Early Television Memories
The Ed Sullivan Show
Issue Date: August 11, 2009
City: North Hollywood, CA
Birth of Ed Sullivan
Legendary TV personality Ed Sullivan was born on September 28, 1901, in Harlem, New York City, New York.
Sullivan grew up in a musical household, with someone always singing or playing the piano. Sullivan was a gifted athlete, playing football, basketball, baseball, and track.
While in high school, Sullivan wrote sports news for The Port Chester Daily and was hired full-time after graduation. Over the next decade, he continued to work as a sports writer and editor for a series of different newspapers. Then in 1929, he was made the Broadway columnist for The Daily Mirror. During this time he would also do show business broadcasts on the radio. And in 1933, he wrote and starred in the film, Mr. Broadway.
Sullivan soon earned a reputation as a star-maker, while continuing to write, produce vaudeville shows, and organizing benefit concerts. He was also made the host of the Summer Silver Theater variety program in 1941.
In June 1948, Sullivan was hired to host a weekly Sunday night variety TV show called Toast of the Town (it would later be renamed The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967). Initially, Sullivan and his show received poor reviews, with some complaining he had no personality and was awkward. But Sullivan soon won over viewers as the “average guy” bringing them entertainment in their homes. Sullivan had an instinct about what people liked and managed to create an interesting balance for the show. An episode would usually include a vaudeville act, a comedian, a singer, a jukebox star, a theatre performer, an athlete, and a visit with Topo Gigio, the Italian mouse puppet.
Sullivan is often called a star-maker because many of the guests on his show became household names after their appearances. One of the most famed performances was that of Elvis Presley. In early 1956, Sullivan swore he’d never allow Presley on his show. However, after learning that Elvis’ performance on the Steve Allen Show drew higher audience ratings than his own, Sullivan had a change of heart. Presley was paid $50,000 for three shows, more than any entertainer had ever been paid to perform on a network variety show.
Sullivan then wanted to be the first to debut the next big sensation, and he found it – The Beatles. They made their debut in February 1964 and it was the most-watched TV program in history up to that time.
Soon Sullivan became a star himself, with comedians earning laughs for their impressions of him. He also inspired a song in Bye Bye Birdie and appeared as himself in the film adaptation.
In all, The Ed Sullivan Show ran for 24 seasons, totaling 1,068 episodes. Among the most notable performances were the Jackson Five, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, The Doors, and Ray Charles. You can read about other notable performances here. The Ed Sullivan Show has been called “the last great TV show,” and “one of our fondest, dearest pop culture memories.”
Despite its long-time popularity, The Ed Sullivan Show began to drop in ratings and was canceled in 1971. Sullivan was so upset over the canceling, he refused to do the final show. In 1974, Sullivan’s family discovered he had esophageal cancer, but didn’t tell him. He died weeks later on October 13, 1974. 3,000 people attended his funeral.