Elvis - 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 12. Elvis

ED’S DAUGHTER BETTY REMEMBERED HER CHILDHOOD YEARS in Hollywood with great fondness. Her happy memories drew her back to California; in her teenage years she made summer visits, staying with a friend. After graduating from Miss Hewitt’s School in New York, she attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where she majored in English. It was there, in 1949, that she met Robert Precht, a tall, good-looking classmate majoring in international relations. A romance bloomed, and although Bob transferred to U.C. Berkeley they continued to see each other.

During one of Ed and Sylvia’s trips to Los Angeles to visit Betty, she invited her boyfriend to meet her parents, with mixed results. The foursome had dinner at Chasen’s, a Beverly Hills restaurant known for its red leather booths and frequent celebrity appearances. At first the dinner went smoothly, the group chatting amiably, but things grew tense when the conversation turned to politics. Bob, an infrequent television viewer who had grown up in California, was only vaguely aware of Ed’s background. Thoughtful and articulate, he spoke at length about his antipathy toward the anticommunist fervor engulfing the nation. Specifically, he was upset that teachers were forced to sign loyalty oaths, and he detested what he thought of as the witch hunt of Richard Nixon, then a young senator allied with Joseph McCarthy. “I was a hot-headed college student,” Precht remembered. Ed, who was then actively promoting Red Channels, cut in with an angry retort: “Well, if you’re that upset, why the hell don’t you stop talking about it and do something?” An awkward silence fell over the table, with Bob at a loss for words and Betty and Sylvia clearly embarrassed. Recalled Precht: “He put me in place with that line.”

From that difficult start, however, the Sullivan family began to accept Bob. When Ed and Sylvia visited Betty during their summer vacations they spent more time with him. Betty temporarily left her sorority house to stay with her parents at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and Bob often met them at the hotel for dinner (though he was careful to park his beat-up 1938 Chevrolet a few blocks away to avoid presenting it to the hotel’s valet staff). On the surface, Ed, having come of age in the rough-and-tumble of 1920s-era New York newspapers, came from a world far different from that of Precht, who grew up in middle class surroundings in San Diego. Yet Ed saw something in Precht, perhaps his strength of character or native intelligence, perhaps an ambition not dissimilar to his own. When Betty and Bob got married, shortly after Betty’s graduation in 1952, Ed wrote her a note blessing the union: “Betty Dearest: This is the most wonderful day in your lives and the life of your mother and me. You are two fine kids, your love is based on mutual respect for each other’s rights, and it will be a happy marriage.… Our deep love now reaches out to embrace Bob.… God love you both and protect you and grant you just as much happiness as He has granted your mother and daddy. With all my love, Daddy.”

Bob, having completed a tour of duty in the Navy during the Korean War, studied Russian and worked in the Navy’s security division in Washington, D.C. In the mid 1950s he and Betty made frequent visits up to New York to visit Betty’s parents, which created an opportunity for Precht. Ed’s connections opened the door to the new field of television, which Bob found glamorous and potentially lucrative. “It was very tempting,” he recalled, and all the more so because the couple now had two young children.

In 1956 he made the career change. With his interest in current events, Bob hoped for a position in the news division, but Sullivan’s influence opened no doors there. So Ed asked Marlo Lewis to hire him as a production assistant. Since Lewis had branched out, working on other CBS programs as well as the Sullivan show, Bob apprenticed with several shows, including a soap opera, children’s programs, and the courtroom drama The Verdict Is Yours. Precht also began working on the Sullivan show, sometimes working directly with Ed to help assemble the weekly program. Despite his lack of experience in show business, the son-in-law demonstrated a competency and professionalism that quickly proved his value beyond his family connection. When Ed took the show on one of its many location broadcasts, Bob was usually there as assistant producer.

For the show on August 5, 1956, Bob accompanied Ed to McGuire Air Force Base in Trenton, New Jersey, for a remote broadcast. After the show the Air Force flew them back to the Bridgeport, Connecticut airport, where they were picked up by Ralph Cacace, a handyman-caretaker at Sullivan’s estate in Southbury. With a little luck, Bob and Ed hoped to be home not long after eleven o’clock.

Around midnight, Betty and Sylvia began to wonder why they were running so late, Sylvia hoping out loud that nothing was seriously wrong, Betty speculating that the plane was probably late getting in. By the time the clock inched past one in the morning, the two were seriously worried, too concerned to sleep. With little to say, they waited, Betty half resting on the couch. She felt intuitively that this was more than a routine schedule delay. The minutes stretched out in the quiet house, the heavy silence broken only by the solemn ticking of a nautical clock on the fireplace mantle.

When the phone rang shortly after two A.M. Betty felt the breath rush out of her body. Ed and Bob had been in a serious car accident and their condition was unknown, said the police department caller. A squad car was dispatched to rush Sylvia and Betty to the hospital. As the two raced across Connecticut in the back seat of a police car, Sylvia sobbed in great heaves as Betty held onto her. Betty also held onto a reassuring thought: her husband and father must be alive and conscious, otherwise who would have given the police their phone number? The police driver pulled into a hospital emergency entrance, only to realize he had made a terrible mistake: it was the wrong hospital. Betty hurriedly got out and called the correct hospital, holding her breath while the nurse provided details about Ed and Bob’s conditions. They were seriously injured—but they were alive. As the car sped to the right hospital, Sylvia had something of a breakdown, nearing total hysteria.

