The Globetrotter - 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 13. The Globetrotter

THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW, although it had scooped Sullivan on Elvis, rarely provided a serious ratings challenge to Ed. Allen was immeasurably wittier but lacked Sullivan’s talent as a producer. Yet since they both put on shows every Sunday night at 8 P.M., at times their head-to-head competition took on a vituperative tone. Newspapers portrayed their competition as a feud, but more accurately it was a straightforward ratings battle with some accompanying grousing. After Elvis, Sullivan vowed never again to let Allen get ahead of him with a new act, and he learned to respect Allen’s sense of what was current and compelling.

In October 1956, just weeks before Elvis’ second Sullivan appearance, word got out that Allen planned a tribute to James Dean. The screen star’s mix of brooding nonconformism and diffident sex appeal had rocketed him to fame after only two major films, Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden, both released in 1955. Yet Dean, as if guided by his own legend, died in a high-speed car crash in September of that year, at age twenty-four. His last film, Giant, co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, was about to be released in the fall of 1956. Allen, hoping to capitalize on the Dean buzz as he had on Elvis, was negotiating to show a preview from Giant, and working on booking Dean’s aunt and uncle, who had raised the actor.

Sullivan saw an opportunity. With his close relationship with film studios, securing the Giant preview was quick work; he also booked Dean’s aunt and uncle before Allen could. On October 14, Sullivan presented his Dean tribute. (Sharing the bill were ballerina Nancy Crompton, Japanese aerialist Takeo Usui, and a performing monkey named Jinx.) The ratings grab brought howls of protest from Allen, who told reporters he couldn’t believe that it was Ed himself who was “responsible for such tactics”—it must have been a Sullivan staffer. Ed, calling Allen a “crybaby,” retorted, “My show is a one-man operation and he knows it.” Furthermore, he said, “Most of the variety show things started on our show—not that I’m a genius—they just started there. And now I’m being accused of ‘pirating!’ ” Hence their feud, such as it was, began.

The two showmen had a few more skirmishes. Allen scooped Sullivan in January 1957 by booking Charles Van Doren, the boyishly Brahmin university professor then wowing audiences with his phenomenal success on the quiz show Twenty One. (Van Doren was later disgraced in the resulting quiz show scandal.) That summer Allen again cried foul after a stolen booking, this time over Harry Belafonte, the Jamaican-raised actor and singer starring in 1957’s Island in the Sun. In the late spring, Sullivan announced that Belafonte would appear on his show, confounding the Allen staff, who had offered the performer $25,000 to appear first on their show. In June, Ed presented a clip of Belafonte singing “Lead Man Holler” from Island in the Sun—but without the performer himself.

He didn’t explain the Belafonte no-show, but he did succeed in disrupting Allen’s plans for a ratings win. Allen’s producer, Jules Green, claimed that Sullivan was “cheating the public” by claiming he would present Belafonte without actually booking him. When reporters asked Ed for comment, he replied, “I have no comment to make. I have no comment on either of those punks.” Ed’s feint with the Belafonte booking proved he could out jab the Allen show at will, but in truth Allen’s Nielsen victories were few enough that Ed needn’t have bothered.

In fact, there was little that offered Sullivan competition in the 1956-57 season. Month after month the show was one of television’s top rated. The program had long been a magnet for performers, offering a good payday as well as major exposure. At this point its ratings were so unchallenged that it offered any performer—no matter how renowned—a big bounce. (With one exception: when Ed called Colonel Tom Parker to book more Elvis appearances and he heard the singer’s new price—$200,000—he promptly hung up.) With his virtually unlimited access to talent, The Ed Sullivan Show became a live canvas that Ed filled however he wanted. Like an artist who starts with a basic knack but grows to enjoy true command over his medium, the showman was now freer and stronger than ever.

In September he booked Edward G. Robinson to perform a scene from Paddy Chayefsky’s play Middle of the Night on the same show with legendary French vocalist Edith Piaf, who sang “The Poor People of Paris.” A few weeks later he interviewed screen stars Rita Hayworth, Jack Lemmon, and Robert Mitchum on the same bill with French comedian Salvador, followed by the Bokaras acrobats, who cavorted with a teeterboard. In November Bing Crosby bantered with comic Phil Silvers before crooning “True Love,” after which Julie Andrews sang a Broadway medley and Kate Smith belted out “God Bless America.” Later that month Fats Domino—the pioneering rock ’n’ roller had five songs in the Top 40 that year—rollicked through “Blueberry Hill” on the same bill with Conn and Mann, a tap dancing duo from New York’s Copacabana nightclub.

At the end of November, Maria Callas rendered a selection from Puccini’s opera Tosca on an evening in which Ed (on film) interviewed Clark Gable on location; later that hour he showed clips of the 1956 All American football squad. In an early December program, Ed opened with vocalist Rosemary Clooney singing “April in Paris,” followed by the Princeton Triangle Club (men performing in drag), after which comic Myron Cohen spun his Borscht Belt humor. The show ended with the Modern Screen Awards, featuring appearances by Natalie Wood, Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, and Doris Day.

In January 1957 Elvis made his third appearance, with comic Carol Burnett and baseball star Jackie Robinson. Later that month jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong shared the bill with vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, followed by two Metropolitan Opera stars performing a scene from Madame Butterfly, on the same evening ventriloquist Senor Wences earned laughs by chattering with his painted hand. In February Benny Goodman and his big band swung through “Just One of Those Things” on the same bill with young stand-up comedian Johnny Carson, who did impressions of Sullivan and journalist Edward R. Murrow. In March Fred Astaire and Jane Powell dazzled through a tap-dance routine on the same bill with a tap duet by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. In April Olympic weightlifter Paul Anderson hoisted twenty people on a show in which ancient vaudeville team Smith and Dale played a sketch about taxes and Henry Fonda introduced a clip from his new movie Twelve Angry Men.

A cameo appearance on the Sullivan show by baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who broke the sport’s color line in 1947. Sullivan revered Robinson. (Globe Photos)

Later in the month Bill Haley and the Comets—one of the very first rock ’n’ roll bands—romped on “40 Cups of Coffee” and “Rudy’s Rock” (with the sax player running through the audience blowing his horn) on a show with Barbara & Her Dog, who performed novelty math tricks. As the weather turned warm, the Corps de Ballet danced a segment of “Czardas” on the same bill with comedian Dewey “Pig-meat” Markham. In mid summer Burt Lancaster performed a comedy sketch with Barbara Nichols, dancer Gene Kelly danced a soft-shoe with Ed—just kidding around—and the Cypress Garden water-skiers showed off their aquatic skills on location. A few weeks later the Everly Brothers harmonized on “Bye, Bye Love” and Ed (on film) appeared at a premiere of the new movie The Prince and the Showgirl along with Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, and Robert F. Kennedy.

