''The Ed Sullivan Show'' was a classic TV variety-show

By A.J. Jacobs
Updated June 07, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

After 23 years and 1,087 hours of live television, you’d have expected it to go out with a really, really big show. Instead, The Ed Sullivan Show ended on a strangely anticlimactic note. A rerun from four months earlier, the June 6, 1971, episode featured a shaggy-haired Robert Klein telling some dentist jokes, Gladys Knight appearing in an avocado pantsuit, and Sullivan assuring everyone they were ”wonderful.”

Despite his uneventful exit, the variety-show host knew the cancellation was monumental. ”Vaudeville has died its second death,” Sullivan intoned to the press. Never again would one program be so truly big, sprawling from the Beatles to dancing bears, Joan Rivers to Japanese opera, Salvador Dali to Elvis Presley (at least the half of Elvis Presley located above those twitching hips). Never again would one show try to appeal to all Americans, whether little kids (with the fey mouse puppet Topo Gigio) or stodgy adults (with poet Carl Sandburg). As writer John Leonard has pointed out, Sullivan was an entire cable system rolled into one.

But by 1971, the new leadership at CBS looked at Sullivan’s sinking ratings and pulled the plug. No doubt about it, he was a relic of TV’s infancy. Originally a newspaper columnist, Sullivan rarely smiled (his nickname was the Great Stoneface), he wasn’t exactly graceful (a reviewer described him as ”Quasimodo doing the lindy”), and he made gaffes to rival Yogi Berra’s (Sullivan once misread a cue as ”World War One One”).

For veteran viewers, at least, Sullivan’s stiff manner passed as part of his Everyguy charm. And nobody doubted his real talent: A connoisseur of the pop-culture zeitgeist, he hand-picked all the acts, often prowling New York’s nightclubs until 4 a.m. looking for fresh faces.

In these days of geek chic, the terse, awkward host seems almost cool. The cable channel TV Land just started airing episodes of The Ed Sullivan Show (edited down, naturally, to a short-attention-span-friendly 30 minutes). Nostalgia buffs can also drop by the Late Show With David Letterman, which tapes in New York’s Ed Sullivan Theater; eat next door at the new Sullivan’s restaurant; or rent Bye Bye Birdie, featuring Ed himself in a musical about his TV show.

Sullivan died of cancer in 1974 at the age of 73, long before retro mania took hold. ”Ed lived for that show, that’s what drove him,” says Andrew Solt, a TV producer (and coeditor of the book A Really Big Show) who owns the rights to the Sullivan archives. ”When it got canceled, he was heartbroken, crestfallen. It took the legs out from under him.”

Time Capsule: June 6, 1971

Moviegoers went Bananas for Woody Allen; The Flip Wilson Show did anything but flop; Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee claimed victory on the nonfiction charts; and the Rolling Stones spooned out ”Brown Sugar.”