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Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!

Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan's America

Gerald Nachman
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 472
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  • Book Info
    Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!
    Book Description:

    Before the advent of cable and its hundreds of channels, before iPods and the Internet, three television networks ruled America's evenings. And for twenty-three years, Ed Sullivan, the Broadway gossip columnist turned awkward emcee, ruled Sunday nights. It was Sullivan's genius to take a worn-out stage genre-vaudeville-and transform it into the TV variety show, a format that was to dominate for decades.Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!tells the complete saga ofThe Ed Sullivan Showand, through the voices of some 60 stars interviewed for the book, brings to life the most beloved, diverse, multi-cultural, and influential variety hour ever to air. Gerald Nachman takes us through those years, from the earliest dog acts and jugglers to Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and beyond. Sullivan was the first TV impresario to feature black performers on a regular basis-including Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey, James Brown, and Richard Pryor-challenging his conservative audience and his own traditional tastes, and changing the face of American popular culture along the way. No other TV show ever cut such a broad swath through our national life or cast such a long shadow, nor has there ever been another show like it. Nachman's compulsively readable history, illustrated with classic photographs and chocked with colorful anecdotes, reanimatesThe Ed Sullivan Showfor a new generation.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94486-2
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[x])
  3. INTRODUCTION: Theme Music
    (pp. 1-16)

    You can tell a lot about a people by how they choose to amuse themselves. “The Ed Sullivan Show,” for millions of otherwise culturally deprived Americans, was the prime source of pure entertainment, television’s most powerful, influential show for 23 years, between 1948 and 1971.

    Popular culture is a quick, reliable barometer of the national spirit at a moment in time, and for nearly a quarter century “The Ed Sullivan Show”—and Sullivan himself—produced and nurtured America’s cultural life. Not just pop culture but haute culture, art with a capital A. The hot, the new, the old and cold,...

  4. PART ONE No-Talent Host Tames the One-Eyed Beast

    • CHAPTER 1 Out of the Paley-ozoic Ooze
      (pp. 19-32)

      When Ed Sullivan welcomed America to watch the premiere of a new CBS television show called “Toast of the Town,” at 9 P.M. on Sunday, June 20, 1948, World War II had been over for only three years, the boys were back, babies were booming, and everything was bountiful—bubblegum, nylon stockings, gasoline, jugglers, acrobats.

      In the spring of 1948, the country was in a contented, conservative mood following the turmoil of a world war, even if the memory of Hiroshima had been replaced by a silent mushroom cloud that hovered over the globe and instilled a chilly new interior...

    • CHAPTER 2 Battle of the Videoville Titans—Berle, Godfrey, and Sullivan
      (pp. 33-40)

      In the spring of 1948, Milton Berle had instantly grabbed the television ratings—and America—by the throat, and he refused to let go until the nation cried uncle, or in this case Uncle Milty. Berle’s early colossal impact on TV only underscores what the nonperforming, unpolished Ed Sullivan and his new, civilized variety show were up against.

      Berle set the tone and made up the rules in television’s crucial first years. His rise and fall on the tube were totally in synch with the trajectory of TV in America. Established comics like Jack Benny and Bob Hope were leery...

    • CHAPTER 3 A Live Broadway Column Every Sunday Night
      (pp. 41-51)

      In 1948, to be a syndicated New York gossip columnist was to enter into the literati as a major mover and shaker. Ed Sullivan wasn’t the first of his swaggering breed to be awarded a broadcast of his own. He followed in the footsteps of the gabby Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, and Jimmy Fidler of Hollywood, Irv Kupcinet out of Chicago, and Dorothy Kilgallen and Hy Gardner of New York. None of them were on TV as yet, but each one had a popular radio program with a large, avid following.

      Sullivan, in fact, was following in his own radio...

    • CHAPTER 4 The $375 Extravaganza
      (pp. 52-64)

      From his first days in New York City, Ed Sullivan had skillfully maneuvered himself into place as journalism’s ambassador to show business. He produced and hosted charity bashes and emceed theDaily News’s annual Harvest Moon Ball for 12 years, lining up names like Jimmy Stewart, Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Risë Stevens, Ronald Colman, Bill Robinson, and Lena Horne. Sullivan boasted that, to put on a benefit, “you had to be a bookkeeper, a showman, and a manager, and you didn’t have time to freeze”—precisely the gifts needed to produce a weekly TV show on a laughably tight budget....