When the dizzying 1956-57 season concluded and the Nielsen ratings were tallied, Ed found he had succeeded past any reasonable expectation. The Ed Sullivan Show was television’s number two—ranked program, behind only the perennially top-rated rated I Love Lucy. Close to forty million people a week watched his Sunday showcase. A few years earlier he had used tributes to moguls like Samuel Goldwyn and Darryl Zanuck to boost ratings. Now, on small screens in living rooms across the country, he held a comparable stature. Producing a program at its zenith in its ninth year, he was fully in command: of his show, of his place at the network, and of his position as a cultural tastemaker.

With bandleader Benny Goodman during a rehearsal for the Sullivan show in the 1950s. (Globe Photos)

Not that his eminence as an impresario meant he had grown correspondingly polished as a master of ceremonies. If he was marginally more at ease onstage in 1957 than in 1948, in essence he remained the same monotone show host, continuing to fumble and sputter despite his overly cautious approach. Sullivan’s malapropisms became show business lore. The talent agents forced to wait outside the stage door in the “Wailing Wall” area during rehearsal traded stories of Sullivan’s missteps, and they had no lack of material. Comedian Jack Carter was introduced, variously, as John Crater, Jack Carson, John Kerr, and, once, Carson McCullers. A performing troupe from New Zealand was called “the fierce Maori tribe from New England.” Famed clarinetist Benny Goodman was lauded as a trumpeter, Roberta Peters became Robert Sherwood, and Ed once introduced Robert Merrill by saying “I’d like to preventRobert Merrill.” Citizens of Miami regularly sent letters correcting his pronunciation of their city’s name—he pronounced it “My-am-ah”—and he always referred to Baltimore as “Ball-tee-more.” He never went through a show without garbling syntax, and polysyllabic words could be mangled to unintelligibility.

Other entertainers took great sport with the showman’s stilted stage presence. “Ed Sullivan is the only man who can brighten up a room by leaving it,” quipped Joe E. Lewis. Jack Benny asked, “What would happen, Ed, if you weren’t here to introduce the acts? As a friend, let me give you some advice. Don’t ever stay home to find out.” Henny Youngman observed, “In Africa the cannibals adored him. They thought he was some new kind of frozen food.” (Eddie Cantor, an almost lone dissenting voice, wrote in his 1957 memoir that Sullivan had “a sense of showmanship second to no one in the business.”)

Pop singer Connie Francis remembered dreading being called over to shake Ed’s hand after a performance. “You never knew what he was going to say,” Francis said. “He was so funny—he didn’t mean to be funny. I think the average guy watching television said, ‘I could speak better than that.’ ”

In dress rehearsal, Ed once called over singer Jack Jones to chat, considered a major career boost among performers. “Wasn’t your father Allen Jones?” Ed asked the singer. “He still is,” Jones replied, getting a big audience chuckle. After rehearsal, Sullivan told Jones that he liked the humorous exchange and wanted to recreate it in that evening’s broadcast. During the show Sullivan called over Jones as planned, but Ed goofed up the setup question, asking: “Isn’t your father Allen Jones?” And all Jones could say was “yes,” which fell flat. After the show Ed was furious. Jones tried to explain: “But Mr. Sullivan, you didn’t say it the way you said it during rehearsal.” “Don’t tell me!” Ed retorted. “You should have said ‘He still is!’ ” Sullivan refused to book Jones for a long time afterward.

“Sometimes you wondered,” recalled comedienne Carol Burnett, of the showman’s many fumbles. Causing many of these stumbles and stutters was nerves. Even as an established star he battled stage fright, and several Sullivan staffers said that he remained nervous onstage throughout the run of the program. Many veteran performers, of course, suffer stage jitters despite a long career, yet manage to transcend it. With Ed, turning on a camera never stopped prompting a profound dampening. The feisty, opinionated Broadway gossip with a quick left jab became almost funereal, careful to the point of caricature. And he was loath to attempt a change. His sponsor’s ad agency, Kenyon & Eckhardt, occasionally suggested he liven up his stage presence, maybe develop an act or tell a few jokes. Ed rejected them summarily. “You don’t screw with success,” he said.

Paradoxically, his antistyle endeared him with the audience. Being maladroit made him far more likable. Viewers felt they were getting the real thing; clearly this man was anything but a slick salesman. Ed was just Ed. He wasn’t part of that alien tribe known as entertainers, or so it seemed, but instead appeared far closer to an audience member. One night he introduced an actress in the audience by saying “she’s currently starving on Broadway”—perhaps a Freudian slip, given his own hungry struggle as a young Broadway columnist—and then realized his mistake. The audience began to laugh, and he began to laugh with them. Everyone enjoyed a hardy chuckle at Ed’s awkwardness. To think, just four hours earlier this man had taken complete dictatorial control over the show, issuing ultimatums, slashing comics’ well-honed gags, stepping on toes at will. And here he was on camera, as nonthreatening as the average uncle Charlie.

Sullivan’s need to keep his feisty, combative nature off camera was not shared by the man he so envied and admired through the years, Walter Winchell. After some coaxing, Winchell launched his first television show in 1952, pushed into it as radio faltered in the face of TV’s bounding growth and Walter’s own radio show fell from the top ten. His debut was a telecast of his radio gossip show, with Winchell poised near the typewriter and the set decorated as a busy city newsroom. He projected an intense, on-the-edge energy in his broadcast, just as he always had in his radio show. He even wore his fedora on the air, as if attempting to recreate central casting’s idea of a hard-bitten newshound. It was the same persona that he and Ed had projected as they ran up and down Broadway in the 1930s: know-it-all, tough, jazzed up from a second cup of joe. Ed, off the air, was still essentially the same: acerbic and willing to lead with his elbows if necessary; it was only when the camera blinked on that he became the living room’s monochromatic supplicant. Yet Walter didn’t adapt. Unwilling or unable to fit into the cooler environment of 1950s television, he was a character in the wrong play.

His gossip, always an affront to polite society, now traveled in territory the public wouldn’t enter. In his debut television season he announced that President Truman had once belonged to the Ku Klux Klan—a ludicrous charge that Truman angrily dismissed. After suffering abysmal ratings—at one point he was rated 111th—ABC canceled his simulcast television-radio show in 1955. He approached NBC about a television program, offering to host the Comedy Hour opposite Sullivan in that show’s waning days, but was turned down. He also queried CBS, and as word leaked that he might get a show, Sullivan emitted howls of protest, or so Winchell claimed. Network executive Hubbell Robinson released a statement that CBS had not in fact mentioned Winchell’s proposed show to Sullivan. This prompted Walter to shoot an angry note to Robinson: “Dear Hub, This is BULLSH!”

Desperate to get back on television, he organized his own sponsors and re-approached NBC, succeeding in getting The Walter Winchell Show signed for thirteen weeks in the fall of 1955. His choice of format revealed a telling irony: it was a variety show that Walter hosted without lengthy introductions—a veritable copy of the Sullivan show. Having so long been ahead of Ed in the public’s eye, Walter was reduced to imitating him. Adding ignominy, after a respectable start the show’s ratings quickly began to plummet. Oddly, even in his variety show he maintained the storied Winchell edge, wearing his fedora and tossing cigarette butts onstage. The show’s director, Alan Handley, noted how out of place Walter seemed. “He couldn’t integrate himself into a TV show, and we couldn’t feel superior to him the way we could to Sullivan.” The Walter Winchell Show was canceled within three months of its debut.

