A Temporary Job - 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)


“It used to be that we in films were
the lowest form of art. Now we have
something to look down on.”


Chapter 8. A Temporary Job

THE WAR, HAVING AFFECTED VIRTUALLY EVERY ASPECT of American life, slowed the development of a force that would exert a still greater influence: television. After NBC technicians broadcast a sputtering image of Franklin Roosevelt’s opening speech at the 1939 World’s Fair, the nascent medium appeared to be just a step away from the living room. But the war’s global conflagration sucked all the energy from television’s development. Some suggested, darkly, that the war provided an excuse for those threatened by television—newspaper, radio, and film concerns—to suppress the new medium. An anonymous commentator in the Saturday Evening Post opined in 1942 that these powerful interests put TV “as far back on the shelf as they could because they saw it as a threat to the status quo.”

If newspapers and film studios could have united to stop the upstart, they surely would have. But the genie was out of the bottle soon after the war ended. Dominant networks NBC and CBS, followed by ABC and Dumont, began competing to stake out a position in television, offering the first few crudely produced shows. Initially, the public took little notice. Television sets in the immediate postwar years were chiefly located in neighborhood bars; the sets were expensive and the programming so scant that few middle-class families were tempted to buy one.

In the fall of 1947, however, the small screen gave viewers a jolt of excitement: for the first time, the World Series was broadcast on television. An estimated audience of three million people gathered in bars and department stores to watch grainy images of the New York Yankees, led by the mythic Joe DiMaggio, defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers, whose lineup featured Jackie Robinson, who just that year broke baseball’s color line. Advertisers, too, felt a quickening pulse as they contemplated television’s power. Early in 1947, Kraft experimented with a television ad for its new McLaren’s Brand Cheese, which was pricey and hadn’t been selling well. In the ad, an attractive young woman was transported by the delicious taste of McLaren’s. By the ad’s third week on the air, New York stores couldn’t keep the cheese in stock.

“When somebody got a TV set, they would invite the whole neighborhood in to watch—it became a social thing,” recalled Paul Winchell, a ventriloquist who performed in Ed’s shows at Loew’s State. “They were so filled with awe that people would say, my God, the pictures are moving.

The big moment came the following summer. On June 8, 1948, NBC debuted the Texaco Star Theatre, starring Milton Berle. The comic’s success had been limited on radio, but his humor—direct, immediate, and visual—played perfectly on the small screen. He joyfully took pies in the face, wore wigs, and fell flat on his face at every cymbal crash. His format was the one he grew up in, vaudeville, with a rapid-tempo parade of comics and singers and acrobats, many of whom Berle interacted with. He pretended to perform with the acrobats, mining his own maladroit moves for laughs, and he romped through skits with the comics as one of them. Although there were only five hundred thousand television sets in the country that summer, Berle became an instant phenomenon; within a year his grinning mug graced both Time and Newsweek. A handful of shows had preceded Berle’s, but none so captured the public. For the first time, people began scheduling their Tuesday nights around a television program.

Berle’s success threw down a challenge for CBS. The network ran a close second to NBC in radio. Now the popularity of Texaco Star Theatre suggested that NBC was on its way to dominating television as well, especially given that NBC’s Philco TV Playhouse already held a grip on Sunday night, the evening with the largest home audience. To avoid being left at the starting gate, CBS needed to respond—and fast.

Ed and Marlo Lewis had proved to be an effective team. The success of their Heart Fund Drive demonstrated that their strengths were complementary. Ed, with his skill at producing stage shows, and Marlo, with his social ease and talent for handling logistics, formed a partnership that was greater than the sum of its parts. At Ed’s urging, the two of them dedicated their partnership to launching a TV variety show. But the story of how that show came about would diverge into the Sullivan Version and the Lewis Version, with each giving himself primary credit for making the show possible.

Sullivan’s version, which he repeated in countless interviews in later years, became accepted as TV lore, though it neglected Lewis’s role altogether. In Ed’s telling, CBS asked him to host a show after network executive Worthington Miner saw him host the Harvest Moon dance competition in the fall of 1947. On the evening of September 3, Miner was at Harvest Moon to oversee CBS’s live broadcast of the event. Ed, unaware that he was being broadcast live, recalled feeling completely at home onstage; he thought the cameras were filming a newsreel for later use. “If I had dreamed I was on television, I wouldn’t have been so relaxed,” he said.

