Behind The Scenes Of The Ed Sullivan Show

Throughout the mid-20th century, The Ed Sullivan Show was one of the most popular programs on TV. It was loved by fans with consistently high ratings that allowed it to appear every Sunday night in a primetime spot. Today, the show has been off the air for decades, so we are taking a trip down memory lane to look at some memorable moments and behind-the-scenes info, some of which you may not have known.

The Show Was Originally Titled Toast of the Town

The show debuted on June 20, 1948, on CBS. The official title for the show’s first few years on the air was Toast of the Town, hosted by Ed Sullivan, a known New York entertainment columnist at the time.

The Ed Sullivan show sign on theatre front
Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

However, soon people realized that Ed Sullivan had the personality of a star and began calling it The Ed Sullivan Show. The network and producers recognized this and so, that became the official title of the show in 1955.

Ed Sullivan Was As Awkward As They Come

While most television hosts exude a sense of confidence and are charming in nature, Ed Sullivan was the complete opposite. He was awkward, kind of shifty, and was famous for messing up his lines throughout the program on some occasions. Initially, the show was given poor ratings by television critics.

Ed Sullivan and cast
Photo Credit: CBS Archives / Getty Images
Photo Credit: CBS Archives / Getty Images

But as it turned out, it was this type of fun freestyle that made watching Ed Sullivan so entertaining to viewers.

The List Of Bands He Aired Breakout Performances For Is Staggering

Sullivan became famous in North America for his ability to seemingly predict which new talent would end up becoming big stars. Many now-famous acts first got their big break on his show.

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Photo Credit: CBS Archive / Pexels
Photo Credit: CBS Archive / Pexels

Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, the show aired breakout performances for a number of legendary acts including Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Doors, and more. Keep reading for more about these artists’ memorable performances later.

The Show Aired Across Four Different Decades

While most TV shows are lucky to secure a few seasons of airtime, The Ed Sullivan Show experienced a 22-year run and ran over the course of four different decades. The show aired in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.

Ed Sullivan on set of show
Photo Credit: Alan Band/Keystone/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Alan Band/Keystone/Getty Images

It was one of the longest-running shows ever, setting the record for the longest-running variety show in US broadcast history. When it was finally canceled, television critic David Hinckley said, “It was, by almost any measure, the last great TV show.”

74 Million People Watched the Beatles Debut

In their debut performance on the show, the Beatles played their rock and roll music to a massive audience of nearly 74 million people who watched the program. Now, this performance took place in 1964, when the population of the U.S. was only 191 million people.

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Photo Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images

This shows just how big the show’s audience was at this point. “It’s one of our fondest, dearest pop culture memories,” said television critic David Hinkley.

It Aired More Than 1,000 Episodes

Now that you know the show aired for over 20 years, it’s likely no surprise to you that the show was able to produce over 1,000 episodes. When most people think of show longevity, they immediately think of shows like The Simpsons.

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Photo Credit: Steve Oroz/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Steve Oroz/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But in fact, The Ed Sullivan Show continues to have more episodes than The Simpsons despite it no longer being produced and The Simpsons still being on the air.

He Had A Few Recurring Acts

While Ed often booked completely new, world-famous acts in entertainment, there were a few acts and individuals that appeared on a recurring basis. Two of the most famous examples of this were his puppet sidekick Topo Gigio, a children’s puppet character on an Italian TV show, and a ventriloquist named Señor Wences.

Ed Sullivan performing on TV show
Photo Credit: CBS Archive / Pexels
Photo Credit: CBS Archive / Pexels

Both appeared frequently on the show. Ed once asked the Italian puppeteers of Topo Gigio to step out and take a bow, which they did, revealing their all-black wardrobe. The puppet even appeared on the final show, in 1971.

Ed Sullivan Helped To Raise Public Awareness About Mental Illness

On one of his shows in 1953, Ed and his guest spoke about the guest’s time in a mental institution. This episode and conversation were credited as a big help in the fight for America to become more aware of mental illness and drop the negative stigma.