The next tidal wave to engulf television was just barely visible at the end of the 1956-57 season. Gunsmoke, a radio show since 1952, debuted on CBS-TV in 1955, and by the following year rose to be the eighth-rated show; down at number nineteen that season was Wyatt Earp. With the advent of the 1957-58 season the Western began proliferating like well-watered sagebrush: Tales of Wells Fargo, Wagon Train, and Have Gun, Will Travel were all in the top twenty. Wyatt Earp climbed to number six and Gunsmoke became television’s top-rated show.

ABC, enjoying success with Wyatt Earp on Tuesday night, made a move to grab Sunday night with still another Western, Maverick. Offering a fresh take on the traditional format, the show starred James Garner as the humorous antihero who was better with a wisecrack than with a six-gun. Debuting in September 1957 in the 7:30 time slot, for its first few weeks it was a straight western, but as it found its comedic voice its ratings started climbing. On November 12, 1957, Maverick’s Trendex rating bested The Ed Sullivan Show’s for the first time.

Sullivan faced an intractable ratings challenge in Maverick. Against Comedy Hour he could wait for it to present less interesting weeks and then produce specials; against The Steve Allen Show he easily out-scooped and out-produced the witty show host. When the quiz show craze began in the mid 1950s, Time reported that Ed even stood prepared for that: “He is ready to fight fire with fire if this becomes the year of the big money quiz shows. Says he: ‘If what people want are giveaways then we’ll add giveaways, too.’ ” But how could he compete with a Western?

He had a plan. If the Western transported audiences to a distant locale, he would transport them to an even more distant locale, to a world more exotic than the dusty plains. He had long sprinkled acts from other countries into the show, yet they now came in a torrent. Sullivan’s talent coordinator Jack Babb booked acts from far and wide: Japanese dancers, Taiwanese acrobats, Italian comedy group The Three Bragazzis, Viennese soprano Rita Streich, Spanish magician Rochiardi, singing group the Kim Sisters from Korea, and others.

But more than bringing international acts to the United States, Ed envisioned transporting the show across the globe. In late 1957 he began planning to produce a program at the Brussels World’s Fair. It would cost an extra $50,000 so Ed romanced his sponsor, Eastman Kodak (Ford was now cosponsoring with other advertisers). He convinced Kodak to foot the bill in exchange for a product endorsement during the show; a Sullivan crew filmed the University of Rochester glee club singing in front of Kodak’s corporate headquarters, to be shown during the World’s Fair broadcast. How this related to the Fair was unclear, but it didn’t matter; Ed had his funding.

In March 1958 he and a crew took a chartered flight to Belgium, toting a mass of studio equipment. For the Fair broadcast, Ed walked among the many pavilions, presenting the Ukrainian State Dance Group performing a hyperkinetic spear and sword dance, comic Jacques Tati pantomiming a French fisherman, and the London Symphony Orchestra rendering an excerpt from Wagner’s Lohengrin. Making cameo appearances were Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, and William Holden. Lest it all seem too far from home, Ed boasted about the American pavilion and included a section honoring the graves of American soldiers in Belgium. In deference to the fact that the United States was deep in the Cold War, and the Fair’s theme was “A New Humanism”—the term made some viewers uneasy—Ed gave a short homily at the end making it clear he was against communism and in favor of religion.

The Cold War, however, didn’t keep him from the season’s biggest ratings triumph. In the spring of 1958 Russia’s Moiseyev Ballet was earning hyperbolic reviews as it toured America. Contrary to their name, they were folk dancers, dressed in peasant garb, highly athletic and stylistically muscular. Their Madison Square Garden performance was so anticipated that scalpers sold $8 tickets for $80. Ed haggled for weeks with impresario Sol Hurok for the rights to present the dancers on his show. He dedicated the full hour to the Russian folk performers on the evening of June 29, scoring an artistic and commercial success. (Doubtless part of the appeal was a glimpse of a people that many Americans considered to be their foremost enemy.) Sullivan’s Trendex rating was a healthy 40.3, topping Maverick’s 33.6 and Steve Allen’s 21.4. (Sullivan’s Trendex increased in the second half of the hour, as it usually did after Maverick ended at 8:30.)

Rock ’n’ roll was the other driving force in Sullivan’s formula for the 1957-58 season. Having discovered a ratings goldmine with his Elvis bookings, he now presented a bevy of pioneering artists. The Everly Brothers, invited for a string of appearances, sweetly harmonized through “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Be-Bop-a-Lula.” The Champs romped through “Tequilla,” the Platters doo-wopped “The Great Pretender,” and Sam Cooke crooned “You Send Me.” Riding the brief rockabilly wave, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps had fun with “Dance to the Bop” and the Sparkletones rocked on “Black Slacks.” Connie Francis wept her romantic teen lament “Who’s Sorry Now?” Ed, like many of his viewers, felt that rock ’n’ roll needed a tight leash, and he kept a watchful eye on the new arrivals.

Everything went well the night that Ed introduced Buddy Holly and the Crickets for their television debut in December 1957. Holly, in his signature horn-rimmed glasses and armed with a Fender Stratocaster, was backed by drums, rhythm guitar, and plucked upright bass. All the band members were clad in tuxedos as they rocked through their recent number one hit, “That’ll Be the Day.” The group followed it up with the rambunctious “Peggy Sue,” which climbed to number five a month after the show.

When the group came back in January, however, Sullivan and Holly got into a verbal fisticuffs during rehearsal. Ed felt the lyrics to the group’s “Oh Boy” were lewd: “All of my life I been a-waitin’ / Tonight there’ll be no hesitatin’.” The verse was quaint by rock ’n’ roll standards, yet Irving Berlin would never have penned it. Sullivan told Holly to choose another song. Holly, in a first for a Sullivan guest, issued his own ultimatum: it was that song or nothing. Ed, furious, but unwilling to lose the ratings boost—especially with Maverick submerging his Trendex numbers—relented. Still, he cut the Crickets from two songs to one, and placed the band toward the end of the show.

In that evening’s broadcast, when Ed listed the Crickets in his opening remarks he pronounced their name correctly, but right before they played he introduced them as “Buddy Hollied and His Crickets!” That might have been merely a Sullivan malapropism, but when the camera cut to the band, both their lighting and sound were low. Holly tried to turn up his guitar, with limited result, then started singing at the top of his voice. As if in retaliation, the band jumped into double time during an instrumental break, allowing them to add a second verse to the song. When the camera cut back to Ed he was clearly livid, and didn’t give the Crickets the customary after-song mention before going to the next act.

