The Generation Gap - 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 16. The Generation Gap

HAVING OPENED PANDORA’S BOX WITH THE BEATLES, Ed launched the 1964-65 season with the full fury of twanging guitars and pounding drums. He had featured the new sound in his mix since Elvis’ debut in 1956, but now it was pushed center stage. Almost every show featured a new rock band. Headlining the season opener were The Beach Boys singing “I Get Around” in a set decorated with vintage roadsters. In October, Ed presented a very fresh-faced version of the Rolling Stones who, eyeing the titanic success of the Beatles’ Sullivan debut, were eager to follow. “We got it into our heads that Ed Sullivan was the thing to do—the only thing worth doing,” said Stones pianist Ian Stewart. The group’s performance of “Time Is on My Side” and “Around and Around” served a dual purpose: it lifted Sullivan’s ratings, and it helped the band sell more than $1 million in concert tickets that fall. Ed, however, was horrified by them. In contrast to the Beatles, who were cheery and had worn matching outfits, the Stones were sulky bad boys and, in Ed’s view, thoroughly unkempt. He declared he would never book them again.

Three months later, Stones manager Eric Easton attempted to change Sullivan’s mind. Requesting another booking, Easton wrote: “I know that these men are controversial entertainers, but it would seem that they have established quite a following in America and indications are that their popularity will increase.” Ed wasn’t going to make Easton’s job easy. “We were deluged with mail protesting the untidy appearance—clothes, and hair of your Rolling Stones,” he replied to Easton. “Before even discussing the possibility of a contract, I would like to learn from you, Eric, whether your young men have reformed in matter of dress and shampoo.” Whatever Easton said must have convinced Sullivan, and at any rate the potential Nielsen boost from the group made it tough for him to stand on principle. Several months later Ed introduced a Stones set that featured “The Last Time” and “Little Red Rooster.” Along with the Rolling Stones that season were the other leading troupes in the British Invasion, including The Animals performing “House of the Rising Sun,” the clean-cut Dave Clark Five (who insisted on lip-synching, which Ed frowned on), singing “Anyway You Want It,” and Herman’s Hermits warbling “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.” Making her first of eleven appearances was Petula Clark, equipped with go-go boots, performing her number one hit “Downtown.” Motown was starting to take hold of the pop charts, and the Supremes—a Sullivan favorite—made their first of fifteen appearances. Before one of their sets, Ed introduced them with a windy laud, at the end of which he forgot their name, so he just bellowed, “Here’s the girls!”

In rehearsal with Mick Jagger, September 1966. Sullivan tried to rein in the Stones on a number of occasions, with limited success. (CBS Photo Archive)

As prevalent as younger musicians were, they still shared the stage with Ed’s something-for-everyone mix. The same night Petula Clark sang “I Know a Place,” Alan King did a stand-up routine about how parents bother kids, the West Point Glee Club harmonized, and the Elwardos acrobats defied gravity. The Animals shared billing with Las Vegas crooner Wayne Newton; the Dave Clark Five shared billing with big band leader Cab Calloway. Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald performed a medley of Duke’s 1940s hits the same evening Ed introduced a clip from 1965’s The Sound of Music, after which Julie Andrews sang “My Favorite Things.” Football star Jim Brown chatted with Ed on a program in which a troupe of contortionists called the Morilodors, consisting of a man in a black mask with two female assistants, bent the human body into unlikely poses.

With Richard Pryor, in the mid 1960s. Sullivan fought CBS censors to allow the comic to perform material as he pleased. (CBS Photo Archive)

International dance stars Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, of Britain’s Royal Ballet, performed an except from Tchaikovsky’s classic Swan Lake on the same show that juggler Ugo Garrido kept an odd assortment of objects in motion. Making his first of thirteen appearances was twenty-four-year-old comedian Richard Pryor, sharing the bill with the Three Stooges. Ed did a routine with the puppet Topo Gigio in which Topo was homesick and gets a call from his mama.

The eclectic mix was popular with the public, a fact that CBS sought to take advantage of. In 1964 the network asked Ed to expand The Ed Sullivan Show to ninety minutes. The program had long dominated its time slot; from the network’s perspective adding an extra thirty minutes was the easiest way to increase ratings. Ed agreed to the ninety-minute format, yet just a few weeks later, before actually adopting it, he demurred. The greater workload looked daunting, and worse, the longer format might not have been popular.

His change of heart did nothing to hamper negotiations for the new contract he signed that year. Ed decided he deserved a substantial raise and the network put up no argument. “We will be presenting Ed every Sunday night just as long as he wants,” announced CBS-TV president James Aubrey after the signing. The showman’s paycheck jumped to $32,000 a week, with increases over the next seven years, scheduled to reach $47,000 a week by 1971. When reporters questioned him, he revealed no contract details, noting only that CBS had been “very, very generous.” (It might have punctured his image as Uncle Ed to admit he earned more every week than most families earned all year.) The show’s weekly production budget was pegged at $124,500; with graduated increases it was scheduled to reach $170,000 by 1971.

More important, the showman now owned The Ed Sullivan Show, previously owned by the network. Since the deal was retroactive, Sullivan Productions owned the copyright to all the shows back to 1948, and to all shows produced henceforth. Ed owned fifty-one percent of Sullivan Productions, with forty-nine percent held by Bob Precht and Betty Sullivan Precht. By most accounts it was Bob’s idea to take show ownership from the network. Ed’s son-in-law, who had been a novice assistant producer in the late 1950s, was now not just coproducer but also part owner of one of television’s highest rated programs.

In October, Ed booked one of his comic mainstays, Jackie Mason, in an evening that sparked a major conflict and generated a bevy of headlines. The young Borscht Belter benefited enormously from being a Sullivan favorite. Nothing had boosted his career more than his many Ed Sullivan Show appearances since Ed discovered him at the Copacabana in the early 1960s. Mason was part of a transitional school of comics who had taken a step past their 1950s forebears; he could poke fun at political figures yet offend no one, combining tried-and-true mother-in-law jokes with a lighthearted take on current events. His Sullivan impression made Ed laugh.