Ed had been driving Bob and Ralph Cacace in his new Lincoln along the narrow twists and turns of Naugatuck Valley Road. They were only about twelve miles from home when the driver of a 1953 Pontiac, heading the opposite direction, fell asleep at the wheel; he was a twenty-two-year-old X-ray technician headed home after a late shift. Swerving suddenly into the oncoming lane, his car collided head-on with Sullivan’s. Ed was knocked unconscious and—some of the details remain unclear— apparently thrown from the car.

When he regained a bleary half-awareness he was lying by the side of the road on a piece of tarpaulin, sirens blaring in the distance and a light shining in his eyes. His chest, to the extent he felt it, seemed to be caved in, and he tasted blood in his mouth. A young girl in a party dress held his hand, seemingly unconcerned that Sullivan’s blood was staining her outfit; her name was Sue Miles and she lived nearby. A man whom he would never meet held Ed’s head in his lap. The light shining in Ed’s eyes came from a flashlight held by a doctor’s assistant. “Hey, doc, come here quick, this one’s Ed Sullivan,” he said. “I don’t know who he is,” the doctor replied. “After a wreck like this they all look alike.”

The ambulance crew worked on extricating Bob and Cacace from the car, which was totaled. Sullivan, laboring to breathe, gave the girl his number and told her to phone Sylvia and Betty. “Tell them it’s nothing serious,” he gasped as she hurried off. The size and heft of the Lincoln had saved them, otherwise they likely would have died in the crash. Sullivan had a fractured rib and a mass of cuts and bruises all over his body. Bob, riding in the front seat, had a broken arm and ankle and deep facial cuts. Cacace suffered chest injuries and a skull fracture. The other driver sustained a fractured hip and jaw. The news was bad, yet considering the nature of the collision it could have been worse. Sylvia and Betty maintained an anxious day-and-night vigil, but were buoyed by the news that Bob and Ed were expected to recover fully. When Marlo Lewis visited, he was horrified by the sight of Ed lying under an oxygen tent looking “frail and concave, like a scarecrow with the stuffing ripped out.” Sonny Werblin assigned two of his talent agents to the hospital to ensure that Ed’s needs were taken care of.

The crash was a national news item, though there was confusion about how serious it was. Ed made light of it, telling reporters he expected to be home soon and would resume his broadcast the following Sunday; a near-death experience wasn’t going to keep him off the air. But his physician quickly vetoed that idea and original press reports were corrected: the show would go on with a substitute host. On Wednesday came the announcement that he would go home after a couple more days; that, too, was soon amended. Due to complications of his bronchial condition—probably exacerbated by his pack-a-day cigarette habit—he required additional hospital time. Ed was released on August 13, seven days after being admitted, and taken to his Southbury home for an expected three- to four-weeks’ rest.

But the accident traumatized his system more than he realized. On August 21 he was re-admitted to the hospital for what his doctors referred to as lung congestion; only after a six-day stay did he return to his Southbury estate to convalesce. Resting, however, soon made him tense and unhappy, and he resumed booking the show as guest hosts—Kirk Douglas, Red Skelton, Charles Laughton—took his place. A few years earlier he had undergone minor stomach surgery for his ulcer, and, defying doctor’s orders and Sylvia’s protests, had missed only one show; when he had resumed hosting ten days later he needed to collapse into a chair between introducing acts. Now he attempted to do the same, lobbying for a return though his condition called for rest.

Through it all the show’s regular watchers produced a titanic outpouring of affection. The show normally received box loads of weekly mail, yet now some 36,000 letters arrived voicing concern for the showman. Having inhabited viewers’ living rooms for so many Sundays, many audience members saw him as a family member. After the program each week much of the studio audience wouldn’t leave, instead approaching the stage and asking a steady stream of questions about Ed’s condition. Priests and nuns wrote to say they included him constantly in their prayers. National newspapers kept up a running report on his condition; The New York Times ran nearly weekly updates during his five-week absence.

Even Frank Sinatra, his recent feud with Sullivan apparently forgotten, made a get-well phone call to the showman in mid August, telling the New York Post “I love Ed and I know he loves me.” Eager to make his affection public, within the week Sinatra appeared gratis on the Sullivan show during a program guest hosted by Red Skelton. (He claimed, though, that laryngitis prevented him from singing, so after Skelton read a tribute to him written by Ed, and the singer plugged his new movie, he still had time to dash across town and make an appearance on NBC’s 8 P.M. show.)

Ed returned to his show in mid September, though whether he was well enough to do so was arguable. Onscreen he appeared wan and had obviously lost weight. To compare the shows before and after the accident is to see that something vital had been taken from him. Into his early fifties he had retained the glow of his Port Chester athleticism, aided by his love of golf and his many days spent outside at the racetracks. He had been a handsome man, ruddy, projecting a confident masculine glow. If there was a single moment when he most markedly began to lose his youthful vigor, it was with the physical trauma of the head-on collision. The crash was the catalyst that accelerated the aging process.

