My comedy idol Fred Allen always seemed to have a bottomless reservoir of wisecracks for television impresario Ed Sullivan, who emceed the small screen entertainment program The Toast of the Town. My favorite is as follows: “What does Sullivan do? He points at people. Rub meat on actors and dogs will do the same.” (Sullivan, to his credit, fired back at Allen: “Maybe Fred should rub some meat on a sponsor.”) Ed would end up having the last laugh, however: from June 20, 1948 to June 6, 1971, the newspaperman and New York Daily News columnist best known for his Broadway observations in “Little Old New York” would preside over one of the medium’s most successful variety hours. Seven years after the premiere of Toast of the Town, in fact, the program would be renamed The Ed Sullivan Show in honor of its master of ceremonies.
TV critic John Crosby devoted a column to the Sullivan phenomenon by ruminating: “One of the small but vexing questions confronting anyone in this area with a television set is Why is Ed Sullivan on it every Sunday night?” Ed couldn’t sing. He couldn’t dance. He couldn’t act, and he certainly couldn’t tell jokes. But he didn’t really need to—his newspaper experience from over the many years had instilled in him an instinct for being able to spot talent, and that same experience had also cultivated friendships with entertainers who were only too happy to perform on his show. Sullivan was the most unlikely variety show host: he was stiff, awkward and was blessed with a gift for mangling syntax anytime the red light was on. All of this was part of the host’s Everyman charm; people watching at home would tune in and think “Hell…I could do that better than that.”
A joke attributed to Bob Hope, but a statement that really describes the modus operandi of The Ed Sullivan Show. Each weekly hour was structured like a vaudeville bill and featured a lineup of performers—you had big-name entertainers like singers, dancers, actors and comics…but there was also jugglers, acrobats and animal acts on hand. There was something for everybody on the program: if you didn’t like the opera singer or ballet dancer Ed was featuring that week, all you had to do was wait a bit and a popular singer or comedian would later emerge from the wings. (And if you were really desperate…there was always Topo Gigio.)
Truth be told: I don’t think I watched the program when I was growing up. I was only seven years old when Ed went off the air, and since much of my evening viewing habits would have been dictated by the ‘rents, that explains why I didn’t spend too many Sunday nights with the man (neither Ma nor Pa Shreve are fond of variety series). But I was thoroughly entertained by The Best of collection; things kick off with the first (and best) disc in the package, “Unforgettable Performances.” (This DVD is also being offered separately as a single-disc release for those people who’ve run out of couch cushions to generate the scratch needed for the big collection.)
(You can tell it’s live television when Satchmo comes on; while Pops normally carried his trademark hanky to mop the perspiration from his brow, he’s spritzing like a lawn sprinkler during his rendition of Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey.) There’s music for the younger crowd, too, in the form of appearances from the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, plus Motown acts like The Supremes and The Jackson Five. (And the highbrow stuff, too: Joan Sutherland performs a section from La Traviata.) In between material from everyone including the Muppets and Marlon Brando, Burnett presents a nice background history of the long-running series: its origins of getting on the air and some of its notable controversies (including those involving Elvis Presley and The Doors, and the “finger” incident with Jackie Mason). “Performances” runs an hour and a half, and while there are those who’d prefer that Sullivan Show releases focus on the presentations of entire telecasts, I have to admit I didn’t have too much of a problem with the clip format.
The second disc, “Ed Sullivan’s 50th Anniversary,” was actually telecast on the CBS Network on May 18, 1998 (the full title is “A Really Big Show: Ed Sullivan’s 50th Anniversary”). It sort of covers the same ground as the first disc as far as the history goes, but in its favor, it doesn’t repeat any footage from the “Performances” presentation. (It’s also hosted by Tom and Dick Smothers, so I was already set to cut it a bit of slack.) Still, you might want to save this disc for last to avoid any déjà vu.
(“Didn’t know I could do that, did you?” she asks the viewer…and I replied, “No, but I had a feeling you were going to do it badly.”) Fortunately, two comics who excelled at impersonating Sullivan, John Byner and Will Jordan (who made his Ed impression a cottage industry in films like I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Mr. Saturday Night), are included in this special as well as legends like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Milton Berle and Red Skelton.
I didn’t enjoy Disc 5 as much as I would have liked because as I have gotten older, I have a tendency to cringe when I see dogs forced to perform on their hind legs. (I also felt sorry for the antics of Zippy the Chimp—someone I do remember from my childhood since I owned a book about him and his wacky adventures—because he seems to wear this pathetic look on his face when he’s asked to perform; it’s as if he’s saying to himself, “Goodbye, dignity!”)
Disc 5 also features a famous moment from a May 19, 1957 telecast in which legendary lion tamer Clyde Beatty performed with a few of his jungle felines. Beatty had warned Ed during rehearsal that he thought the stage was too small to work with the lions, and come showtime, the cats got out of hand as a nervous Sullivan started introducing people in the audience to distract the home viewers from seeing the possible spectacle of Beatty becoming dinner. (“Walter Brennan, ladies and gentlemen! Eddie Arcaro! Art Buchwald! Tommy Steele! Who else do we have left?” Okay, I’m joking about Art and Tommy.) It’s a shame Star Vista didn’t see fit to include some of the animals micturating on live TV, either. (“Smokey the Wonder Horse has relieved himself…right here on our stage…” Yes, I’m kidding about that, too.)
It’s a little bittersweet because some of the performers interviewed are no longer with us; Flip Wilson, Phyllis Diller, Jackie Mason and Joan Rivers, to list a few (I was never a fan of Joan’s, but some of the footage featuring her on this set is quite funny…and she tells an amusing anecdote involving the Rolling Stones). I can understand why Steve Allen (who’s also left this world for a better one) was interviewed, seeing that his series aired in direct competition with Ed’s for several years (Steve tells the story of how he graciously allowed Elvis to appear on Sullivan for more money, and demonstrates he still doesn’t like rock ‘n’ roll) but the inclusion of Milton Berle is puzzling: Berle tells of his first meeting with Sullivan (okay, that’s relevant) and then goes into a lengthy version of when Presley first appeared on his program (not relevant). The comics have the best stories on this disc, including anecdotes from three first-rate Sullivan impressionists: Jordan, Byner and Rich Little. (Even Jack Carter and Shecky Greene’s impersonations of the host are pretty good.) The best revelation comes from Shari Lewis, who recalls that she was persona au gratin on Ed’s show the second she appeared on The Hollywood Palace (both Palace and Sullivan were quite competitive back then).
(I would have also enjoyed more Muppets and Totie Fields…hold on a sec…that’s a request from Andrew “Grover” Leal.) All in all, I was really impressed with the collection—and depending on your fandom, you can’t go wrong with the single-disc presentation or the whole enchilada.
“Before MTV, Sullivan presented rock acts. Before Bravo, he presented jazz and classical music and theater. Before the Comedy Channel, even before there was the Tonight Show, Sullivan discovered, anointed and popularized young comedians. Before there were 500 channels, before there was cable, Ed Sullivan was where the choice was. From the start, he was indeed 'the Toast of the Town'.” And if you want to pick a fight over this, take time to sit down with The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show before you do anything rash.