The Times They Are a Changin’ - 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 14. The Times They Are a Changin’

ON A SUNDAY NIGHT IN LATE SEPTEMBER 1959, Americans tuned their televisions to the Sullivan show with a profound sense of curiosity. Was it true? Had Ed Sullivan, the guardian of the family living room, America’s unofficial Minister of Culture, really traveled to … the Soviet Union?

Not only was the answer yes, but Ed, oddly, was at his most natural in this unlikely location. For the show he produced in the U.S.S.R., he walked the streets of Moscow and Leningrad with a preternatural ease, introducing American viewers to a world they knew only as an evil empire. He addressed the camera like an old friend, a confidant accompanying him on an exotic journey. But despite his uncharacteristic comfort, his three-week trip to Russia that August resembled an exploration of the far side of the moon. Recent developments had pushed America and the Soviet Union into a horrific standoff.

In late 1957 the Soviets had launched Sputnik, a satellite that orbited the earth; they also announced they had successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile test. America was caught flat-footed. Not only were the Russians now able to hurl an atomic bomb from half a world away, but the United States had never launched either a satellite or an ICBM. Although by 1958 the United States had caught up—after a hurried rocket launch that burned up on the pad, which the international press dubbed “Kaputnick”—the specter of all-out mutual destruction now loomed as a very real possibility.

Amid the tension there were efforts at rapprochement, however tentative. In the later years of Eisenhower’s term he hoped for an accord with the Soviets to limit the arms race. His efforts were bitterly opposed by many who saw any softening of U.S. stance as a mistake. In July 1959 he sent Vice President Nixon to Moscow to open the Moscow Trade Fair, hoping the resulting goodwill would promote a thaw in relations. Little was accomplished. Nixon, a hard-liner in U.S.-Soviet relations, engaged Soviet premier Khrushchev in the infamous “kitchen debate,” a fruitless game of one-upmanship between the two men about which country’s lifestyle was superior. It was at this same trade fair a few weeks later that Ed, in a cultural exchange sponsored by the U.S. State Department, produced his Soviet show.

If Eisenhower hoped the cultural exchange would promote the possibility of normalized relations, Sullivan was his man. The showman had begun the 1950s as a bellicose Cold Warrior, trumpeting the blacklist publication Red Channels, and using his Daily News column to chide President Truman for not providing the Air Force with a ready supply of atomic weapons. But, based on his Soviet show, he was ending the decade as something of a peacenik. As he explained in his Russian broadcast, “Our mission to Moscow was to entertain Russians and to confirm their opinion that Americans are nice people.”

In a spirit of détente, Ed arranged the show to spotlight both Soviet and American talent. The program began with a burst of movement, as the Red Army Dancers, peasant-style performers clad in Soviet military uniforms, strutted and kicked in unison, accompanied by a brassy military orchestra. Following them was American accordion wizard Dick Contino rendering popular tunes with bedazzling keyboard technique. Contino was typical of the American performers. Except for Metropolitan Opera star Rise Stevens, the tour’s thirty-eight musicians, singers, and dancers were all lesser known—the production was already wildly expensive without bringing celebrity entertainers.

Between acts, Ed presented his tour of Moscow and Leningrad, narrating the sights. “I expected a gloomy city, but it isn’t,” he said of Moscow. In fact, his observations seemed to suggest, Russians are surprisingly similar to Americans. As the camera panned a city street bustling with apparently middle-class Soviets, he observed, “Now look at these Russians here—fine decent faces of hardworking people.” A busy Moscow street, “looks like a boulevard in America crowded with people in their Sunday finery, taking their kids to the ice cream stand.” If that didn’t prove how normal life could be in the Soviet Union, Ed included a segment in which he and Sylvia enjoyed a riverboat cruise on a sunny day.

One of the show’s highlights was tap dancer Conrad “Little Buck” Buckner, whose blazingly fast feet flashed in rhythm with a jazz drummer tapping out double-time. They performed outdoors for a Russian audience who looked on as if spellbound. Ed’s show-travelogue moved briskly, from a Russian trained bear to an American plate spinner to Sullivan’s tour of the tombs of Lenin and Stalin, with a camera pan of the long line of visitors. Throughout the program, Ed’s commentary stressed global harmony: “People are people, regardless of the system that speaks for them,” he said.

At one point in the trip, the show’s production staff grew frustrated by the morass of bureaucratic roadblocks. Getting permission to film was slow, and events were rescheduled without advance notice. Ed, in a pique, fired off a telegram of protest to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The next morning he got a call at his hotel from a mid-level functionary who assured him that his way was now cleared. (Ed sent three more telegrams to Khrushchev in the months ahead. Two were demands to be paid, including one complaining that the Russian ministry refused to release $30,000 for the show’s funding. Sullivan wrote to Khrushchev: “Unless you intervene sir this can develop into a nasty scandal as Russian artists have never experienced this treatment in the United States.” The debt was paid. Having succeeded with this request, Ed cabled the Russian leader again in November, asking him to “release the youngsters who participated in the 1956 [Hungarian] revolution.” (This appears to have received no response.)

For the Soviet show’s finale, Ed spoke a few sentences in Russian to greet the large Moscow audience, which roared its approval. For the final number he had opera star Rise Stevens sing “Getting to Know You” in Russian, while all thirty-eight American performers waved flags onstage, with half waving American flags and half waving Soviet flags. Of all the shocking sights that Sullivan presented in his twenty-three seasons, from black and white performers onstage together in the early 1950s to the edges of acid rock in the late 1960s, the sight of an American waving a Soviet flag in 1959 was likely the most unusual.

But his intent was more to reassure than to surprise. Unlike his show at the Brussels World Fair earlier that year, Ed didn’t take the opportunity at the end to condemn communism; the word wasn’t uttered once throughout the program. This show was about similarities, not differences. At the end he signed off: “Long live the United States and the Soviet Union, in peace.”

For Ed’s Soviet show he had been the grand impresario, straddling two continents while sampling the local vodka and promoting world peace. But as the 1959-60 season began, serious business beckoned: Nielsen ratings. The trip had been a cultural and commercial triumph, generating a big ratings spike and a blizzard of national coverage; Sullivan won a Peabody award for the program. Yet maintaining the show’s status as the top-rated talent showcase amid the public’s insatiable hunger for Westerns required more than one special evening. The new season’s first order of business was to attempt to reverse the prior season’s ratings loss to ABC’s Maverick.

If further impetus was needed to force the showman to focus on the ratings battle, NBC was launching a new variety program opposite the Sullivan show. The Steve Allen Show, after losing to Sullivan since its debut, was being moved to Mondays. In its place NBC was putting up Sunday Showcase, a revolving-format variety show. Certain weeks would be hosted by Milton Berle, other weeks were to be dramas or musical comedies. Berle was an ingenious choice. Although he had lost his own show, in television’s earliest years his ratings had consistently topped Sullivan’s. NBC was resurrecting a performer with a proven ability to outdraw the stone-faced show host. It was time for Ed to look homeward.

The previous year had been the show’s most internationally diverse, with Ed producing broadcasts from Alaska to Cuba to Ireland to Portugal—France awarded him the rank of “Chevalier” in the French Legion of Honor for segments he produced there. In contrast, this year he would stay home. When push came to shove, he preferred winning to world travel. Indeed, the 1959-60 season was the least adventurous of any he had yet produced. It contained his signature mix of highbrow and low, with the year’s brightest stars, but nothing in this season would be exotic or surprising. The showman would take no chances in his bid to get back on top. He had always known how to romance his audience, and this year he would do so by serving them comfort food.

He kept rock ’n’ roll to a minimum. That was easy to do: with Elvis in the Army and the British Invasion still years away, the new sound had gone all soft and gooey. Frankie Avalon, armed with a baby face and a number one hit, warbled “Look What One Kiss Can Do.” Bobby Darin—Sullivan staffers recalled him as remarkably arrogant—finger-snapped through “Oh, My Darling Clementine,” and Paul Anka crooned “Put Your Head on My Shoulders.” Theresa Brewer, a prim sex kitten of a vocalist who inspired cartons of fan mail at the Sullivan office before being forgotten, enjoyed numerous guest shots.