He had impressed the right person at the right time. Miner, who had been a highly successful Broadway director, was a plump, owl-faced man whose brainy demeanor belied a demanding nature. Fortunately for Ed, Miner was moving up the CBS corporate ladder that year. In the spring of 1948, he was assigned to create two shows, a dramatic series (the renowned Studio One, which debuted that fall) and a variety program. Remembering thinking that Sullivan seemed “likeable and relaxed” as host of Harvest Moon, Miner recruited him in May 1948 to produce and host a variety show. Remarkably, the very thing Ed had so wanted all these years, a broadcast berth, fell into his lap not through his own efforts, but because of his effortless onstage charm.

Or at least that’s the way Ed recounted it. Mario Lewis’ telling of the story, in contrast, cast Sullivan not as a passive recipient of Miner’s interest but as actively pursuing a TV show.

Inarguably, Ed was drawn to the nascent medium and hungered to be part of it. By his own account, he had conceived of a show about golf called Pros and Cons, featuring him interviewing pros about their technique. He pitched the concept to CBS (in one telling of the story Lewis did the actual pitching), but the network turned him down. It wasn’t a bad idea; it tapped the visual nature of television, but viewership hadn’t grown large enough to support programs aimed at niche audiences. Succeeding in these pioneering days required an all-inclusive approach.

According to Lewis, immediately after their Heart Fund collaboration, Ed began lobbying him, essentially berating him, to use his connections to sell a variety show to CBS. Lewis, inspired by Sullivan’s enthusiasm, agreed. He worked his way through a series of pitch meetings with network executives, first with program director Jerry Danzig, then with network vice president Charles Underhill. Network interest was lukewarm. But, almost by default, they agreed to try the show, if only until better programming could be found. In Lewis’ telling, the fact that Worthington Miner had seen Ed emcee Harvest Moon contributed to getting network approval.

But the network had no enthusiasm for Sullivan. No less an eye for talent than CBS head Bill Paley thought of him as merely a stopgap. The forty-six-year-old Paley (who coincidentally was born on the same day as Sullivan) was considered a genius at programming. Paley’s Ukrainian-born father had earned a vast fortune in the cigar business and bought into a minor Philadelphia-based radio chain known as CBS. He made his son Bill the president at age twenty-seven. It was young Paley’s knack for choosing the right shows and performers that enabled him to build CBS into a broadcasting leviathan. His list of successes began with 1929’s hit Amos ’n’ Andy and continued apace, and the list of talent he wooed to CBS went from Will Rogers to Bing Crosby. As CBS grew, so did Paley’s reputation, and with time he was viewed as a sovereign master of broadcasting—a man whose opinion was the gold standard. When Bill Paley looked at Ed Sullivan, he saw someone who was ill-suited for television. Paley recalled: “Ed Sullivan was hired as a temporary master of ceremonies for a variety program I wanted in 1948 because the programming department could not find anyone like Milton Berle.… We planned to replace him as soon as we could afford a professional master of ceremonies.”

While Sullivan and his partner Marlo Lewis told very different stories about the show’s inception, they agreed about the contract that CBS offered. Its terms were almost feudal. While the networks understood television’s awesome potential, they correctly assumed it would be a financial drain for the first few years. In 1949, television lost $25 million while radio made $56 million. The networks expected to finance their television groundwork with profits from their radio divisions, but wanted to use as little of these profits as possible. CBS’s niggling offer to Sullivan and Lewis reflected a desire to shave up-front costs, even if that shortchanged the actual programming.

The three-year contract stipulated that the show could be canceled with two weeks’ notice; the network owned the show completely, so Sullivan and Lewis would see no profit or residuals; although Ed would be the producer and emcee, the show would not bear his name, allowing the network to replace him easily at any point. As for pay, Sullivan and Lewis would have to produce the show essentially for free. CBS would provide the studio and technical crew and a nominal talent budget; the rest was up to Marlo and Ed. The talent budget was $375 per show, which would cover Sullivan and Lewis’ salary as well as fees for each week’s performers. For this amount, Sullivan was obligated to provide six acts a week, two of which had to be nationally known. Projecting no great confidence in the years ahead, the contract called for an increase to $650 per show in the second year, and $900 per show in the third year. An additional $1,000 per show was allotted to pay a fourteen-piece orchestra, six dancers, and additional production staff.

