Ripped Asunder - 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 17. Ripped Asunder

SOMETHING FUNDAMENTAL WAS CHANGING, or so it appeared by watching The Ed Sullivan Show’s 1968-69 season. Until this season, the show had felt like an updated version of its circa-1950s offering, despite the increased volume and tempo since the Beatles’ 1964 debut. But now, as the tumultuous changes happening outside the theater door began playing center stage, the show felt markedly different. Typifying the season was an act Ed presented in January 1969, the Peter Gennaro Dancers. An acclaimed Broadway performer-choreographer, Gennaro led his troupe that evening in a routine inspired by the headlines. Ed, with speech more garbled than ever before, brought them out with a flourish.

Dressed in a bulky astronaut outfit, Genarro danced as if he were gamboling on a moonscape. Six female dancers rotated around him, dressed in skintight silver polyester, with bare midriffs and tall silver headdresses. Their musical accompaniment was “Strangers in the Night,” but the arrangement was far from the familiar orchestral strains. Instead, the romantic ballad was rendered as if by a computer, the melody burbling forth in a disjointed bleep-blip style, twanged by filtered, syncopated guitars. The astronaut and his silver-clad space nymphs moved likewise, floating or moving herky-jerky like moon explorers buffeted by random lunar winds. As they concluded, Ed led the applause and mentioned that New York governor Nelson Rockefeller had invited him to the Waldorf-Astoria to meet the astronauts, who would attempt the first moon landing that summer.

Gennaro’s routine was enchanting. The problem was that, for Ed’s older viewers, there were now just too many dancing astronauts, strange rock bands, and comedians with a pointed sense of humor. It wasn’t that the show’s approach had changed—though it was making something of a shift—it was that the world outside had changed. In many ways, The Ed Sullivan Show was doing what it had always done: mirroring the culture as it evolved with the times. When Milton Berle’s vaudeville one-liners made him the leading comic in the early 1950s, Ed booked him; when Elvis burst on the scene in the mid 1950s, Ed (reluctantly) presented him; when shifting tastes in the early 1960s made Mort Sahl’s socially conscious humor palatable to mainstream audiences, Ed invited him on. Sullivan’s coup in booking the Beatles, for all its headlines, was simply his latest step in staying culturally current. But in the 1968-69 season, as the national mood heated to a boiling point, mirroring the culture meant presenting a mix the show’s older viewers had little interest in watching.

In truth, this shift didn’t happen in just one season; it was a continuum. Surely, Doors lead singer Jim Morrison’s frenzied vocal performance in September 1967 lead plenty of viewers to switch channels in disgust. Even the wave of relatively well-scrubbed rockers in the mid 1960s, like Herman’s Hermits and The Turtles, had tried the patience of many older viewers. But if there was a single tipping point when the elements aimed at older and younger audiences grew so oppositional they began to tear the show apart, it was in its 1968-69 season. This was, not coincidentally, about the same moment that the culture itself erupted into a generational divisiveness never before seen in American history.

In addition to mirroring social changes that made older viewers uncomfortable, the show’s format was shifting. While still hewing faithfully to its something-for-everyone approach, the program’s booking choices now reflected a desire to reach a younger, hipper audience. America was making the shift toward being a youth-oriented culture, and the Sullivan show was as well, or at least was attempting to.

Opening its 1968-69 season was psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane, who had personified San Francisco’s Summer of Love hippiefest the year before. Following them that fall was Tiny Tim, the gender-bending ukulele player popularized by Laugh-In, and the Beach Boys performing their homage to psychedelia, “Good Vibrations.” In September the Supremes used the Sullivan show to introduce a new song, “Love Child,” which represented a left turn in the trio’s direction. Unlike their previous hits, this tune was socially conscious, reflecting ghetto life and the legacy of poverty. That evening the Supremes abandoned their sequined glamour to perform in sweatshirts and bare feet. Ed’s introduction may have been the most jarring change. Hearing the sixty-seven-year-old showman enthusiastically shout a song title that referred to an illegitimate child—“and now, here’s ‘Love Child!’ ”—only reinforced the idea that something profound was changing.

Clearly, the musical beat was picking up a different vibe, with appearances by Sly and The Family Stone, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Steppenwolf, who performed their hallucinatory ode “Magic Carpet Ride.” Janis Joplin let loose with a shout-singing rendering of “Raise Your Hand” and “Maybe.” (In rehearsal Ed introduced the singer as “from Joplin, Missouri,” and although she corrected him, he still introduced her that evening as “from Joplin.…”) The cast of the Broadway tribal rock musical Hair—the show was charged with desecration of the American flag, and its use of nudity and profanity sparked a lawsuit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court—sang “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In.”

There was, as always, plenty of material aimed at squarer sensibilities. Ed interviewed retired boxer Sugar Ray Robinson about his picks for the ring’s best fighters, and World Series winning pitcher Bob Gibson strummed guitar. An ensemble called Your Father’s Mustache harmonized on “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and vanilla balladeer John Davidson intoned “Didn’t We.” Jim Henson presented his Muppets for the kids. In a nod to former years when the show presented more high art, ballet stars Allegra Kent and Jacques d’Amboise danced a pas de deux, and British actor David Hemmings recited a Dylan Thomas poem.

With the Supremes, December 1969. Sullivan was particularly fond of the Motown group, booking them fifteen times. (CBS Photo Archive)

But it felt like the balance had tipped. For every time Rodney Dangerfield played the regular guy (“I don’t get no respect”), Richard Pry or did one of his offbeat routines, like a bit about what it means to be “cool.” Norm Crosby played his working-class fractured English for laughs, to be followed not long after by Flip Wilson, a black comic who sometimes dressed as a woman. During dress rehearsal in the fall of 1968, comedian George Carlin was asked to eliminate one of two particularly trenchant segments; delivering both would have been too abrasive, Bob Precht and Sullivan felt. One of Carlin’s segments skewered archconservative politician George Wallace for decrying “pointy-headed intellectuals”—Carlin’s routine turned the phrase around to refer to the Ku Klux Klan; his other segment referred to Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his boxing license for refusing military induction: “Muhammad Ali, whose job is beating people up, didn’t want to go overseas and kill people. And the government said, ‘If you’re not going to kill them, we’re not going to let you beat them up.’ ” Of the two segments, Carlin chose to perform the Ali material for that evening’s broadcast, because “it had more resonance in what was wrong with the society than the Governor Wallace pointy-head line.”