Mason remembered working with Ed as a process of negotiation. After the comic ran through his routine in Sunday’s dress rehearsal, Ed began editing. “He was totally in charge of every move on the show, and he enjoyed running it,” Mason recalled. “But he was always generous to me because he seemed to like me a lot. Sometimes he tried to cut a minute, and I would say, ‘But that minute is the main transition to the next joke,’ and he would say, ‘Maybe you could make it half minute, because I really don’t have the time.’ ”

Back and forth they would go, with Sullivan attempting to shape his act at every turn. “So I would kibitz with him, to try to soften it, because he would seem very nervous about how it was going to work out.” Sullivan often acquiesced if Mason insisted. Over the course of his twenty Sullivan show appearances the comic saw Ed negotiate with many performers. “He treated different people differently in terms of how much he felt he needed them or how good he thought they were.” A comparative unknown might have no recourse in the face of Sullivan’s directives, but he usually treated the biggest stars with deference, Mason recalled.

Ed “was always an unpredictable commodity, because you couldn’t tell what mood he would be in, and who he would be attacking and who he would be settling for.… It was a sporadic, totally indefinable system,” the comic remembered. “He was insecure and uncertain about almost everything. He tried to be firm, but he wasn’t sure about how firm to be. He was very authoritative, but at the same time, he was malleable, because he wasn’t so sure of himself, so he would second-guess himself. To some people he came across as arrogant and obnoxious, but I don’t believe that. He was just somewhat insecure and he was trying to do the show as best he could. He was intensely preoccupied, but he wasn’t in any way arrogant.”

With Jackie Mason. Sullivan became enraged at Mason after a controversial appearance by the Borsht Belt comic. (CBS Photo Archive)

For Mason’s October 1964 appearance, with the presidential race between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater nearing Election Day, the comic was told to drop his political material. As innocuous as it was, Sullivan felt it was too sensitive given the imminent election. That evening’s broadcast was partially preempted by President Johnson, who began an address to the nation at 8:30 P.M. The show continued while the president spoke, resuming its broadcast around 8:52, with Mason in the middle of his routine. The preemption threw the schedule off-kilter, and Ed was anxious about running out of time. He began urgently gesturing to Mason to cut his act short, holding up two fingers for two minutes, then one finger as time elapsed. Mason’s jokes were met with silence as Ed’s frantic gesturing distracted the studio audience. Mason, afraid that home viewers would interpret the studio audience’s silence as a sign that he was bombing, began ad-libbing based on Ed’s hand gestures. “I thought I’d generate some laughs by making fun of him,” Mason said.

“What are you, showing me fingers? You got fingers for me, I’ve got fingers for you,” he said, as he comically mirrored Ed’s finger signs. The comedian’s gesticulations grew more exaggerated as the studio audience’s laughter fueled his improvising. “Who talks with fingers in the middle of a performance, you think they came here to watch your fingers?… If your fingers are such a hit, why do you need me, why don’t you come here and show your fingers?”

Mason concluded his act feeling like his performance was a hit, that he had rescued himself from a career disaster. But Ed felt differently. Visibly upset onscreen after Mason’s exit, he was livid after the program. As he saw it, the comic’s finger improvisations included the profane middle finger gesture. Mason had just insulted him in the most profound manner, on live television, or so Ed thought. There had been a slight ambiguity to what Mason had done; he made so many gestures so rapidly that, if one were predisposed to view them as obscene, a viewer might have interpreted them as such. And Mason had treated Ed irreverently on the air, which alone was enough to anger him. But it was clear to most observers on the set—like Vince Calandra, who later became the show’s talent coordinator—that even at close range, Mason’s gestures were not profane.

After the show, “Ed came over to me and blew his top,” Mason recalled. “He said, ‘Who the fuck are you to use these filthy gestures, you son of a bitch—on national TV!’ ” The showman called him “a variety of four-, ten-, and eleven-letter words of Anglo-Saxon origin having to do with the subject of sex and perversion.” At first Mason didn’t know what Ed was mad about. The comic had been a rabbi and continued to serve part-time as one until about six months beforehand; by his account, he wasn’t even familiar with the gesture Ed referred to. “A guy who uses that kind of terminology and vulgarity as a way of life on the streets of New York is from a different world than I come from,” he said. Mason tried to explain to the enraged showman that he meant no insult, that Sullivan misinterpreted the gestures, but Ed wouldn’t hear it. “He was too wound up and furious,” the comic recalled. The damage was done. According to Mason, at the end of their encounter Ed bellowed “I’ll destroy you in show business!” Ed denied having said this.

The headlines began blaring almost immediately. Ed canceled the comedian’s $45,000 contract for six appearances, charging “insubordination and gross deviation from the material agreed upon.” The thirty-three-year-old comic, once eagerly sought by nightclubs, saw his bookings evaporate. After four months of skimpy bookings, in February he filed a $3 million libel suit against Sullivan and Bob Precht, charging that his professional reputation had been injured.

In January 1966, Sullivan lost the first round of the court case. State Supreme Court judge Harry Frank reviewed the tape in court, finding that there was nothing offensive or obscene in Mason’s performance. (The judge also noted that he was a fan of the Sullivan show, “although I don’t know why I watch it,” he said.) Soon afterward, the two parties decided to settle; Mason dropped his suit and Sullivan agreed to have him back on the show. During the following September 12 show—two years after the original broadcast—Ed told his audience: “Highlighting the show will be an old friend of mine and yours, Jackie Mason.” The comic, as if to say bygones could be bygones, performed his Sullivan imitation.

Prior to that evening, the two men ran into each other in an airport. By Mason’s account, he pretended he didn’t see the showman, but Sullivan came up to him and apologized profusely. “He said he never forgave himself for doing that to me … and he felt terrible that he had done it,” Mason said. “Then he gave me the example of a man who had a fight with his wife, and both people felt that they’d like to make up, but nobody bent enough to say it.”

There may have been an extra factor contributing to the Sullivan-Mason fracas. Ed was getting tired. It was clearly visible onscreen as 1964 turned into 1965. The sixty-four-year-old showman had not aged gracefully; the years had taken their toll. The previous August (two months before Mason’s disputed appearance) he was hospitalized briefly for an intestinal disorder, and at moments onstage it seemed as if he hadn’t fully recovered. The once-virile newsman was now baggy-eyed and sunken-cheeked. His onstage persona had always been famously stiff and reserved, but now, toward the end of a broadcast he could be almost listless. Late in the hour when the camera cut back to him after a commercial break he sometimes had a momentarily vacant look in his eyes.

And it was more than that. There was a forgetfulness, a mental confusion that was starting to become frequent. His associates had seen it, an inability to remember names or even a directive he had just given. One Sunday night he told a stagehand to lay a golf mat onstage in preparation for the following act; a few minutes later, having forgotten his request, he became enraged at the crewmember for setting up too early, and fired him on the spot. He ignored staff members’ explanations that he himself gave the order. This same tendency toward mental confusion, coupled with his general cantankerousness, may have led him to misinterpret Jackie Mason’s gestures.