Many of the season’s musical bookings, however brilliant the talent, were essentially backward looking. The Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Harry James Orchestras swung through standards. Famed drummer Gene Krupa and actor Sal Mineo appeared with a clip from The Gene Krupa Story, starring Mineo. For Easter, gospel queen Mahalia Jackson rendered “Old Rugged Cross.” Louis Armstrong, a Sullivan personal friend who appeared eighteen times over the years, jazzed up “When the Saints Go Marching In.” (Sullivan later invited Armstrong to play golf with him at an elite country club that was whites-only, and the management tried to keep the jazzman off the course; after a tongue lashing by Sullivan they relented.)

That fall, aging nightclub comic Joe E. Lewis did a routine about Vice President Nixon and Senator Kennedy, who would vie for the presidency a year later. Borscht Belt star Sam Levenson lampooned concerns about the population explosion with jokes like “Somewhere on this globe, every ten seconds, there is a woman giving birth to a child. She must be found and stopped.” Jack Carter did his Sullivan imitation and Henny Youngman intoned, as always, “Take my wife … please take my wife.” Also booked were mild-mannered comic Dick Van Dyke, a regular, and the flippant duo Rowan and Martin, who later starred in the late 1960s comedy show Laugh-In.

Audiences also saw the choreography of Broadway-ballet legend Jerome Robbins; to accommodate the complexity of Robbins’ dance routine the show used seven cameras—far more than normal—and afforded Robbins two extra days of on-set rehearsal, luxurious by the standards of the Sullivan show. In the classical realm, Ed presented performances by opera stars Giulietta Simionato and Eileen Farrell and virtuoso violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

Cast members from two current Broadway hits, Bye Bye Birdie and The Golden Fleecing, played scenes from their shows, and Jimmy Cagney stopped by with a preview of his new movie The Gallant Hours. Ed interviewed director Billy Wilder and showed clips from Wilder’s Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. Charlton Heston appeared to plug Ben-Hur, and stayed for a dramatic Bible reading accompanied by full chorus. His stentorian Bible recitation was such a hit that Sullivan invited him back to repeat it later in the year. Not everything went according to plan, as when the horses onstage with vocalist Frankie Laine started to relieve themselves, prompting great merriment in the studio audience.

Ed, oddly, booked the Harlem Globetrotters to play a mock basketball game against the Ames Brothers, a four-man vocal quartet, with baseball star Duke Snyder as referee. The All-American Football squad, fully dressed in helmets and pads, made its perennial appearance. One of the year’s biggest shows was an all-circus broadcast in March, featuring tightrope legend the Wallenda family; four of the aerialists rode bikes across a high wire over a parking lot off Eighth Avenue (Ed used his connections to get a permit from the city). The showman flew to Paris—he couldn’t stay home completely—to film circus acts in the hundred-year-old Cirque d’Hiver. Almost every week there were acrobats or trained animals, notably the trained chimp dressed as Ed who rode a unicycle.

When the season’s ratings were tallied, The Ed Sullivan Show was back near the top, at number twelve. Ed’s decision to downplay the international had worked. The public’s fascination with Westerns hadn’t ended—the top three shows were set in the Old West—yet Sullivan’s own sagebrush sparring partner, Maverick, had fallen to number twenty. And NBC’s mixed-format variety show, Sunday Showcase, had offered only token resistance. With the show’s cancellation after one year, NBC never again tried to compete with Sullivan in the variety format.

Ed received a disconcerting bit of news that season: longtime sponsor Lincoln Mercury, citing the show’s high costs, was bowing out. (Ford Motor Company was reeling after losing $250 million from its launch of the Edsel, a car almost no one bought.) While ratings for the Sullivan show meant sponsors were readily found, the new advertiser inflamed Ed’s ulcer. Filling Lincoln Mercury’s shoes was Colgate-Palmolive, which had sponsored former Sullivan archrival Comedy Hour. As one columnist described it, “The Colgate-Palmolive Company has joined a show it couldn’t lick.”

For Colgate, of course, the shift in shows was simply a business decision. But not for Ed. That Colgate had bankrolled Comedy Hour back when the program endangered his survival made the company a mortal enemy in his eyes. For him his show had never been about business; it was personal, intensely so, a reflection of who he was, his tastes, and his attitudes. The showman threw a tantrum at the specter of having Colgate as a sponsor. He lodged a vociferous protest with the CBS management, making it clear he wanted nothing to do with Colgate-Palmolive. In response the network offered him a minor salve that was never disclosed; it may have been an increase in talent budget. Whatever it was, after meetings with network executives Ed pronounced himself reconciled to Colgate’s sponsorship.

Colgate or no, Ed’s ulcer took a turn for the worse during the season. He was in nearly constant pain (and in fact had been for years) and in January he missed two shows; Jackie Gleason had to substitute host. In June he finally conceded, checking himself in for surgery. While recovering, he put aside any thought of taking it easy. He turned his late-summer retreat to Italy into a working vacation, interviewing Sophia Loren and Clark Gable on the set of A Started in Naples.

On its face, the 1959-60 season had been such a good one that Sullivan might have decided to stay the course. It had put the showman back near the top in his twelfth year on the air. Nonetheless, Ed felt it was time to make a critical staff change. Or perhaps producer Marlo Lewis left of his own accord, as he claimed, explaining that he needed time off and planned to write a book. If Lewis did leave on his own, there’s not a single reference to Ed attempting to convince him to stay. Whatever the case, Marlo’s contract expired in the fall of 1960 and was not renewed. Their parting was by all accounts amicable, though it seemed clear Ed was ready for Marlo to go.

Ed himself, of course, had always been the show’s producer, conceiving of its tone and pacing, choosing the balance of acts, exerting control over the material, forging the show to conform to his vision in rehearsal. Although he and Marlo were billed as coproducers, Ed very much ran the show. But Marlo oversaw the logistics, and with such a mélange of performers coming and going every week—from trained chimps to opera divas—that task was hardly secondary.

The decision that Ed made in filling this principal role was to be a central determinant in the show’s success in the decade ahead, although the extent to which this was true wasn’t clear at the time. The new producer was Bob Precht, Ed’s son-in-law. Having worked as a production assistant on the show since the mid 1950s, he had demonstrated an eye for detail and a set of organizational skills that far surpassed Marlo’s. Bob had produced many of the remote broadcasts in recent years, working closely with Ed on what were some of his father-in-law’s favorite projects. Notably, Precht’s supervision of the Soviet show, handling a crew of eighty during a three-week trip in adverse circumstances, proved him to be a meticulous and tireless administrator.

Whether Bob was ready to step into such a vital job was questioned by some. “Bob had a lot to learn,” recalled Sistie Moffit, an administrative assistant. “And he was coming in with people who had a lot of background and experience. I felt sorry for Bob—we all did.” Certain Sullivan staffers whispered about ill-advised nepotism; some of these murmurs were fueled by fear that Bob would clean house of Marlo loyalists. But Ed’s decision to hire Bob wasn’t nepotism, or at least not purely so. That Precht was his son-in-law had gotten him in the door, but Ed cared too deeply about his show to promote someone to an all-important role merely because he was a relative.

It didn’t hurt that Bob was younger. In the fall of 1960 Ed turned fifty-nine; Marlo was forty-five; Bob was twenty-nine. When Ed began producing the show in 1948 he had been immersed in the Zeitgeist; he not only wrote about all the day’s leading performers in his column, he knew them all personally. But with the passing years he had lost some of that. He had initially missed Elvis, calling him too expensive and unfit for family viewing; only after realizing his mistake did he parlay the rock ’n’ roller to a massive ratings win. It was the kind of trend he wouldn’t have been late to in 1948. And Marlo hadn’t been any more prescient about the Elvis tidal wave. So having a coproducer with a fresh outlook seemed like a good bet—especially when the youthful Jack Kennedy won the presidency that fall, making it feel like the culture had been renewed. Unmistakably, change was in the air.

Ed and Bob formed a partnership far different than that of Ed and Marlo. Or, more accurately, over time they did. Sullivan had no intention of giving up even a small bit of his absolute authority when he promoted his son-in-law. He hired Bob as a sharper and better-organized version of Marlo. But Precht had different ideas. Ed’s daughter Betty had married a man not dissimilar to her father. He would not be the minor tyrant that Ed could be, and he was not prone to Ed’s competitive rages. Yet he could be headstrong, and he was not content with the essentially secondary role that Marlo had played. “I was aggressive,” Precht said. “If I was to do that job, I wanted to really do the job, I didn’t want to just take orders and put the cameras out.”