In response to the Sullivan show’s more challenging material, many of Ed’s viewers turned the channel. The FBI, a crime drama on ABC that had played opposite The Ed Sullivan Show since 1965, had always run far behind. But during the 1968-69 season, a large portion of Sullivan’s audience preferred the square-jawed certitude of its weekly triumph of good over evil. That season The FBI was ranked eighteenth, while the Sullivan show tumbled to number twenty-three, its first time outside the top twenty since the Western craze of the late 1950s.

If the show was on the ropes, its host seemed all but down for the count. Ed’s forgetfulness had progressed far past the typical absentmindedness of an elderly man. He was clearly in the early stages of what his colleagues referred to as Alzheimer’s, although it was never diagnosed as such. Whatever it was, it didn’t prevent him from functioning effectively much of the time, yet by this point he was only a shadow of the shrewd producer he had been. At times he seemed shaky and almost feeble. While early in the broadcast he might appear to be his former self, stiff but sure, later in the hour he would seem noticeably vacant. After he delivered his introduction his face might go slack and detached before the camera cut to the act he was introducing. He came to rely heavily on Bob Precht. His son-in-law continued to confer closely with him but was now very much in charge of keeping the Sullivan formula spinning. It was an odd truth of Ed’s life: though no one could have planned it, his daughter had delivered to him a man who extended his career long past when it otherwise would have ended.

Not that the showman was resigned to becoming a fossil. After maintaining his 1920s hairstyle for decades, he now incongruously sported long sideburns, much like the young rock ’n’ rollers who played the show. He would, of course, never wear his hair long, but it was no longer strictly slicked back. Instead it was allowed to follow its natural wave, and with the color and improved video clarity of the show’s later years, his hair appeared distinctly auburn, not the black it had always seemed to be. Those cosmetic enhancements, however, didn’t distract from his timeworn, hollowed-out look.

Sullivan and his show were moving in opposite directions. As the program’s 1969-70 season kicked off, its production values were ever more contemporary as Ed appeared ever more antique. The program’s theme music was a bold orchestral rock number, and its sets were increasingly elaborate and realistic, some with brilliant electric colors; the weekly budget for sets had grown to a hefty $10,000. Amid it all, with his haggard face and sometimes unsteady manner, Ed seemed as if he had wandered onto the wrong set. That is, until the old energy came back—his odd alembic of reserve and moxie—and he bantered with a guest or played a cameo in a comedy skit.

The show’s 1969-70 season presented the most culturally discordant combinations ever seen on the Sullivan stage. That past August, the youth counterculture’s leading rock bands had held forth in a three-day bacchanal known as the Woodstock Music and Art Festival. Now the Sullivan show combined the festival’s shaggy iconoclasm with the butterscotch gentility of the musical establishment, as Woodstock alumni shared billing with far older performers. Santana reprised his Woodstock performance of “Persuasion” shortly before film composer Henry Mancini led an orchestra in the theme from Romeo and Juliet. The next week The Band romped through “Up on Cripple Creek,” to be followed by aging vaudevillian Pearl Bailey singing “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” (Ed clowned around with her that evening, pretending to sing and then dancing a few steps). Douglas Fairbanks Jr.—who had appeared in silent movies—performed an excerpt from a stage revival of My Fair Lady on the same show that Creedence Clearwater Revival sang their antiwar anthem “Fortunate Son.”

That fall, the Rolling Stones were in California for the notorious tour that culminated in the death of a fan at the Altamont Raceway. Eager to showcase the band, Ed, Bob, and a production crew flew to Los Angeles to film the Stones at a CBS studio. The three tunes they filmed, “Gimme Shelter,” “Love in Vain,” and “Honky Tonk Woman,” were shown on a November broadcast featuring jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald interpreting “You Better Love Me” and “Open Your Window.”

In January 1970, Muhammad Ali—a vilified figure in some quarters after refusing military induction on religious grounds—bantered with Ed onstage, then sang the spiritual “We Came in Chains.” He was an engaging performer, but the controversial boxer didn’t appeal to Ed’s more traditional audience. Nor were they likely entertained by that February’s appearance by comic Richard Pryor. The CBS censors were eager to tone down Pryor, but Bob and Ed insisted he be allowed to perform as he wanted. “Ed adored Richard,” recalled staffer Russ Petranto. That evening the comic played the character of a black poet reciting his newest poems, one of which was Pryor screaming the word “BLACK!” as loud as possible. “That’s what we got to do, brothers and sisters, we got to organize ourselves against whitey!” proclaimed Pryor as poet. The joke was that every time he came to the word “white,” he had to struggle to pronounce it, because the term made him so anxious. Clearly, this was a generational leap past the always-smiling deference of Nat “King” Cole.

Shaking the hand of a bearded Muhammad Ali, January 1970. At the time, Ali was a highly controversial figure after refusing military induction. (CBS Photo Archive)

Introducing the Jackson 5, December 1969. One Sullivan crew member recalled watching over Michael Jackson backstage: “He was such a cute little guy.” (CBS Photo Archive)

Attempting to bolster ratings, Bob Precht produced some traditional specials, like that season’s Holiday on Ice. But it wasn’t enough to reverse the slide. Over the last several years, Sullivan’s audience had trended steadily older, despite the cornucopia of rock acts and increasingly edgy comedians. Tens of millions of viewers had bonded with the show in earlier years, and many stayed loyal as the program updated itself. Or rather, they had until now. The 1969-70 Nielsen rankings revealed that many viewers were uninterested in watching the program’s all-too-accurate reflection of current trends; The Ed Sullivan Show slid to number twenty-seven. In January 1970, a woman named Beatrice Rapp wrote a letter to the Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin that spoke for many of Sullivan’s viewers: “Whatever happened to The Ed Sullivan Show? It was a good family show until recently. Now with the suggestive dancers that he puts on and the disgusting display of that character Tiny Tim—what is happening?”