In any case, these lapses were passing and Ed could summon the old energy when need be. Over the last few years he had developed a technique of introducing an act by running through a couple of sentences in a low-level monotone, then exploding into a shout at the end. The effect was disjointed but it helped create the sense that something thrilling was coming. And, after all these years, he found a somewhat better relationship with the camera. Ed had always treated the camera’s eye like an interloper to be avoided; he addressed the studio audience and let the television lens follow him if it could—ignoring the camera was a symptom of his stage nerves. “He always had stage fright,” said John Moffit, the show’s director. “He just wasn’t comfortable in front of the audience.” Yet in the mid 1960s he began looking straight into the camera at times, usually turning away to address the studio after a few moments. After some sixteen seasons on the air it was a modest improvement.

If the showman was feeling his years, the show pulsed with more youthful energy than ever before. Opening the 1965-66 season was the Beatles, in their last “live” Ed Sullivan Show appearance. (Although the band performed on the Sullivan stage for a live audience, their performance had been taped a month earlier as they arrived in New York to launch an American tour. Over the next few years they sent in five more taped guest shots, but they never again performed live on the Sullivan show.)

To introduce the foursome, still looking cherubic in their matching dark suits and skinny ties—though their hair was getting shaggy—Ed brought over each Beatle in turn for a handshake, with each band member hailed by an unbroken wall of screeches. They rocked through “I Feel Fine,” which had topped the charts the previous December; “I’m Down,” a blues romp that was one of their least memorable songs; and “Act Naturally,” featuring a self-described “nervous and out-of-tune” Ringo on lead vocal. After the first song Paul tried his own Ed impression: “We’d like to carry on…the shew,” he intoned, dropping into Sullivanese.

Later in the hour they performed a rollicking “Ticket to Ride,” which had hit number one the previous May; “Yesterday,” with an intimate solo vocal by Paul—the song hit number one three weeks later; and the hard-charging “Help,” which held the current number one chart spot. Afterward Ed brought the band over and tried to chat with them, but the screams submerged his and the Beatles’ voices; the kids were out of control. (That hysteria had been in full fury when the Beatles performed at New York’s Shea Stadium four weeks earlier for fifty-five thousand crazed teenagers. Ed introduced them onstage, and Brian Epstein hired Sullivan Productions to film the concert, with Bob Precht as director.)

In the weeks ahead, the show (broadcasting in color for the first time) presented Sonny and Cher crooning their number one hit “I Got You Babe”; later in the hour Cher sang solo—she didn’t always need Sonny. That fall saw appearances by British Invasion bands like Herman’s Hermits, who played “Just a Little Bit Better,” and rising American groups like blue-eyed soul duo the Righteous Brothers, who sang “Turn on Your Love Light.” Also upping the energy level were Motown acts like Marvin Gaye, singing the rambunctious soul ballad “Take This Heart of Mine,” and Martha and the Vandellas, harmonizing on “Dancin’ in the Streets.”

In October, Barry McGuire growled his number one hit “Eve of Destruction,” which was banned by some radio stations after a deluge of complaints about the lyrics: “And think of all the hate there is in Red China / Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama.” As much as any performance that season, “Eve of Destruction” foreshadowed the changes inherent in 1960s youth culture. The song was a leap forward from just a few years back, when the Sullivan show’s newest music was the sugary confections of pop kitten Connie Francis and dreamboat Frankie Avalon.

The comedy, too, was changing. That same month, Ed booked Woody Allen, a twenty-nine-year-old stand-up comic whose material was decidedly forward looking. Instead of mother-in-law jokes he mined sex and psychology for laughs, with his trademark cerebral style. In Sunday’s dress rehearsal, Allen performed without censoring himself, planning a safer routine for that evening’s broadcast—but he hadn’t told Ed that. His afternoon performance included a reference to “orgasmic insurance.” As soon as he finished, Sullivan gave him a severe tongue lashing, calling Allen lewd and all but blaming him for what Ed saw as the country’s moral decay. “Attitudes like yours are why kids are burning their draft cards,” he shouted at the comedian.

Caught off guard, Allen briefly considered responding in kind, but instead spontaneously apologized. Ed was mollified, and the comic delivered his less adventurous material in that evening’s broadcast. “When the storm abated, from that day on I had no better ally in show business,” Allen said. Ed plugged him in his column and booked the comic for three additional appearances.

For rock bands, playing the Sullivan show became an important rite of passage, as well as an exponential boost to record sales. The new groups came fast and furious now. To fit them all in, Ed sometimes booked two to an evening, clearly bending his sacrosanct rule about balance. In December, the Byrds sang “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” the same night the Dave Clark Five trilled “Catch Us If You Can.” In February, The Animals performed “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” on a show in which Simon and Garfunkel harmonized on “Sounds of Silence.” In May, James Brown funked it up with “(I Got You) I Feel Good” after the Supremes sang “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart.”

In the winter and spring of 1966, the Sullivan show’s combination of young and old became almost surrealistic. The program had always been a Big Tent, offering an act for every taste, but now the contrast between performers almost strained credulity. In February, the Rolling Stones rocked on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” the same night that Ethel Merman, who debuted in film shortly after the invention of talkies, belted out “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” In April, Petula Clark miniskirted through “A Sign of the Times” the same evening that Jimmy Durante—whom Ed had met in the Silver Slipper speakeasy in 1923—crooned “Inka Dinka Doo.” On that same broadcast, acrobat Jose Cole balanced on top of a cane, which itself was on top of a bottle, while twirling five rings. His balancing act was no less impressive than that of Sullivan and Precht: in June, a taped Beatles performance of “Paperback Writer” shared the bill with the very middle-aged Robert Goulet drowsing through “Two Sleepy People.” In May, James Brown quick-stepped to “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” the same night that Tin Pan Alley legend Harold Arlen played an excerpt from his classic “Over the Rainbow.”

With James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, October 1966. (CBS Photo Archive)

This same unlikely mix occurred in the realm of comedy, with one broadcast combining Richard Pryor, the Smothers Brothers, and Myron Cohen—a young black comic who embraced his racial identity; a duo whose lighthearted goofiness softened their irreverent edge; and a traditional Borscht Belter, respectively. Pryor’s routine invoked the name of a public figure Ed had banned from the show, Muhammad Ali, as the stand-up mock reenacted the title bout between Sonny Liston and Ali. Ed had playfully bantered with Ali back when the boxer was called Cassius Clay, but declared he would have nothing to do with Ali as long as he remained connected with the Nation of Islam. (Like many of Ed’s statements foreswearing a performer, this too was reversed.)