In addition to rock ’n’ roll and many international attractions, Ed continued his all-inclusive Big Tent philosophy in the 1957-58 season. The Glenn Miller Orchestra swung standards, and balladeers Tony Bennett and Nat “King” Cole crooned. George Burns and Gracie Allen earned laughs with their vaudeville-style comedic patter. In January, Ed presented a twenty-two-minute segment of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Long Day’s Journey into Night, starring Frederic March and Florence Eldridge (but Ed insisted that one of the script’s epithets be toned down). Actor Douglas Fairbanks recited the Rudyard Kipling poem “If and famed playwright-actor-singer Noël Coward warbled a medley of his own songs. The cross-dressing men of the Princeton Triangle Club strutted “The Charleston,” and eighty-four-year-old W.C. Handy, considered the father of the blues, made a cameo in a wheelchair.

For the kids, diminutive elephant Baby Opal frolicked, puppeteer Joe Castor painted a portrait along with his marionette, and eight-year-old piano player Joey Alfidi dazzled on “The Minute Waltz” as three beauty pageant contestants looked on admiringly. Johnny Carson did a stand-up routine about a children’s show host with a hangover, and Carol Burnett sang a comic tune called “I Fell in Love with John Foster Dulles.” (Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, was famously dour, but he found Burnett’s bit amusing and requested a copy. When reporters asked him why this young woman was singing about falling in love with him, he smiled and said, “I never talk about my private life in public”) The season’s political guest was Eleanor Roosevelt, who paid tribute to Israel’s tenth anniversary.

But Sullivan’s 1957-58 season, despite its global talent show, big names, and fresh rock ’n’ roll faces, suffered major ratings erosion in the face of the public’s fascination with Westerns. Although The Ed Sullivan Show still ran ahead of ABC’s Maverick, it tumbled from the previous season’s number two spot all the way down to number nineteen. Of the eighteen shows that rated higher, seven of them were Westerns. The Steve Allen Show also contributed to the ratings fall, though Sullivan still ranked far ahead of Allen, who never entered the top twenty. This season was the first in which Sullivan grappled with more than one serious competitor in his time slot; ABC had always run a distant third. Now, the network’s sagebrush and spurs offering was besting Sullivan on certain nights.

Aside from the ratings plunge, June 1958 offered Ed a consolation prize: the show reached its ten-year anniversary. Sullivan was virtually alone in his program’s longevity and clearly alone in its success. All the other members of the class of 1948 were either gone or headed that way. The Milton Berle Show had been canceled in June 1956, and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts would be cut in the summer of 1958 (though Berle would make two one-year comebacks and Arthur Godfrey and His Friends limped along to 1959). Sid Caesar’s wildly popular Your Show of Shows had come and gone. Two other powerhouses of 1950s variety television, Jackie Gleason and Jack Benny, had run behind Sullivan since the 1955-56 season.

Newspapers, whose television critics had so uniformly panned Sullivan’s debut, now considered it de rigueur to run an article feting the program’s ten-year anniversary. The New York Times opined that, “During these ten years Mr. Sullivan has not improved perceptibly as a performer,” yet still the show was “remarkably successful.” The Times reporter, interviewing the showman in his Delmonico apartment, noted that while Ed was jet-lagged (from his trip to Brussels) and had suffered a terrible bout with his ulcer, he answered questions affably—many reporters were surprised at how conversational the showman could be offstage. Most notably, Sullivan claimed that he looked forward to perhaps five more years as a host-producer, after which he hoped to focus exclusively on producing. He was less equivocal in his New York Journal-American interview, claiming, “I’m going to quit in five years.” As he waxed philosophic about his career, he explained why he booked impressionists to mock his stage persona: “I used to get letters that said I looked as if I took myself too seriously. Unfortunately I have a graver looking kisser than most.”

CBS head Bill Paley, to honor the ten-year milestone, hosted a luncheon to which he invited all the network’s executives, and he directed CBS vice president Larry Lowman to buy an expensive gift for Sullivan. Lowman called Marlo Lewis, who told him that Ed had been eyeing a Renoir oil painting at a gallery on 57th Street, not far from the Delmonico; Sylvia adored it and stopped to look at it every time she passed.

At the luncheon the guests were full of good spirits, as Paley and other top executives, Frank Stanton and Hubbell Robinson, reminisced with Sullivan, Lewis, bandleader Ray Bloch, and director Johnny Wray about the show’s early days. After a couple hours of chatting and eating, Paley presented Sullivan with the gift, wrapped in brown paper. “Ed, here’s something I know both you and Sylvia wanted. I am delighted we could find a way to show you how much we think of you and how happy we are that you are part of CBS.”

Ed unwrapped the Renoir, and, unable to speak, put it in the middle of the table. Everyone looked at it, thinking Sullivan would soon make a comment. But Ed, speechless, reached into his pocket and took out his handkerchief to cover his eyes. He began to cry, softly, and then slumped in his chair, crying more freely. The Sullivan staff members said nothing, as the executives looked on with small smiles, though network president Frank Stanton seemed surprised. Pulling himself together, Ed gestured toward his production staff. “All of us thank you, Bill.” He took a small drink of water, dried his eyes, shook hands with everyone, then took the painting and walked out the door. Afterward, Stanton asked Marlo Lewis, “What was all that about?”

Sullivan’s wellspring of emotion, as Lewis recounted it, came from Ed at long last getting something he had so craved from CBS: personal recognition. When he was struggling in the early years they had offered the show to advertisers “with or without” Ed Sullivan; the show had been underfunded during his battle with Comedy Hour; and even as he prevailed it was only after an offer from NBC that the show was renamed The Ed Sullivan Show.Consequently, he developed a hard defensive shell against what he saw as the network’s lack of appreciation.

In interviews in later years he never passed up a chance to hurl a gibe at CBS executives, using pointed language that left no doubt that he detested them. The network’s executives were “ungrateful, impolite people,” and Frank Stanton was “a hopeless case as a human,” he told Life magazine in 1967. With the exception of Paley, that is. Ed always drew a distinction between the animus he felt toward the network management and Paley himself, whom Sullivan always respected. Now, Paley’s thoughtful personal gift was a sign of something he felt he had seen far too little of, from the one executive whose opinion he held in esteem. He wasn’t merely getting paid like a star, he was being treated like one.

Nevertheless, that summer he let it be known—Paley’s simpatico notwithstanding—that his decisions about his show would not be guided by network management. Or, remarkably, even by his sponsors. Prompting a deep gasp of consternation from CBS and Ford, he announced that in July he would broadcast two programs from Las Vegas, otherwise known as Sin City.

Some of the show’s staff could hardly believe it. Ed … in Vegas? It was as if the parish priest had decided to open a strip joint. In 1958 the gambling mecca was completely unredeemed, the closest thing to pure perdition on domestic soil, an id of greed and sex poking through the staid American superego. That Ed, who forbade cleavage on his show and shot Elvis from the waist up—and always had something for the youngsters—would broadcast from Vegas was unthinkable. A reporter from Variety, echoing a question wondered by many, asked him if Vegas wasn’t a questionable location for The Ed Sullivan Show. “The fact that Jack Benny played a Vegas saloon made it okay for me and my sponsors,” Ed replied. That was patently untrue; the head of Ford’s ad agency, William Lewis, warned that the automaker did not want its name associated with Las Vegas. CBS’s Frank Stanton called the Vegas shows highly inadvisable.