Ed Sullivan and guest on show
Photo Credit: CBS Archive / Getty Images
Photo Credit: CBS Archive / Getty Images

Out of all he has accomplished, Sullivan was extremely proud of this fact, deeming it the most important episode in the entire first decade of the show’s airing.

Elvis’s Debut On The Show Still Holds TV Records

The night that rock and roll took over the American culture took place on September 9, 1956. This was the first time that superstar Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and the ratings that he received have never been matched.

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Photo Credit: CBS Archive / Getty Images
Photo Credit: CBS Archive / Getty Images

60 million people watched it and it received an 86.2% share, which means that 86.2% of people who watched TV in the U.S. that night were watching Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Every Type Of Entertainment Appeared On His Show

It wasn’t just musical acts that appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show— far from it. In fact, Ed played host to almost every type of entertainer you could ever think of.

Photo Credit: CBS Archive / Getty Images
Photo Credit: CBS Archive / Getty Images

Writers, comedians, dancers, circus acts, actors, and more were frequently featured on his show. Guests included The Supremes, Broadway actors, Bob Dylan, The Doors, and more. Jim Henson even made a total of 25 appearances on the show with The Muppets.

Ed Sullivan Could Read An Audience Unlike Anyone

In any kind of media (TV, radio, or anything else) the biggest key is delivering to your audience. And there was no one who knew what would and wouldn’t work for an audience quite like Ed Sullivan did.

The audience at an Ed Sullivan show
Photo Credit: CBS News via Getty Images
Photo Credit: CBS News via Getty Images

He seemingly knew what acts would take off and which ones the American audience would adore. You can’t put a price on intuition like that, which proved to be true in his 50 years of working in entertainment.

A Spot On His Show Was Nearly A Guarantee Of Superstardom

With the massive audience that his show generated every time it was aired (along with Sullivan’s aforementioned ability to find talent), anyone who appeared on the show dramatically increased their visibility. In 1954-55 the show had 12,157,200 viewers. In 1963-64 it garnered 14,190,000.

Ed Sullivan dances with guest on show
Photo Credit: CBS Archive / Getty Images
Photo Credit: CBS Archive / Getty Images

The Ed Sullivan Show was the biggest ticket in town and gave every guest who appeared a chance to go from a nobody to a star in just one night.

Wayne And Shuster Appeared On The Show The Most

With the show having well over 1,000 episodes, it was bound to have a few repeat guests. Numerous big acts had multiple appearances, but no one appeared more than the Canadian comedy duo Wayne and Shuster.

Wayne And Shuster comedy act
Photo Credit: CBS Archive via Getty Images
Photo Credit: CBS Archive via Getty Images

They appeared on the show as a live act an amazing 67 times (58, according to Frank Shuster), signing a one-year contract for $7,500 a show. Ed rarely made edits to their act, as they had agreed on.

Ed Sullivan Could Hold A Grudge Like No Other

While Sullivan’s show was the biggest ticket in town, certain people either never got an invite or didn’t get invited back after appearing. Sullivan had some big controversies with various artists and even years after the disagreements took place, he still wouldn’t allow them back or forget about the grudge.

Still from the Ed Sullivan show
Photo Credit: CBS Archive / Getty Images
Photo Credit: CBS Archive / Getty Images

Artists that Ed butted heads with include the Rolling Stones, The Doors, Jackie Mason, Bob Dylan, and Bo Diddley. Both artists and their managers must have been disappointed with never being invited back on the hit show.

Jerry Stiller And Anne Meara Found Fame On The Show

Actors Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show as the husband-and-wife comedy team “Stiller & Meara,” on April 7th, 1963. The duo was such a hit that they were invited back for a total of 36 appearances on the program throughout the ’60s and ’70s

Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller
Photo Credit: Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Years later, Stiller discovered a resurgence in his fame playing the cranky Frank Costanza on Seinfeld, a role that earned him an Emmy nomination. Anne Meara passed away on May 23, 2015. She was 85. Nearly five years later, Stiller passed away at the age of 93. They both had long, successful careers.