Not that he acknowledged this in the immediate aftermath. In the months ahead he jumped right back into his old schedule, if anything moving into higher gear as he envisioned broadcasts from ever more exotic locations, requiring more travel and more logistical headaches. His only concession was to stop driving; from then on he took taxis, and his friend Joe Moore picked him up for Sunday’s rehearsal. Otherwise he remained in fighting shape, and as always was ready to take on all comers.

The tabloid Exposed, which printed gossipy half-invented articles about celebrities, reported on the car crash in a piece entitled “Why Ed Sullivan Needs Bodyguard.” According to Exposed, Ralph Cacace, Ed’s Southbury caretaker who was in the car that night, was actually his full-time bodyguard. (That Cacace never accompanied Sullivan in New York, where he spent most of his time, wasn’t reported in the article.) The showman needed such a protector, the tabloid claimed, because he had become so hated by so many:

The Sullivan family, mid 1950s. From left: Sylvia, Ed, Betty (holding a very young Rob Precht), and Bob Precht, who would later become the producer of the Sullivan show. (Globe Photos)

“Today, living on his 200-acre farm in Southbury, Connecticut, he’s a lonely man, feared, hated, and envied. He’s built walls around himself, such as his full-time bodyguard. Behind the façade, there’s a mighty unhappy, afraid man—the victim of his own consuming egotism.

“Let’s face it: Sullivan is a Big Man in the American entertainment business, and big guys aren’t liked. The people who knew him when he was on his way up from his $10-a-week job as reporter for a hick-town paper are only a few of those who resent the success that has come to him.”

As Exposed reported it, Ed’s ruthless practices—his tendency to push around others, from Arthur Godfrey to Frank Sinatra to Walter Winchell—made him feared across the industry. Even his own sponsors were afraid of him, the tabloid claimed: “They know that behind that frigid smile and glassy eyes there lies a raging blaze of ambition that keeps driving the ex-small-town kid to the top.

“He’s at the top now, but he has bought the Trendex score and the big salary at the cost of fear. His march to the top has left a trail of enemies who would gladly sink their teeth in his throat—or a knife wherever they can.”

NBC faced a challenge in 1956: finding a way to compete with Sullivan. Despite its leviathan budget, Comedy Hour had failed, and the network’s attempt to hire Ed himself had also come to naught. So now NBC cast around for a fresh challenge to the showman’s vise grip on Sunday night. The decision it made was creative and slightly risky. The network maintained the time slot’s variety format, but to host it they hired a performer who offered a vivid contrast with Ed, Steve Allen.

Allen was a superb choice as an anti-Sullivan. While Ed played the reserved and stiff guardian of the status quo, Allen was witty and irreverent, and at age thirty-five younger and more forward looking than any previous national television host. His owlish mien and thick black glasses frames belied his gift for unpredictable off-the-cuff comedy. When substituting for Arthur Godfrey on Talent Scouts he made a point of forgetting contestants’ names, and he poked fun at the sponsor by brewing a cup of Lipton Tea with a package of noodle mix, then dumping the resulting concoction into Godfrey’s ukulele. His sharp taste for farce earned him a following as host of the late-evening Tonight Show, among other programs. He was also an actor, having starred in 1955’s The Benny Goodman Story, and an author and prolific songwriter. Allen’s cerebral wit and his tendency to tweak the powerful presaged 1960s comics like Mort Sahl and George Carlin. Shortly before launching his show opposite Sullivan’s, Allen wired Ed: “Dear Ed. Would you lend me ten Trendex points until payday? Love and kisses, Steve Allen.”

Despite the jest, when The Steve Allen Show debuted in the summer of 1956, Allen immediately went for the jugular. For his second broadcast on July 1 he booked the one-man rock ’n’ roll tornado, the phenomenon who was thrilling teenagers but horrifying adults: Elvis Presley. The singer had only recently burst onto the national scene, having released the moody, noirish—but rhythmic—“Heartbreak Hotel,” in January. Its release had been a match thrown in gasoline. The song swiftly scaled the hit chart, fueled by five appearances on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s CBS-TV program, Stage Show. (The Dorsey brothers, having led top swing orchestras in the war years, were now consigned to a back-of-the-pack television show.) In April, Presley sang “Heartbreak Hotel” on Milton Berle’s show; shortly thereafter the tune hit number one—a first for the singer.

Elvis’ first guest spot on Berle was sedate, yet when he returned in June his hurricane hips went into action, swiveling in time to the backbeat. His fans swooned, but a good portion of the audience was deeply offended. Rock ’n’ roll was seen by many as promoting juvenile delinquency and antisocial behavior, and Presley was the worst of it. He exuded something not completely definable, an unsettling alembic of sex and longing and alienation; whatever it was, it was too primal, too direct, and certainly too rhythmic. And the way he moved as he sang—especially those pelvic gyrations—was lewd and lascivious, many protested. While his records flew off the shelves, letters of protest poured into newspapers and television stations across the country.