But Ed didn’t care. After a successful ten-year run he was now in a position to lead rather than follow. And Las Vegas’ Desert Inn had offered to put him into a new income bracket in exchange for a Sullivan show. Wilbur Clark, one of the city’s most tireless hucksters, opened the $3.5 million Desert Inn in 1950 with the help of Moe Dalitz and other Cleveland organized crime figures; at some point in the late 1950s, Chicago mobster Sam Giancana also acquired an interest. (In 1967 Howard Hughes decided to buy the Desert Inn rather than move out.) Under Dalitz’s guidance, and fueled by low-interest loans from the Teamsters’ Pension Fund, the Desert Inn became a capstone of Vegas’ growth. Clark, as its public relations man, saw great value in Sullivan.

The Desert Inn hired the ritziest nightclub performers—Sinatra made his Vegas debut there in 1951, later joined by Jerry, Dino, and Sammy Davis. But the Rat Pack, although it attracted a fast crowd, couldn’t provide the patina of middle-class respectability that Sullivan could. Clark understood that bringing new dollars into Las Vegas meant burnishing its image, making it an acceptable destination for corporate junkets and—the idea was far-fetched in 1958-middle-brow tourists. Ed, with his position as unofficial Minister of Culture, was uniquely qualified to help with this.

The romancing of Ed by Las Vegas business interests had begun the previous fall, when the United Hotel Corporation of Las Vegas purchased his Connecticut estate. After his car crash, Ed lost interest in his country retreat. In truth, semirural South-bury was never a good match for Sullivan, who continued to enjoy rotating between Manhattan nightspots every evening. As he sold the estate, he explained that he was not made for country living. “The noise was terrible,” he said. “I mean there’d be a cow mooing at four o’clock in the morning.” United Hotel took it off his hands for a handsome sum—$250,000—or more than double what he paid for it in 1954. The deal got sweeter. The Desert Inn agreed to cover all of his living expenses and pay him $25,000 a week for eight weeks, for a contract that stretched over two summers. After Ed broadcast two shows per summer from the hotel, he would stay for additional shows that wouldn’t be broadcast, while a guest host emceed his TV show.

As the grumbles of complaint from CBS and Ford grew into a chorus, Ed confided to Marlo Lewis: “I don’t give a damn what any of them feel about this deal. I’ve busted my back … running from one city to another. I’m tired of traveling. I’m tired of putting on shows for the CBS affiliates. I’m tired of shaking hands with the Lincoln Mercury dealers, signing autographs, hearing people tell me how surprised they are that I can smile—especially when my ulcer is knocking me out and I don’t want to smile. A few weeks in that Las Vegas sunshine will do me a world of good and it won’t hurt anyone else on the show either. And I’m not about to turn down this pot of gold that Wilbur’s throwing at me … and nobody’s gonna stop me from taking it!”

Giving instructions to Carol Burnett in rehearsal, Las Vegas, 1958. Sullivan scandalized CBS by producing a show from Sin City in the 1950s. (Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

The family show that Ed presented from the Desert Inn was in marked contrast to the hotel’s typical fare. Esther Williams, known as “America’s Mermaid” for the string of MGM hits that showcased her aquatic skills and bathing suit pulchritude, introduced “water babies,” children diving into swimming pools. Williams gave a little girl a piggyback ride in a pool, introduced the AAU synchronized swimming team, and blew a big kiss at the camera (Ed was furious at her for displaying too much cleavage). “Jumping Joe” Monahan performed a trampoline act, Carol Burnett did a stand-up routine about braces, and the Kirby Stone Four sang “Lazy River” (the appearance led to a Columbia Records contract for the vocal group). The show was a hit in Vegas. “People flocked to see it—we had full houses,” recalled Burnett.

The following Sunday’s program was a reprise, with an Olympic diving champion, a ventriloquist and a magician for the kids, and the Four Preps singing “Lazy Summer Night.” Sullivan asked Wilbur Clark to take a bow from the audience. And, as if living in a parallel universe not connected to America in 1958, Ed touted the gambling mecca’s churches and schools as well as its entertainment and casino attractions. Based on his Desert Inn broadcasts, viewers at home might have deduced that Las Vegas was a slightly risqué suburb of Oklahoma City.

As the 1958-59 season began, Ed’s traditional variety format seemed to have grown too small for him. Topping his broadcast produced in Brussels, he began the season by planning shows from Alaska, the Hawaiian Islands, and Asia. He turned his trips into travelogues that he presented along with other acts on Sunday evenings. In his Asian travelogue, the black-and-white footage was like his own home movie, as he played baseball with Japanese schoolchildren, talked about the architecture in Hong Kong—“The most exciting place on the globe,” he called it—and surveyed Istanbul with Sylvia. The beauty of the Turkish city “will make it one of the great tourist spots in the world,” he opined, as the camera panned over ancient minarets, though it’s doubtful he changed travel plans in many American living rooms with that claim.

Part of his wanderlust was a competitive desire to go where Maverick could not. The Western was regularly trouncing him in the Nielsens, even with the ratings jolt delivered by his increased rock ’n’ roll bookings. But his international shows gave him an advantage that Maverick couldn’t claim: they became news events, covered in newspapers across the country. In particular, his Brussels broadcast had generated an untold fortune in free publicity.

His interest in internationalizing the show, however, was about more than ratings. He began envisioning a time when the show would grow into something larger than entertainment. Ed was, after all, a reporter and columnist, and had worked on newspapers since his teens. He never stopped seeing himself as a newshound. One of his personal secretaries recalled that even in the 1960s, if he placed a call he identified himself as “Ed Sullivan, of the News.” (In fact he never gave up his Daily News column throughout his television career.) He had always included some element of current events or public service on the show, like the Eleanor Roosevelt tribute to Israel, or his chat with civil rights activist Ralph Bunche, or—a favorite cause of his—a spokesperson from the Association of Christians and Jews.

Live television, circa 1958: the Sullivan show was broadcast live throughout its twenty-three-year run. (Globe Photos)

In the fall of 1958 he began thinking of expanding the role of current events on the show, and of expanding his own role, too. He wanted to build upon his success as an impresario to become a producer who handled both news and entertainment; he imagined that these two forms could be mingled, which in television at that time was unheard of. He hoped to become, as Journal-American columnist Atra Baer wrote after talking with him, “the Lowell Thomas of variety show business.” Thomas had been an adventurous roving radio journalist who produced stories from Europe in both world wars, as well as from the Middle East and China. Ed’s own international shows were a form of this, yet he hoped for much more.

He began lobbying the CBS news department. While he had no desire to be a network newsman, he wanted to have input, to be called upon to comment on issues of the day, much as he did in the Daily News. His entreaties to the network news division met with no response. At one point Ed invited legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow on the show in an attempt to form a bridge between himself and the news department. Murrow was flattered by the attention—a bevy of showgirls requested his autograph—and he appreciated Ed’s interview. But the door was still shut. Murrow, in fact, in October 1958 gave a speech decrying prime-time television as full of “decadence, escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live,” using The Ed Sullivan Show as an example.