Beef With Buddy Holly

One of the most infamous of Ed Sullivan’s grudges was against Buddy Holly and his band, The Crickets. Sullivan thought the lyrics to their song “Oh Boy” were too suggestive for his audience and asked (or demanded) that they perform a different song.

Ed Sullivan and Buddy Holly
Photo Credit: CBS Archive via Getty Images
Photo Credit: CBS Archive via Getty Images

Holly refused though and, as retribution, Sullivan mispronounced Holly’s name when introducing the band and made sure that his guitar amplifier was turned off. Now that’s what we call petty!

He Provided Huge Opportunities For African American Entertainers

In a time when African American entertainers had little or no outlet to show their skills to the world, Ed Sullivan’s show offered black performers a platform. He helped launch dozens of careers such as The Supremes, James Brown, and Louis Armstrong.

Photo Credit: CBS Archive via Getty Images
Photo Credit: CBS Archive via Getty Images

Sullivan received criticism from some racist people in the industry but chose to continue supporting entertainers equally. He also made sure that nothing made it onto the show that would offend any of his audience members, even if it was culturally acceptable at the time.

CBS Butted Heads With A Few World-Famous Acts

In addition to Ed himself having some issues with guests, the network also had problems with some of the guests who appeared. There were numerous times when certain acts were censored and asked to change their songs or acts in some way. Some of the acts obeyed, while others disregarded the rules.

Morrison, Jim - Musiker, USA/ Auftritt, undatiert
Photo Credit: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Photo Credit: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Jim Morrison, the frontman of The Doors, was basically banned from the Ed Sullivan show after his first appearance.

Jim Morrison And The Doors

During The Doors’ 1967 performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” singer Jim Morrison was asked specifically not to sing one line from their hit song “Light My Fire.” He was supposed to replace the line “Girl we couldn’t get much higher” with the tamer version “Girl we couldn’t get much better.”

Jim Morrison and the Doors in promotional band photo
Photo Credit: Estate of Edmund Teske/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Estate of Edmund Teske/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When the time came to sing the questionable lyric, Jim Morrison acted in his typical rebellious format. Not only did he sing the original words, which referenced illegal drugs, but he did so loudly and in an exaggerated way. Sullivan was livid and the band was never allowed back on the show.

They Brought In Shows To Replace It, But They Didn’t Work

After decades of success, the Ed Sullivan show eventually started to fall in ratings. In 1964, 14,190,000 viewers were tuning in. But by 1970, that number was down to 11,875,500, although more households owned televisions. Soon, it was canceled.

Photo Credit: CBS Archive via Getty Images
Photo Credit: CBS Archive via Getty Images

Show producers tried numerous times with a bunch of different programs to catch the magic again, but the magic and success of The Ed Sullivan Show in its prime could not be matched, no matter what they tried.

The Ed Sullivan Theater

The theater where The Ed Sullivan Show was filmed, located in Studio 50, at 1697 Broadway in New York City, is now named after the television hosting legend. From 1993 to 2015, the studio was also the home of The Late Show when David Letterman was the host.

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Tim Boxer/Getty Images
Tim Boxer/Getty Images

Today, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is filmed there today. It was originally named Hammerstein’s Theatre when it opened in 1927.

A Long-Lasting Marriage

In 1926, Sullivan met Sylvia Weinstein. The couple dated on and off for three years before their 1930 City Hall wedding. Weinstein’s family was Jewish and opposed to her marrying a Catholic, so she initially told them that her fiance’s name was Ed Solomon.

Sylvia Weinstein and Ed Sullivan
Photo Credit: Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Her brother didn’t buy the ruse and figured out who she was really engaged to. The Sullivans were married for 42 years and welcomed a daughter named Elizabeth “Betty” Sullivan.

The Ritz Brothers

Moe Howard of “The Three Stooges” once said that Sullivan had a problem with his memory at times. As an example, Howard cited a time when the Stooges made a reoccurring appearance on the show and Sullivan had seemingly forgotten their names.