Steve Allen, booking Presley for $5,500, downplayed his explosive charisma, instead playing the singer’s performance for laughs. Allen’s staff dressed Presley in a tuxedo and convinced him to keep his body movements to a minimum. They cast him in a drowsy comedy sketch in which he sang “Hound Dog” to a basset hound. It was closer to sleepwalking than rock ’n’ roll, and the singer’s fans were horrified. The next day a crowd of teenagers picketed outside the NBC studio in Rockefeller Plaza, carrying signs with slogans like “Bring Back the Grinds” and “We Don’t Like the ‘New’ Elvis, We Want the ‘Old’ Presley.”

Nonetheless, that evening’s Allen show threw down a challenge to Sullivan. When Ed made his weekly call to the Trendex ratings service—he called every Monday morning without fail—he confirmed what he had suspected: Allen’s show had soundly beaten his, garnering a 20.2 rating compared with his own show’s 14.8. Ed, in an uncharacteristically lighthearted response to a competitor, dashed off a telegram to Allen: “Steven Allen Presley, NBC-TV, New York City. Stinker. Love and kisses, Ed Sullivan.”

The kidding aside, Sullivan was smarting from the Presley drubbing. Earlier in the year, he had been alternately dismissive and condemning of the singer. Although he had a chance to book Presley while his price was still reasonable, Ed had scoffed at the thought: “$5,000 for some youngster known only in the south?” After Presley’s appearance on Berle ignited protests across the country, Ed told reporters that Elvis was unfit for family viewing. But being outpointed by the upstart Allen led the showman to reconsider his position.

The other programs that had booked Elvis—Berle’s, the Dorsey brothers’, Steve Allen’s—faced less risk in presenting Presley. Berle by 1956 had faded, falling from the Top 20 to never again regain his ratings. The Dorsey show was even lower rated and Steve Allen was brand new. For them, controversy was desirable; they had little to lose. But The Ed Sullivan Show was the number three show on television; it wasn’t just another variety show, it was thevariety show. Now in its eighth year, it had earned its coveted spot through Ed’s eye for talent and uncanny sense of American tastes. Getting booked on the Sullivan program was the show business equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. As the unofficial Minister of Culture, he was the guide and the guardian for the American living room. Viewers expected him to disapprove of Elvis.

Or did they? Presley, for the first time, created a division in Sullivan’s audience. The singer’s recordings were rocketing up the charts, yet authority figures were shaking their heads. Traditional vaudeville producers had never faced this kind of dilemma; they could book something for everyone while offending no one. But this new thing called rock ’n’ roll, like nothing before it, was splitting the living room asunder. What was a television producer who wanted an all-inclusive audience to do?

For Ed, that question was answered the moment Allen trounced him in the Trendex matchup. Playing to win meant taking a calculated risk—and fast. Within the week of Allen’s ratings victory he called Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker. It was time to make a deal. Not only would Elvis, the great corrupter of youth, appear on the Sullivan show—the sacrosanct bastion of American show business—he would be paid handsomely to do so. Colonel Parker, knowing he had Ed where he wanted him, extracted a whopping $50,000 for three appearances, far more than any previous Sullivan guest.

On the day the Presley—Sullivan contract was signed in July 1956, rock ’n’ roll took a definitive step toward the mainstream. Ed explained his change of heart to reporters by saying he had been misled by news reports of Presley’s outrageous stage behavior, and after reviewing kinescopes from the Dorsey show he found the accounts to be wildly exaggerated. That might have been so, yet he came to that conclusion only after his ratings loss. Steve Allen, poking fun at Ed’s about-face, said, “I hereby offer Ed Sullivan $60,000 for three appearances on my show, and if he accepts, I assure my viewers he will not be allowed to wiggle, bump, grind—or smile.”

A twenty-one-year-old Elvis Presley hours before his debut on the Sullivan show, September 9, 1956. Sullivan resisted booking Presley, yet the singer’s volcanic charisma made him a ratings goldmine. (CBS Photo Archive)

Sullivan still had to find a way to mitigate the Elvis backlash. Ed’s car accident that summer created a problem: he wouldn’t return in time for Elvis’ debut appearance on September 9, so he wouldn’t be there to reassure those viewers whom the singer would upset. Guest hosting that night was Charles Laughton, a classically trained English actor who introduced the evening’s performers with an ornate British accent. Ed made an unusual decision in creating the show’s running order: the rock ’n’ roller would not appear until three other acts had performed. This decision contradicted his longstanding practice of opening with his biggest attraction. Given the fee being paid Elvis and the excitement around his appearance, he was unquestionably the evening’s headliner. But Ed was burying him in the lineup, as if to say: I’m booking this kid, but he’s not taking over the show.

So that evening’s audience first saw an acrobatic team, the Amin Brothers, one of whom spun the other into a virtual blur; Dorothy Sarnoff, a star from Broadway’s The King and I, who sang “Something Wonderful”; and the Vagabonds, a four-man comedy-music team who goofed through a mock Hawaiian number.

Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis, and Sullivan, backstage before Elvis’ second Sullivan show appearance. Parker, realizing Sullivan needed an Elvis booking, charged the showman an unprecedented $50,000 for three appearances. (CBS Photo Archive)

Elvis’ segment was broadcast from a soundstage in Hollywood, where the twenty-one-year-old singer was filming Love Me Tender. He stood in a spotlight by himself on a darkened stage, dressed in a checked sport coat, armed with a guitar and a glistening pompadour and extravagant sideburns. He was clearly nervous, as if uncomfortable with all the attention. He mumbled a hello with an aw-shucks humbleness, then launched into the mid tempo “Don’t Be Cruel,” as his male backup group, the Jordanaires, doo-wopped along. When he introduced his next song, the slow ballad “Love Me Tender,” he stammered, getting the words out on his second try. His two-song set was restrained, even tentative, yet his female fans were enraptured; they voiced their affection with high-pitched screams.

The hips that shook a nation: Elvis’ second appearance on the Sullivan show, October 28, 1956. Adults were horrified, and Elvis was burned in effigy. (CBS Photo Archive)

Later in the hour Elvis performed again, this time with his band around him: drums, bass, and rhythm guitar, with the Jordanaires clapping and harmonizing. The tune was “Ready Teddy,” not much more than a straight rhythm and blues workout, yet its foot-tapping immediacy seemed to set him free. The camera pulled away as he turned into a dervish, revealing all of him, dancing to the rhythm with his guitar in one arm. To viewers not used to seeing rock ’n’ roll dancing he may have appeared possessed, his hips thrumming back and forth with the beat. His fans sounded almost crazed as they screeched with helpless adoration.

When the tune ended he had to pause to catch himself. “Thank you very much— whew!” He was relaxed and warmed up, a dangerous combination. Before continuing, he did a little business: “Mr. Sullivan, we know that somewhere out there, you’re looking in, and all the boys here and myself and everybody out here are looking forward to seeing you back on television.” With that, he set up his final number: “Friends, as a great philosopher once said.… You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog!” And here he leapt into the song like a man hurling over Niagra Falls, letting go of his guitar to snarl-sing “Hound Dog.” The girls erupted and he was in full motion, swiveling, dancing, all the way loose, driving every part of his body to the beat.

In response, the camera pulled up to show only his upper torso—the operator had been readied for this moment, and viewers were not given a direct shot of the volcano. Yet the limited camera angle didn’t dampen the effect—if anything, his facial expression, the abandon on his face, was more potent than even his gyrating hips. This was untamed beatific energy, the definition of charisma, a bolt of white-hot energy. The all-girl cheering section sounded like it was on the verge of storming the stage. Never before had so much female sexual desire been broadcast into so many American living rooms.

The evening was a decisive ratings triumph, garnering a 43.7 Trendex rating, translating to some sixty million people, or about a third of the country—the largest television audience to date. Indeed, Elvis’ performance of “Hound Dog” that night would be one of a small handful of moments that defined the decade. However, the ratings win was a Pyrrhic victory for Sullivan; the Trendex number masked a deep unhappiness.

Critics, predictably, kept the singer at arm’s length. “From his extensive repertoire of assaults on the American ear, Mr. Presley included ‘Hound Dog, ’ ” sniffed The New York Times’ Jack Gould. More worrisome for Ed, viewers were upset. Gould’s paper printed a raft of letters about Presley’s debut on Sullivan, most of them profoundly outraged. Typical of the responses was that of Howard Spalding, a high school principal in Mount Vernon, New York, who wrote, “If the adverse public reaction that follows an unfortunate performance such as this were directed at the sponsor, would it not cause advertisers to consider more carefully what they wished to present to the public?” Harry Feldman, a high school music teacher, complained, “One shudders to contemplate the cultural level of the next generation.”

Mrs. Rhoda Frank attempted something of a defense of Presley: “Adults who forever misunderstand the desires of these teenagers immediately took up the cries of ‘suggestive performance,’ ‘degrading routines,’ and ‘sexual gyrations.’ Believe me, the teenagers were not aware of this interpretation until it was presented to them by the unhealthy few.” But Mrs. May Zeoli gave notice: “The few studios that welcome rock ’n’ roll and vile characters should be warned that a license to operate a TV station is a privilege that can be taken away by the authorities.”

At this point Ed sought to navigate two opposing currents. He wanted to assuage his audience’s fears, and he also wanted to keep riding the Presley ratings tidal wave. For the singer’s second appearance on October 28, Ed, now recuperated from his car crash, attempted to play both sides. He spaced Elvis’ appearances at three points in the program—ensuring that Trendex ratings stayed high throughout the hour—but again did not allow the singer to open. Instead, he began the show with a dose of pure virtue, an Irish children’s choir, thirty kids singing a sweet Gaelic folk tune accompanied by piano. Their performance was churchy, with slow tempos and plenty of close-ups of their angelic faces. Clearly, the Sullivan show had not been overtaken by the forces of licentiousness. As Ed led the applause, he made light of the tensions underlying this evening. “Some people have wondered if that little boy in a kilt is Elvis Presley—it’s not,” he intoned, getting a solid chortle.