As Ed sought to shift his role, it was as if he had outgrown the traditional variety format. At age fifty-seven, he had been producing stage shows for more than twenty-five years. He had clearly mastered the format; indeed he was the master of the format. He had accomplished everything he had set out to do. He had hungered to be a nationally famous broadcast star, and, without being able to sing, tell jokes, or be charming, had done so. But fame, apparently, hadn’t proven to be a high enough mountain. The inner force that had driven him to success was still there. Now that he had achieved what he had always wanted, he saw a bigger vista to conquer.

In December 1958 he announced that CBS had hired him to produce a program apart from his Sunday show, to be called Sullivan’s Travels. He would use his annual summer vacations—he certainly didn’t want to relax then—to produce four to six ninety-minute travelogue-documentaries. His first would be about India, and he planned pieces from West Germany, Vienna, Rio de Janeiro, and other locations. Yet even the Sullivan’s Travels series wasn’t enough—he was interested in serious journalism, insightful coverage and commentary that spotlighted global events.

The network didn’t see him in this role, despite having hired him to produce the travelogues. That CBS never invited him to give his opinion in year-end wrap-ups of national and international news was deeply frustrating for him. “Why the hell not!” he exclaimed to Marlo Lewis. “I’ve had thirty years’ experience as an on-the-line reporter. When it involves the news, they won’t call me! But when they hold their drunken station-owner conventions and want to look impressive, they call on me to put on a show!”

However, the fact that CBS had not the slightest whit of interest in his dream didn’t deter him. He had always plunged headfirst toward his goals, regardless of what others thought. And now, as he hoped to enlarge the show’s concept and his own role, becoming the new Lowell Thomas, he pushed forward with the same headstrong motion.

Ed saw a chance to score the definitive news scoop as the rebel uprising in Cuba came to a head in the late fall of 1958. Led by Fidel Castro and Dr. Ernesto “Che” Guevera, the rebels appeared to be overtaking the Cuban army, edging ever closer to the capital city of Havana. By late December the situation dominated American news, as more than three thousand people died in house-to-house fighting. Rumors circulated that notoriously corrupt Cuban president Fulgencio Batista was preparing to flee.

As Castro took control of Cuba in early January, his political orientation was unclear to U.S. observers. Was he a communist, or merely a fervent nationalist? The son of a wealthy sugarcane farmer, educated in Jesuit schools and the University of Havana law school, he was gifted at public relations. In April 1959, four months after the revolution, the American Society of Newspaper Editors invited him to the United States. During his visit he declared himself in favor of a free press and against dictatorships; he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that American property would not be nationalized. In November 1959—almost a year after he took power—the deputy director of the CIA informed a Senate committee, “We believe Castro is not a member of the Communist Party and does not consider himself to be a communist.”

In the wake of the revolution, many Cubans viewed Castro as a folk hero. He entered Havana for the first time on January 8, and though the country was still in disorder—and still contained Batista loyalists—he walked the streets unarmed. His enormous popularity was evident as massive crowds lionized him in a spontaneous parade. A carnival atmosphere prevailed, with mobs looting hotels and casinos, and throngs celebrating Batista’s overthrow by waving flags and honking horns around the clock.

While it looked like pandemonium to most observers, to Ed it looked like an opportunity. Getting the first television interview with Castro would force CBS to recognize him as a newsman. And since the eyes of the world were on this small nation in turmoil, flying there would thrust him onto the world stage. But if he was going to bag the first Castro TV interview he had to move posthaste. Ed called Jules Dubois, the Latin American correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, which was the Daily News’ parent company. Dubois, a fierce anticommunist who had a good rapport with Castro, agreed to set up an interview. (Some Cuban revolutionaries suspected that Dubois worked for the CIA, a suspicion that was never confirmed.) Sullivan and Dubois made arrangements to rendezvous at the Havana airport.

To gather a crew, Ed certainly wasn’t going to call the CBS news department; he was scooping them. Instead, a Sullivan assistant called a young CBS cameraman named Andrew Laszlo, who worked on the situation comedy The Phil Silvers Show, and asked him to assemble a crew. (Laszlo’s later career as a cinematographer included more than forty feature films, including Star Trek V in 1989.) Speed and secrecy were critical to Ed’s plan. On Sunday, Laszlo was told to prepare for a Wednesday afternoon departure to the Dominican Republic; he was told he would film an interview with Dominican president Rafael Trujillo. Laszlo hired a soundman and another assistant and, planning for a shoot in Trujillo’s presidential palace, packed a heavy-duty movie camera used in making full-length features.

Sullivan and Andy Laszlo had worked together before, and Ed had come to like and trust the young cameraman, inventing an affectionate nickname for him, “Andy-roo.” That past summer Laszlo had filmed locations in Ireland and Portugal for Ed’s travelogue shows. In Ireland, they were seated together at a restaurant with about twenty crewmembers, many of whom were making petty demands as waiters took their orders. Ed, growing impatient with the crew’s self-centered fussing, took Laszlo by the arm. “Andy-roo,” he told him, “you and I are getting out of here, we’re going to go get a real steak.” As Laszlo recalled, the two of them went to a spot Ed knew, a “fantastic little pub, him with his milk, and me with my steak.” (Ed’s ulcer continued to plague him, hence the milk.) They sat there until closing time, conversing throughout the evening. In Spain, Sullivan and Laszlo were having dinner with a few other people at a nightclub when Ed saw a Hungarian husband and wife dance team he enjoyed. He asked Laszlo, a native Hungarian, to invite the couple on his show. But the dancers had no knowledge of American television and turned him down.

Now, aboard a plane presumably bound for the Dominican Republic, Laszlo wasn’t sure what to think when Sullivan sat down next to him with a grave look. Ed sat sipping a glass of milk and, for several moments, said nothing. “Andy-roo, I lied to you,” he finally said, explaining that the story about the Dominican Republic had been merely a cover. When Laszlo realized he was headed for Cuba—with the country still embroiled in violence—he told Sullivan he needed to call his wife as soon as he landed. Ed assured him that this was unnecessary because his office was informing the crew’s wives. Yet this wasn’t true. Ed was telling no one. He couldn’t air the interview until Sunday, and he didn’t want a news crew to hear about his plan and beat him to the story. Unbeknownst to Sullivan, Ted Ayers, the producer of CBS news program Face the Nation, had been working on arranging a Castro interview for weeks. Like Sullivan, Ayers was at that moment heading for Havana, with the understanding that the Cuban leader would grant him an interview in a studio there.

When Sullivan and his crew landed in Havana that evening it wasn’t clear that the revolution was over. Castro’s soldiers, clad in jungle green and carrying carbines, swarmed the airport. Known as Fidelistas, these revolutionaries were attempting to control the mob who frantically wanted to leave, with limited success. Terrified Cubans pushed and shouted to secure a spot on an outbound plane. Amid the roiling chaos Sullivan rendezvoused with Jules Dubois, who told him that Castro wasn’t in Havana. Somehow they needed to travel to Matanzas, a port city sixty miles to the east, a difficult trip in the dark.