That spring, Ed received troubling news: CBS was canceling a handful of still successful shows, including The Jackie Gleason Show and The Red Skelton Hour. The Skelton show had been that season’s seventh-ranked program, so its cancellation raised numerous eyebrows. A major shift was underway in the television industry. Networks faced pressure from advertisers, who were adopting a new approach based on demographics. Having a sizable audience was no longer enough to make a show attractive; advertisers now wanted an audience with a desirable composition, which in their view meant younger viewers, ideally living in urban areas. Advertisers were most eager to reach the eighteen- to thirty-four-year-old age group. As Irwin Segelstein, then CBS’s New York head of programming, recalled, “The changeover in audience composition [requirements] meant we were losing shows that had good ratings, like Skelton … we were getting big ratings, but not the right audience composition … it was a disaster for the programming department.”

Bob Precht understood the changes taking place in television: “We made every effort to appeal to a younger audience,” he said, hence the season’s highly contemporary feel. While Ed’s formula had always targeted a younger audience, it also catered to an older audience, as well as urban, suburban, and rural audiences. Its Big Tent philosophy ran counter to the notion of focusing exclusively on one group. (That many of Sullivan’s viewers were rural was a related problem, in the network’s eyes; over the next year, CBS would cancel mainstay Petticoat Junction and the highly rated Beverly Hillbillies to counteract the perception that its audience was older and rural.)

With its plethora of rock acts, the Sullivan show should have been able to offer advertisers the younger audience they desired. But by 1970 the younger set no longer wanted to sit through ancient vaudevillians and oldsters like Henry Mancini, and Ed himself was the very definition of square. The show had never been hip, though it had hip elements; instead, getting booked by Ed was the imprimatur of establishment success—precisely what younger viewers found so off-putting. (In January 1969 the rock group The Rascals announced they would stop appearing on the Sullivan show because they didn’t want to perform on “establishment shows.”) Worse, watching The Ed Sullivan Show meant enduring an hour with one’s parents. As for the older audience, they still revered Ed but they couldn’t stomach the show’s current youth-oriented fare. Getting the entire family to sit down together was increasingly difficult. The culture was coming apart at the seams; the big tent was being ripped asunder. In February 1969, ABC debuted The Generation Gap, a humorous game show pitting teens against adults. It was canceled after ninety days; for most, the widening gap was no laughing matter.

Mike Dann, then CBS’s programming head, recalled being in a network meeting that included discussion of the Sullivan show’s falling ratings. “We didn’t know what to do … we had to be very careful, he had built [a major following].” Compounding the network’s indecision was the fact that it had no ready replacement. As a result, despite the changes roiling the television industry, Sullivan escaped the fate of canceled performers like Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason.

But if Ed harbored any optimism it was dashed by the first few Nielsen reports of the 1970-71 season. Indicating a steady slippage, they revealed that the declining Nielsens of the past two years were part of a continuing trend. Perhaps if Ed had been fully mentally present he might have found a way to turn this around, to renew his format as he had always shifted it to boost ratings. Battling the heavily financed Comedy Hour, his decision to veer from a variety format to produce tributes to Broadway and Hollywood stars kept the program alive. Through the 1950s he maintained the show’s appeal by looking far and wide for the best talent, internationalizing it as he himself traveled. He hadn’t wanted to book Elvis, but the ratings potential prompted him to phone Colonel Parker; he then rode the rock ’n’ roll wave hard for years, and his wanderlust allowed him to present the Beatles before any American promoter. Now, with the younger set’s aversion to the show’s square façade, and older viewers’ dislike of twanging guitars, Sullivan’s rock offering no longer kept his Nielsens aloft. As the calendar said good-bye to the 1960s, the show’s direction needed to be shifted once again. But how was an inventive producer to recreate The Ed Sullivan Show in 1970?

The program faced its most organic problem: the format itself was exhausted. The concept of appealing to everyone was exhausted. And in truth, Ed himself was exhausted. The sixty-nine-year-old showman could no longer bob and weave with the culture as he had for so many years. CBS sent a questionnaire to the show each year, requesting details about its direction for the upcoming season. Ed, who never lost his disdain for management, responded: “Fuck ’em, we’ll do the same thing we did last year.” (Bob Precht then very conscientiously filled it in.) The erosion of his memory continued, and the attendant mental fog grew thicker. On one occasion, a reporter in the theater asked Sullivan his age, and he blanked on the question, having to turn to a staff member for help. Mary Lynn Shapiro, one of his personal secretaries, recalled him asking on a Sunday afternoon, “Who’s on the show tonight?” The same producer who once controlled every detail, from who was booked to what material they performed, now simply showed up to read his cue cards as best he could.

The Sullivan show launched its 1970-71 season with a format as diverse—if not more so—as ever. In October, Engelbert Humperdinck sang the Sinatra warhorse “My Way” on a broadcast with Tiny Tim, who trilled a medley of children’s songs that included “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” A few weeks later, legendary bluesman B.B. King performed “The Thrill Is Gone” on the same evening saccharine pop sensation Karen Carpenter sang her number one hit “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” A broadcast that fall seemed to sum up the season. Billed as a United Nations twenty-fifth-anniversary tribute, it ran the gamut from sitar master Ravi Shankar, known to rock fans for his influence on the Beatles, to Brazilian songstress Astrud Gilberto performing “Girl from Ipanema,” to the Ballet Africains, a percussion outfit jamming on an Afro-Caribbean groove. In a world heading toward niche programming, the Sullivan show’s focus was growing ever broader. The Big Tent was as big as it ever had been.