When he introduced Elvis, the girls screamed as if they had glimpsed an apparition. Dressed in a light-colored blazer and a skinny tie, the singer seemed to have grown more comfortable with an audience even in the weeks since his first appearance. But the camera didn’t share that comfort: it shot his rendition of the finger-snapping “Don’t Be Cruel” mainly from the shoulders up. Again, though, the singer couldn’t be contained. He projected physical exuberance with a head shot alone, and when he added seductive little vocal twists to his melody line, while sending a knowing smile out to his fans, they deluged him with shrieks.

Before Elvis’ second number Sullivan walked on and shook his hand, having to labor to stop the female screaming for a little chitchat. Ed told the audience that Elvis sang this next number, the theme song to the film Love Me Tender—his first film, released just seven weeks earlier—in a scene in which “his three brothers come home from the Confederate armies … and he sings this song to his mother and his young bride.” Certainly, Ed’s comments implied, this boy’s heart was in the right place; based on Ed’s setup the song was almost sanctimonious. The studio audience clearly agreed that Elvis was adorable. As he crooned the moody “Love Me Tender,” with minimal movement, it seemed a riot was about to break out, with spontaneous shrieks at melodic pauses. Frantic “shushes” were heard, producing temporary quiet, yet as he finished the final chorus an intense burst of female energy overwhelmed the studio sound system.

As the screams subsided, Ed joined Presley on the set. He tried to talk about the singer’s next song—“Now Elvis is going to be back in just a few minutes …”—yet the girls cut him off. He and Elvis chatted for a few moments while waiting for the wave to crest, but it wouldn’t, so Ed gave up. “All right, c’mon!” he shouted, gesturing with his arms to let the screams loose.

To calm the audience, Elvis had to walk offstage, leaving Ed to address the older folks at home. “I can’t figure this darn thing out. He just goes like this”—and here Ed did his own little hip shake, earning a few stray female shrieks—“and everybody yells.” The showman was placing himself on the side of the reasonable adults in the audience, who couldn’t figure it out either.

Before Sullivan went to commercial, he told viewers of Elvis’ recent visit to his Delmonico apartment. The singer had startled Sylvia and her friends during an afternoon card game. Ed said that in his conversation with Presley that day, he mentioned to Elvis that he liked the melody to “Love Me Tender,” to which the singer replied, that’s no wonder, it’s based on a Stephen Foster tune. Again, Ed’s story attempted to offer a life raft to his older viewers: this wild rock ’n’ roller’s song was actually based on something as square as a nineteenth-century folk song.

While waiting for Elvis’ second appearance that night, the teenagers in the audience had to endure Senor Wences, the Spanish ventriloquist who used his own hand as his dummy, painting it to resemble a face. The audience laughed delightedly as Wences’ hand chirped back at him in quirky Spanish-accented phrases. A Sullivan favorite, Wences appeared twenty-three times over the years.

When the camera cut to Elvis, for the first time that evening he had left his guitar backstage, so nothing covered his mid section. He acknowledged Ed’s introduction with characteristic politeness: “Thank you very much, Mr. Sullivan.” The Jordanaires began harmonizing a slow ballad, and Elvis started singing “Love Me,” turning toward Ed offstage during a melodic pause: “It’s a new one, Ed,” getting a few laughs for his effort. He stumbled on the lyrics but kept going, to the clear joy of his fans. As he gently swayed they shrieked at most every pause.

The moment he finished, Ed came on the set. “I want to thank all you youngsters, you made a promise you wouldn’t yell during his songs, and you’re very, very good— you haven’t,” he said. Yet they had screamed, in ways that no previous Sullivan audience ever had. Ed appeared almost too eager to congratulate them on their supposed good behavior, as if by praising wayward children he could encourage improvement.

He kept the lid on the teenage energy by allowing Elvis only one song this set, forcing the singer’s fans to sit through other acts. Joyce Grenfell, a very proper British comedienne dressed as a grande dame with long white gloves, warbled a novelty tune. Then the full Broadway cast of Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella kicked and twirled across the stage in a series of visually rich musical dance numbers.

When Elvis came back for his final set, he appeared to be in a lighthearted mood. So too, were his fans. They had behaved, or so they had been told, but they didn’t want to anymore. The singer’s mere appearance provoked screams that suggested a fire had broken out in the theater. He asked, “Ladies and gentlemen, ah, could I have your attention, please?” and he flashed a beguiling smile, suddenly getting near silence. He started to play with the audience, as if its excitement level could be increased. “I’d like to tell you that we’re going to do a sad song for you,” he said with a big grin. “This here song is one of the saddest songs you ever heard … it really tells a story, friends …” He pretended to jumpstart the song several times, teasing the audience with his head fakes, each time eliciting a groan of female anticipation, each time pulling back for a toothy smile, his well-lubricated pompadour glistening in the studio lights.