In Lewis’ account, he was the one who handled the contract negotiations, such as they were, then delivered the news to Sullivan. He expected Ed to have his doubts, especially about working for free, but Ed’s reaction was enthusiastic—wildly so. “Screw ’em! Grab the deal! I don’t care what they’re offering us,” Lewis claimed Ed said. “A contract with the network is not the Holy Gospel. When we’re a hit, and we’re gonna be a hit, they’ll give us anything we want!”

Worthington Miner may have been impressed with Ed’s emceeing at Harvest Moon, but CBS saw a quality in Sullivan far more attractive than his onstage persona. Ed was an influential columnist; if anyone could convince stars to work cheap, he could. In a notion that would soon seem quaint, a broadcast network was leveraging the power of a print journalist to deliver major stars. And Ed did just that. He went to work calling in his chits.

For his debut television show, he conceived of a variety program that traveled in uncharted territory. While it shared many qualities with his Loew’s State vaudeville shows, the format he created for television was a profound break from his earlier work.

In booking acts for his first broadcast, he overspent his minimal talent budget, though not by much, offering more cajoling and column exposure than dollars. Headlining would be comedy duo Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, then a white-hot nightclub act, currently at the Copacabana ($200); Broadway stars Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein would chitchat about their recent stage projects (gratis), and bring along a dancer from their show Allegro, ballerina Kathryn Lee ($75), to perform a ballet; classical pianist Eugene List, who had just performed for Truman, Churchill, and Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, would render a Chopin Polonaise ($100); Ed would interview Ruby Goldstein, who was about to referee the title bout between Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Wolcott ($75); Bronx fireman John Kokoman, winner of a local singing contest, would croon ($25), as would Marlo Lewis’ sister, Monica ($50); comedy team Lee Goodman and Jim Kirkwood, a cerebral New York nightclub act, would counterbalance Martin and Lewis’ comic antics (gratis).

The program’s core formula was clearly vaudeville—briskly paced acts with high contrast between them. But the show itself would hardly have been recognized by the gallery gods of old. A boxing referee and a ballerina on the same bill? Rodgers and Hammerstein, who walked the Broadway stage like giants, sharing an evening with a singing fireman? The zany tang of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin on a program with Chopin? Sullivan had never combined high and low art in this style, had never ventured so boldly beyond his updated vaudeville format.

For what audience was this intended? Certainly not his Loew’s State audience, nor any local New York audience, who wouldn’t have stood for a singing fireman and a classical pianist on the same program. Ed was imagining a vaudeville bill for that most catholic of halls, the national audience. But the national television audience was largely an unknown quantity. Little in the way of programming successes and failures yet existed to point to, to emulate, or to avoid the pitfalls of. What did the national audience want? No one really knew. Ed was aiming his show at a viewer-ship he imagined, a fictional audience—not quite real because there were only five hundred thousand television sets in the nation, and most were still scattered in neighborhood taverns. The viewers themselves weren’t sure what to expect from the little boxes. In certain hours, television networks were still broadcasting test patterns, stationary designs with no sound, and some viewers found even this intriguing, as if it heralded something momentous.

Years later, Worthington Miner claimed that Sullivan’s debut lineup wasn’t the first list the showman submitted to him. The initial list was full of tired recycled stage acts, Miner said, asserting that he told Sullivan he wanted “new” acts. If that’s true, whatever Miner said must have crystallized something in Ed, for this debut lineup reflected the formula he would use throughout the show’s twenty-three seasons, long after Miner was gone. As much as Sullivan’s choice of performers would change as the culture changed, season by season, almost headline by headline, his signature formula evolved little in the decades ahead.