That was clear as The Ed Sullivan Show began the 1960-61 season, Precht’s first as producer. The show looked and moved differently. It was as if with the turning of a decade it was now a new show, or at least looked like one. During the 1950s the stage sets often appeared token, sometimes assembled hurriedly after Ed booked a news-making act the day before. Bob changed that. He hired Bill Bohnert, a young set designer with an MFA from Yale and an architecture degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bohnert’s fondness for clean, geometric designs gave the show a mod look in keeping with the 1960s; alternately, he created big, showy sets for musical numbers, and realistically detailed backdrops for Broadway and opera productions.

Additionally, the show’s pacing, previously Ed’s exclusive province, was quickened. To help this along, Precht fired Johnny Wray, the show’s director throughout the 1950s, and replaced him with Tim Kiley, who at age thirty-four was already an established CBS staff director. The effect was dramatic: intros and outros were smoother, and the entire program seemed to flow better. Ed himself would still walk out of the camera’s view unexpectedly, leaving viewers looking at the stage curtain, but most of the other camera angles were better coordinated. In a creative touch, the show sometimes opened with a shot of the evening’s performers walking onstage in an eclectic parade, accompanied by contemporary music.

Marlo had sometimes conducted Saturday rehearsals before the Sunday dress rehearsals, especially for elaborate segments. Under Bob’s direction these Saturday rehearsals became part of the show’s weekly life cycle. His improvements did not come without friction. Some of the longtime staffers resented Precht’s changes and the new producer found himself in full-bore arguments. Ed himself, for a period, became more actively involved in the show’s technical minutiae, much to Bob’s chagrin. But with time the new producer carved out his own turf.

Bob, though willing to be unpopular with the staff when necessary, always used a soft touch with his father-in-law—necessarily, because Ed brooked no rebellion among staffers, related or not. Nonetheless, it’s clear from viewing the shows in the early 1960s that Bob diplomatically devised a method to—somewhat—sharpen Ed’s stage presence. The showman’s introductions could be surprisingly ill-focused; he seemed to know what he wanted to say but could stumble through a handful of sentences getting it out. His comments now tended to be shorter and more to the point, though the old syntax-garbled Ed certainly wasn’t gone. (The fact that he wasn’t suave still didn’t matter to sponsors, who sought to make use of his credibility with viewers. Kodak, as had Lincoln Mercury, had Ed perform the voiceover for dozens of their ads, and he often did an extensive live lead-in before cutting to commercial.)

Bob hoped to make still another change, one that went to the very core of the show: he wanted to have a say in bookings. This, of course, was heresy to Ed. The showman’s sense of talent and his intuitive grasp of his audience had always been the heart of The Ed Sullivan Show. He had given Marlo the rundown over the phone every week. Sure, Ed accepted tips and suggestions from almost anyone, from cab drivers to family members to those he spoke to during his nightclub prowling. He followed the pop charts, fielded calls from talent agents and show business cronies, read the newspapers, and traveled constantly. But all these sources were funneled down to one producer. It was set in stone: all the artistic decisions of The Ed Sullivan Show were made by its namesake.

Yet Bob felt strongly about having input on bookings. He thought about it for weeks before approaching Ed and telling him he wanted to be a producer in the fullest sense of the title. Furthermore, Precht felt the bookings needed some refreshing; using comedian Jack Carter six times in a season was overkill in Bob’s view, however good the comic’s Sullivan imitation. (Carter, who hosted the variety show Cavalcade of Stars in 1949, had for years regularly met Ed for drinks at Danny’s Hideaway.) Bob, with his more youthful and liberal worldview, hoped to renew the Sullivan formula.

It’s a measure of the respect Ed had for Bob that they came to a reconciliation on this issue. Perhaps the fact that Bob was his son-in-law helped tip the balance; the two of them spent holidays together, and went out for dinner together with their wives after the show every week. Ed, who had always been too driven to develop close friendships, had something of a close friend in Bob. At any rate, it was agreed: Bob and Ed would consult about the bookings. Which is to say, Ed retained final veto power. “Ed was the boss,” remembered pop singer Connie Francis, who saw the working relationship between the two men during her twenty-six Sullivan show appearances. “I think Bob Precht had an ‘ES’ carved out on his ulcers.”

If the show’s bookings took no major turn in the 1960-61 season—instead continuing as the perfect mirror of current tastes as they always had—one guest reflected the change of decade more than most. Comedian and political satirist Mort Sahl’s pointed barbs were a major departure from many comics of the era, who still relied on mother-in-law jokes and vaudeville gags. Sahl had offended enough people to receive violent threats for lampooning the 1950s-era House Un-American Activities Committee, the spearhead of McCarthyism and an entity that Ed wholeheartedly supported. Sahl’s left-leaning version of Will Rogers—style populism made him a favorite on the more cerebral Steve Allen Show, but Ed had never booked him in the 1950s. His appearance on the Sullivan show, the imprimatur of mainstream acceptance, signaled a change in popular tastes.

In one of his Sullivan show performances, Sahl referred to his army stint during the Korean War, saying that there were “no supplies, no ammunition, no gasoline— but you could buy them.” As his morale fell, “One day I said, ‘I don’t know what we’re doing here.’ An officer heard me. He was going to send me back.” That was considered a terrible punishment, Sahl said, “Although oddly, two officers fought over the right to escort me back.” As punishment, the army sent him to a military psychiatric hospital, where they gave him a little ID tag with his photo, which, he quipped, “I could use if I ever wanted to cash a check at a market.”

The acerbic comic appeared five times on the Sullivan show, three times that season. Ed took the show on the road that fall, visiting cities across the United States. During a San Francisco broadcast, Sahl skewered presidential candidates Kennedy and Nixon; on the same bill, opera star Dorothy Kirsten sang an aria from Madame Butterfly in the city’s Japanese Tea Garden and the Dave Brubeck Quartet vamped their jazz classic “Take Five,” which made a recent surprise showing on the pop charts. In December pioneering soul singer Jackie Wilson headlined, flashing his choreographed dance moves and dropping to one knee to croon “To Be Loved”; right after Wilson, Sahl performed, sending up American foreign policy and New York City cops. In June the comic shared the bill with The Limeliters, a folk music group whose ironic wit had been incubated at San Francisco’s progressive nightclub The Hungry i, as had Sahl’s. (Along the same line, Sullivan presented Odetta, a young black female folksinger who would soon record the protest song “No More Auction Block for Me.” Ed booked her for that season’s Christmas show to sing “Shout for Joy” and “Poor Little Jesus.”)

Most of this season’s comics were far from Sahl’s territory, though even Jack Carter was now telling jokes about beatniks. In November, Ed booked a show headlined by comic Jerry Lewis, vaudevillian Sophie Tucker, and singer Connie Francis, who had just released a Jewish-themed album and planned to sing a cut from it, “My Yiddishe Mama.” However, the singer recalled, “Sophie had a fit, because that was ‘her song’ and she insisted I not do it.” Tucker enlisted Jerry Lewis in her complaint, and Lewis agreed: Connie Francis should not be allowed to sing “My Yiddishe Mama”—it was Sophie Tucker’s song. The squabble quickly turned into a minor tempest. “Jerry and Sophie were going to walk off the show, and they were really serious about it,” Francis remembered. The singer offered Ed a compromise, telling him she had eleven other songs she could do. But Ed was adamant, siding with Francis: “She’ll do whatever she wants.” Jerry Lewis and Sophie Tucker gave in, performing as planned, with Lewis doing a routine in which he attempted to teach Ed how to be charismatic, playing the showman’s wooden persona for comic hi jinks.

In February, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks performed a lighthearted routine, sharing the bill with Henry Fonda, who read two of Lincoln’s speeches, and torch singer Peggy Lee, who smoldered through her 1942 hit “Why Don’t You Do Right?” Later that month Lucille Ball saw top billing, reprising the tune “Wildcat” that she had just performed in her Broadway debut. In that same show Rowan and Martin satirized diet doctors.

Ed, true to form, mixed lowbrow with high art this season. In his broadcast from Chicago he toured both the stockyards and the Chicago Art Institute, presenting jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman playing with the city’s Fine Arts String Quartet. That same show, Charlton Heston read Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago” and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy conversed about Vikings.