And then he did it. Presley catapulted into the rapid-fire growl of “Hound Dog”—the song had hardly ever been rendered this fast. For the first time that evening, viewers got all of Elvis, his hips gone mad, the camera pulling back to show full torso, his whole body a quivering, dancing blur. For a moment he caught himself, clearly shaking his head no, as if to say, I shouldn’t shake like that, and he stood ramrod stiff—which lasted all of four beats, after which the dam broke.

As the rock beat kept up a foot-tapping rhythm, he swiveled with untrammeled abandon; not only were his hips gyrating, everything about him was gyrating. He was a human zigzag, his lip upturned, his legs akimbo, his head bobbing, unshackled from anything that had come before, dancing and weaving across the stage in immoderate happiness. He wasn’t just singing rock ’n’ roll, he was rock ’n’ roll; this was freedom and joy and sex all wrapped up into a moment of spontaneous beatitude. The girls were out of control, their promises of restraint broken and forgotten, their screams erecting a wall of sound over which Elvis was hardly audible. As he concluded his two-and-half-minute revolution, he breathlessly grinned and waved good-bye: “Until we meet again, may God bless you, like he’s blessed me.” His fans shrieked as if they had been hypnotized. Based on the studio audience’s response, this had to be one of the most successful Sullivan shows ever.

But it wasn’t. While the evening provided yet another overwhelming ratings victory, far outpacing The Steve Allen Show, a segment of the audience felt more deeply upset than ever. Elvis was hanged in effigy in Nashville, and a group of concerned citizens in St. Louis got together and burned him in effigy. That a segment of Sullivan’s audience was so unhappy presented him with a dilemma. The singer’s contract called for one more appearance. But how was Ed to handle an act that drove ratings into the stratosphere while so profoundly alienating so many of his viewers? He had always produced his show with the belief that there was a single audience, but now, for the first time, there were two very distinct audiences, irreconcilably so. Even for a master showman, rock ’n’ roll was proving to be a difficult beast to handle.

Yet Sullivan had a solution. For Elvis’ final appearance on January 6, Ed attempted to heal the schism that wouldn’t be healed. Pleasing both the Elvis fans and Elvis haters, if such a minefield could be tiptoed through, required him to present the singer with a strict guiding hand.

Ed was in good spirits as he opened the show that night. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a big show, a real big shew,” he said, getting a hearty chuckle with his imitation of Sullivan impressionists, “with Elvis Presley headlining tonight.” At the singer’s name the female contingent erupted into a full-throated screech. “You promised,” Ed said, smiling and pointing up at the offenders, earning him another rippling laugh.

For the first time in his three appearances, Ed presented Elvis first. The singer was dressed in a glittery vest, his moist pompadour letting fly with a few seductively errant strands. Surrounded by the Jordanaires, he opened with a languorous, intimate version of “Love Me Tender,” in which the camera, appropriately, focused on a close facial shot. He stopped only to give a short smile—he had, if possible, grown still more charismatic since his last appearance—before launching into an aching “Heartbreak Hotel.” His shoulders quaked with the opening guitar twangs, and his entire body shimmied with the descending bass line’s plaintive cry. Or rather, it seemed as if his entire body was moving, but the camera’s eye stayed firmly fixed at chest level, so viewers at home had to surmise what the rest of him was doing based on his flurry of shoulder movements.

As the song whirled to a close, Elvis gave an aw-shucks thanks to his fans for making the next tune his biggest hit of the year—“We really are thankful for all the success you made us have, and everything”—then jumped into a bouncy, mid-tempo “Don’t Be Cruel.” He was having fun, flashing his high-wattage smile, though he wasn’t moving much. At the song’s high point he started working it, spinning into a hip-shaking dance, but again, television viewers couldn’t see it. With this restricted camera angle it became clear—the camera would not show anything beneath his chest. The spontaneous choreography of his infamous pelvis was only implied, not seen. Ed was censoring Elvis. As the third song ended it was clear, too, that the audience had been browbeaten into its best behavior; they were curiously silent except for right after a song. Elvis, to prompt shrieks during songs, was reduced to periodically cupping his hand to his ear, which coaxed short screeches from his more free-spirited fans. But the wall of squeals came only as the singer danced offstage to end his set.

The show moved on to English ventriloquist Arthur Worsley, whose dummy taunted him. His dummy spoke without moving its lips just as the ventriloquist did, earning hearty audience laughter. Following Worsley was Lonnie Satin, a very stiff black man in a tuxedo who crooned the ballad “I Believe” to polite applause.

Next up was twenty-three-year-old comic Carol Burnett, who pretended to be various girl singers at Broadway auditions, including the Nose Singer, the Jaw Singer, Miss Big Deal, and Miss Old Timer. Burnett simultaneously worked the camera like a close friend and connected with the studio audience, getting continuous waves of laughter with her wildly flexible facial and vocal contortions.

Elvis’ second set kicked off with a straight blues romp, “Too Much,” featuring a riffing guitarist and a gyrating Presley. But home viewers didn’t see much of the singer; the camera cut diplomatically to the guitarist’s fingertips. Elvis’ swiveling hips fueled a screaming mania in the studio audience, but home viewers were left wondering why, hearing a legion of inflamed studio fans while they got a close-up of guitar picking. For the next tune, the jaunty finger-snapper “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again,” the camera was equally chaste, hovering on Elvis’ face, venturing no lower than chest level. He spun offstage to end his set, after which Sullivan told the screaming girls “rest your larynx”—the singer was coming back.