The audience kept slipping away. Attempting to satisfy older viewers, Bob Precht produced a special dedicated to Richard Rodgers. That kind of program had saved Sullivan in the early 1950s, but now it wasn’t enough. On Sunday night at 8 P.M., many of Ed’s traditional viewers were tuned to ABC’s The FBI, which had surged into television’s top ten. The youngest set was entranced by NBC’s The Wonderful World of Disney, television’s fourteenth-ranked show, which ran opposite the Sullivan show’s first half hour. In the second half hour, NBC presented Bill Cosby, starring a forward-looking young comic whom Ed himself had booked in the last few years.

The Sullivan show normally topped Bill Cosby yet was now running far behind its other time slot competitors. By the winter of 1971 The Ed Sullivan Show’s ranking had slid to forty-third. Of the eighty or so shows in prime time, it was middle of the pack, which it had never been in more than two decades. The show’s production staff assumed the end was near. Ed, however, had his mind set on a goal. With its debut in 1948, the show was in its twenty-third season. He desperately hoped to make it to the twenty-fifth-season mark.

In March 1971, Precht received a call from CBS-TV president Bob Wood. Some changes were being made, Wood explained. Long the leading network, CBS had now fallen even with NBC. A major schedule revamp was needed to pull ahead. In the management’s view, too many of its shows, while still successful, catered to an older or rural audience. After seeing success with its two new contemporary situation comedies, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family, the network wanted to continue to refresh its programming. CBS sought to more actively target a younger, urban audience. Eight shows were being canceled, including three that were highly rated in the previous season. Wood informed Precht that The Ed Sullivan Show was one of those being canceled.

Bob called Ed at the Delmonico. In Ed’s eyes, the cancellation was one more example of the network management’s lack of respect for him. “Well I’ll be a son of a bitch,” he said. “After all I’ve done for the network over the years.” A letter was written to CBS head Bill Paley to appeal the decision, but the cancellation was final. However, the network wanted to soften the blow—and hedge its bet, in case cancellation proved to be a mistake—so it offered a consolation. In honor of what Wood called the show’s “grand tradition,” the network asked Sullivan to do eight ninety-minute Ed Sullivan Show specials.

To Ed, this was no consolation. He had been canceled and the specials didn’t change that. There was discussion about how to end the show; a big good-bye broadcast was suggested, but Ed didn’t like the idea. He couldn’t face going on to say farewell; it was like announcing he had lost his show. He decided to play reruns for the remainder of the season, so the last new show aired on March 28. The reruns ran until the official cancellation date of June 6, 1971, after which the network was deluged with letters protesting the decision.

Ironically, one of the many letters Ed received was from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who was indirectly involved with The FBI, the very show that had drawn viewers away from the Sullivan show. The two men had corresponded over the years, and now the Bureau director offered his condolences. “I was indeed sorry to learn that your show will no longer be seen on television,” Hoover wrote. “Your presentations have always been most interesting and entertaining. Your outstanding contributions over the years will be long remembered.… Sincerely, Edgar.”

The show was over. For many of the staff, working on it had come to seem like working for a well-established family business. Television shows might have runs of three to five years, with staff on the lookout for a new job the entire time; unemployment loomed just one bad Nielsen report away. In contrast, the Sullivan show had appeared virtually permanent. The staff felt as if they had familial ties with one another (and some three decades after cancellation many continued to stay in touch). After every Sunday’s broadcast, when Ed and Sylvia went to Danny’s Hideaway, the production crew gathered at the China Song restaurant next to the theater to compare notes, laugh, and kibitz long into the night.

Most of the staff recalled working on the show as one of the high points of their life. The job was consuming; some worked six days a week, usually all day long on Saturday and Sunday. But the visceral excitement of a live broadcast and the glittering parade of stars more than made up for it. Staff member Susan Abramson remembered Irving Berlin coming into the office and noticing a painting of a bright blue sky above her desk. Berlin, whose song “Blue Skies” had been a huge hit, looked at the painting with a twinkle in his eye and said to her: “You know, I could write a song about that.” On another occasion, Duke Ellington told her he was going to compose a tune about her blue eyes. Sistie Moffit, an administrative assistant, recalled that Michael Jackson, then a boy star of Motown, tended to wander off before rehearsal. Assigned the task of watching him, she tied a short rope between her waist and his; many years later she still chuckled about babysitting the singer. “I dragged him around with me all day.… Michael was such a cute little guy.”

In the immediate aftermath of cancellation, the staff’s disappointment was tempered by knowledge that it had been coming. When the final call came, there was a certain shrug of the shoulders. No one was surprised. (And for several of the crew the show launched them to further success in television.) Still, set designer Bill Bohnert had a lump in his throat as he cleared out his warehouse of props, to be picked up by garbage trucks.

Ed, while not surprised, was absolutely heartbroken. Soon afterward he met his friend, singer Jerry Vale, at Toots Shor’s restaurant. Tears were in his eyes, Vale remembered. “How about that? I’ve been canceled,” Ed said. “After all these years, they canceled me. I wanted to do twenty-five seasons, but they wouldn’t let me do it.” Vale tried to console his friend, but Ed was inconsolable. That the showman had achieved everything he set out to do, walking into millions of living rooms every Sunday for decades, and having the Ed Sullivan Theater named in his honor, didn’t matter. The show had been his identity, and now he had nothing else to look forward to.

That summer a reporter from Show magazine interviewed him at his apartment in the Delmonico. As they sat in Ed’s memento-strewn office, the showman seemed “in a period of deep reminiscence,” the reporter wrote. “His manner appeared nostalgic, full of pauses and prolonged glances, and with a wee touch of sadness.”