There was virtually no straight theater this year, a change from past seasons, though scenes from Broadway musicals were still staged. For a tribute show to Broadway duo Lerner and Lowe, Richard Burton rendered a scene from their Camelot. (Bob Precht had to keep calling Burton’s hotel to ensure he was sober enough to go on.) As usual, there were plenty of film clips: John Wayne appeared to promote The Alamo and Sal Mineo plugged Exodus. Having grown up with vaudeville, Ed booked the genre’s aging stars even though the general public had largely forgotten them; this season the show featured Smith and Dale, who had played the Palace in its heyday, now doing one-liners in their seventies.

One of the oddest moments this season was an appearance by Salvador Dalí, the Spanish Surrealist painter. “Tonight, on our stage, Salvador Dalí figures in what we’re pleased to call an historic moment in art,” Ed said, holding a pistol that shot paint pellets. “Dalí believes that the most unusual patterns in art may be produced by this gun.” Dalí, in a dandyish pinstriped suit that complemented his flamboyantly upturned mustache, fired the paint gun at several large canvases, creating original art before an audience of millions, then signed a canvas with a theatrical flourish.

Salvador Dalí on the Sullivan show, 1961. Sullivan touted the painter’s appearance as “an historic moment in art,” as Dalí shot paint pellets at a canvas for a live television audience. (CBS Photo Archive)

That Ed had begun sharing booking decisions with Bob didn’t mean he had gone soft. Sullivan the lion had occasion to roar in January, when Nat “King” Cole, a favorite of Ed’s who appeared thirteen times, refused to yield to the showman’s song choice. The mellow crooner wanted to perform his new tune, “Illusion.” Ed said no— only established material could be performed on his show, he said. The two came to loggerheads, and, in a highly publicized spat, Ed canceled the singer’s appearance.

“I feel my integrity as an artist has been questioned,” Cole told a reporter after the cancellation. Ed retorted: “We don’t intend to have the show used as a vehicle for plugging a record that’s not even been released.” Having gotten himself into a lather about the issue, Sullivan drove the point home: “We don’t think this is a good song; if we’re wrong we’ll be the first to admit it.”

Up until then the two had enjoyed a perfect partnership. Ed, who took pride in championing black performers, found the ideal entertainer in Cole, whose butterscotch-soft persona made this groundbreaking effort comparatively easier. Cole’s many Sullivan show appearances helped him land The Nat King Cole Show in 1956, the first network variety show hosted by a major black star. (No national sponsor would support the show, reportedly fearing a southern boycott, and several NBC affiliates in the north and south declined to carry it; it was canceled after thirteen months.) After Sullivan and Cole’s spat they never repaired their friendship, and the singer never again appeared on the show. However, after Cole’s death in 1965, Ed booked his widow Maria Cole as she launched a comeback in her singing career.

The Sullivan show’s ratings for the 1960-61 season were strong—Nielsen indicated the show dominated its Sunday time slot. Among some one hundred programs in prime time, the Sullivan show ranked fifteenth, one step down from last season, yet clearly holding a coveted spot. The show was withstanding the Western onslaught, which continued apace: five of the top six programs that season were set in the Old West. But the once highly ranked Western running opposite the Sullivan show, Maverick, was now homesteading outside the top twenty.

As the season began, and the ratings pointed to the year’s success, Ed huddled with his lawyer Arnold Grant and his MCA management team. It was time to renegotiate his compensation package. A few months before, Ed had written a letter to CBS head Bill Paley as a first move in the negotiation process. Pointing out that a recent Sullivan show garnered a remarkable fifty-nine-percent audience share, Ed wrote: “I am looking forward eagerly to the Nielsen report, which should show an even more astounding share of audience.” He also sent along a Canadian ratings report, which, Sullivan noted, “shows your oldest show topping the Canadian market.” In case all the facts and figures didn’t suffice, the showman added a dose of sugar: “I always have held you in affectionate respect and even helped straighten out your golf game!”

Sullivan didn’t need to do much sweet-talking. “Paley loved Ed Sullivan—he loved hits,” recalled Mike Dann, a CBS programming head in the 1960s. The new contract reflected that affection. Its terms stretched over an astonishing thirty-five years, stipulating various pay levels over that period. Given that Ed signed the agreement at age fifty-nine, the network was in essence agreeing to reward him handsomely until the end of his days. While he continued to produce the show, his salary would be $1 million per year, with increases in the years ahead. When he ceased production or when the show was canceled, the network guaranteed him a minimum of $100,000 per year. In the event the show was canceled in the next two years, CBS would make an additional payout to Sullivan. The program’s production budget was upped to $73,000 per show.

He was, finally, being paid as a superstar. It had taken a long time, in view of the show’s twelve-year run and its dominance during most of those years. It was as if there had been a lingering trace of the original CBS attitude of selling the show “with or without Sullivan.” But his new pay level (which he didn’t release to reporters as he had in 1954) put that era well in the past. Still, in the years ahead Sullivan never stopped intimating that network management didn’t appreciate him, though with his new contract those complaints rang hollow.

As Ed emerged from negotiations, there was talk—for the first time—of using reruns in the summer. It had always been a point of pride for him that the show kept creating fresh programs all year long. He himself took a brief summer vacation, using his “break” to produce on-location segments, but substitute hosts kept the show going. Producing nearly fifty new programs a year had given him a competitive edge against the better-financed Comedy Hour.In mid season, Ed wasn’t willing to answer reporters’ questions about whether he would create new shows all summer, claiming that nothing had been decided. But in the summer of 1961 The Ed Sullivan Show ran six weeks of reruns. Additionally, within a few years Ed began taping a number of shows on Monday nights in front of a studio audience, to allow himself and the staff a rest on certain weeks.

Despite his new generous pay package, the showman was in no danger of mellowing. Toward the end of the season, the Federal Communications Commission conducted two weeks of hearings in New York City, investigating the current state of television. The hearings produced substantial hand-wringing. FCC chairman Newton Minnow decried the “wasteland” of TV programming, and many of those testifying pointed to what they saw as the villain: ratings, and the need for programmers to lower their standards in service to them.

Nonsense, said Ed in his testimony. Ratings were “dictated by the people” and “present an accurate picture of what the people prefer.” Television is necessarily a wasteland, he said, because the round-the-clock demands of the medium make it impossible to maintain consistent quality. He threw cold water on the comments of David Susskind, a television producer who had launched an erudite public affairs talk show in 1958, and who noted that TV had few such shows. “Nobody in television has been given so many opportunities by all kinds of networks as David Susskind and nobody has had more flops than David Susskind,” Ed said, proving he could lead with his elbows even when he wasn’t being attacked.

Moreover, he opined, there was hypocrisy on the part of newspaper commentators. Some who demand opera on television “would be bored to death by it,” he claimed. He complained that The New York Times, when he presented an opera series, had barely covered it. In truth, the newspaper had previewed it, and Ed was forced to concede this. (In fact, after prodding he acknowledged that the paper’s coverage of his show was “wonderful,” which, after the initial barbs by critic Jack Gould, it unquestionably had been. Since the mid 1950s the Times had treated Sullivan’s nearly every move as newsworthy.) But Ed’s point at the hearings was clear: he had only disdain for those whom he saw as ivory tower types, expecting television to elevate the masses without regard to market realities. Television, in his view, was as rough-and-tumble as the athletic fields of Port Chester. You either scored or you didn’t, and complaining was simply proof that you couldn’t make the grade.

Ed’s roundhouse at David Susskind was only a warm-up for the bare knuckles spirit he brought to that season’s encounter with talk show host Jack Paar. It may have been inevitable that Paar and Sullivan would feud; television was hardly big enough for two such sensitive egos. Paar, who had considerable success in the 1950s as a comic—including numerous Sullivan show appearances—became host of the Tonight Show in 1957. His skills as a witty and idiosyncratic conversationalist turned the show into a hit for NBC. Like Sullivan, Paar could be mercurial and at times petulant; in 1960 he staged a twenty-five-day walkout after NBC cut one of his jokes from the tape without his consent. (The joke made reference to a “water closet,” or toilet, and so was considered too risque for television.)

