ED SULLIVAN: A broadcasting icon, in spite of himself

I've tried every way I know to smile into a camera,” he once confessed, “but I can't do it.”  How did he score triple the ratings of Oprah? 

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop


Almost all of us, whether we realize it or not, have the innate skill to pull off a TV appearance.  Not all of us have the talent to host an entire show.  But even there, a canny personality who recognizes his limits can, with hard work and a bit of luck, become a first-rate broadcaster.  Just look at Ed Sullivan.

Ed Sullivan, center, with four young men from Liverpool, England.  February 1964.  Original image at time.com.

Ed Sullivan, center, with four young men from Liverpool, England.  February 1964.  Original image at time.com.

No figure analogous to Sullivan exists today.  He was more than a TV host.  He was a cultural arbiter.  In his heyday, roughly one out of every eight Americans – that’s 12 percent of all people, not just households - watched The Ed Sullivan Show on a typical Sunday night.  Far more tuned in on special occasions, like the 1956 national debut of Elvis Presley, or the Beatles’ historic appearance 50 years ago this week.  

Comparing the success of weekly versus daily programs can be tricky - but hour for hour, Sullivan’s average Nielsen ratings in his prime years were roughly triple those of Oprah Winfrey in hers.

Granted, The Ed Sullivan Show did have the advantage of being in prime time, and being first on the scene.  When his broadcast, originally known as “Toast of the Town,” went on the air on June 20, 1948, television was still an electronic desert. 

Celebrities regarded the new medium as a demotion.  TV’s paltry audiences were deemed to be beneath the dignity of the biggest stars.  And the small screens, fuzzy images, harsh lights and pasty makeup were simply no match for the movies.  

CBS decided that Sullivan, who was already one of its radio commentators as well as one of New York’s two leading Broadway gossip columnists (Walter Winchell was the other), was just the man to turn that around. 

Sullivan moved with ease in the smoke-filled, bourbon-drenched barrooms of Manhattan café society.  He trolled for news from a regular table at the storied El Morocco nightclub, where the Citicorp Building stands now.  (His rival Winchell held court at the Stork Club, just a few blocks away.)  

Since he was already in a position to control what was written about them, persuading celebrity guests to appear on this new thing called television was probably one of the easiest jobs Sullivan ever had.  But there was one thing that did not come easy.  That thing was Ed Sullivan himself.  

Sullivan with Topo Gigio, the "little Italian Mouse," a character that was a regular on the program in the 1960's.

Sullivan with Topo Gigio, the "little Italian Mouse," a character that was a regular on the program in the 1960's.

Videos of Sullivan show a man stiff and self-conscious on live television.  He routinely missed his stop-mark when walking onstage.  His delivery was halting.  Some viewers thought he looked drunk.  The tension produced famous mispronunciations, most notably that “tonight we have a really big shoe" (instead of show). 

“His smile,” wrote Time Magazine in 1955, “is that of a man sucking a lemon.”  No wonder he acquired the nickname Old Stone Face.  

“I've tried every way I know to smile into a camera,” he once confessed, “but I can't do it.”

That inability clearly bothered Sullivan, despite his success.  The "Stone Face" moniker alone would have been enough to send a lesser man scurrying back to the newspapers.  

But it didn’t.  In fact, it may even have been liberating.  

While Milton Berle rattled off one liners on NBC and endured pies in the face while dressed in drag, Sullivan settled on a vastly different approach - tailor made for a career theater reporter.  It played not to his lemony smile, but to the size of his Rolodex - or what we would call today his “contacts database.”  

The Sullivan show enthusiastically embraced the breadth of the entertainment universe he inhabited.  A typical Sunday night might feature a big name singer, a Catskill comedian, a puppeteer, a European ballet troupe, a vaudeville piano player, a magician or juggler, a big band or folk singer, or a number or two from a hit musical.  

Today’s TV programs focus largely on one or two demographics, leaving others at the curb.  Sullivan’s success hinged on something more noble.  Whatever your interest or age, he had an act for you.  Generational tastes were cross-pollinated, even challenged, in a way that no longer happens. 

In that era, it clicked.  There was only one screen in the house.  And instead of drifting off to their own interests on Sunday nights, families actually gathered around that screen after dinner.  They watched Ed Sullivan, and were comfortably taken out of their comfort zone.

It is ironic that some of the cultural forces Sullivan helped unleash proved harbingers of his own demise.  The events of the 1960’s, and evolving technology, were making his job obsolete.  CBS cancelled The Ed Sullivan Show in 1971.  He died a few years later. 

An Ed Sullivan operating in today’s media environment would soon find his eclectic program sliced and diced to accommodate this target demographic or that.  His big tent approach would be focus-grouped to death.  (They’d even send in a media trainer to address his awkwardness.)  But that very awkwardness, and his ability to confront and even joke about it, as he did in this brief clip with Jerry Lewis, was precisely what endeared him to many millions.  

"His 'act' was no act at all," wrote TV producer Marlo Lewis.  "And the American people found that beguiling." 

 

FOR FURTHER READING:  "Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!  Ed Sullivan's America," by Gerald Nachman.   University of California Press, 2010.