It got confusing at times, finding the cultural boundaries. For viewers who looked to Ed not just for entertainment but for cultural guidance, as the source of a show business seal of approval, the program’s current offering must have been perplexing. In earlier years, Sullivan’s stage presented an eclectic lot, yet its underlying worldview had been unified. Now the show’s performers purveyed messages that seemed markedly at odds with one another, and furthermore, the music and comedy grew more strident and questioning with every passing month.

Even Ed’s censorship, that ever-reliable watchful eye, seemed to be navigating with a changing lodestar. In June, he presented an unknown rock ’n’ roll group called the Thomas Band, whom he booked as a favor to well-known entertainer Danny Thomas, whose son fronted the group. The band was a nonentity, a well-scrubbed bunch with crew cuts and preppie clothes who sang a generic, neutered rock number. The group’s lyrics, however, would never have gotten past Ed in years past: “You don’t know what she does to me / when she’s making love to me.” Sullivan had threatened to cancel Buddy Holly in 1958 for far less.

Clearly, the showman was less mentally present. As he wrapped up that evening’s broadcast he began to extemporize: “We’re delighted that you’re here tonight, specifically, have a nice time, those of you who are visiting our city. And right down the street here is the river, the Hudson River. You should go and take a look—I don’t want you to jump in—and have a nice time while you’re here with us. Good night!”

It was odd: promoting the Hudson River? Warning the audience not to jump in? On the surface it was a standard Sullivan goof, perhaps an awkward attempt at humor. But, based on his semidazed on-screen appearance, the sign-off revealed that his mind was wandering further afield than a mere goof. The mental fatigue, or whatever it was, seemed to be catching up with him. Several months later, he was standing onstage after the broadcast returned from a deodorant ad. The girl in the ad had explained to the boy—who did not use Ban deodorant—that she liked him “not much.” As the camera cut to Ed, he editorialized on the ad: “That’s a fine crack—‘not much.’ ” It was, again, perhaps a funny bit of irreverence. But it didn’t appear as such. It seemed as if he had momentarily gotten lost in the ad’s little scenario, forgetting where he was before he commented. Strangely, his tone of voice suggested he was truly annoyed at the girl’s comment.

Few Sullivan critics had been as harsh as The New York Times’ Jack Gould. In the early 1950s he provided a running lambaste of Sullivan’s foibles. Gould’s attitude had softened in the late 1950s as Ed’s focus grew international. Now, in 1965-66 season, the Times critic reversed himself altogether. Sullivan “is unquestionably one of the medium’s great intuitive showmen,” he wrote. And while Sullivan on camera “may be about as animated as an untipped cab driver,” his success had allowed him “the enviable position of being a world unto himself amid the competitive scramble.” The critic, however, bemoaned the show’s greater emphasis on rock ’n’ roll, referring to it as a “compromise” that sacrificed the program’s well-rounded quality for ratings. “Mr. Sullivan shouldn’t go unsung; with all due deference to the noisy disc jockeys of radio, he’s really one of the fathers of rock ’n’ roll.”

Indeed, “If the lay sociologist wants firm evidence that the younger generation has taken command of the home dial, Mr. Sullivan is their case in point,” Gould wrote. The critic voiced an opinion held by many: “Mr. Sullivan undoubtedly has an obligation to keep the teenagers in mind when he plans his show, but perhaps he will also see the wisdom of not disenfranchising other members of the family too regularly, if only because they are the ones who have somewhat larger allowances to spend with advertisers.”

Behind the scenes, Ed was not solely responsible for many of these bookings. More and more, his son-in-law Bob Precht was handling not just production chores but actually choosing the acts. The move toward rock was certainly made with Ed’s blessing—Bob never made a move without conferring with Ed. As many staffers recalled, Bob always handled his father-in-law with great deference. But where their partnership had once been master to mentor, it was now far closer to equal. Ed no longer decided, or much less frequently decided, to cancel an act during dress rehearsal. If he opted to change the running order after rehearsal it was not a complete scrambling. And the 1950s-era Sullivan practice of changing the running order during the broadcast was now nearly impossible; his son-in-law put together too complex a production for such a maneuver. Precht, in fact, was becoming the man behind the curtain, keeping the Sullivan formula spinning like one of the show’s many plate spinners.

The gradual shift in power between the two men was resisted by many of the talent agents who dealt with the show. “Because Ed had gone so many years of doing it on his own, many of the agents and managers continued to go directly to him, to try to get him to okay something,” Precht said. Some performers, too, grumbled about Precht, as they realized that a second gatekeeper stood between them and the lucrative exposure of a Sullivan booking.

Agents and performers weren’t alone in resisting this power shift. Surrendering control didn’t come naturally to Ed, and he sparred with Bob on a regular basis, chiefly over the direction of the show’s bookings. At one point they argued over a puppet act from Italy, which Ed enjoyed and wanted to dedicate an entire hour to. Bob felt the act was mediocre. “I did everything I could to persuade Ed not to do this.… But this was another example of his will, persevering and dominating, so we shot the hour.” When Ed introduced it, he told the audience that if they liked it, they should write in to say so. “Now, of course, tons of mail came in,” Precht recalled, with a laugh. “People loved Ed and loved the show, it was like he could do no wrong, so he had a lot of people saying how wonderful these puppets were, and how wonderful this hour was. So now I’m gritting my teeth.” The evening, however, wasn’t a ratings success—yet Ed still wanted to prove his point to Bob. “Finally, after all this mail had accumulated, bags and bags and bags, he had all the mail put on the stage floor, in a big pile. And he said to the audience, ‘Bob Precht and I want to thank you for this great response.’ Talk about having your nose rubbed in it—he really did it.”

Among the bookings Precht and Sullivan argued about were those of older performers. Ed was a soft touch for old vaudevillians and aging athletes. His sentimental fondness for both meant that he booked boxers or baseball players far past their prime, or ancient Palace veterans, regardless of their audience appeal. He had done this since the show’s inception and would continue to do so. As talent coordinator Vince Calandra recalled, Ed booked old vaudevillians because he wanted to ensure they got the minimum yearly salary required by the actors union to maintain their retirement benefits. (Not that his patience with vaudevillians was limitless. After he cut Sophie Tucker from two numbers to one and she started to get upset, he said, “Shut your mouth and get back up onstage and do one number, or you’re off the show.”)