The easiest way there was by small plane, and a pilot claiming to be Fidel’s official pilot agreed to take them in his Beechcraft six-seater. But as he spoke he kept weaving back and forth, apparently deeply inebriated from days of celebration. Ed, eyeing the man’s condition, diplomatically pointed out that his crew’s gear was too big for the plane. Dubois conferred with some nearby Fidelistas, who gathered a fleet of six taxicabs. The soldiers accompanied them, so each taxi had its own submachine gun-toting chaperone in the front seat to allow them passage through the many roadblocks. Laszlo recalled the tension as they traveled with the Fidelistas through the Cuban countryside at night: “These people were scary just to look at, and to be next to them was even scarier.” Ed, however, played down the danger, and seemed unconcerned.

When they pulled into Matanzas sometime around midnight the city appeared deserted, until they came to the village square. Gathered there were thousands of townspeople listening with rapt attention to Castro, who was holding forth at the tail end of a three-hour speech. As the Cuban leader spoke, Laszlo started setting up his camera in a nearby building, only to encounter a major obstacle: the building didn’t have the correct electrical current to power his camera. Having packed for the Dominican Republic’s presidential palace, he wasn’t equipped for Cuba’s rudimentary power grid. He frantically searched the building. After anxious minutes he found an outlet with—he hoped—sufficient current, near where the interview would take place. By the time his gear was set up and Castro was ready it was after 1 A.M.

As the Cuban leader entered the interview room, dozens of his bearded soldiers rushed in with him, bringing a dense cloud of acrid cigar smoke. Dubois scrambled to convince some of them to leave to make space for the interview. Fidel was in an expansive mood and greeted Sullivan and his crew cordially. But suddenly, as they were exchanging greetings, a sharp explosive sound punctured the room—everyone gasped and ducked, and the Fidelistas turned their carbines to the ready. After a tense moment they realized that a soldier had tripped into a camera light, causing it to shatter.

Following some short preliminaries the interview finally began, with Sullivan and Castro sitting on an old wooden desk. Ed, dressed in the same businesslike coat and tie he wore to host his show, seemed to almost lean into Castro, who was clad in combat fatigues with a sidearm. The two were surrounded by soldiers, one of whom kept a Tommy gun trained over Ed’s head through part of the interview. Sullivan’s demeanor was not that of the stiff and stilted Sunday night show host. Rather, he was closer to the feisty bantamweight that he often was offstage. The interview, at least initially, began as a mano a mano confrontation.

At one point, Ed asked Castro if he was a communist. The Cuban leader “reacted violently,” Laszlo recalled. “He almost jumped off the desk. He ripped open his shirt and pulled out this very beautiful crucifix, and bellowed, ‘I’m a Roman Catholic, how could I be a communist?’ ” At the sound of Castro’s pique the Fidelistas shifted their carbines uneasily. Perhaps in response, Ed followed with a softball: “Some refer to you as the liberator, the George Washington, of Cuba. Are you the George Washington of Cuba?” Castro, now smiling and clearly relishing the question, gave a long and windy answer that released the tension in the room. But Ed wasn’t through with the tough questions. Jabbing a finger toward Castro for emphasis, he asked, “In Latin America, over and over again, dictators have come along, they’ve raped the country, they’ve stolen the money, millions and millions of dollars, tortured and killed people. How do you propose to end that in Cuba?”

“[It will] be easy,” Castro replied, in broken English. “By not permitting any dictatorships to come to rule our country. You can be sure that Batista is, or will be, the last dictator of Cuba.” Moreover, he claimed, the country would improve its democratic institutions. At several points Laszlo needed to stop the interview to reload his camera, which required Sullivan or Castro to repeat their previous statement. Laszlo found Castro remarkably adept at resuming his reply mid thought, or repeating his answers verbatim to whatever question Ed asked.

With Fidel Castro, January 1959. Sullivan flew to Cuba just days after the revolution hoping to land the first TV interview with the new Cuban leader. (CBS Photo Archive)

By the end of the nearly hour-long interview the two men warmed to each other. With a disarming smile, Castro said he had never dreamed he would have a chance to address so many English-speaking people, prompting a good-natured chuckle from Ed. Sullivan promised Castro a donation of $10,000 in a gesture of support for the revolution’s widows and orphans. A courier delivered a note to Castro from Che Guevera, after which the Cuban leader signaled that the interview had to end. (Castro was headed off to do his interview with Face the Nation; in fact, he had kept the CBS-TV news crew waiting while completing his Sullivan interview, though Ed didn’t know this.) Before the camera stopped filming, Ed introduced Jules Dubois and thanked him for arranging the interview. The Dubois introduction had an added benefit. Mentioning the reporter’s Chicago Tribune pedigree—a paper never accused of codling communists—helped establish that Ed hadn’t just interviewed an enemy of the United States.

After the interview, Sullivan and his crew bundled back into the taxis for the trek back to Havana, driving through the night to arrive in the city just as dawn was breaking. Finding a street vendor, Ed had him grill as many sausage and cheese sandwiches as he could. Before they got to their hotel, the officer leading the taxi fleet stopped them at the city’s sports stadium. While they sat waiting, a long line of trucks filled with people drove into the stadium, after which bursts of automatic gunfire were heard; when the trucks left the stadium they were empty. It was a chilling moment. Laszlo speculated that this was retribution against Batista loyalists.

The Americans got only a few hours sleep before heading to the airport, which had devolved into near chaos. Surging throngs of Cubans screamed and shoved in a desperate effort to flee the country. Only with the help of a phalanx of Fidelistas were Ed and his crew able to force their way into a waiting area. There, to Ed’s surprise, he ran into George Raft, an actor known for playing gangsters in a string of Hollywood potboilers. Raft was also known for associating with actual mobsters, like Owney Madden, whom Ed himself had socialized with when he frequented the Silver Slipper speakeasy. Raft was distraught and destitute because the Fidelistas had confiscated his casino and his bank account. Laszlo believed that Ed gave him some money. Around 3 P.M. they boarded the plane, sitting in the crowded cabin until sunset while waiting to take off. As they waited, soldiers boarded the plane to check each passenger’s paperwork, in some cases forcefully removing people. Ed arrived back in New York just before dawn on Friday morning, at which point Laszlo rushed to get the film developed.

For Sunday’s broadcast, Sullivan edited the interview to about six minutes, with footage of the masses cheering Castro. Since Ed’s travelogue pieces were part of the show’s typical fare, the audience might have been prepared for a clip from such a foreign locale. The previous August, for instance, he had flown to Jerusalem and filmed an Israeli talent contest (while there he and Sylvia met with David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister). Still, even in a show known for distant locations and high contrast, the Castro segment felt remarkably disconnected to anything else that evening. Sharing the bill was a scene from the current Broadway play The Disenchanted performed by Jason Robards and George Grizzard; comedian Alan King did a bit about suburban house parties; a dog trainer presented a poodle fashion show; a comic named Professor Backwards spelled backwards on a blackboard; Tina Louise, who later played Ginger on Gilligan’s Island, made a cameo; and the Little Gaelic Singers from Ireland sang sweetly. Also squeezed into the hour were a juggler, an impressionist, and a four-man acrobatic team, two of whom wore ape costumes. Castro, incongruously, was presented between Alan King and the couture-clad poodles.