On March 5, a little known Canadian singer on her way up named Joan Fairfax appeared on the Sullivan show, earning $1,000—on the low end of the show’s pay scale, which went up to $10,000 for headliners. The next night she sang on Paar’s show for $320, which was union scale. It was unusual that a performer appeared on another program so soon after Sullivan’s. His show’s contract usually forbade it; Ed didn’t want an act he helped popularize to lift anyone else’s ratings. But Fairfax had been bumped from an earlier Sullivan show, and was honoring a Paar commitment made long before the schedule change. A few days later, Ed was leafing through fan mail—he remained highly attuned to viewer comments—and came across a reference to Fairfax performing on both shows.

Livid, he called MCA agent Marty Kummer, who he had worked with to book Fairfax, shouted a stream of profanities in his ear, then fired him. As Ed looked into the issue he realized that a number of his favorites, notably comics Myron Cohen and Sam Levenson, were appearing on both his and Paar’s show for very different pay scales. And that, improbably, was what angered him: that Paar could book the likes of Sam Levenson for union scale while the Sullivan show had to pay $2,500. But the pay disparity was unavoidable: the Sullivan show was a ratings powerhouse with huge sponsorship revenue; the Paar show was a distant also-ran in the ratings. Ed himself had taken advantage of similarly disparate pay levels when he booked performers to appear for little after they saw hefty paydays on Comedy Hour. Paar’s show, while never as underfunded as Sullivan’s had been, was not a big-budget affair. It was successful by the then-limited standards of late-evening television, but the Tonight Show was far from the franchise it later became.

Yet Ed decided to treat Paar as an arch competitor. He issued a dictum to all talent agents: any performer you book on Paar for $320 will be paid no more than that on my show. It had the effect he knew it would have: many performers and agents suddenly forgot that Paar existed. Within days Myron Cohen canceled his upcoming Tonight Show appearance. Paar, whose first resort was usually histrionics—though entertaining histrionics—responded by reading a long open letter to Ed on his program: “Ed, I don’t have the money to pay performers. This show is a low-budget freak that caught on because performers want to come on and want time to entertain people without the monkey act and the Japanese jugglers waiting in the wings.” After his audience’s laughter subsided he challenged Ed to a duel: he would ask NBC for the Sunday time slot opposite Sullivan, so that for one evening they would produce competing variety shows, with the winner decided by the ratings.

Ed, deflecting the challenge, quipped, “I think Paar owes me $320. It’s the best show he’s had in weeks.” Then he proposed his own duel. He would come on Paar’s show and debate him, with one stipulation: there could be no studio audience—Sullivan knew that Paar could play to a crowd far more effectively than he could. Over the next few days the NBC host tweaked Ed for requesting to ban the studio audience, yet he countered with generous terms: Sullivan could speak first and last and bring his own moderator. Paar asked only that, “some time be given to the issues that he had raised. I don’t want to be given four minutes and then eight acrobats come on in the middle.” For Paar, whose ratings were dwarfed by Sullivan’s, the mini-farce was a Nielsen booster. The longer he kept it going the better. For Sullivan, for whom this kind of thing wasn’t his shtick, it was quickly becoming an embarrassment, especially when the national media started covering the conflict round by round. No real issues existed between the two men, except Ed’s irrational insistence on pay parity.

Ed agreed to have a studio audience present for the debate, and after some minor jousting the event was scheduled for the Tonight Show broadcast on March 13. That afternoon Ed and Bob Precht met with Paar’s producer at the office of publisher Bennett Cerf, whom Ed had chosen as the moderator. In mid meeting Sullivan realized Paar had changed the rules, or at least that’s how Ed saw it. The NBC host now wanted a discussion, not a debate—though clearly the agreement had been to debate. To be sure, the difference between a debate and a discussion on a talk show was negligible, but what Ed feared was a freewheeling back and forth. Knowing he was no match for Paar’s verbal wit, Ed had agreed to a debate with a plan to read prepared remarks. He wanted no part of a discussion.

He issued a press release at 3:30 P.M., saying it was a debate or nothing. “I am ready to go on tonight and debate. If Paar wants to change his mind before 4 P.M., I will go on. Paar can now put up or shut up and his deadline is 4 P.M. I have no further comment.” NBC retorted with its own release claiming that Sullivan had thrown in the towel—provoking an angry response from Ed: “Paar is a welcher. He is a hell of shadow boxer, but I think he chokes up when he realizes that the time has come to stand up and debate.” Paar replied in turn, claiming that Sullivan “would not agree to a free and open discussion of the issues, the only condition I made and the only democratic way of clearing up the whole mess.” On his show he opined, “Ed Sullivan proved to be as honest as he is talented.… Ed Sullivan is a liar. That is libel. He must now sue and he must go to court—not like Winchell and Hoffa [two previous Paar combatants], who sue just to save their face.”

The squabble had gone on far too long—many were now calling it ridiculous—and Ed wanted out. He issued a final statement that he was going to Miami to emcee a show for crippled children, asserting, “This controversy, as Paar’s behavior proved last night, is clearly a misuse of the airways and has become objectionable to the public. Consequently I will have nothing more to say on the subject.” In the aftermath, Life magazine’s cover showed two puppets, Sullivan and Paar, slugging it out. The accompanying article was composed of photos of the puppets in absurd poses, and the captions quoted the men’s actual words, which fit the silly photos all too well.

The irony of the feud was that Ed initiated it just a few months after signing his new contract with CBS. He was the producer of a ratings giant, a star of a major network who had just signed a lucrative contract extending until the very end of his days. But he had picked a fisticuffs with the host of an also-ran show who didn’t threaten him in any way.

It was as if Ed, having found the fame he always had hungered for, could not let go of the pugilistic side of himself that helped him achieve it. He needed someone or something to struggle against, even if he had to invent it out of whole cloth. The word that critics most often used to describe him was “wooden,” because he showed the public only his stiff emcee persona. Yet his unguarded reactions were almost always uncontrollably visceral. Real woodenness was beyond him.

As Ed took his European vacation that summer the Cold War took a turn toward the frigid. On August 12 East German leader Walter Ulbricht signed the command to close the border between East and West Berlin; the next day construction of the Berlin Wall began. It was exactly the type of event that inspired Ed, who saw the show as a vehicle for reflecting world affairs, regardless of the mixed response this had generated. He immediately flew to Berlin and met with U.S. military authorities. Would they authorize a Sullivan show to entertain the troops stationed in Germany? After getting agreement he began assembling a cast of stars for an October program.

Jack Paar, perhaps inspired by the impending Sullivan show, scrambled to launch his own Berlin Wall show. He succeeded in getting there first, but the Paar program became a minor fiasco. He filmed it literally within the shadow of the wall, commandeering a squad of some fifty American soldiers as a chaperone. The flurry of troop movement not authorized by senior military officials caused grave concern. With White House approval, the Defense Department launched an investigation; the fear was that massing such a force so close to the wall could have sparked an international incident. Two Army officers were censured for cooperating with Paar.

In contrast, the Sullivan show in October was a major public relations victory. Taped in front of an audience of six thousand American troops in West Berlin’s Sportspalast, headliner Louis Armstrong blew through—appropriately—“When the Saints Go Marching In.” Accompanying the jazz trumpeter was Sullivan’s typically eclectic mix: Metropolitan Opera star Roberta Peters; classical pianist Van Cliburn; comic-magician Bob Lewis; pop chart powerhouse Connie Francis singing her hit theme song to MGM’s Where the Boys Are; comedians Rowan and Martin; and a troupe of French cancan dancers called The Bluebell Girls. Ed asked audience member Lieutenant General Albert Watson to take a bow.

Connie Francis, who had become friends with Ed, suggested that they visit the communist sector of Berlin. “We looked at that wall and I said, ‘Ed, we’ve got to get to the other side,’ and he said, ‘Yes we do—tomorrow we’ll go.’ ” Ed and Sylvia accompanied Francis on a tour bus that traveled through East Berlin, during which no pictures or questions were allowed. At the sight of the city’s gloom, “He was just as distraught as I was,” the singer recalled.

On a lighter note, Ed accompanied Louis Armstrong out to West Berlin nightclubs for the trumpeter’s local performances. As production assistant John Moffit recalled, one night Ed returned to the hotel giddy from having downed several drinks. The hotel had asked all of its patrons to leave their shoes outside their room doors, to be polished by hotel staff. “Ed was going around and tying all the shoelaces together, laughing and chortling away,” Moffit remembered.