“I feel empty now that the show’s over. Very empty,” Ed said. “It was the excitement, the fun of it, that I miss … meeting celebrities, going out after the show with stars [which in fact Ed rarely did]. It was the thrill of going out onstage in front of a live audience every Sunday at 8 P.M. All of a sudden, that was over and there was nothing.

“Even after CBS’s decision, I went on thinking, in myself, that I was still doing the show. You see I had put a big part of my life into it, and I don’t think it was just conceit. No, it was a terrific letdown, the news … like getting a slap in your face from your teacher. I brood about it, do a lot of walking. If I’m out and a cab driver stops me and says, ‘Hey Ed, what have you got on Sunday night,’ what can I do but just laugh?

“The people were just getting tired of that old routine. In the course of twenty-three years, I’ve shown everything that vaudeville had ever produced. I think they just felt ‘For Christ’s sake, not again!’ At any rate, the ratings collapsed.”

He expressed regret that he didn’t do more to shake up the show’s format as the ratings slid, like producing more specials. “Like a horse’s ass I didn’t say to myself ‘What the hell am I worrying about? This is what we should do! Specials!’ I just got into the habit of the old routine, I guess.”

The reporter asked Sullivan how his show had lasted so long. “I know a hell of a lot about show business and I know a hell of a lot about performers. On our show my opening act was just like my newspaper leads—the grabber that held people’s interest. This act would be a good one, and then we’d go to commercials. You grab them instantly. It was just like the makeup of a newspaper—when I was on the Mail I used to do the makeup. You know, by putting in your one-column boxes, cuts in here and there, you could make the page interesting to look at. My shows were just like a newspaper—it had sports, drama, movies, celebrities.”

His thoughts often turned to the past. “I think more about the old days than I did before. My wife, Sylvia, tells me I think too much about it. It was an exciting past, especially those early newspaper days when I was running around and meeting all kinds of new people.”

Did Ed mind the ratings game, which so many said turned television into a sea of mediocrity? No, he said, the public will make its tastes known. “It always has and it always will. The ratings game is legitimate. Saying that TV shouldn’t cater to public taste is like saying let’s give up the presidential election because public taste has picked so-and-so.”

Would he retire? “Every time I think of leaving New York and going off to the country … well, I just couldn’t do it.” His plans at this point were unclear. He noted that Sylvia, after many years of marriage, knew to say nothing to him in the days right after cancellation. But after a week, she asked, “Ed, what are we going to do on Sundays now?”

In fact, Ed hadn’t given up the idea of returning to his weekly show. He told the Show reporter that if ratings for his fall specials were high enough, the network might be convinced to reinstate the weekly program. He looked over at the reporter with a smile described as sly but charming, and said: “Maybe I can prove to CBS that they’re wrong.” It was classic Ed. Just as after his many canceled radio programs, once again, losing a show simply meant it was time to start planning to get back on the air.

But he wasn’t the hustling thirty-five-year-old newspaperman he had been. Ed’s daily life now bumped along without much sound and fury. As always, he had his habitual 11 A.M. breakfast of a lamp chop and a glass of iced tea with artificial sweetener. He went out for a shave, same place, same time. He attended a benefit for the Dance Collection at the New York Public Library. He accepted the Brotherhood Award from Temple Ohabei Shalom, one of dozens of awards from Jewish groups he received over the decades. In August he and Sylvia took their perennial sojourn to Cannes, France, along with a few other couples. He had never stopped penning his Daily News column, though in reality it shad long been shepherded by his faithful assistant, Carmine Santullo. With his show gone, Ed turned back to Little Old New York and began putting more energy into his twice-weekly column.

In September, he appeared on NBC’s The Flip Wilson Show. Debuting in 1970, Wilson’s program was the first successful network variety show hosted by a black performer; in its first two seasons it zoomed to television’s number two ranking. Every week, Wilson portrayed comic characters who skewered contemporary life, like Reverend LeRoy, pastor of the Church of What’s Happenin’ Now, and Geraldine, the sassy, liberated black girl who cried, “The devil made me do it!” He was one of the next-generation comics whom The Ed Sullivan Show helped launch; Ed had booked him twelve times.

On the Wilson show, Sullivan performed two skits with Wilson and Lucille Ball. In the first, Wilson played Charlie Brown to Ed’s Snoopy (dressed as a WWI fighter ace) and Ball’s Lucy, as the trio philosophized about life. In the second, Ed played an aging hipster who finds himself in the middle of a catfight between Wilson, cross-dressed as Geraldine in a hot pink miniskirt, and a modishly attired Lucille Ball. This latter skit seemed to reflect Ed’s changed circumstances. The last time he had played a comedy sketch with Lucille Ball was in 1954, and it revolved around Lucy and Ricky’s breathless excitement at getting on Ed’s show. Now, dressed in garish purple pants and a hippie-style fringe jacket, he was a player who was past his prime.

Since Sullivan was such a universally known celebrity, he was in demand by advertisers for television commercials. Although he certainly didn’t need the money, he appeared in TV ads for an antacid—an unlikely role, given how his ulcer plagued him and how little antacid had helped. “I got the feeling he was trying to hold on, to hang onto fame,” recalled his grandson Rob Precht, then in his late teens, who often spent time with his grandfather. “I remember thinking at the time that it was pathetic—I was sad to see him do it.”

An oddity about Ed’s life in this period was that cultural commentators used references to his famously stiff persona in articles about current president Richard Nixon. Typical of the commentary was an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times by playwright Arthur Miller: “For my own taste, Nixon is a god-awful actor; for one thing, his gestures are always at odds with what he’s saying.… It’s a lot like Ed Sullivan, a performer who was so at odds with his own arms that he finally took to clasping his chest.” As remote as these two men were from one another, they did have similarities. Both first became major public figures in the 1950s, and both were largely incapable of projecting warmth or intimacy in their public selves. And, coincidentally, both had their careers canceled at about the same time. Yet the showman, unlike the politician, inspired a reservoir of affection in his audience, despite his wooden stage presence. At no time was this more evident than in the aftermath of the cancellation.

