Epilogue - Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan - James Maguire

Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan - James Maguire (2006)


FAME IS WHAT EDWARD VINCENT SULLIVAN DESIRED, and fame is what he achieved. In his lifetime, there were few public figures who spent as many hours in as many American living rooms as Ed Sullivan. He was known, and in many cases revered, by the tens of millions of almost ritualistic viewers who gathered each Sunday to watch his weekly circus. He is forever memorialized as the monochromatic purveyor of a wildly polychromatic mélange, a graven-faced emcee who turned hosting a lively showcase of high and low art into a remarkably sober task. That this compressed icon of Ed Sullivan bore only nominal resemblance to the flesh-and-blood Ed Sullivan is of little import. Certainly, the vituperative, epithet-hurling Stork Club habitué, the Fidel Castro interviewer and earnest blacklisted the rock ’n’ roll patron saint and strict moralist, the producer who was tyrannical and sentimental, shrewd and irrational, petty and generous, was only glimpsed at moments on screen. But no matter. He is stored for the millennia with his name atop the marquee, as he so hungered for.

Reruns and retrospectives of The Ed Sullivan Show—his beloved creation that he placed at the center of his life—have continued to fuel that fame. The show has never fully gone off the air. After cancellation of its original run in 1971, it became a bottomless source of clips, the ultimate trove for television and documentary producers. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Ed was seen swinging his right arm and pointing to any number of acts. In 1980, a “Best of Sullivan” series appeared in syndication, broadcasting edited thirty-minute versions of the one-hour show periodically throughout the decade.

The showman’s return to major network success came on February 17, 1991, in a broadcast, appropriately, on CBS on Sunday night. The program was produced by Andrew Solt, a television and film producer who had often mined the Sullivan show for clips, and who bought the complete library from the Sullivan family in 1990. Called The Very Best of Ed Sullivan, the two-hour show was a decisive ratings victory for the network. It was the second-highest-rated program for the week, and helped CBS win the February sweeps for the first time since 1985. The network commissioned three more retrospectives, each of which was a Nielsen booster.

Solt also produced a series of one hundred thirty half-hour Sullivan shows, which went into syndication in various outlets, including Ed Sullivan’s Rock ’n’ Roll Classics, played on the cable channel VH1, and a “Best of” program shown on the TV Land cable channel. PBS stations began airing Sullivan shows in 2001, typically on Saturday nights, broadcasting them regularly until 2004. Additionally, Solt produced a series of DVDs, including The Best of Broadway Musicals, Unforgettable Performances, and Rock ’n’ Roll Forever. Bootleg copies of the show do a healthy trade: Sullivania is sold continuously on eBay, further distributing not just show tapes but also photos of Ed with performers, ticket stubs, and, occasionally, odd items like a plaque awarded to the showman in the late 1960s.

He was heartbroken that CBS wouldn’t allow him to extend the program into its twenty-fifth year. But as the clips and specials and DVDs keep getting viewed, the show finds its way into living rooms decades beyond cancellation, much less two more seasons. It appears The Ed Sullivan Show will have a longer life than the showman himself did.

For someone who felt so long frustrated in his desire for national renown, launching short-lived radio shows again and again, trying abortively to break into film, and finding a rough early road in television, he succeeded surprisingly well. He pushed and shoved and cursed and worried, and he managed to propel the name Ed Sullivan on a continuous course through the decades. He achieved the fame he hungered for, and then some.

Yet his fame, whether it lasts or recedes to the vanishing point, is incidental to his greatest accomplishment. His legacy for posterity, stored in the Library of Congress as befitting the archive it is, is the complete collection of Ed Sullivan shows. Taken in their entirety, the one thousand eighty-seven episodes, spanning twenty-three seasons, are an incomparable cultural document.

For someone of a later age to ask: What was it like? What was the nature of American culture between 1948 and 1971? Their answer lies on those videotapes. The twenty-three seasons of live performances fully capture American tastes and views at a defining moment, both in the history of broadcast and in national history. They reveal the very birth of television, from its technical infancy to its first maturity, from a period when commercials were performed live onstage to the era when demographics began to rule the medium. They also reflect the American Zeitgeist, from the dawn of the country’s status as a world power to the era when the Baby Boom generation first exerted its influence. That the library of shows offers such a telling panoramic record of both these arcs makes it more than worth the considerable shelf space it occupies in the national archives.

Many television shows, of course, can be said to reflect American tastes or reveal something of their time period. But The Ed Sullivan Show transcends its compatriots because of the catholicity of Ed’s vision. The Sullivan show was everything. His formula was vaudeville expanded to its furthermost edge, then beyond. It was opera and rock ’n’ roll, boxing and ballet, slapstick and social consciousness, the Vienna Boys Choir and the Woody Herman Orchestra, dramatic Bible readings and psychedelia, blacks and whites, Jews and gentiles, Fred Astaire, Tiny Tim, Richard Burton, Duke Ellington, John Lennon, Ronald Reagan, and Eleanor Roosevelt, Carl Sandburg and Karl Wallenda, Eugene O’Neill, and Rodney Dangerfield, Jason Robards and Jessica Tandy, Mort Sahl and Janis Joplin and Michael Jackson, Cole Porter and Walt Disney and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Salvador Dalí and Elvis Presley and Margaret Truman and Van Cliburn and Frankie Avalon, and—the list exhausts itself, the list breaks the very definition of a list because all the items on it could not appear on a single list. Yet they did. Some ten thousand performers graced the Sullivan stage.