As late as 1970, Ed introduced Jack Dempsey from the audience, and Dempsey had lost the heavyweight title in 1927. (Ed often went to the boxer’s Broadway restaurant for lunch, talking with Jack for hours about old times.) But as the show increased its emphasis on acts aimed at younger viewers, and set designer Bill Bohnert’s sleek, geometric sets started sporting the bright paisley flowers that typified the 1960s, these 1930s-era guests felt increasingly out of place. It was Precht who kept this urge of his father-in-law’s in check, always pushing the show toward the contemporary.

In 1966 Ed appeared in a movie with Sister Luc-Gabrielle, a musical performer whose Sullivan show appearance helped vault her to stardom. Starring Debbie Reynolds and Ricardo Montalban, The Singing Nun told the story of the Belgian nun’s rise to fame, fueled by her real-life 1963 number one hit “Dominique,” a lilting folk song which earned her a Grammy and a 1964 booking on the Sullivan show. As in Bye Bye Birdie, this Warner Bros. release used a Sullivan show appearance to signify the pinnacle of success.

The film’s theme is the struggle between the sanctity of a religious life and the temptations of the secular world. Sister Luc-Gabrielle, called Sister Ann in the film, experiences budding fame as a singer—a record pressing is an unintentional hit—after which she faces the new challenges of worldly success. As her burgeoning celebrity calls into question her commitment to her religious vocation, she wonders which path she’ll take: will she remain committed to her spiritual calling? At one point, looking out at the secular life, Sister Ann visits a local rock ’n’ roll club, a trip she finds distressing—the fast music and the dancing teens are deeply unpleasant for her. Still, her direction in life remains unclear.

Ed, playing himself, portrays a character whose meaning is twofold. No one could be more respectful toward the nuns, yet he still represents worldly success. He travels to Belgium to request that Sister Ann perform on his show, but first he must face the stern Mother Superior, who disdains the secular life. Although Ed’s assistant assures her his program is a “very clean, family-type show,” she denies his request. Ed, wallowing in piousness, requests just one thing: could he at least meet Sister Ann before he goes home?

Upon meeting the young nun, who’s still scrubbing floors while her record climbs the charts, Ed repeats his offer directly to her: would she come to New York to perform?

Sister Ann: New York …?

Mother Superior: Of course I told him no.

Ed: I regret that Mother, because our Cardinal in New York has proposed perhaps we’d get something for your order that is badly needed.

Priest: We could have used a jeep, Mr. Sullivan, particularly when we reopen in Africa.

Ed: I was thinking of several jeeps, Father.

Priest: Several jeeps!

Mother Superior: One is all we will need, Mr. Sullivan.

And with that, Ed, having used material goods to prompt change at the nunnery, presents Sister Ann to America. (In real life, the Mother Superior requested two jeeps after hearing of the size of Sullivan’s audience.) Sister Ann’s performance on the Sullivan show becomes the movie’s fulcrum point. She has now bitten the apple, and is thrown into a period of extreme moral doubt. In the end, however, she is seen in Africa ministering to the needy, having reaffirmed her commitment to her religious choice.

While critics panned the film as cloying and saccharine it did well at the box office, and also inspired the TV sitcom The Flying Nun, which ran for three years. (Ironically, the real singing nun faced similar choices. She decided to leave the convent after the film’s release, yet despite a sustained publicity blitz never had another hit. In 1985, after years of battling Belgian authorities over back taxes, she committed suicide with her lesbian companion.)

Ed didn’t invite the Singing Nun back on the show to promote the film, as he had Dick Van Dyke after the 1963 release of Bye Bye Birdie. Sullivan and Precht had other priorities as they launched the 1966-67 season: namely, keeping the show fresh while continuing to appeal to older viewers. Opening the season was the Rolling Stones performing “Paint It Black,” on a bill in which Louis Armstrong blew through “Cabaret” and Joan Rivers did stand-up. For Rivers, the Sullivan show was a major opportunity, though the thirty-three-year-old comic was booked only after a Sullivan gaff.

The week before, as the showman was listing the following week’s lineup, he had meant to say Johnny Rivers, the pop singer, yet he slipped and said Joanie Rivers. Once Ed had announced that she would appear he felt obligated. “I was booked for the next Sunday,” Rivers remembered. Ed so enjoyed her performance that over the next few years he invited her nineteen more times, a series of appearances that Rivers relished. She particularly enjoyed Sullivan’s ritual around wardrobe. “They always took you and got you your clothes at Bergdorf’s or Bonwit Teller, and they were always fitted to you. After the performance—it was like a little ritual—either Bob Precht would come in, or the wardrobe lady, and say ‘Mr. Sullivan would like you to have your dress.’ Then you would send a thank-you note. It was one way that you knew he liked you.”

On the day of her debut appearance, Ed made a special demand on that evening’s rock ’n’ roll headliner. “I was in the dressing room next to the Rolling Stones, and I remember he insisted they get their hair washed—and he was right. And they got their hair washed.”

Additional shampoo was the least of what confronted the Stones for their Sullivan guest shots, recalled production assistant Jim Russek. For one of their appearances, simply getting the group into the theater proved dangerous. The band had been warned not to leave the theater between dress rehearsal and showtime, but they disregarded this advice. As they returned, such a huge crowd of fans awaited them at the stage door that the band’s limousine hurriedly drove around the block toward an alternate entrance—which unfortunately had a glass door. The band jumped out to try to make it into the theater, “but the fans figured it out, so they got there at the same time,” Russek said. “There was such a crush that the window broke and they squeezed themselves through. Three of the guys got in pretty quickly, but [guitarist] Brian Jones was last, and I had to help pull him through.”

The Stones, undaunted by hair washing requests or crazed fans, returned in January for a set that included both sides of their new single, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Ruby Tuesday.” Many radio stations were refusing to play what they saw as the overtly sexual “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” so they aired only the B side, making “Ruby Tuesday” a number one hit by March. Ed, wanting the ratings boost from both new songs, demanded that the Stones alter the lyric to the controversial song to “Let’s spend some time together.”

The band balked, but Ed issued his standard ultimatum: “Either the song goes, or you go.” The Stones reluctantly acceded. By the time the group played the song for dress rehearsal, the directive had been stressed to lead singer Mick Jagger repeatedly, to the point where he was getting angry. When the CBS Standards and Practices representative arrived, he needed to witness Jagger being told to change the lyric, but he didn’t want to approach the band himself. So the task was given to talent coordinator Vince Calandra, who dutifully walked up onstage and told the singer, once again, that he needed to change the lyric. “Fuck off, mate,” Jagger said, as Calandra recalled. During the broadcast, the Stones singer performed as requested but briefly rolled his eyes upward to theatrically mime his protest.

