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 prime-time spot. The show has been off the air for decades, so let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at some great things about the show, some of which you may not have known.
The Show Was Originally Titled “Toast of the Town”
The show debuted in 1948 and its official title for the first few years on the air was “Toast of the Town.” However, soon people had realized Ed Sullivan was the star here and began calling it the Ed Sullivan show, and 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. Although it was this type of fun and freestyle that made watching Ed Sullivan so entertaining.
The List Of Bands He Aired Breakout Performances For Is Staggering
He became famous in North America for his ability to seemingly predict what kind of stars would be big. Many now-famous acts first got their big break on his show. He aired breakout performances for a number of acts like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, the Doors, and more. We’ll learn more about these artists later.
The Show Aired In 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 70’s before finally being canceled, making it one of the longest-running shows ever.
Beatles Debut On His Show Was Watched By Nearly Half The Population Of The USA
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 USA was only 191 million people, which shows just how big the show was at this point.
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 600 episodes, falling far behind the Ed Sullivan Show’s 1,068.
An Aggressive Form Of Cancer Took His Life Quickly
Unfortunately, Ed Sullivan passed away due to cancer. But it wasn’t a long battle as his family actually only found out about his esophageal cancer in early September 1974 and by mid-October of the same year, he had already passed away. He was 73 years old.
He Had A Few Recurring Acts
While Sullivan often booked completely new, world-famous acts in entertainment all the time, 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 and a ventriloquist named Señor Wences, who both appeared frequently on the show.
Ed Sullivan Helped To Raise Public Awareness About Mental Illness
On one of his shows, 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.
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 9th, 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 USA that night were watching that show.
Every Type Of Entertainment Appeared On His Show
And it wasn’t just musical acts that appeared on the show — far from it. In fact, Sullivan basically played host to almost every type of entertainers you could ever think of. Writers, comedians, dancers, circus acts, actors, and more were frequently featured on his show.
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 American would adore.
A Spot On His Show Was A Guarantee Of Superstardom
With the massive audience, his show generated every time it was aired (along with Sullivan’s aforementioned ability to find talent), anyone who appeared on the show got a huge boost. “The Ed Sullivan Show” was the biggest ticket in town and could literally turn someone into a star from a nobody in one night.
Wayne And Shuster Appeared On The Show The Most
With the show having well over 1,000 episodes, as we mentioned, 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 an amazing 58 times.
Ed Sullivan Could Hold A Grudge Like No Other
While Sullivan’s show was the biggest ticket in town, certain people never got an invite or didn’t get invited back. 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.
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!
It Is Consistently Ranked One Of The Best Shows Of All Time
The show was not only extremely popular and one of the longest-running ever, it has also stood the test of time. “The Ed Sullivan Show” has been named one of the best shows from a number of different sites and magazines for its variety as a program and for launching so many amazing careers.
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.
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.
CBS Butted Heads With A Few World-Famous Acts
In addition to Ed himself having some issues with guests, so did the network. 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 of The Doors was basically banned from the show after his first appearance. We’ll find out more about this later.
It Was The Longest-Running Variety Show In U.S. History
Variety shows were and are some of the most popular out there, but this show was the king. It ran from 1948 to 1971, making it the longest-running variety show in history. Sullivan’s show also inspired numerous other individuals and shows to pop up, and his impact on the show business industry is still felt today.
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 and was soon 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 live. There were no second takes on Sullivan. During your 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.”
He Had A Twin Brother
Born Edward Vincent, Sullivan had a twin brother named Danny. Sadly, Danny only survived a few months. Sullivan’s sister also passed away young, when he was five years old and she was an infant. The family moved from Harlem to Port Chester, New York, after her death.
A young 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. The marriage never happened, tragically, as Bauer died of cancer when she was just 23. She was still a senior in college at the time.
A Long-Lasting Marriage
Sullivan later married Sylvia Weinstein. The couple dated 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.
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 an appearance on the show. Sullivan 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 total), Liberace performed a few songs, did some comedy bits, and even taught Sullivan to play the piano.
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 Sullivan had one child, a daughter named Elizabeth (“Betty”). She was born in 1930. Betty later became a Navy wife and full-time mother. She passed away in 2014 at the age of 83. Pictured above are Betty, left, Ed, and Sylvia in 1950.
Home At The Delmonico Hotel
The Sullivans lived at the Hotel Delmonico for years. Another suite at the hotel, located on Park Avenue in Manhattan, also served as Sullivan’s office. Lots of other history was made here, too — legend has it that Bob Dylan introduced marijuana to the Beatles there. The historic hotel was purchased by Donald Trump and converted into condominiums in 2001.
Out On The Town
The Sullivan family was frequently spotted out on the town. Among their favorite dining spots were Jimmy Kelly’s, Danny’s Hideaway, and the legendary Stork Club. Sullivan was a powerful figure and associated with celebrities, presidents, and Popes. Above: Sullivan and Sylvia at the grand opening of Jimmy’s.
Ed Sullivan Theater
The theater where “The Ed Sullivan Show” was filmed is now named for the hosting legend. From 1993 to 2015, it was also the home of “The Late Show” when David Letterman was the host. “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” is filmed there today. It was originally named Hammerstein’s Theatre when it opened in 1927.
Topo Gigio Was a Favorite Guest
As mentioned, the mouse puppet Topo Gigio was a favorite guest on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He was already popular in Italy when he first appeared with Ed Sullivan in 1963, and became an international sensation afterward. There was even a feature-length movie made featuring the mouse, “The Magic World of Topo Gigio.”
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, 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.'”
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.
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. The groundbreaking African American actress Diahann Carroll told her daughter Suzanne Kay that her appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” helped her career tremendously. Next, we will read about the documentary that Kay produced.
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.”
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. What exactly happened? Find out next!
The Finger Incident
During one of Mason’s appearances, Sullivan appeared (offscreen) and indicated by holding up two fingers that the comedian had two minutes remaining to wrap up his set. 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.” Want to guess how that went over?
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 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’ US invasion. Unfortunately, no one purchased the historic backdrop at auction and the piece was put up for sale privately.
Steve Spurrier Was Also A Guest
Was there anyone who didn’t appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show?” A certain University of Florida quarterback named Steve Spurrier showed up to meet the legendary host in a 1966 episode. You might know Spurrier from his later stellar career as a football coach. But why was he on the show as a college player?
An Apology For Being Left Out
During that year’s College Football All-American Team segment, cameras accidentally panned to Syracuse player Floyd Little as Steve Spurrier’s name was announced. Sullivan apologized later in the episode, saying he’d gotten an angry call from Florida about the mistake. During the apology, he also got Spurrier’s school wrong, but hey… who was paying attention?
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.