The Ed Sullivan Show stands alone, too, because its impresario was such an inveterate newshound, with one eye cocked toward the latest headline and one moist finger hoisted in the air, always ready to proceed with cautious boldness wherever his audience was ready to go, and sometimes where they weren’t. He was a man of the moment, that week, wanting the show to be as newsworthy, and as news making, as the best of his Broadway columns. This made his program, unlike most other popular long-running shows, an immediate sonar ping reflection of its season. Each episode was a curio snapshot of its moment.

Cementing the show’s status as an archive of its time was Sullivan’s intuitive knack for reaching, some might say pandering to, the mass audience. He called to get the evening’s ratings every Monday morning, like a penitent bowing down to his deity, and he lived by those numbers. Because he reached so many viewers for so long, he created a show that influenced the tastes of the mainstream audience for decades. Magnifying his influence was the then-limited nature of the media universe. There was very little competition in his day: no cable television, no Internet, no movie rental. He was routinely watched by some thirty-five million people a week, year after year—a staggering number by comparison to later eras, when changes in media distribution fractured audiences into small slivers focusing on mutually exclusive material. His audience size during the ratings “slump” at the show’s end would have made the program a resounding success in later decades. Sullivan was one of the only games in town, which greatly amplified his role as a cultural tastemaker, and correspondingly amplifies the show’s position as a cultural archive.

It was an archive of his own life as well. For most of the show’s years there was some kind of circulatory system between him and his audience, allowing him to see as they saw, feel as they felt. If he had a genius, it was his ability to understand his viewers. He walked among his audience as an equal, and they saw that. He was at their service, his goal was to please them, yet he wasn’t separate from them; as he shaped the program in rehearsal each week his tastes were all but identical to theirs. So while the show was a reflection of his time, it also reflected Sullivan himself, how he saw the world, what he believed in. The Ed Sullivan Show was a self-portrait. Now, his body of work sits quietly on the shelf, finally freed from the constraints of ratings or sponsors, ready to provide an inimitable portrait of its time, and, if you know his story, the man himself.

To view his life in another way, his greatest achievement was temporal, completely of the moment. In this alternate view, likely the one he took himself, his life’s most significant moments took place every Sunday night between 1948 and 1971, and then they were gone. The Sullivan show had a unique quality, one that stood in marked contrast to the many shows it competed with. Because he structured it to offer something for every member of the family, the show brought the entire family together. It was a shared experience. This communal, ritualistic togetherness gave the program, and Sullivan’s life, its greatest meaning.

Few television viewers in later decades, used to programs geared for their specific interests and armed with a remote control, would sit through The Ed Sullivan Show. Fully half the hour or more every week was not intended for them. Yet during most of the years the program ran, entire families sat together and watched it, each member bored in turn, each member aware of and influenced by the others’ reactions. The glow of the cathode-ray tube fell upon a group sitting together, laughing, sighing, or gawking together, not on one or two viewers nurturing an already-established niche interest.

As Ed garbled his syntax and glanced nervously at the cue cards, bonding went on. Sister saw brother take an interest in the Cassius Clay interview, and brother saw sister’s eyes light up while watching Elvis. The older folks enjoyed seeing ancient vaudevillians like Sophie Tucker. Everybody endured opera, because Ed had access to the biggest opera stars, and he was determined to showcase the best of every field, whether it be ballet or football or acrobatics or film.

Sullivan’s grandson Rob Precht, who as a teen often spent time with his grandfather, sometimes wondered how Ed wanted to be remembered. Rob very clearly saw his grandfather’s desire for renown, but he also saw something else. It was almost a sense of “ministering” to his audience, Precht recalled. “I definitely think he had a sense that he was talking to Americans, he was watching out for them, he was giving them entertainment, he was showing them diversity. If you pressed him, in his more lucid days, I would not be surprised that if he were asked, What do you want to be remembered for? He would say, yes, fame, but also, bringing people together.”

It was clearly the central paradox of his life. He was a confirmed loner, distant from the countless people he knew, even removed in family gatherings, yet he was the producer of a program that brought the entire clan together like few others. The Ed Sullivan Show was the ultimate family show, produced by a man who had little patience for the rituals of familial togetherness. “He found family life entirely overrated,” Precht recalled. “He did not, on a personal level, enjoy family life … but, the way he connected to people was to be this family man on TV.”

Somehow, the calculus worked. The master showman, gifted at manufacturing the pixie dust of entertainment, created a convincing fictional image of himself as the ultimate Uncle Ed. He wasn’t a family man, but he played one on television. Yet on those Sunday evenings between 1948 and 1971, the result wasn’t an illusion; the television family man brought people together in real life. The entire family sat and shared, while he connected to them, as much as he was able, through the camera’s eye. It was television, but it was real.