the week an event happened in his life that effectively erased the incident from the headlines.