He borrowed his body language from Frankenstein and his conversational skills from Mumbles. He was deeply untelegenic, an old newspaperman in the young TV age. But none of that kept Ed Sullivan from becoming one of America’s fondest institutions. Every Sunday night on CBS, from 1948 to 1971, Sullivan presided over a New York soundstage that became fame’s first stop — he was a conduit between America and the next big singer, actor, puppeteer, or dancing bear.
Nothing today compares with The Ed Sullivan Show for sheer impact. A few minutes on Sullivan Sunday night and you were a watercooler star Monday morning. Seventeen-year-old smash Liza Minnelli, in her 1963 debut, showed she was more than Judy Garland’s girl. Comedians like Woody Allen saw their careers soar. And the Beatles? They were a hot British band whose American singles had flopped and whose film clips on The Jack Paar Show had made no waves. Sullivan legitimized them: He had the shrewd sense to sign them just before U.S. Beatlemania exploded.
Ed was an active impresario, traveling the globe to scout acts. ”He is so aware of talent,” marveled Helen Hayes, ”so struck with the splendors of it…that one can actually feel it.” Yet Sullivan was also a cultural ambassador. When he took a troupe to the USSR for the State Department and locked horns with the Soviet bureaucracy, he protested directly to Nikita Khrushchev, who fired most of the Ministry of Culture.
Thin-skinned and prickly, Sullivan could also be bighearted and self- righteous. He was firm in his convictions — among them his insistence on showcasing blacks in the years when sponsors quailed. He banished Jackie Mason from his stage for what he perceived to be a rude gesture, and dropped singer Leon Bibb for his Communist-party past. But Sullivan was also genial: As one comic after another appeared, imitating their lurching host, Sullivan would stand on the sidelines swinging his arms, snorting with laughter.
Now, 17 years after his death, Sullivan is back in the public eye. Since two high-rated CBS Ed Sullivan specials aired in 1991, an Ed revival has begun. This month, Disney’s Buena Vista Home Video releases the first two cassettes in its series The Ed Sullivan Show Collection, and next fall, the program itself, in half-hour episodes, will be syndicated for the first time. TVT records is releasing audio collections of Sullivan music and comedy performances. And a coffee-table book, A Really Big Show by John Leonard, will be published by Viking this fall. What follows on these pages proves Sullivan wasn’t kidding: It was a really big shew.