While Ed chose the talent, conceiving of the show’s pace and feel, Marlo Lewis handled logistics, from getting the theater ready to working with technicians. Because CBS had never televised a variety show, Lewis had to organize the show’s technical aspects from scratch. Complicating his task was the network’s sluggishness; after signing the contract, CBS had done little to prepare—until the June 8 debut of NBC’s Milton Berle show. Then CBS sprang into action. Suddenly, the Sullivan—Lewis show needed to go on the air posthaste. The debut evening was set for Sunday, June 20, at 9 P.M. Several names for the program were bandied about, with CBS issuing a press release calling it You’re the Top, but sometime in early June it was changed to Toast of the Town.

Two weeks before the first broadcast, the network was hurriedly attempting to finish converting the Maxine Elliot Theater on West 39th Street and Broadway into a TV studio. When Lewis visited and spoke with the construction crew, he began to doubt whether the hall would be ready. Previously home to small stage plays, the theater was ill-equipped to handle the volume of gear needed to broadcast a television program. CBS had spent $12,000 to renovate the space, but the quickly re-laid stage tilted slightly to one side, with a grainy surface that made it hard to dolly cameras across. A small dressing room had been turned into the master control room, but it allowed no line of sight to the stage—essential for directing lighting changes and camera angles. For musical accompaniment, Ed contracted the Ray Bloch Orchestra, a top-flight radio ensemble, but they, too, would have to play with no view of the stage. The renovated theater no longer had an orchestra pit, so Bloch would have to conduct his band from a small room in the theater’s back area, following the show using a jerry-rigged microphone setup. And since the show would be broadcast live, all this juggling would happen in front of the audience.

Lewis fervently hoped he and his crew would be allowed into the Maxine Elliot a few weeks ahead of time. But the foreman supervising renovation told him he would have no access to the space until the day of the show. There would be no time to rehearse in the theater, and no time to work out technical snafus. However, in what the foreman apparently meant as reassurance, he told Lewis that he and the show’s crew “could come in early that Sunday morning and go to work.”

When Marlo called Ed to give him a progress report, he found him distracted and uninterested in the technical details. Ed’s wife and daughter also found him preoccupied in the days before the show’s debut. “We would always leave notes for one another—that was our way of communicating during the day,” Betty recalled, noting that Ed wrote her and her mother a note shortly before the show’s debut. She didn’t remember the exact words, yet in effect he wrote, “I’m sorry that I’ve been moody and uncommunicative, but I really want to make a go of the show. I know I’ve been nervous and not really agreeable.”

And no wonder. At age forty-six, he had so long hungered for the national spotlight, for renown and fame, and now a freshly born medium and his own determination had given him another roll of the dice. By some accident of history, this new medium of television came into being just as he was supremely ready for it. He hadn’t even known he had been waiting for this moment, but it had arrived. And with it had come probably his best opportunity yet, perhaps his last. Radio had been a bust, film no better. But television was a version of something he knew how to do—put on stage shows—as skillfully as anyone. This was his chance.

On June 18, the Friday before his Sunday debut, Ed wrote a column about television. It was ostensibly addressed to his readers, yet it read like his own diary:

“This is the most fascinating thing that has happened in entertainment since the movies were succeeded by talkies and radio came a-burstin’ on the scene … You thought to yourself that here was a medium of entertainment that would have challenged the imagination of a P.T. Barnum, a Charles Frohman, a Sam S. Shubert, a David Wark Griffith, a George M. Cohan, a Belasco, or any of the great creators of show business … Radio developed freak attractions, who could read from a script, but television demands more than that, and the experienced performer, with a stage background, will find that his or her experience will pay off…

…Television is sight and sound, similar to the movies but dissimilar in that there are no retakes. What happens at any exact moment on a television stage is written in indelible ink, and not one tear can remove any part of it…

…It is a medium which places a high valuation on pace, on speed. A singer may better eliminate the opening or throwaway number and sock with his or her strongest piece of material … The comic may find it advisable to trim a vaudeville monologue down to its bare comedy essentials and score quickly…

…Quite by the accident of appearing at Madison Square Garden shows this writer sort of got in on the ground floor of television … In radio, I had the same opportunity but wasted it … But I’m not making the same mistake this time, brethren … This time, as a ground-floor tenant, I’m concentrating on a long-term lease from which the television landlords will have to evict me bodily.”