The Three Stooges on the Ed Sullivan Show
Photo Credit: CBS Archive via Getty Images
Photo Credit: CBS Archive via Getty Images

Instead, the iconic host accidentally introduced them as “The Ritz Brothers.” He corrected himself by adding the improvised line, “who look more like the Three Stooges to me.”

A Real Variety Show

Viewers were never certain what they’d see when they tuned in to watch The Ed Sullivan Show. One favorite guest was the flamboyantly flashy pianist Liberace.

Photo Credit: CBS Archive via Getty Images
Photo Credit: CBS Archive via Getty Images

During his appearances on the show (there were six performances total), Liberace performed a few songs, did some comedy bits, and even taught Sullivan to play the piano. The show included a highly-specialized symphony orchestra. The gig was extremely demanding, as they had to adjust to the wide variety of guest artists on the show.

Lions And Tigers And Bears, Oh My!

One example of just how much variety there was on the show was when animal tamer Clyde Beatty appeared. Beatty discovered during rehearsal that the stage was much too small for his tigers to perform safely. Sullivan convinced him to go ahead with the act, however.

Lion tamer circus performer
Photo Credit: Keystone-FranceGamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Keystone-FranceGamma-Rapho via Getty Images

During Beatty’s performance, he lost control of the tigers. Luckily, he was able to subdue them. Sullivan later said that this appearance was “the roughest act, I’ve ever featured.” No doubt that Beatty felt the same way, but a clip of this performance was included in a “best of” DVD compilation of “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Ed and Sylvia’s Daughter Betty

Ed and Sylvia Sullivan had one child, a daughter named Elizabeth or “Betty” after Sullivan’s mother, who died the same year that his daughter was born, in 1930.

Betty Ed and Sylvia Sullivan in family portrait
Photo Credit: Bettmann /Getty Images
Photo Credit: Bettmann /Getty Images

While Betty’s father continued having success in the spotlight, she lived a more reserved, normal life, choosing not to fall into the glamourous life of the entertainment industry. She later became a Navy wife and full-time mother. She passed away in 2014 at the age of 83.

Out On The Town

The Sullivan family was frequently spotted out on the town and reportedly ate out five nights a week. Among their favorite dining spots were Jimmy Kelly’s, Danny’s Hideaway, and the legendary Stork Club. They only visited the hottest spots, of course.

Sullivan family spotted out dining
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

As the talented host of the top show on television, Sullivan was a powerful figure in the entertainment industry and beyond. He was associated with celebrities, presidents, and Popes– his reach seemingly limitless.

He Was Truly A Star

Ed Sullivan received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960. His honorary star is located at 6101 Hollywood Boulevard. This is just one of the many awards that Sullivan received over the years — others include a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award.

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AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images
AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Sullivan was truly a pioneer in his field, especially in the show’s beginnings. He captivated viewers like no one before him, or after him.

Sullivison, The Documentary

Later, Suzanne Kay and Sullivan’s granddaughter Margo Precht Speciale created a documentary called Sullivision. The documentary explores the impact that the show had on Black culture and the Civil Rights movement.

Still image of Ed Sullivan and Margo Precht Speciale
Steve Oroz/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Steve Oroz/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Carroll told her daughter that “you could build a whole career around the exposure you got on Sullivan.” Other black artists who appeared on the show include The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Lena Horne, Smokey Robinson, Nat King Cole, and Ray Charles.

Jackie Mason’s Contract

We weren’t exaggerating when we said that Ed Sullivan held grudges, although this one might be justified. Comedian Jackie Mason had a contract worth $45,000 to make six appearances on the show. A notorious event led to the contract being tossed out in 1964.

Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images

Mason allegedly flipped Sullivan the bird, an act that’s been dubbed “the finger incident.” During the obscene motion, he said he’d been “getting lots of fingers tonight.” Then he began pointing, adding: “Here’s a finger for you and a finger for you and a finger for you.” Mason’s contract was canceled although he claimed that he had only been making a joke about fingers and hadn’t directed a rude gesture toward Sullivan. The two later made up.