Throughout the mid 20th century, The Ed Sullivan Show was one of the most popular programs on TV. It was loved by fans and its consistently high ratings and success allowed it to appear every Sunday night in a primetime spot. The show has been off the air for decades, so let’s take a trip down memory lane and 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. Its official title for the first few years on the air was Toast of the Town, hosted by Ed Sullivan, known as a New York entertainment columnist at the time.
However, soon people had realized Ed Sullivan was the star here 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.
But as it turned out, it was this type of fun and free style 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.
Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, the show aired breakout performances for a number of legendary acts like 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 get a few seasons of airtime, The Ed Sullivan Show experienced a 22-year run, but actually appeared in four different decades. The show aired in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.
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.
This shows just how big the show 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, this is probably no surprise, but the fact that a single show was able to hit 1,000 episodes is crazy. When most people think of show longevity, they go to shows like The Simpsons.
But in fact, The Simpsons has only aired around 640 episodes, falling far behind The Ed Sullivan Show’s 1,068 episodes, to put it into perspective.
An Aggressive Form Of Cancer Took His Life Quickly
Sadly, Ed Sullivan passed away due to cancer. But it wasn’t a long battle, as his family only found out about his esophageal cancer in early September 1974. By the time the x-ray revealed the cancer, it was in an advanced stage.
In an effort to protect his mental health, his doctors and family never told Sullivan he was only expected to live for a few more months. By mid-October of the same year, Sullivan had already passed away. He was 73 years old.
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.
Both appeared frequently on the show. Ed 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 believed to be a big help in the fight for America to become more aware of mental illness.
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.
60 million people watched it and it received an 86.2 percentage share, which means that 86.2% of people who watched TV in the U.S. that night were watching the 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 basically played host to almost every type of entertainer you could ever think of.
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 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 Sullivan did.
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.
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.
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.
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, as the husband-and-wife comedy team “Stiller & Meara,” made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on April 7th, 1963, and were such a hit that they made a total of 36 appearances on the program throughout the ’60s and ’70s
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 died at the age of 93.
Beef With Buddy Holly
One of the most infamous of these 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.
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 and his show helped tremendously. He helped launch dozens of careers such as The Supremes, James Brown, and Louis Armstrong.
Sullivan got criticism from some, but just ignored it and continued to support everyone 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 where 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.
Jim Morrison, the frontman of The Doors, was basically banned from the show after his first appearance. We’ll find out more about this later.
They Brought In Shows To Replace It, But They Didn’t Work
After decades of success, the show eventually started to fall in the 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.
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.
Yet Another Feud
The now-legendary guitarist Bo Diddley was another major musical guest on Ed Sullivan’s show. When Ed asked him to perform his song “Sixteen Tons,” Diddley accepted. But when he was backstage waiting to go on, he saw “Bo Diddley. Sixteen Tons” on the setlist.
Diddley mistakenly thought that was a request to play both songs (as “Bo Diddley” was also a song title) and Sullivan was furious about it. He reportedly said that Diddley wouldn’t make it six months in the business.
George Carlin’s First Appearance
Comedian George Carlin was an 11-time guest. He first appeared when he was just a fresh-faced 30-year-old, well before his comedy took a more political turn. Carlin later wrote of the experience in his autobiography Last Words: A Memoir. “The Ed Sullivan Show’s worst weapon of torture was that it was airing live. There were no second takes on Sullivan.
During their set, Ed would stand onstage over to stage right. Out of camera range but onstage. So the entire audience never watched the comic. They were watching Sullivan to see if he would laugh. And he never did. Playing comedy to the Sullivan audience was agony. You’d get more laughs in a mausoleum.”
In his younger years, Ed Sullivan was engaged to an Olympic swimmer named Sybil Bauer. She won the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke in the 1924 Summer Olympics.
However, the marriage never happened. Tragically, Bauer died of cancer when she was just 23-years-old. She was still a senior in college at the time. In 1976, she was posthumously inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an “Honor Swimmer”.
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.
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 that the Stooges made a reoccurring appearance on the show and Sullivan had seemingly forgotten their name.
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.
During his appearances on the show (there were six performance total), Liberace performed a few songs, did some comedy bits, and even taught Sullivan to play the piano. The show even had 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.
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 (“Betty”) after Sullivan’s mother, who died the same year that his daughter was born, in 1930.
While her father continued having success in the spotlight, Betty 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.
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.
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.
Today, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is filmed there today. It was originally named Hammerstein’s Theatre when it opened in 1927.
Years before he became a family man, Sullivan reportedly took his rivalry with another columnist (Walter Winchell) a bit too far at the Stork Club.
In a biography of the television star, biographer Jerry Bowles wrote that Sullivan once “grabbed Winchell, held his head firmly in the bottom of a urinal and ‘gleefully pumped the flush lever’ while his victim uttered ‘sobbing noises.'” That’s quite a visual of one of the most respected television hosts in the business!
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.
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.
The Show’s Impact On Civil Rights
As mentioned previously, Ed Sullivan featured many African American artists on his show despite protests from advertisers and the general public. There were very few public figures that fought to breakdown racial barriers in mainstream television as Sullivan did.
The groundbreaking African American actress Diahann Carroll told her daughter Suzanne Kay that her appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show helped her career tremendously. Carrol told Essence, “Ed was one of those [special] human beings. It was a glorious time.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
A Piece Of Sullivan History For Sale
The backdrop that hung on the stage behind The Beatles during their debut 1964 performance was signed by all four members of the band and eventually made its way to Rockaway Records in Los Angeles.
The shop is known for its rare and valuable Beatles collector items. Store owner Wayne Johnson presented the piece at a Beatles auction in 2014, with a starting price tag of $550,000. So how much did the backdrop sell for?
Surprising Sullivan No-Sale
The Beatles-signed piece of the backdrop was expected to fetch anywhere from $800,000 to $1 million. The band had even drawn caricatures of themselves on it. The owner said he chose to auction it because he didn’t expect to be alive for the 75th anniversary of the Beatles’ U.S. invasion.
Unfortunately, no one purchased the historic backdrop at the auction instead later, the piece was put up for sale privately.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson
Bill Robinson was the highest-paid Black performer in the first half of the 1900s. Even so, he was penniless when he died, and Sullivan stepped up to pay for the artist’s funeral.
He had been a longtime fan and friend, and when talking about Black performers was quoted as saying: “some of the greatest hits I’ve had on Toast of the Town have been the venerable W.C. Handy, Bill Graves,…Bill Robinson of course, tap dancing marvel Bunny Briggs, and one of the greatest comedy geniuses of modern show business, Judge Pigmeat.”
Sullivan Named His Beloved Dog After Robinson
Sullivan even named his family’s beloved dog “Bojangles” after his dear friend Bill Robinson. Here’s one family shot from 1955 that shows Sullivan with wife Sylvia, daughter Betty, and the prized pooch poodle, all relaxing at home together.
The family lived in hotel suites at the Hotel Delmonico and the Hotel Astor, in Times Square. Sullivan also rented a quite next door to the one his family would stay in, to be used as his office.