As countless newspaper and magazine homages poured forth in the months after the show’s end, he was bathed in the glow of a newly beloved status. Everything about him that had been lampooned, often with great seriousness—his jerky gestures, the stilted vocal style—was now described endearingly. Los Angeles Times TV critic Cecil Smith called Ed’s performance of Snoopy on The Flip Wilson Show “a classic of comedy by anyone’s standards.” The United Press International’s Dick West bemoaned the loss of the show, calling Sullivan “a powerful stabilizing influence amid the vicissitudes of life. An anchor, so to speak, in a transmutable sea.” Bill Barrett in The Cleveland Press, pondering the cancellation, asked, “What goes next? The Bill of Rights? The gold standard?” It was as if TV columnists’ perception of his stiffness had magically reversed itself and they suddenly decided he was a loveable character. Someone that wooden must be genuine, the consensus seemed to be. Ed had somehow bonded with the audience—now even winning the critics—despite only rarely breaking his distant reserve.

Indeed, the response to his first special seemed to verify that absence made the heart grow fonder. Aired in October 1971 (four months after the last regular show), The Sullivan Years: A Kaleidoscope featured Ed presenting a library of highlights from the show back to the 1950s. The public flocked to it; the program dominated its Sunday night time slot and scored a jaw-dropping Nielsen rating. The one-night special, however, was what the show itself had not been. The Ed Sullivan Show, to the detriment of its ratings at the end, had never been backward looking. Or rather, it had been backward looking, fully contemporary, and forward-looking, simultaneously. The Kaleidoscopespecial presented Sullivan’s signature compendium of rock bands, saloon crooners, comics, athletes, and trained animals. But its retrospective approach put it all into soft focus, carefully exorcising the socially charged elements the show itself had presented of late.

Ed became a kind of celebrity on call. In January he flew to Las Vegas to host CBS’s Entertainers of the Year Awards, where he was roundly mock-insulted by comic Don Rickles: “I spoke to the wax museum. They’re accepting you Friday.” This broadcast’s ratings ran just behind those of television’s current number one show, All in the Family. A month later he was an award presenter at the Grammy Awards, broadcast on ABC. The Friars Club, a show business fraternal society, elected him as their Abbot, succeeding in a line that went back to George M. Cohan. And that September he appeared on ABC’s 25 Years of Television, receiving a special achievement award along with Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, and Milton Berle.

He also attended a number of funerals, including that of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, whom he had long lauded for breaking the sport’s color line. In February 1972, Walter Winchell died. (Critic John Crosby eulogized Winchell by observing, “He was truly a fourteen-carat son-of-bitch.”) After Winchell’s death, Ed, having accepted Walter’s invitation to sit on the board of the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund, was elected its president. It was fitting: Runyon had been the archetypical chronicler of 1930s New York café society, and now Ed, one of the era’s few survivors, was custodian of his namesake fund.

The Ed Sullivan Show remained on peoples’ minds. A year after cancellation, a man in Nebraska named Werner Hensley wrote a letter to The New York Times mourning the program’s end, chiefly because he had been training a frog for eleven years in anticipation of a guest shot. “We would have made it if the cheek puffing hadn’t taken an extra year of work,” Hensley claimed.

The network hadn’t forgotten it either; CBS commissioned Sullivan to produce an all-comedy special culled from previous shows. Broadcast in February 1973, Ed Sullivan Presents the TV Comedy Years ran opposite Marcus Welby, MD, a Tuesday night hit aimed at older viewers. The Comedy Years special, even more than the previous Kaleidoscope, was in contrast to what Ed had always produced. Instead of his all-inclusive approach, Comedy Yearswas an example of what was later called narrowcasting, the practice of focusing on a niche audience. The special gave short shrift to younger stand-ups like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, instead presenting comics from the show’s earliest days, including Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, Red Buttons, and Jimmy Durante. By focusing on a single audience, older viewers, the program handily won its time slot and ranked fifth for the week.

CBS realized it had found a formula. The library of Sullivan shows contained an ocean of material—one thousand eighty-seven episodes spanning twenty-three seasons—presenting performers of every stripe. If a show was edited together from elements that appealed to a specific audience, without the contrasting elements, a ratings win was likely. Making it still more appealing, Sullivan Productions owned all the programs; producing such a broadcast was simply a matter of calling Bob Precht.

Eager to repeat the success of the Comedy Years special, a month later CBS commissioned another special, Ed Sullivan’s Broadway. For this tribute to the Great White Way, the showman strolled through the streets of New York, dispensing Broadway anecdotes as he introduced Sullivan show excerpts from theater classics. He also read blurbs from his column, which were original reviews from the period. Like the prior month’s special, the Broadway retrospective garnered impressive ratings. It was now established: by choosing one audience among the several the program had reached, the Sullivan show could once again be a ratings powerhouse.

But suddenly, Ed didn’t care. The day of the broadcast, March 16, he suffered a shock from which he never recovered. Sylvia had checked into Mount Sinai hospital for a routine procedure a few days earlier. At age sixty-nine, she appeared hale and healthy, and looked far younger than her years. She enjoyed traveling as they always had; just the week before she and Ed had returned from a jaunt to Miami Beach. In a recent society column spotlighting the two of them at dinner, the columnist commented on how attractive she continued to be. Since she was in the hospital the day that Ed Sullivan’s Broadway was broadcast, she ordered a television set into her room to watch Ed. But, unexpectedly, she died that morning of a ruptured aorta. CBS News broadcast the announcement of her death shortly before that evening’s Sullivan special. Sylvia’s sudden death was a devastating blow to her family.