The broadcast was such a success that Ed reprised it the following fall, December 1962, taking a show to the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, again booking Louis Armstrong and Connie Francis. Like the Berlin Wall show, this program enabled Ed to thrust The Ed Sullivan Show into the international spotlight. The Cuban missile crisis—bringing America and the Soviet Union to an eyeball-to-eyeball nuclear standoff—had unfolded just several weeks earlier. Production assistant Vince Calandra remembered the atmosphere of fear as they flew down; because of the recent tension the Air Force provided an escort of four fighter jets. “It was scary!” he recalled. Armstrong, again choosing a song with great appropriateness, played “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

The Louis Armstrong-Connie Francis pairing was typical of Ed’s approach to music in the 1961-62 season. The old guard was very much in residence, yet it was increasingly leavened with the new sound. Just a few weeks after the Berlin show Ed booked Duke Ellington for a duet with Armstrong, the two giants interpreting “In a Mellow Mood”; on that same show, sugary pop crooner Paul Anka trilled a jazzy version of “Jingle Bells.” (In a similarly unlikely cultural stretch, Anka later shared the bill with poet Carl Sandburg.) In November, the very square Steve Lawrence, a Sullivan favorite, shared the bill with Ray Charles, who laid down a rollicking rhythm and blues sound that had rarely been heard in middle-class households. Two months later, suave Robert Goulet (whom Ed mistakenly introduced as Canadian) glided over the Cole Porter standard “What Is This Thing Called Love?” on the same night that soul singer Jackie Wilson squeezed the emotion out of his Top 40 hit “The Greatest Hurt.” That hour also found the Marquis Chimps doing a tumbling act and smoking cigarettes, a booking that may have been a nod to sponsor York Cigarettes.

That winter, pop duo the Everly Brothers—performing in Marine uniforms during their short enlisted stint—harmonized on “Crying in the Rain” in the same hour trumpeter Al Hirt jazzed up Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” For every booking of vanguard artists like Fats Domino, Dion, and Chubby Checker there was an equal and opposite booking of Johnny Mathis or the McGuire Sisters. For every appearance by folksingers—now on the increase—such as The Highwaymen, who sang “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” or the fresh-faced The Brothers Four, who harmonized on “This Land Is Your Land,” there was a counterweight, like 1940s star Kate Smith belting out “Climb Every Mountain” or balladeer Billy Eckstine getting intimate with “What Kind of Fool Am I?” During these seasons in the early 1960s it was still possible to entertain both teens and their parents without alienating either group.

Broadway continued to star; that spring Ed presented a scene from the long-running hit West Side Story, in an hour in which Liberace performed a tribute to vaudeville, dancing a soft-shoe to “Me and My Shadow.” And Ed seemed to be on a mission to book every classic jazz act, spotlighting Sarah Vaughn, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, the Woody Herman Orchestra, and their contemporaries.

In June, Ed wrote one of his many letters to New York Times critic Jack Gould; a Times editor noted that no entertainer wrote as many letters to the paper as Sullivan. Civil rights was coming to the forefront of national consciousness and Gould had written a piece about the role of black performers on television, noting that it was minimal. But he left out the Sullivan show’s contribution. After Ed’s letter, Gould issued a correction: “In the past year he has offered thirty-three Negro acts, involving one hundred two individuals and an expenditure of $201,000 in fees. Herewith apologies to Mr. Sullivan for omitting his admirable record.”

On a related note, the first Sullivan show of the next season was interrupted by a CBS News bulletin: James Meredith, a black college student, had been admitted to the University of Mississippi, an historic first. An angry mob of two thousand had converged on the campus to block the special Sunday registration. In the ensuing riot, two died, twenty-eight federal marshals were wounded, and one hundred sixty were injured. Ed followed the events closely; his support for the civil rights movement was wholehearted. The following June, at a $100-a-plate dinner in honor of four civil rights leaders, he presented an award to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ed’s lifestyle after his recent pay increase was not perceptibly different than when he had signed his first lucrative contract in the mid 1950s. And this itself had not been markedly higher than when he first moved into the Delmonico in 1944. Ed and Sylvia’s apartment was surprisingly modest, given his income. The staffers who visited often remarked that its décor made it hard to believe its inhabitants were affluent, with the exception of a handful of original oil paintings Sylvia had collected.

The furniture was a homey mixture of Italian and French, with antique satin drapes in the living room and sitting room, where Sylvia played games of mah-jongg with her friends when not volunteering for charity concerns, which she did frequently. Ed conducted much of the business of the show from the Delmonico, and his office was littered with show business memorabilia: a copy of Time with his face on the cover, photos from the show—Cole Porter, Humphrey Bogart, Ella Fitzgerald—and a picture frame that was a gift from Jerry Lewis. (Lewis had sent his own photo in the frame, which Ed removed and replaced with a photo of himself on the golf course.)

Working quietly amid the clutter, the hundreds of books, and the scattered newspapers, was almost always Ed’s man Friday, Carmine Santullo. A quiet, sweet, unassuming man, who virtually worshipped Ed, Carmine handled the incessant stream of phone calls, among countless other duties. After working with Sullivan for decades he could anticipate his response to any request. “Carmine was Ed’s Nubian slave,” recalled Sullivan show secretary Sistie Moffit. He did most of the legwork for Ed’s Daily News column (still published twice weekly), and many said he all but wrote it, though Ed made a point of insisting he wrote it himself.

The Delmonico had almost no kitchen, but Ed and Sylvia didn’t need one. They continued to dine out almost every evening in fashionable Manhattan restaurants, most often dining by themselves, though fans and friends invariably stopped by to socialize. As many show staffers recalled, Sylvia loved going out and always dressed with great elegance. At dinner, her tastes were gourmet, unlike Ed, who had little sense of smell or taste and so was always complimenting the chef while putting small packets of artificial sugar into his wine. After dinner the couple might see a Broadway show or a nightclub revue, which Ed reviewed in his column (advertisements for Broadway shows were now in their fourth decade of including one-line blurbs touting his opinion). They often stayed out for late evening drinks at a nightclub, perhaps Danny’s Hideaway or the Copacabana, where Ed still scouted for talent; on certain evenings they were out until 3 A.M. Ed almost never watched television, except for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, which he was quite fond of.

The Sullivans were invited to any number of social galas, but usually declined. Ed didn’t like large groups, preferring to socialize with people he knew well. If they were out with a group and Ed didn’t know one person it made him uneasy. However, when he granted one of his many interviews, he invited reporters to the Delmonico and chatted volubly, jumping freely from topic to topic. Some interviewers felt they met a completely different man than the one seen on his Sunday show. He also overcame his natural reserve to attend the innumerable events at which he was given an award. In October 1962, for example, he was honored for promoting international goodwill by the People-to-People Sports Committee. City planner Robert Moses, commending Ed’s spirit to the six hundred guests, said, “if we can continue that spirit into other international affairs we shall be well on the way to brotherhood and peace.”

Ed, out late and usually sleeping late, didn’t eat breakfast until around 11 A.M., ordering room service or having Carmine fix it. Either way, the meal rarely varied: a lamb chop, artificially sweetened pears, and a glass of iced tea. Because his breakfast was late morning, his meals were out of sync with the typical schedule; if he had a business lunch in the early afternoon and wasn’t hungry, he might drop a chicken leg in his pocket, taking it out after midnight for a snack. When he went to lunch and forgot his wallet, not an uncommon occurrence, the restaurant called the show and put it on his tab. To get around town he hailed his own taxi—he disdained limousines, or anything resembling an entourage. Once inside the cab he invariably quizzed the driver: what did you think of last week’s show?

In the 1961-62 season, NBC renewed its attempt to break Sullivan’s vise grip on Sunday night, launching Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, hosted by the beloved Disney himself. Originally debuting on ABC in 1954, the Disney show was one of television’s most successful. When the Sullivan show was the fifth-ranked program in 1954-55, Disney had run sixth; when The Ed Sullivan Show ascended to number three the following year, Disneyranked fourth. After that the programs’ ratings began to diverge, with Disney’s falling further behind. Never before 1961, however, had Disney run opposite The Ed Sullivan Show, and never had it run on NBC, a far stronger network than ABC at the time. That fall, NBC broadcast Disney from 7:30 to 8:30 P.M., opposite the first half hour of The Ed Sullivan Show. It was followed by Car 54, Where Are You?, a situation comedy that was never a major ratings contender.