As was now expected, Sullivan again this season presented all the latest bands in the suddenly exploding pop-rock scene. The Mamas and the Papas harmonized on “California Dreamin’ ” and the Lovin’ Spoonful, performing in front of a spinning kaleidoscope backdrop, sang “Do You Believe in Magic.” Paul Revere and the Raiders romped through “Kicks,” the Turtles rendered their number one hit “Happy Together,” and the Young Rascals performed “Lonely Too Long.” Many of the groups from the last few years returned, most notably the Beatles, who offered a taped performance of “Penny Lane” and the psychedelic “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Although rock ’n’ roll was now a central element in the show, it had reached a saturation point. Sullivan and Precht would not allow the new sound to take up yet more program time. If anything, the two producers retreated somewhat from rock in 1966-67, usually booking no more than one band in an evening. This left ample time for traditional acts. Over the course of the season, Jack Benny did stand-up, Henny Youngman tossed out one-liners, and sketch comedy team Wayne and Schuster made three of their fifty-eight appearances. The Woody Herman Orchestra accompanied velvety vocalist Mel Tormé on “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Bandleader Xavier Cugat, who was a strolling violinist at the Casa Lopez nightclub the night that Ed met Sylvia there, jumped through “Tequila.” The U.S. Marine Silent Drill Team displayed their precision maneuvers, as did the show’s never-ending stream of jugglers, contortionists, and acrobats. The Sullivan show, or so it seemed, could balance its offering for all audiences just as it always had.

The program’s emphasis on high art had lessened greatly—it was not a ratings winner. With rock ’n’ roll now taking up a hefty percentage of airtime, something had to be cut, and the stage plays and classical musicians so frequent in the 1950s fell victim. Still, there continued to be at least a token nod to fine art. In December, the Berlin Mozart Choir performed, and a month later dancers Edward Villella and Patricia McBride of the New York City Ballet performed a pas de deux from Asafieff’s Flames of Paris. Ballerina Sandra Balesti floated through a solo, though her accompaniment was a Rodgers and Hammerstein medley.

From a ratings standpoint, the updated Sullivan show remained a hardy perennial. As the 1966-67 season ended—Sullivan’s nineteenth year on the air—The Ed Sullivan Show was television’s thirteenth-ranked program, and continued to win its time slot. It was the longest-running prime-time show, and its ratings verified it was as much an institution as a television show.

Mellow. That was a word that had never been used to describe Ed Sullivan. In the reams of newsprint that the New York press had churned out about the showman since the late 1940s, never once had that descriptive been employed. However, as the mid 1960s turned toward the late 1960s, Ed demonstrated that even Irish whiskey could lose its edge.

“I remember once I came in to talk with him and he was taking a nap—and I thought, that’s crazy,” recalled comic Joan Rivers, a regular in this period. The naps between dress rehearsal and broadcast—which never happened in earlier years—had become a weekly occurrence. The personal secretaries who worked with him in these years all remembered him as a kind, gentle man who rarely raised his voice, though they had heard tales of the Sullivan temper. “He was always very nice to me,” recalled Barbara Gallagher, a production assistant who worked closely with Ed in the mid to late 1960s. “He would tease me—‘Hey legs, how you doing?’ ” She knew he ran a “tight ship” in previous years, yet now “he became more docile, more introspective.” The show seemed to bustle around him, as the veteran crew went about its work like a well-tuned machine, guided by Bob Precht.

Chatting with Joan Rivers, 1966. “If he put his arm around you, you knew you had made it,” recalled Rivers. “The power he had was enormous.” (CBS Photo Archive)

Vinna Foote, a production assistant in the late 1960s, remembered Ed calling her to join him at the neighborhood restaurant he ate at before airtime, ostensibly to make last-minute changes. But he had no changes to make. “A couple times he had me come over, he just wanted me to have a drink with him.” She declined the drink, but sat and talked with him as he had his customary preshow Dubonnet liquor with Sweet ‘n Low. “He never chased me around or anything—he was lonely, he was a lonely person.”

Ed’s forgetfulness and mental confusion were becoming more pronounced. “You knew there was a really sharp guy at home somewhere, but he wasn’t showing it as much,” recalled production assistant Jim Russek. “Because he wasn’t as in the loop as much as he was in earlier years, that was frustrating to him, and he was capable of lashing out at people when he felt out of control.” One Sunday evening, Ed came down from his nap about an hour before showtime, mistakenly thinking it was just minutes before broadcast. “He started screaming, ‘Where the hell is everybody?—We’ve got a show to do!—Why am I the only one standing here?’ ” After a few moments of yelling, Russek explained to him, “Sir, it’s quarter to seven.” After the show Ed and the staff had a laugh about it.

In June 1967, he considered plastic surgery; his baggy eyes were beginning to give him a haggard look. He set up an appointment and went to the doctor’s office, sitting in the waiting room. After a while he got up and took a walk, then decided to skip surgery. Ed would be Ed, unvarnished as always.

That same June, in an interview with Ladies Home Journal, he had kind words for, of all people, Walter Winchell. Walter “invented the Broadway column and wrote it better than anybody else,” Ed said. He conceded something that had long bedeviled him in earlier decades: “Any columnist had to run in his shadow. Me included.… No matter which way I turned, there was Winchell in my way.” Ed even offered an olive branch: “Winchell and I haven’t spoken to each other in years. But I wish we’d continue to be friends.” His assessment of Winchell’s earlier power was accurate, yet the younger Ed Sullivan had been loathe to acknowledge it. Never in his many years of snarling at Walter had he admitted he was envious of the hugely famous columnist.

Several weeks later the former archrivals both happened to be having dinner at Dinty Moore’s restaurant. Ed was dining with Sylvia; Winchell was dining with Dorothy Moore, the executive secretary of the Runyon Fund, a cancer research fund he founded after the death of writer Damon Runyon. Walter, by 1967, had hit bottom. His influential radio show was long gone and his column’s distribution had dwindled to the vanishing point. (In desperation, he began visiting the El Morocco nightclub and handing out mimeographed copies of his column.) Perhaps due to his lessened circumstances, Ed’s kind comments in Ladies Home Journal meant all the more to him. Seeing Ed across the room, Walter got up and said hello. He greeted Sullivan warmly and Ed reciprocated. Suddenly, they were chums. The decades spent cursing at each other, glaring at one another at the Stork, faded away. Walter invited Ed to join the board of the Runyon Fund, which Ed accepted. The two made a date to meet later that week for cocktails at El Morocco. Either by coincidence or invitation, onetime Graphic columnist Louis Sobol also showed up at the nightclub. The trio had a photo snapped: three smiling newspapermen, three old friends.