    • CHAPTER 5 Very Critical Condition
      (pp. 65-78)

      Critics’ first and unanimous verdict on “Toast of the Town” was that its master of ceremonies, Ed Sullivan, was unable to master the ceremonies. One wrote, “If you did not know who Sullivan was and simply tuned into ‘Toast of the Town’ Sunday at 8 P.M., you might plausibly conclude that the star had suddenly taken ill and that the producers in desperation had pressed a security guard into a suit and shoved him onstage.”

      None of several rival New York newspapers were eager to plug a TV debut by a columnist from a competing paper, and not even Sullivan’s...

    • CHAPTER 6 The Magic of Sullivision
      (pp. 79-104)

      Approval of Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” came gradually and grudgingly, usually with a zinger directed at its hapless host. News magazines didn’t review the show for years, and theNew Yorkerdidn’t even deign to recognize its existence until December 18, 1954, when Philip Hamburger at last reviewed it, referring to “Mr. Ed Sullivan and his monstrously lavish, all-network, all-glamour variety show.”

      Hamburger noted its big bud get (“must be equal to that of many of the larger municipalities in this country. . . . Sullivan and his weekly guests spend money with an almost thoughtless and arrogant abandon”)...

  5. PART TWO How to Succeed in Show Business without Really Talking

    • CHAPTER 7 From Small-Town Sportswriter to Manhattan Sport
      (pp. 107-122)

      Everything in Ed Sullivan’s small-town past led him to June 20, 1948, steering him toward—and inadvertently grooming him for—his lifework as television’s ruling showman. He had always been a star-worshipper, first of sports figures and then of stage performers. He grew up in a house where, as in many homes in the early 1900s, families listened to opera singers and sang Irish ballads and the hit songs of the day around the parlor piano, the home entertainment center in the early 20th century.

      If upright Steinways, player pianos, and cranked-up Victrolas were the iPods of 1912—when Sullivan...

    • CHAPTER 8 He’s Just an Ink-Stained Broadway Baby
      (pp. 123-137)

      As he began his newGraphiccolumn, “Ed Sullivan Sees Broadway” (with Ed depicted staring sternly from under a sincere fedora), Sullivan was grumbling to himself. “I didn’t want the job,” he later toldTime, “but it was either take it or be fired. I took it but determined never to rap anybody the way Winchell did. I don’t think I had the right to pass final judgment on other people’s behavior.”

      In her 1950s column, “Behind the Bylines,” Peggy Mann wrote, “Unlike other columnists who slaved to see their by-line become a by-word on Broadway, Ed Sullivan looked upon...

    • CHAPTER 9 Toast of the Nation
      (pp. 138-147)

      After Sullivan took an abrupt turn off Broadway into television, it took about two years for “Toast of the Town” to become a nationwide Sunday night addiction. In today’s impatient hit-or-flop network climate, it would have been yanked off the air in six weeks.

      When the initial sponsor, the Emerson Radio and Phonograph Corporation, jumped ship after 13 weeks, mostly because of Sullivan’s onair bumbling, the show was rescued by Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury dealers, which increased Sullivan’s weekly talent bud get from $375 to a whopping $2,000, enough to keep Sullivan and coproducer Marlo Lewis from digging further into their pockets...

    • CHAPTER 10 It’s the World, on Line One
      (pp. 148-162)

      Although on the surface “The Ed Sullivan Show” just looked like vaudeville in a box, that was far too simple a reading of what went on every Sunday night at Studio 50. The workaholic ethic and authenticity that CBS’s Tony Miner and Ford’s Joe Bayne first saw in Sullivan were keys to the show’s success and longevity. The variety acts and the big names were major parts of the story, for sure, but the nuts and bolts—and major “gets”—largely came from Ed Sullivan. Away from the screen, he was not your Everyman next door, the stammering tongue-tied talker...