Ed fell into a bottomless grief. The show had been his identity, and it was gone, and now Sylvia, his lifelong companion, was also gone. Compounding the loss, she had become his protector and caretaker, handling many of the details of his daily life as his mental faculties lessened. Several people helped Ed as his Alzheimer’s progressed, but none more so than Sylvia, recalled Joan Rivers, who knew Ed personally and professionally (Sullivan was the godfather of Rivers’ daughter Melissa). “She took care of him like a hawk,” Rivers said. “She was his Nancy Reagan.” In the weeks after her memorial service, led by Rabbi Arthur Buch and with a eulogy by Bob Precht, Ed drifted into an emotional no-man’s zone. With little to look forward to, his sadness and sense of emptiness became overwhelming. “My grandfather just disintegrated,” remembered Rob Precht.

Jack Benny, hearing of Ed’s bereavement, offered to fly in from California to spend some time with him. But Ed waved him off. He had heard, he claimed, that Benny himself “was not feeling too well, so why knock yourself out.” When a reporter from Variety called, Ed explained that he would be “just keeping himself very busy with the column.”

He did in fact keep plugging away at Little Old New York, reporting and commenting on show business and current events, with a good deal of help from Carmine Santullo. With Betty and Bob Precht living in Scarsdale, New York, Carmine became his sole daily companion. Ed also became closer with his older sister Helen, who still lived in Port Chester, and with whom he had stayed in touch through the years.

He had always been a loner, despite a vast network of contacts and long professional relationships. Now he seemed to retreat still further into himself. He continued his nightly rounds of Manhattan’s nightclubs, but refused to let anyone go with him. His friend Jerry Vale remembered checking with Ed about a social outing, being rebuffed, and growing worried. “He went to Danny’s Hideaway once, and I decided I was going to follow him,” Vale recalled. “I followed him to the restaurant, I waited for him to get through, and he came out, and he walked from 48th Street up to his apartment on 59th. I followed him in my car. He was walking and I followed him very slowly, to make sure he got home okay. I was a very good friend of his and I wanted to see him do well.” Vale described the depth of Ed’s depression in this period: “When Sylvia died and the show went off, he was a beaten man.”

In December, his experience at a charity event was painfully coincident with his current fortunes. The Loyal League Philanthropies asked him to emcee an awards banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria, attended by about eight hundred people. Ed presented an award to the owner of a clothing store chain, Mortimer Janis, for his efforts on behalf of underprivileged children. Shortly after Ed handed him the award, Janis, sitting at the dais, collapsed. A nurse tried to revive him but to no avail. He died of an apparent heart attack. In the numberless such events that Ed had hosted over the decades, such a mortal calamity had never happened. It appeared to be some form of omen.

Bill Gallo, a Daily News cartoonist who had sometimes met Ed for lunch in earlier decades, ran into him on the street. “I saw him on Broadway, very forlorn—believe it or not, no one recognized him, he just looked so goddamned sad and puffy.” To cheer him up, Gallo organized a luncheon in his honor hosted by the Boxing Writers Association. Ed got up and gave a speech, and then began to relate anecdotes, traveling back through the decades. “It was nonstop stories,” Gallo recalled, “about the Dempsey—Tunney fight, the Firpo fight, golfing with Joe Louis.…”

Notwithstanding his shaky mental state, the entertainment industry kept calling him. In January 1974, the seventy-two-year-old showman was invited to be master of ceremonies for CBS’s Entertainers of the Year Awards, taped in Las Vegas with guests Carol Burnett, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Sonny and Cher. Producing the show were Bob Precht and John Moffit, the Sullivan show’s director, who decided to videotape Ed’s lead-ins for fear he couldn’t handle the live audience. But the night before, as they taped Ed reading his cues from a TelePrompTer, he kept fumbling his lines. He spoke in a small, weak voice, often stopping to ask, “Bob, who’s this? I can’t read it.” As Moffit recalled, “Bob finally threw up his hands and said, ‘John, we’re not going to get it, he’s tired, we’ll do the best we can tomorrow.’ ” The evening of the show, a huge audience—including a very concerned Precht and Moffit—filled the Caesar’s Palace ballroom. The show’s brassy music began pumping, and as the announcer gave Ed a rousing introduction, the audience began to cheer and scream with wild enthusiasm.

“Ed came out onstage,” Moffit remembered, “straightened himself up, walked across the stage, and said,”—in a big bold voice—“‘Good evening ladies and gentlemen! Tonight, from Caesar’s Palace…’ and it was the old Ed, the old warhorse, he got it together, the crowd brought him up, and all of a sudden this weak old man was the old Ed Sullivan for one hour.”

During his Las Vegas trip, Ed had dinner with comedian Shecky Greene, whom he had gotten to know over the course of booking him six times. After Sylvia’s death the two became good friends. Greene remembered Sullivan as a cantankerous host who not infrequently found reason to curse at him. Before one broadcast, Greene requested that Sullivan introduce him as a German comic (though Greene wasn’t), and Ed complied. Shecky, in a fake German accent, did a routine in which he explained Ed had been on the air so long “because he has no talent—he doesn’t sing, he doesn’t dance, he doesn’t do anything.” As soon as he walked offstage, Ed accosted him, storming, “You son of a bitch—I’ve got more talent in my little finger than anyone I’ve ever had on this stage!”

Despite their rows, Greene was enormously fond of Sullivan, especially as they grew closer after Sylvia died. “I loved him,” Greene said. “I thought he was some kind of guy.” The comedian recalled how mentally confused Ed was in this period. Although Sylvia had died several months before, when he and Sullivan spoke, Ed invariably told him, “Sylvia and I were talking about you the other night.”

The night of their dinner together in Las Vegas, Shecky told Ed the story of his decision to skip an airplane flight after one of his comedy performances—a decision that saved his life when the plane crashed. Ed so liked the anecdote that he asked Greene to repeat it; he wanted to use it in his Little Old New York column. But even transcribing an anecdote was difficult in Ed’s current state. “He got cocktail napkins, a lot of them, and he was writing one line at a time, and [the ink] kept spreading,” Greene recalled. As written in Ed’s column the story lacked coherence. “When he put it in the paper, people called me and asked, ‘What was that about?’ He never put in the punch line.” (By one account, the Daily News was growing restive with Ed’s tenure and wanted to ease him out, but Carmine begged them to let him stay a little longer.)