From left, Jackie Gleason, Gene Kelly, Sullivan. When Sullivan visited the set of Jackie Gleason’s TV show in January 1967, the three men goofed through an impromptu tap dance. In the late 1940s, Sullivan introduced Jackie Gleason to the television audience. (Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

In Sullivan’s September 10 broadcast, he introduced Winchell from the audience. Ed, momentarily confused, referred to Walter as a sports star, an introduction meant for football hero Frank Gifford, also in the audience. He then found his place in the cue cards and touted Walter as the “daddy of the Broadway columnists.” (In that same show, featuring the rock group the Young Rascals, the girls in the audience screamed so much that Ed yelled, with a smile, “Quiet or I’ll thrash you!” proving he hadn’t turned into complete butterscotch.)

A year later the Friars honored Sullivan for his twentieth year on the air; at the ceremony Walter sat up on the dais with Ed. In his speech, Winchell spoke glowingly of his former rival: “As we both grew older, we found that we were citizens of a kingdom more beautiful than Camelot. Not a never-never land, but a very real and magic place called Broadway. Ed Sullivan is as much a part of Broadway as Times Square, Dinty Moore’s, Toots Shor’s, Lindy’s, Max’s Stage Deli, Variety.…” As the evening concluded, Ed shook Walter’s hand and said, “Walter, don’t ever let thirty-five years separate us again.”

The 1967-68 season opened with a scream. Headlining the September 17 show were The Doors, who in July had hit the charts for the first time—at number one—with “Light My Fire.” If ever a group was guaranteed to draw extra scrutiny from the CBS Standards and Practices department, it was this pioneering psychedelic rock band fronted by Jim Morrison, who wore skintight leather pants and performed as if gripped by a hallucinatory frenzy. He earned the nickname the Lizard King, a phrase from one of his rambling, incantatory poems, for his grand and otherworldly approach to life.

Doors keyboard player Ray Manzarek recalled the unusual way he found out the band was about to play the Sullivan show. All through the Summer of Love, as the summer of 1967 was known, Manzarek made of point of turning the channel to CBS on Sunday night. “You watched The Ed Sullivan Show, if you could, because there was always going to be a rock act on, and there were very few ways to see rock ’n’ roll on television.” As he watched on September 10, he gasped with amazement as he heard Sullivan announce that The Doors would be on—the following week. The band’s manager had neglected to tell them. “We were very excited—it was fabulous,” Manzarek said.

The band showed up at rehearsal, recalled Sullivan staffer Jim Russek, with “a smugness in their attitude, kind of ‘We’re going to do what we’re going to do.’ ” But the group ran through two numbers, their current hit and “People Are Strange,” without incident. After dress rehearsal Ed briefly visited the band’s dressing room. As he walked in, the band members were goofing around, laughing at guitarist Robbie Krieger’s imitation of the Three Stooges. Ed, taking in the scene, commented, “Hello boys, you know, you’re very good—but you’d look a lot better if you’d smile more.” As soon as he left, the band began imitating his famous stiffness, to general hilarity. Ed Sullivan, telling them to smile more?

A few minutes later, Bob Precht walked in to deliver a message from the CBS Standards and Practices department. “Boys, we’ve got a problem,” he said, explaining that the lyrics to the song “Light My Fire” needed to be changed. The phrase “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” had caught the attention of censors. “You can’t say the word ‘higher’ on national television,” Precht said, because it would be perceived as a drug reference.

The band members were shocked: change the lyric? “To what?” Morrison spat out, quickly growing angry. “I don’t know, you’re the poet,” Precht replied, throwing out a few possibilities. Morrison, who wrote many of the band’s lyrics—including some to this song—was furious at the idea. “Jim had clenched his fist and was about to move on the guy,” Manzarek recalled. But the keyboard player stepped in to assure Precht: “Okay, don’t worry, we’ll come up with something.”

As soon as Precht left the room, Morrison turned to Manzarek: “Ray, what are you talking about?” The other band members all expressed dismay at the thought of changing the lyric. “Wait a minute,” Manzarek said. “This is national television, this is our shot. Tell them anything you have to tell them—then you do what you want. This is live TV.” The musicians all high-fived one another in anticipation of their moment of anarchy.

During the live broadcast, Morrison, clad in his signature leather pants, Byronic white shirt, and black leather jacket—and appearing in a trancelike state, likely enhanced by his preshow marijuana—sang the original lyric. He performed with an orgiastic fury, ending the song with a piercing, primal scream, followed by an abstracted downward stare. The Sullivan technical crew, over years of dealing with rock ’n’ rollers, had developed a technique of boosting the guitar volume enough to bury the singer’s voice as a censored lyric approached; this had been used with Mick Jagger, among others. But The Doors had brought their own engineer to control the sound board so their performance was uncensored. After their set, Ed clapped with barely veiled disgust, his body language projecting awesome distaste. Just a couple of years ago he would have stormed at them backstage and cursed a sailor’s streak. But those days were behind him. The task of bawling them out was left to Bob Precht.

As Manzarek recalled, “We came back to our dressing room afterward, opened a can of beer, and toasted each other: ‘Yeah! that was good!’ ” In came Precht: “You said it!—You said you weren’t going to say it!” Manzarek tried to backpedal: “You have to understand, sir, we’re just boys, and we’ve done the song this way so many times, and there we were, on national television, and we just got so nervous—it just came out.”

“He knew I was jiving him,” Manzarek remembered. “He said, ‘Mr. Sullivan liked you boys. He wanted you on for six more shows. You know what that would have done for your career? But you know what? You’ll never work The Ed Sullivan Show again!’ ”

Morrison looked at him, dismissively, and retorted, “Hey man, so what? We just did The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Whatever headaches they caused, bookings of rock bands proceeded apace, though many of the acts that season had a softer sound. In late September, Ed interviewed The Mamas and the Papas, who performed in a set decorated in bright paisley splendor, asking them about breakup rumors and their upcoming European tour. In October, Nancy Sinatra, armed with a pink miniskirt and white go-go boots, growled “These Boots Are Made for Walking”; later in the program, Ed introduced the Ladies Auxiliary of the Polish Legion, in the audience. In November, The Turtles sang “Happy Together” on the same program that Joan Rivers, now in late-term pregnancy, did a stand-up routine about her condition (though Ed forbade her to use the word “pregnant”). Later in the month the Beatles, on film, performed “Hello, Goodbye,” sharing the bill with middle-of-the-road pop star Connie Francis, who sang “Going Out of My Head.” In early December, Ray Charles and Billy Preston rollicked on the rhythm and blues “Double-O-Soul,” after which Japanese rock band The Blue Comets (inspired by the Beatles) raced through “Blue Chateau.” On that same show, Ed introduced Ail-American Football team members O.J. Simpson and Larry Czonka.

