Tuesday, May 12, 2015

“Gee…Ed Sullivan…he’s my favorite human!”

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.

To explain why Ed Sullivan’s weekly show was a Sunday night institution for nearly a quarter of a century is not an easy task.  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.”

“When vaudeville died, television was the box they buried it in.”  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.)

Star Vista/Time-Life Entertainment is releasing a six-disc collection today entitled The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show, and thanks to my friend Michael Krause at Foundry Communications, I was able to latch on to a complimentary screener and peruse it this weekend.  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.)

“Unforgettable Performances” is hosted by Carol Burnett (no slouch when it came to the variety hour herself, and her appearance on Ed’s program in 1957 is showcased), and spotlights amazing turns from such performers as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald (who scats a duet of ‘S Wonderful with Sammy Davis, Jr.).  (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.

There’s much comedy featured on Disc 3, “The All-Star Comedy Special”—also previously telecast, from 1995—which offers up Mary Tyler Moore as hostess…and demonstrates that for all her talent, MTM should shy away from doing any Sullivan impressions.  (“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.

Disc 4 features more plate spinners, fire eaters and tumblers than you can shake a stick at in “World’s Greatest Novelty Acts” while Disc Number Five is devoted to “Amazing Animal Acts.”  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.)

The sixth and final disc is titled “Bonus Interviews,” and features extended footage with the celebrities interviewed for some of the previous disc presentations, like Ray Manzarek of The Doors and David Crosby.  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).

If there’s a nitpick in The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show it’s that I personally would have shelved the “Interviews” disc and went with material featuring Broadway performers—you get a taste of it on the first DVD (with sequences featuring Richard Kiley, Julie Andrews and Carol Lawrence), and I’d like to have seen a lot more.  (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.

Author David Bianculli, who wrote the invaluable Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, once remarked about The Ed Sullivan Show:  “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.


Mythical Monkey said...

About 25 years ago, I guess it was, I was in New York and went over to what was then called the Museum of Television & Radio and checked out one of the Beatles appearances on Ed Sullivan, the entire episode uncut.

As good as the Beatles were, what really stuck with me was the fact that between sets, Sullivan had on a guy doing card tricks. Card tricks! On black-and-white low-def television. The guy could have been shuffling blank cardboard for all you could see on the screen. And I thought, if this is what passed for entertainment in 1964, no wonder the Beatles hit it so big.

Caftan Woman said...

Sunday nights meant Ed Sullivan and Bonanza.

I was 7 when the Beatles appeared. They made no impression on me whatsoever. The next day at school they were all that everyone was talking about. It took me a while to remember "oh, those guys and everybody screaming". Apparently I was supposed to be excited. Oh, well.

I liked opera stars, celebrities in the audience, Topo Gigio and "for our Canadian friends", Wayne and Schuster.

ClassicBecky said...

Totie Fields! I haven't thought of her for a long time, and I just loved her. I'm with you -- ditch the interviews and put in the Broadway stuff. I remember seeing Anthony Newley singing "Who Can I Turn To" in full costume, and it was magic. As CW said, Ed was Sunday night -- I think it was more fun when everybody was watching the same show at the same time. Those were the good ole days!

Anonymous said...

Jackie Mason is still very much alive!!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Anonymous asked for additional time:

Jackie Mason is still very much alive!!

I sit corrected, then.