Ed brought on boxer Sugar Ray Robinson for a celebrity chat, a common feature on the show. Considered by many experts to be the greatest pugilist in the sport’s history, Robinson wore a bandage over his left eye, having just lost the title to Gene Fullmer four days earlier. Ed chastised him, mostly good-naturedly, for what he called the boxer’s mistakes in his recent bout. “I was talking to Joe Louis the other day and he said he didn’t know what happened to you the other night,” Ed said, telling Sugar Ray he needed some lessons—which Ed proceeded to give. First, he taught Ray to clinch, pinning the boxer’s arms to his side to prevent him from punching; Robinson accepted the tip with a humble smile. To finish his lesson, Ed demonstrated the effective counterpunch: “Just remember what Sullivan tells you—hit him there!” and he sent a mock left jab to Robinson’s mid section.

Following the boxer was ballerina Nancy Crompton, who twirled in a tutu to a frantic cancan beat, rippling across the stage faster than the camera could follow. Then a rotund Brazilian singer, Leny Eversong, growled and belted out “El Cumbanchero” over a bongo-driven Latin beat. She was succeeded by a four-man German acrobatic team, the Gutees, two of whom were dressed as gorillas; their act was a two-minute melee of zoo animals versus zookeepers.

In the audience, Ed introduced two sports stars, Don Budge, the first player to win tennis’ Grand Slam, and Jackie Robinson, who had broken baseball’s color line in 1947, and who had recently retired. Ed gave a short speech about the greatness of Robinson’s career and led a second round of applause for him.

Following this was Bory and Bor, a ballroom dancer in a tuxedo who waltzed with a life-size female mannequin dressed in an elegant evening gown. Accompanied by a wild brassy beat, he flew around the stage with her in his arms, sometimes using the mannequin as support for a leap, sometimes spinning the mannequin as if she was a real woman. His act was brief, no more than ninety seconds, and he whirled so unpredictably the effect was akin to visual chaos. After big applause, Sullivan brought back on Leny Eversong, who belted out “Jezebel” over an orchestral tango. Then Ed introduced two sportswriters in the audience from competing publications, the Daily News’Gene Ward and the New York Post’s Jimmy Cannon; this was diplomacy on Sullivan’s part—he worked for the Daily News but he wanted good press from the Post.

Before Ed brought Elvis back out for the evening’s finale, he told viewers how committed the singer was to a charity, Hungarian relief. (Hungarians had attempted to revolt against the Soviet regime in October 1956 and were brutally suppressed.) Elvis was scheduled to perform a benefit for the charity, Ed told the audience, but in the meantime, “because he feels so keenly, he urges us all that immediate relief is needed, so long before his benefit he wants to remind you to send in your checks to your various churches, Red Cross, etc.” The audience had never put “Elvis” and “church” in the same sentence, so Ed was revealing a new dimension to the singer. And, if Elvis was such an avid supporter of the forces battling communism, then he couldn’t be a bad influence.

The camera cut to Presley and the Jordanaires, looking solemn, who sang an a capella version of the gospel song “Peace in the Valley.” It was a lugubrious rendering, with Elvis’ voice submerged in the supporting harmonies and the singer standing as motionless as a statue. Still, the camera took no chances, shooting him only from the chest up. His fans likely expected some combustible fireworks from his final performance, yet this sober performance threw a damp blanket over the singer’s fire. Never had Elvis been so grave. In the face of such propriety even the singer’s screaming section sounded muted, barely screeching louder than the general applause.

To wrap up the evening, Ed came on and chatted with Elvis about the singer’s plans. Lest any doubt linger about whether Presley was a subversive force—though after tonight’s neutered showing he threatened no one—Ed summed up his experience with Elvis: “I wanted to say to Elvis Presley and the country, that this is a real decent, fine boy. We want to say we’ve never had a pleasanter experience with a big name on our show, you’re thoroughly alright.” As he often did, he was speaking in code to his audience, letting them know that he himself, the unstinting watchdog, personally approved of the pompadoured singer. In response, Elvis lit up a winsome smile, the girls screeched, then Ed bid the audience good night.

In the following weeks, Sullivan managed to avoid significant backlash from disgruntled older viewers. His decision to restrict the camera work let these viewers know that their concerns were paramount. He could still be relied upon to safeguard the family living room. It helped, too, that by Elvis’ third appearance the singer was virtually omnipresent. His recordings had held the number one chart spot for twenty-five weeks in 1956, and would hold it for another twenty-five weeks in 1957, a feat never since achieved. So any complaints about the singer’s corrupting influence now had a diffuse target.

Still, problems loomed. Elvis was only the vanguard. Even a brief glance at the horizon revealed that rock’s infectious energy—plus the baby boom that began right after World War II—was spawning a new generation of musicians. Would they all be this difficult?