The December 10 broadcast featured a film clip of the ceremony in which CBS renamed Studio 50, the Sullivan show’s theater, as the Ed Sullivan Theater. In Ed’s eyes this was the ultimate honor, one that touched him profoundly. Ratings could come and go, programs could be canceled, but now he was enshrined in the heart of Manhattan’s theater district, in the neighborhood that he had worked in his entire adult life. (The Ed Sullivan Theater, at Broadway and 53rd Street, later became home to the Late Show with David Letterman.) Hosting the well-attended event was New York mayor John Lindsay. Ed’s friend Peter Prichard, the talent agent, was with him that evening, and he recalled the showman walking among the crowd: “The moment he walked out onto Broadway to walk to the rostrum, Ed knew everybody, every street guy in New York. He was wandering over to say ‘Hi, how are you, nice to see you,’ and we were trying to get him onstage because time was running short.”

There was no small irony to the evening. Ed had been all but booed off the air in the show’s early years because of his maladroit fumbling as an emcee, while his talents in his more significant role—producer—were little understood. It had been his skill as a producer, not his wooden stage persona, that kept the show highly rated for two decades. Yet as he received this most august honor as a showman, he was in fact little more than the program’s emcee. Bob Precht was now the producer. Ed’s son-in-law, of course, was using Sullivan’s formula. But Ed himself was doing little but okaying the choices Bob made in fulfilling that formula. Sullivan certainly retained final veto power; throughout the show’s run, “There was never a doubt that whatever it was he wanted, he got,” Precht recalled. But with Ed’s slipping mental acuity he was letting go of the reins. And, as the show’s pace moved ever faster, his onstage time, never long in the first place, was cut to a bare minimum. Oddly, Ed was becoming a figurehead on his own show.

As the calendar flipped to 1968, the show’s balancing act between young and old continued, although social commentators, referring to something called the Generation Gap, suggested this was getting harder. According to the new theory, the differences between parents and teenagers had grown so great as to be irreconcilable. But The Ed Sullivan Show had always gathered the whole family, and the program remained firmly in denial of the Generation Gap.

In January, Duke Ellington shared the bill with Vanilla Fudge, who played their current hit “You Keep Me Hanging On.” In February, Motown crew Gladys Knight & The Pips performed on the same broadcast as singer Dinah Shore, who had entertained the troops during World War II. In March, new pop sensation the Bee Gees harmonized on “Words” right before Lucille Ball talked with Ed about her newest film, Yours, Mine, and Ours. In April, Ella Fitzgerald sang a swing version of the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” shortly before George Carlin did a vaguely subversive routine about a politician on a fictional “Meet the Candidate” program.

The Sullivan show expanded to ninety minutes for one night in April for an eightieth birthday tribute to Irving Berlin, whom Ed had interviewed on radio in 1943. Bob Hope contributed a stand-up routine (“I always thought the Ed Sullivan Theater would be a wax museum,” he cracked), Bing Crosby crooned, and President Johnson sent a taped birthday message. As if to prove that even Irving Berlin could be modernized, Diana Ross and the Supremes accompanied Ethel Merman in a Berlin medley, which veered briefly into the Motown hit “Heat Wave.”

For all the show’s intergenerational offerings, denying the Generation Gap and the other conflagrations now burning right outside the Ed Sullivan Theater was getting harder. Television was evolving, dragged reluctantly into the current day by a changing world. In January 1968, NBC launched Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a fresh take on the comedy-variety format. Network executives didn’t know if viewers were ready for the program’s fast pace and non sequiturs, but the show quickly began climbing toward number one. Over on Dragnet ’67, detective Joe Friday chased a demented LSD pusher, who died of an overdose at the episode’s end. And a new rule was instituted for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which ran on CBS right after The Ed Sullivan Show. Now a tape had to be sent to affiliate stations before broadcast, due to complaints about the show’s controversial nature—particularly how the comics handled the antiwar struggle at that summer’s Democratic convention in Chicago.

Ed attempts to interrupt Sylvia’s game of Solitaire, February 1967. (Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Undeniable semaphores signaling these changes appeared on the Sullivan stage by the end of the 1967-68 season. Certainly The Doors’ primal scream and the Rolling Stones’ mockery of the show’s sexual prudery signaled changing times, but still more direct signs were seen as well. In November, Ed presented Victor Lundberg, a surprise spoken-word one hit wonder. He performed his “Open Letter to My Teenage Son,” a bitter condemnation of the antiwar movement (“If you burn your draft card, you’re no son of mine”). In May, Ed gave an audience bow to a newly visible group, a coterie of wounded Vietnam veterans. Comedian Jack Carter, who once included one-liners about beatniks, now told jokes about hippies. Comedy duo Wayne and Schuster did a routine about TV violence. Charlton Heston had given dramatic Bible readings in the 1950s, but now he promoted his new film Planet of the Apes, whose last scene suggested mankind would destroy itself.

And in the greatest signifier of change, the show’s twentieth-anniversary program was rescheduled; presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated, dying on June 6 (just two months after Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s assassination), so the June anniversary was curtailed. Planned as a two-parter, Ed turned the second week into a memorial tribute to Kennedy. Dionne Warwick sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Duke Ellington performed “David Danced Before the Lord,” and actor Richard Harris reprised a scene from Camelot.

The Sullivan show, which had always been a perfect mirror of American culture—combining corn pone and high art, the Polish Ladies Auxiliary, Borscht Belters, sports heroes, rock ’n’ roll, and Irving Berlin into an hour of diversion and entertainment—was now forced to reflect some unpleasant images.

Still, amid the roiling turmoil, The Ed Sullivan Show appeared to be some sort of eternal verity. As the year’s Nielsens were tallied, they revealed that the Sullivan show had held its ground. The live broadcast continued to own its time slot, and of the eighty-some shows in prime time, it was ranked thirteenth, with a weekly audience of around thirty million viewers. The Sullivan show, it seemed, might just last forever.