There are many TV shows that can be described as “quintessential boomer,” but when it comes to variety shows, there is only one: The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-1971). This week marked the 75th anniversary of the broadcasting of the first episode.
It is pretty safe to say the vast majority of boomers from coast to coast remember, as kids, tuning in to The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights. Even if their families weren’t weekly viewers, there were probably certain weeks that boomers insisted the family watch, such as the first live appearance on U.S. television of The Beatles on February 9, 1964.
Ed Sullivan was far from the expected TV host, both in appearance and voice. Some suggest his everyman demeanor helped to make him popular. Regardless, no one could argue that he presented a truly eclectic variety of acts, from Broadway and opera stars to future rock icons; puppet acts to comedians, sports stars and more.
Here are some interesting facts about The Ed Sullivan Show during the boomer years:
• The show premiered as The Toast of the Town in 1948; it was renamed The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were one of the show’s first acts.
• Elvis made his first Ed Sullivan appearance on September 9, 1956, but Ed was not the host. While Ed recovered from a car crash, Charles Laughton filled in for one episode. 60 million viewers tuned in. Sullivan had booked Elvis for three appearances. After the second appearance, protests emerged across the country against rock & roll because of Elvis’ swiveling hips. CBS censored his dancing in his third appearance and showed him only from the waist up.
• At a time when black entertainers were not welcome on many TV shows, Ed Sullivan welcomed black artists to perform on his show from the start. His support of Nat King Cole helped the singer to land his own network TV variety show in 1956, the first African-American to do so. Cole appeared 13 times on The Ed Sullivan Show. The list of black entertainers appearing on Ed Sullivan reads like a who’s who of popular music from the boomer years, including: Pearl Bailey, Louis Armstrong, BB King, Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Sammy Davis, Jr., the Four Tops, The Temptations, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The 5th Dimension, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Ike and Tina Turner, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, and Marvin Gaye.
• Boomers were the rock & roll generation, and Ed Sullivan presented top acts like Bill Haley & His Comets, Buddy Holly, the Dave Clark Five, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Simon and Garfunkel, The Righteous Brothers, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, and many more.
• Señor Wences, the ventriloquist with his hand puppet, first appeared in 1950. The Italian mouse puppet Topo Gigio appeared later, in December of 1962.
By all accounts, the man himself had an ill temper and a prickly personality. He banned several acts from appearing again on his show because they did not do what he asked. One of the more famous run-ins was with Bo Diddley, who changed his song choice shortly before the live broadcast began. Diddly felt his choice would coincide with what his fans wanted to hear, but Sullivan and his producers saw that the song was longer than the original one planned and it would would force them to cancel two acts following Diddley’s performance due to time constraints. As a result, Sullivan never booked Diddley again.
Whether people liked the show and hated him, or vice versa, he was a top influencer in the early days of television, for boomers and beyond.
What memories do you have of watching The Ed Sullivan Show, boomers? Did you watch The Beatles perform?