Boomers Watched The Ed Sullivan Show

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?

Boomers (Mostly) Had One TV

The Boomer Generation is synonymous with the TV Generation. Television came into its own after the war, and boomers had a front row seat to its evolution. Throughout the boomer era and into the early 2000s, the sales of television sets continued to climb higher every year. A good part of those sales in the past three decades can be attributed to the purchase of additional TV sets for a single home. However, since the early 2010s, the reverse is true; less TVs are being sold compared to each previous year. The reason is obvious as streaming on other devices grabs a younger generation. Many younger people look at TV in the same way they might a cassette tape.

Let’s recap our shared TV history and see how we got here. Television has been around in practical terms since the mid-1930s, but the number of homes owning a TV was relatively small. In fact, by 1945, only 10,000 TV sets were purchased for home use in the United States. Yet, at the dawn of the Boomer Generation, things were about to change.

Development on TV technology was delayed during the war years as materials and factories were dedicated to the war effort. Now, after the war, it was full steam ahead for innovation and especially, manufacturing capabilities. These advancements helped greatly in selling TVs in a number of ways, perhaps the most important being a dramatic drop in price. A TV could cost upward of $500 before 1949, which was equivalent to a month or more salary for the average worker. In one year alone — between 1949 and 1950 — the price of a TV was cut by half or more. As a result, by 1950, nine percent of U.S. households owned a television. Ten years later, in 1960, that number jumped to 90 percent.

Westinghouse TV commercial, 1956:

Still, Mister Boomer wondered about the phenomena of families owning more than one TV. Mister B did not know anyone who had more than one. As such, TV watching was a family affair, much as radio listening was in the previous decades. In Mister B’s research, he discovered that some households did begin to own more than one TV as far back as the 1950s. From Mister Boomer’s point of view, these households probably had not only a higher income level, but houses that could accommodate an extra TV.

In Mister B’s estimation, there would be only two practical places for a second TV: a family room or a basement rec room. Mister Boomer only knew one person who had both a living room and a family room, and in that family’s case, their one TV was in the family room. Mister B did know several people who had finished basements, but in that era, most were described as rec rooms. They were intended for recreation, so they might have a ping pong table or all-purpose folding table where jigsaw puzzles could be assembled, card or board games played, and the like. No one Mister B knew had a TV in their basement. Boomers will recall that TV reception in a lower level was also a challenge. An extra antenna wire would be necessary to run outside the house to the antenna on the roof, and even then, rabbit ears on top of the TV set with molded wads of aluminum foil attached would certainly be a possibility.

What about the bedroom, you say? The idea that a bedroom is a sanctuary, a place to relax and unwind, is a relatively new one. In the boomer era, bedrooms were for sleeping. Boomers themselves often had desks to do homework in their rooms, however, Mister Boomer knew no one who had a second TV in their bedroom.

There is another consideration about bedrooms and second TVs that relates entirely to the evolution of TV and the Boomer Generation, and that is, late night TV. The Tonight Show first aired in 1952, initially with Steve Allen, then with Jack Paar as hosts. This may have contributed to the eight percent of U.S. households owning a second TV by 1959. Johnny Carson took over hosting duties in 1962, and by the mid-60s, color TVs began replacing black-and-white models. Johnny Carson joked about being in people’s bedrooms, so there was probably a correlation to late night TV that may have influenced buying habits.

In Mister Boomer’s experience, it was the early 1970s before he heard of anyone having more than one TV. Today it is reported that the average American household has four TVs. That number continues to drop as younger people, unaccustomed to TV viewing in the same manner boomers did, start families of their own.

How about you, boomers? When did your family first get a second TV? Did you ever have a TV in your own room before attending college?