The Disney show achieved part of NBC’s goal. Although the program trailed Sullivan in the ratings, it pulled his ranking down to number twenty, from the previous season’s fourteen. The effect was temporary. In the 1962-63 season, The Ed Sullivan Show climbed back to number fourteen, while Disney’s ratings remained beneath the top twenty. It wasn’t that Sullivan changed his formula; he could do little in response to Disney except include kids’ fare as he always had. He merely updated it as the culture updated, as he had since 1948. And he now had the help of his son-in-law Bob Precht, sharpening the show’s production values and nudging Ed toward the contemporary.

Central to the 1962-63 season’s success was Ed’s continuing alembic of the new pop sound with the unquestionably square. The square was as milquetoast as ever—Sammy Davis crooned “What Kind of Fool Am I?”—but the new was heading in unforeseen directions. A notable example was the booking of twenty-one-year-old folksinger Bob Dylan, which ran afoul of network censors that May. At dress rehearsal, Dylan sang his song “Talking John Birch Society Blues,” a skewering of the archconservative group’s anticommunist fervor (“Well I was looking everywhere for them gol-darned Reds / I got up in the morning and looked under my bed”). Precht had okayed the song beforehand and Ed had approved it in rehearsal. But the CBS Standards and Practices representative who watched all dress rehearsals—this was live TV, so performances were vetted in advance—vetoed the selection, giving no official explanation. Dylan, rather than choose an alternative, decided not to appear on the show. Both Bob and Ed said they wanted to have him back, but he never returned.

That Dylan was booked at all was a sign that Precht was taking a stronger role in the show’s choices. Ed knew how to follow the pop charts and had a knack for combining current chart climbers with older artists. But Dylan, though signed with Columbia Records, wasn’t on the charts at the time. Not until that summer, when Peter, Paul & Mary turned “Blowin’ in the Wind” into a hit, did Dylan start to become widely known. It was Precht’s youthful approach that was pushing the show toward performers like Dylan who were ahead of the cultural curve.

That fall Sullivan’s comedy bookings took a similarly contemporary turn, when he presented a series of politically pointed segments entitled “What’s Going on Here?” Written and performed by the stars of the popular British satirical revues “Beyond the Fringe” and “The Establishment,” the segments were presented as mock TV newscasts. Before they were aired, a reporter asked Bob Precht how the notoriously irreverent comics would fit with the Sullivan show. “The actors will be free to prepare whatever they like, but Ed will retain editorial control,” Precht said. Ed, in fact, gave them far more latitude than he would have in years past.

In a typical Sullivan mix, the acerbic British comedy team was booked to perform with easygoing comics Bob and Ray, an American duo whose dry wit had been a staple of 1940s radio. But in this case the pairing did nothing to soften the British edge. The English satirists intoned fictional news reports like “Alabama has moved ahead of Mississippi in the race race” and “Fidel Castro is accusing the CIA of launching hurricane Flora. It was last seen heading for Red China.” The furthest extreme of the troupe’s work was a mock news conference about Vietnam. As performed by actors John Bird and Jeremy Geidt, who portrayed President Kennedy and a reporter, the dialogue disintegrated into meaningless government-speak. Lending extra bite, the segment included a clip of Kennedy himself zigzagging through a near duplicate of the comics’ lines. The suggestion that a U.S. president was dissembling on a military effort was unheard of in a major venue at the time.

After the segment ended, Ed attempted to diffuse the effect by telling viewers that the White House had agreed to the use of the Kennedy clip. It was, apparently, all in good fun, but for Ed to watch this material in dress rehearsal and approve it for his national audience meant his approach was changing.

Certainly the politically charged nature of the “What’s Going On Here?” segments was the exception in the show’s early 1960s comedy bookings, though by now many of the show’s comics had evolved past the Henny Youngman—vaudeville school. Their routines tended to involve longer setups and more references to current events, rather than the one-liners and timeless domestic squabbles mined by 1950s comedians. One of Ed’s favorites in this period was Stiller and Meara, a husband-and-wife team whose act was developed in Greenwich Village clubs, and whose Jewish—Catholic combination mirrored Sullivan’s own marriage; Ed booked them a remarkable thirty-six times. He was also fond of Phyllis Diller, an early female stand-up comedienne known for her lighthearted edge, and Jackie Mason and Alan King, Borscht Belters who could reach Peoria. These comedians’ humor was transitional rather than forward looking, contemporary without being edgy.

This same “era between the eras” aesthetic informed the movie that Ed appeared in that year, Bye Bye Birdie, based on the Tony Award—winning 1961 Broadway musical. In the film’s convoluted plot, Elvis-like singer Conrad Birdie is about to be drafted, but first travels to a small Ohio town to kiss good-bye an adoring teenage fan, an event to be broadcast on The Ed Sullivan Show. Dick Van Dyke plays a songwriter who’s convinced that if Birdie sings his song on the Sullivan show, fame will automatically follow. Ann-Margret and Bobby Rydell play teenagers in love, with Paul Lynde and Mary LaRoche as the disapproving parents.

Birdie is all about how rock ’n’ roll and love-lust drives kids crazy, but in the movie’s world these forces are merely catalysts for a lighthearted romp. Protesters converge on Washington carrying signs protesting Birdie’s draft, a scene inspired by the real-life protesters now staging the first few placard-carrying parades in the nation’s capital. Yet in Birdie the protesters are just a bunch of wacky teenagers. The movie was a nod to the emerging youth culture, but its wink at the audience reassured viewers that it was nothing to take seriously.

Ed on film was much smoother than Ed on live television. With a director who had authority over him and with multiple takes, he suffered no fumbled lines and no garbled syntax. A box-office success, the movie paid homage to Ed’s now-iconic status—a guest shot on Sullivan, according to Birdie, was a guarantee of fame. Ed played himself as completely assured of the movie’s main tenet, that is, that Ed Sullivan was a leading promoter of a rock ’n’ roll—crazed youth culture. This referenced Ed’s real-life booking of Elvis and a long train of other nascent pop-rockers, from Buddy Holly to Sam Cooke. While many adults shook their heads in disbelief, his open invitation to these acts gave the new youth sound the Sullivan imprimatur of approval. And in case viewers were in doubt about the Sullivan show’s cultural primacy, the script worked the point hard. Bob Precht, played by the fiftyish Robert Paige, exclaimed, “You know, with a plug like this, this song will sell a million records. Man, what royalties!”

In Birdie, the world that Ed helped wrought is in full flower. The teens all seem brainwashed, thinking with one mind, seemingly zombified by adulation of their rock ’n’ roll hero. The fresh-faced, clean-cut Birdie, an Elvis clone, wears a gold lamé outfit with gold boots, and his singing causes an entire crowd of teens to actually faint with adoration. The movie’s climactic scene, with Birdie-Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show amid wildly enthusiastic teens, is essentially a replay of the real Elvis debut on Sullivan in 1956—but a fully neutered one. Oddly, the movie is a musical about rock ’n’ roll but its music isn’t Elvis-like. Instead it’s a kind of jazzed up full-orchestra sound reminiscent of Bobby Darin. Even Birdie onstage at the Sullivan show plays only lightly strummed folk music. Apparently the filmmakers were attempting a balancing act similar to Ed’s: they wanted to attract both a teen and an adult audience, without offending either one.

Birdie opened in theaters the same month, April 1963, that Topo Gigio debuted on the Sullivan show. A diminutive foam rubber hand puppet, Topo was operated by a team of four Italian puppeteers; he gestured, he danced, his giant ears flopped, his little mouth moved, and he voiced sweet endearments with a loopy Italian accent. Ed, breaking his longstanding rule against taking a lead performance role, developed a routine with Topo. When “The Little Italian Mouse” was a guest, the stage went dark except for a spotlight on Sullivan and the marionette, and the two chatted as confidants, the serious-looking showman leaning in to receive the puppet’s cute replies. They spoke about nothing in particular, yet their tête-à-têtes went on for several minutes. With the Italian puppeteers’ rudimentary English, and Ed’s tendency to fumble his lines, the show’s staff had to be on its toes as the segment veered off script.