However odd the presentation, the Castro interview was a journalistic coup for Ed. While his interview didn’t air first—Face the Nation’s Castro segment aired Sunday morning, several hours before his—he had bested the country’s top news agencies in getting a TV interview with the Cuban leader. Edward R. Murrow wouldn’t interview Castro until early February. Some grumbled that Sullivan had only landed the interview because he had offered to pay $10,000 beforehand, but Marlo Lewis claimed the donation was a postinterview gesture on Ed’s part, which is likely.

Yet in either case, despite the journalistic feat the interview proved to be far from the triumph he hoped for. It didn’t propel his ratings higher; his Sunday night audience came to the show for the Broadway play and the comic, not breaking news from world hotspots. It did nothing to establish him as a newsman in the eyes of CBS; on the contrary, the network gave him an angry dressing-down, telling him to stick to entertainment and leave the news to them. It’s likely the CBS news division was embarrassed, having almost been scooped by the man hired to introduce trained monkeys. The network at that point saw show business and news as mutually exclusive; it wasn’t until decades later that television mingled news and entertainment in the way that Sullivan envisioned.

Additionally, Ed soon received a call from New York’s Archbishop Spellman, who told him that Castro was not what he seemed, and strongly suggested that Ed stop payment on the $10,000 check. Sullivan agreed, and with time, as Castro began to ally with the Soviets, he realized he had made an embarrassing blunder. By the end of 1959 he was castigating the Cuban leader in his column, with more than a hint of regret: “Castro gets booed by newsreel audiences … what a chance he blew, to become another Bolivar!” And soon thereafter, Ed stopped mentioning him altogether, apparently hoping that his impulsive Cuban adventure would be forgotten.

That Ed, at age fifty-seven, wealthy and successful, would fly to a Third World country in the midst of a revolution to get a story showed that he had still had the fire. His competitive streak was as vital now as when he had rushed headlong into skirmishes on the athletic fields of Port Chester. In truth, though, the show itself was beginning to lose its way, at least in terms of its ratings.

Ed wanted to internationalize it, to broaden its vistas as he himself grew. In March he presented a segment he produced in Ireland, in which he interviewed Irish President Eamon de Valera, kissed the Blarney Stone, and presented Myron Cohen telling Irish and Jewish jokes. The following week he showed his travelogue from Portugal, spotlighting flamenco dancer La Chunga. That summer found him at Italy’s Spoleto Festival, producing a show featuring Sir John Gielgud delivering Shakespeare, as well as a performance by the Jerome Robbins Ballet troupe, an Italian opera star, and actors rendering scenes from Tennessee Williams’s Night of the Iguana.

However, Nielsen ratings made it clear that this wasn’t what the American public wanted. The one location viewers wanted to travel to during the 1958-59 season was the Old West—the craze had reached a fevered pitch. Of the year’s top ten shows, eight of them were Westerns. Maverick, running opposite The Ed Sullivan Show, had climbed all the way to the number six spot. In the fall of 1958, Sullivan’s show was ranked number three out of the 124 programs on the air. But over the course of the season, viewers drifted steadily over to Maverick, and by the spring of 1959, Sullivan’s Nielsen ranking had tumbled to number thirty.

As he watched the ratings fall, he threw virtually everything and anything onstage in an attempt to dislodge the immovable object known as Maverick. His international emphasis, though increased, was just one element among a dazzling array. The 1958-59 season kicked off with the cast from West Side Story, celebrating its one-year anniversary on Broadway, performing the number “Cool.” The following week Jackie Gleason played his physical comedy for laughs, sharing the bill with genial General Electric Theater host Ronald Reagan and actor Steve McQueen, fresh from the huge sci-fi hit The Blob. In October, Ed showcased the Milwaukee Braves, then playing in the World Series against the New York Yankees. A few weeks later he built a program around a Friars Club roast of himself, in which CBS newsman Walter Cronkite kept trying to detail Sullivan’s history, only to be interrupted by comedians Morey Amsterdam and Jack Carter. In November, actors William Shatner and France Nuyen performed a scene from the musical The World of Suzie Wong, one of myriad Broadway scenes that year.

Later that season, Pinky and Perky, a British puppet act, squeaked out the Big Bopper’s hit “Chantilly Lace,” and Ed, clowning around, croaked a few bars of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love”; country singer Johnny Cash shared the bill with vocalist Frankie Laine, who recited “the Gettysburg Address”; Samuel Goldwyn and Sullivan presented citations to major film figures, including Indian director Rajaram Vankudre; Ed visited the movie set of Anatomy of a Murder and chatted with Jimmy Stewart in an evening in which Henny Youngman told one-liners accompanied by violin; Bobby Darin sang “Mack the Knife” on the same night that Ed presented the Rhesus monkey Able from the U.S. space program—Able had survived a sixteen-minute suborbital flight.

That summer, a pompadoured Frankie Avalon warbled “A Boy Without a Girl” on a bill in which Duke Ellington swung through “Flirty Bird” and Fred Astaire said “hello” from the audience; Fabian sang “Turn Me Loose” and “Tiger” and the Platters doo-wopped through their recent number one hit, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”; Ed’s Jimmy Cagney tribute presented numerous classic film clips and an interview with the storied actor; to end the season, Sullivan visited Charlton Heston on the set of Ben-Hur and took a chariot ride with the actor.

Still, Sunday night viewers could not be lured from Maverick. For the first time in his television career, Ed was unable to reach his audience. He had always been one of them, wanting what they wanted, enjoying the things they enjoyed. He may have endeavored to stay a step ahead, but only a step. Now, he wanted to kiss the Blarney Stone, see the cities of Portugal, interview a Cuban revolutionary, and tour Italy. They wanted to be entertained on a Sunday night. His audience was drifting away—the Nielsens indicated that not only was he losing to Maverick, but his future on the air might be jeopardized. He had been felled by an upstart trend, and it was unknown how long the Western craze would last. Or, whether the next trend would pull viewers even further from him. His run in television had been unusually long, eleven years. Maybe this was it.

Ed had a choice to make as the curtain fell on the 1950s: would he follow his muse as a globetrotter, or would he be the showman he had always been, eager—hungry—to please his audience? To maintain his stature as a producer, he needed to refocus on his audience, to find some way to bring them back. Given his ratings loss, if he didn’t make some changes, and soon, his show was headed the way of those of Milton Berle and Bob Hope and Sid Caesar, and the many other stars whose television debuts he managed to outlast.

However, just before the 1959-60 season began, forcing him to confront these issues, wanderlust once again called him. His annual late-summer vacation had become a period in which he filmed segments from remote locations, like his interview with Brigitte Bardot in Italy, or the previous August’s trip to Israel. For this summer’s shoot Ed imagined his grandest remote show yet. Gathering his crew, he journeyed to a location that was as far from America as one could get in 1959.