    • CHAPTER 11 Sacred Sunday Rite
      (pp. 163-177)

      Sunday was no day of rest for Ed Sullivan. For America during the 1950s and early 1960s, it was the day everyone else indulged in family rituals that usually concluded at 8 P.M. with the sacramental viewing of “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The show became an anchor for the American weekend, as essential as attending church, washing the car, and going over the bridge and through the tunnel to grandmother’s house for dinner. The fact that the show was on Sunday nights gave it a special meaning. “Sunday night on radio had been the biggest night,” Will Jordan pointed out...

    • CHAPTER 12 Not Quite All in the Family
      (pp. 178-196)

      While Ed Sullivan wrapped his seemingly invincible and enshrined show—and his public persona—in family values, he was, in his own home life, a peculiar role model. He was tightly bound to his wife, Sylvia, and their daughter speaks of him with affection, but Ed used to say, “Family life is overrated.” As it turns out, he had three families—one at home, one at the show, and one at theDaily News, plus a circle of girlfriends on the side.

      Sullivan’s grandson Rob Precht told biographer James Maguire, “He did not, on a personal level, enjoy family life.”...

    • Photographs
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER 13 Extended Family
      (pp. 197-210)

      Unlike Arthur Godfrey, who had his “friends,” or even Steve Allen, who had his “Man in the Street” gang, Ed Sullivan never had a snug on-screen television “family” unit. Over time, however, he adopted a small circle of regulars that viewers eagerly welcomed.

      There was Ed’s house hold TV pet, Topo Gigio, the cutesy-pie rubber Italian mouse that Sullivan played straight man to; Señor Wences, whose surreal act consisted of a hand puppet named Johnny (or “Yonny”), Wences’s fist turned into a face with lipstick and a tiny blond wig (whose catchphrase was “Deefeecul’ fo’ you—eesy fo’ me!”), and...

  6. PART THREE Inside the Star-Making Machine

    • CHAPTER 14 Herding Comedians
      (pp. 213-240)

      From the mightiest diva to the lowliest tumbler, each performer came equipped with his or her own set of neuroses, needs, idiosyncrasies, problems, and demands. They all required stroking and often had to be firmly dealt with. They could be nervous, truculent, childish, paranoid, and unmanageable—often all at once. Their nerve endings, as well as their careers, were on the line when they were at last invited to play “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

      A performer could be famous in five minutes or dumped back into oblivion. For Sullivan, it was just another show he had to get through.


    • CHAPTER 15 Backstage Life (and Death)
      (pp. 241-262)

      While it looked to viewers as if Ed Sullivan were winging his introductions, in fact he carefully wrote them all out himself, fussing with the wording right up to airtime. During Marlo Lewis’s day, a frenzied secretary typed out Sullivan’s last-minute changes and ran off new mimeographed scripts, often moments before the red “on air” light flashed.

      When the show’s running order was shuffled hours (or minutes) before airtime, secretary Susan Abramson told me, there was a low-key madness. “It was a good chaos, with your adrenaline pumping. Excitement! You’d look at your watch and say, ‘Oh, my God, we...

    • CHAPTER 16 Give My Regards to La Scala
      (pp. 263-275)

      The Antarctic had Admiral Byrd, Africa had Dr. Livingston, the Pacific Ocean had Ferdinand Magellan, and television had Ed Sullivan. Long beforeNational Geographicdiscovered TV, even before Marlin Perkins tamed the wild for our viewing plea sure, Ed Sullivan turned viewers into armchair explorers accompanying him on his daring exploits into the darkest corners of global entertainment.

      Peruvian foot jugglers, Romanian aerialists, Ugandan tribal dancers, Javanese acrobats, and Korean violin prodigies—all were part of an early experiment in “cultural diversity” designed by Sullivan. In trying to please everybody, Sullivan inadvertently created the mass television audience. He brought major...

    • CHAPTER 17 Elvis Has Entered the Building
      (pp. 276-295)

      In 2006, the History Channel named Elvis Presley’s appearance on Ed Sullivan’s show as one of the “ten days that unexpectedly changed America,” along with the Battle of Antietam in the Civil War, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, and Einstein’s letter to FDR explaining the atomic bomb. Pretty fast company for a TV variety show.

      If you believe in the Big Bang theory of pop culture, the moment Elvis first set blue-sueded foot on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” life in America—in the world—exploded, and everything was forever changed. But like most huge historical moments, it almost...