Topo revealed an unseen side of Ed. Onstage he operated at a remove, only in rare moments breaking the self-created wall of formality separating him from his audience. But in the Topo segments this wall dissolved. He seemed to lose himself in conversation with the little mouse, chatting intimately with the character as if he were alive. In their affectionate back-and-forth, Ed displayed a vulnerable side of himself that had never been hinted at in his many years of hosting. On its face the Topo—Ed act was a contradiction. Here was Ed, a man whom his critics (and even friends) had called every variation of stiff, who had cursed and elbowed his way to stardom, burning through an ulcer, yet onstage with Topo he was a sentimental ball of sweetness, being childlike for a live audience of forty million viewers.

With the Italian puppet Topo Gigio in the mid 1960s. The cute puppet was the prop that Sullivan had always wanted to soften his onstage persona. (CBS Photo Archive)

The little mouse was the prop he had always wanted. This was what he sought when he hired Patsy Flick to heckle him in 1948, or booked Will Jordan to mimic him in 1953. Topo opened him up. With the little mouse Ed was anything but Old Stoneface; he was tender and soft. Their segments invariably ended with Topo imploring “Kees-a-me goodnight, Eddie.”

Ed grew to love the little character. He enjoyed the act so much he eventually wore it out; his staff was relieved when he finally quit. He booked Topo an astounding fifty times; only one other act received more bookings (Canadian comedy team Wayne and Schuster, fifty-eight times). Sullivan became so identified with Topo that sometimes as he walked the streets of New York a truck driver would yell out “Kees-a-me goodnight, Eddie!”

It’s likely that part of Ed’s motivation for developing the Topo character was the competition from Disney. With the animator’s show offering the younger set a universe of fantasy and delight, spotlighting the little mouse may have helped parents keep the channel turned to CBS. If Sullivan’s plan was to turn Topo into an irresistible character, he succeeded. The foam rubber puppet became a star in his own right, spawning a legion of little Topo figurines and dolls. The United Nations named him their official “spokesmouse.” In 1965, United film studios released a movie starring the diminutive puppet (in which Topo attempts a trip to the moon), and acquired the rights to make one Topo film a year for the next four years.

In late May 1963, Ed and Sylvia were invited to Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel to attend a birthday party for President John Kennedy. The event was a glittering dinner and variety show for six hundred members of the President’s Club, each of whom donated at least $1,000 to the Democratic National Committee. Along with the president and his wife, many of the members of his administration were there: Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, United Nations representative Adlai Stevenson, and Under Secretary of State Averell Harriman.

Ed adored the Kennedys. Other presidents would invite him to the White House; he and Sylvia attended two state dinners hosted by President Johnson, and President Nixon invited the couple to help celebrate Duke Ellington’s seventieth birthday. But these occasions never seemed to matter to him as much as a chance to rub shoulders with the Kennedys. He contributed to JFK’s presidential campaign, and sent a regular stream of birthday notes and letters of encouragement to members of the Kennedy clan. Sullivan was a friend of patriarch Joe Kennedy, who had been a lion of café society in the 1930s; Ed had lauded him in his column for decades. The two men corresponded, and in one letter Ed suggested that musical theater artists Oscar Hammerstein and Moss Hart write speeches for President Kennedy—an idea that Joe Kennedy liked, though it never happened. The elder Kennedy attended Ed and Sylvia’s thirtieth anniversary party in April 1960, and for the event he wrote the couple an affectionate letter that concluded, “All the Kennedys send you and your family our love.”

Joe Kennedy also sent Sylvia a note in October of that year as the presidential election neared, making reference to Richard Nixon’s problems with makeup in the recent presidential debates. “Dear Sylvia, I had read that piece about makeup. I agree with you—how many more excuses can they find? Incidentally, things are getting better every day. Sincerely, Joe.” In April 1962, Ed sent a letter to Joe Kennedy in which he enthused, “I think that your brilliant young son has wrapped up another term in the White House as a result of his quick and determined handling of Steel.… Poor Nixon is in a helluva spot. Now he can write another book and add an additional ‘crisis.’ ”

Old Blue Eyes and Old Stoneface, at the Eden Roc nightclub, Florida, 1964. The longtime friendship between the two men boiled over into a bitter squabble in the mid 1950s, though Sinatra later made a peace overture. (Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

President Kennedy, in March 1961, sent a short letter to Sullivan agreeing to tape a promotional message Ed had requested, for an event that encouraged international understanding. The letter from Kennedy was typed and addressed “Dear Mr. Sullivan” but the president scratched out “Mr. Sullivan” and wrote in “Ed.” “The idea for your International Assembly sounds most interesting and it is certainly a much-needed effort in the field of international communications,” Kennedy wrote. “I would be happy to prepare a taped message for your first Assembly.”

In later years, Ed contributed to the Kennedy Library, and received letters of thanks from Ted Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Jacqueline Kennedy. Ted Kennedy’s wife Joan sent Ed a thank-you note in July 1964 with an added postscript: “P.S. Ted and I watch your wonderful show every week and enjoy it so much.”

Given his feelings of affection for the Kennedys, it was no surprise that Ed found the birthday party for President Kennedy in late May 1963 to be a magical evening. He called it one of the “unforgettable moments” in his many years of outings with Sylvia. Despite its elegance, there was a touch of informality to the evening—the ballroom contained no dais or head table, and the president circulated through the crowd, reportedly shaking hands with almost all the guests. The Waldorf-Astoria had been transformed for the event. A top Broadway lighting specialist, Abe Feder, designed a display to make the hotel’s lobby resemble a palace entryway. The stage was set up as a theater in the round, built around a “Circle of Life” display in the ballroom’s floor. In his keynote speech, Kennedy described the Democrats as “the party of hope,” and, referencing the many Broadway and Hollywood attendees, said that it was natural that performers “should find themselves at home in the party of hope.”

Although Ed was often tapped to emcee high-profile events, for this evening he was invited as a performer. The program’s variety show was produced by Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote the book and lyrics to the Broadway shows My Fair Lady and Camelot; Ed had done a tribute show dedicated to Lerner two year earlier. Ann-Margret, who had appeared with Ed in Bye Bye Birdie, sang “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” and Jimmy Durante, who Ed had known since his speakeasy days in the 1920s, donned a Kennedy wig and crooned “Start Off Each Day with a Smile.” Bob Newhart, a Sullivan regular, performed a stand-up routine satirizing television and the tobacco industry. For the finale, Mitch Miller entered with an eleven-man chorus singing “Together.” Ed was part of the chorus, along with Henry Fonda, Eddie Fisher, Robert Preston, Van Johnson, Peter Lawford, Mel Ferrer, Tony Randall, Donald O’Connor, David Susskind, and Bobby Darin. Henry Fonda surprised everyone by launching into a quick-step tap dance, later confiding to Ed, “I used to be a member of Chorus Equity.” Following the chorus onstage was Louis Armstrong, singing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” after which Audrey Hepburn sang “Happy Birthday.”

However festive, the party at the Waldorf-Astoria was to be the president’s last birthday. When the charismatic Kennedy was assassinated while touring Dallas in a motorcade seven months later, it threw the country into a shocked state of mourning. For days, television coverage of the tragedy was nonstop; the Sullivan show on November 24, just two days after the event, was preempted. Earlier that day, Jack Ruby had shot and killed Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, as he was being transported to a nearby jail.

The following week, Sullivan grappled with how to put on a variety show in a period of national mourning. After extended discussion, he decided to host a show with no comedy. Then, just days later, he reversed himself. He had negotiated with impresario Sol Hurok, who had brought Russia’s Obratsov Puppet Theatre to the United States, for the rights to present a full-hour program of the puppets. A show for the kids seemed appropriate.

The Obratsov puppet show was a lighthearted affair, though Ed appeared to take no joy in it. At the beginning of the hour, with his always-grave face now looking almost funereal, he announced that he was presenting the puppet program as a tonic for “the nightmare week we’ve been through.” The look on his face that evening was like a headline: the country had fallen into a deep grief, an innate somberness that it seemed nothing could revive. As the calendar inched toward 1964, the gray national mood felt as if it would stretch into the foreseeable future. Was there nothing that could lift America’s spirits?