Those close to him saw a surprising change. Ed had always enjoyed being out in public, delighting in the attention. John Moffit once gave him a ride across town during which Ed leaned out the window and directed traffic the entire time, playfully bossing the other drivers. He had always been famously accessible to fans, signing autographs with great care, asking a fan’s name then writing a sentence dedicated to him or her. Now he turned away from the public. One night as he was finishing dinner at an Italian restaurant in midtown with his grandson Rob Precht, then in his late teens, Ed noticed a group of fans waiting outside the door. “My grandfather very abruptly turned to me and said, ‘I’m not going to deal with them.’ ”

Still, despite his deepening depression, Sullivan might surprise his grandson with flashes of his former spirit. On one occasion during these months, Rob was walking Ed home late in the evening, going up Park Avenue toward the Delmonico, when he spotted two figures walking toward them who were obviously prostitutes, dressed in tight miniskirts and high heels. Rob felt a twinge of anxiety as they approached, thinking, “I hope they don’t recognize him and start to engage him in conversation—he’s frail, and sad, and I want to spare him any inconvenience.” But as the ladies neared, it was Ed himself who decided to say hello, bellowing out “Hello, girls, how are you?” The women were momentarily startled, then seemed to realize who he was, at which point Rob guided his grandfather by the elbow toward home.

In May 1974, Sullivan was hospitalized for a problem related to his long-standing ulcer condition. He was released at the end of the month with instructions to come back for daily visits. However, he began skipping visits, making it in perhaps once a week. That summer, having spent very little time in churches throughout his life, Ed was seen praying at St. Malachy’s Church in midtown.

On September 6, an X-ray revealed bad news. Sullivan’s doctor checked him into Lenox Hill hospital and called his family, who decided not to tell him the full nature of his illness. Ed had inoperable cancer of the esophagus, and his doctor told his family that he wasn’t expected to live much longer. “We had consulted with his doctors and it was felt that if he were told the truth, it would severely dampen his spirits and make him totally depressed,” Bob Precht said. “It was best he didn’t know. Right up until the day he died, his spirits were fine and he believed he was going to get well.”

He spent five weeks in the hospital. Bob and Betty visited regularly, and Carmine Santullo was there constantly. On September 28, his seventy-third birthday, he was given two parties: one by the nurses, relishing their celebrity guest; the other by his family, at which he ate cake and ice cream and talked about looking forward to getting back to work. In fact he hadn’t left work. He continued to write his column from his hospital bed, piecing together Little Old New York from press releases delivered by Carmine.

On the afternoon of October 13 his doctor called the Prechts; Ed’s condition had worsened dramatically. They immediately drove to the hospital, sitting at his bedside while he lay unconscious. At 7:30 P.M., when Carmine arrived, they left. Carmine sat with him through the evening as Ed remained unconscious.

It was a Sunday night. Since 1948 he had lived for Sunday nights, and now he was dying on one. But not until the show was over. Shortly after 10 P.M., as the evening’s program would have been finished, and Sylvia would have been picking him up for dinner at Danny’s Hideaway, he stopped breathing.

The funeral, on October 16, was a celebrity affair. Held on a rainy autumnal day, with some three thousand people crowded into and right outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the event drew both mourners and those seeking a glimpse of the famous. The crowd outside, most carrying black umbrellas, watched a long line of limousines deliver entertainment, sports, and political figures to the front door. Cardinal Cooke led the service, and the attendees included Mayor Abe Beame, former Mayor John Lindsay, Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz, restaurateur Toots Shor, boxer Jack Dempsey, vaudevillian Peg Leg Bates, comedian Rodney Dangerfield, and Metropolitan Opera star Rise Stevens. Classical pianist Van Cliburn praised Sullivan for his “faithfulness to the serious arts.” CBS head Bill Paley called the showman “an American landmark.” Walter Cronkite, who first met Sullivan before World War II, said, “Ed had a remarkable quality of toughness in pursuing what he saw as right. He was an Irish grabber and I think that’s admirable.”

Ed had updated his will in March 1973. He left virtually all of his estate to Betty, with $10,000 going to Carmine, and a smaller amount left to his siblings. He noted in his will that he made no bequest to charity because he had done so much for charitable concerns during his life. He was buried next to Sylvia in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

The day after he died, the Daily News printed Ed’s last column, which he had written in his final days at Lenox Hill hospital. He composed that edition’s Little Old New York much as he had written the column for the last forty-two years, using a series of ellipses to connect disparate items, one bit flowing into another, a stylistic invention he borrowed from Walter Winchell in the early 1930s. Because he believed he would soon leave the hospital, the column was its usual all-inclusive mix, spotlighting events across myriad fields:

“Bennett Cerf’s widow, Phyllis, partied [sic] Sinatra after Garden blockbuster … Mia Farrow okay after appendectomy … Richard Zanuck and Linda Harrison derailed … French President Giscard d’Estaing holds press conference on 24th to outline France’s policy in foreign affairs … Dionne Warwick packing Chicago’s Mill Run theater…

President Ford’s ex-press sec’y, J.F. TerHorst, guest speaker at Nat’l Academy of TV luncheon at Plaza on Thursday … Hal (“Candide”) Prince’s backers got another $217,500 from his three hits: “Fiddler,” “Cabaret,” and “Night Music”…David Frost and Lady Jane Wellesley a London duet … Nirvana Discotheque, a $250,000 shipwreck, to reopen as Nirvana East restaurant … The Jimmy (Stage Deli) Richters’ fifth ann’y … Cardinal Cooke presents special awards to couples married 50 years, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Jan. 12 …”

The tidbits flowed continuously, seemingly without end, providing something for everyone in a rapidly moving one-column parade. Ed was gone, but Little Old New York, as it always had, kept bustling on.

At Yonkers Raceway, 1967. (Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)