    • CHAPTER 18 Newspaper Wads at Fifty Paces—A Few Off-Camera Feuds
      (pp. 296-310)

      By the time Ed Sullivan came to TV in 1948, the celebrity radio feud had become a cherished tradition: Fred Allen took on Jack Benny, Charlie McCarthy duked it out verbally with W. C. Fields, and Walter Winchell did mock battle with bandleader Ben Bernie. Those were all in jest, but Ed Sullivan’s TV feuds—with Winchell, Hedda Hopper, Arthur Godfrey, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Mason, and Jack Paar—were for real. Ed never ran from a real fight, and he provoked several.

      Sullivan had long trained for his showbiz feuds, coming out of an era in the 1920s and 1930s...

    • CHAPTER 19 Embracing Blacks, Caving In to McCarthyism
      (pp. 311-328)

      Ed Sullivan’s old-fashioned up-by-the-bootstraps values were constantly at war with his populist sentiments. He was an FDR liberal but a show business conservative and something of a cultural mongrel: a middle-class Catholic wed to an upper-class Jewish woman, with an Italian ex–shoeshine boy for an assistant. In awe of black athletes and entertainers, he raised money to help pay for dancer Bill Robinson’s funeral and was on call to emcee benefits for any worthy causes promoting all races and creeds. The built-in subsidiary cause, of course, was promoting Ed Sullivan.

      In print, Ed flashed his liberal credentials at any...

  7. PART FOUR Rescued by Rock ’n’ Roll

    • CHAPTER 20 The Son-in-Law Also Rises
      (pp. 331-342)

      “The Ed Sullivan Show” splits neatly into two distinct eras, Before Precht (1948–1959) and After Precht (1960–1971), when Sullivan’s new son-inlaw, Robert Precht, replaced the show’s departing cofounder and co-producer, Marlo Lewis. After Precht, the show took on a decidedly more contemporary flavor: more rock and roll, edgier comedians, less opera and dance, and far fewer of the old-time vaudev illians that Sullivan and his original, but now late-middle-aged, audience so cherished.

      Although Precht brought a younger sensibility with him, Sullivan still ran the show and followed his own increasingly encrusted instincts. It took Precht a few years...

    • CHAPTER 21 “And Now—the Beatles!”
      (pp. 343-374)

      If people remember nothing else about “The Ed Sullivan Show,” they vividly recall seeing the Beatles—even if many eyewitnesses weren’t born yet. The Beatlecasts are such deeply entrenched landmark moments in the nation’s psyche that revisiting them is like watching replays of the Kennedy assassination or Bobby Thomson’s 1951 home run.

      When you go back and retrace the events that led up to the night of February 9, 1964, the show behind Sullivan’s first Beatles show reveals more than the old tapes themselves, which continue to be replayed ad infinitum in documentaries, movies, and pop tributes tracing a by...

    • CHAPTER 22 The Showman without a Country
      (pp. 375-396)

      Sullivan never again came close to approaching the exalted Beatles moments that became a generational touchstone. As someone wrote, the Beatles programs were a last hurrah for Ed Sullivan. His show never regained the prominence that the Beatles brought him, nor would so much attention from the entire nation again be focused on his doings.

      The Beatles changed “The Ed Sullivan Show”—elevating it, transforming it, then indirectly diminishing it. They altered all forms of pop music life: outdoor arenas became the new concert halls, rock journalism gained respectability, and concept albums were a sudden rage. Post-Beatles, the entire school...

    • CHAPTER 23 Echoes and Afterimages
      (pp. 397-412)

      Ed Sullivan, gone now 46 years, still remains on people’s minds. He’s a standard reference point in any discussion of mid-20th-century Americana. When a selection of excerpts from the Sullivan show played on XM satellite radio in 2008, with actual Sullivan intros, it was billboarded: “Ed Sullivan is still alive!”

      Like many a lost piece in the nation’s vast cultural puzzle, “The Ed Sullivan Show” was badly missed once it was gone, and it remains a phantom presence in most attempts to capture its essence. In routine tributes to “The Ed Sullivan Show,” such as PBS’s “The Pioneers of TV”...

  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 413-420)
  9. Interviews
    (pp. 421-422)
  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 423-424)
  11. Index
    (pp. 425-455)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 456-456)