There was a time in America in the mid 20th century when people looked forward to Sunday nights because of The Ed Sullivan Show. For more than two decades, the leading variety show featured different entertainers, from vaudevillians and comedians to novel singers and the biggest names in sports and rock and roll. It has forever changed the face of American television.
The show was often the ticket to a golden opportunity for any performers. The Ed Sullivan Show never failed to have high ratings and it will always be considered as one of the greatest TV shows of all time. Its last show telecast was on March 28, 1971.
The Show Was Initially Called “Toast of the Town”
In 1948, CBS created its first variety show and the network executives hired Ed Sullivan, a sports reporter, and master of ceremonies of vaudeville revues and charity events. The show was the first of its kind as they ventured into a new format that merged vaudeville with television. They called it “vaudeo” and it was dubbed The Toast of the Town. You could say that the executives aimed for a show that would be highly regarded and well liked.
The debut featured Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, as well as a ballerina, a pianist, a boxing referee, and a group of firemen who sang. The inaugural show gave the audience a taste of the diversity that has kept viewers entertained throughout the years. Although Ed was criticized with his stiff hosting manner, it was evident that he was the star so, in 1955, they changed the title to The Ed Sullivan Show.
Ed Sullivan Was as Awkward as They Come
Just as the show was a trailblazer, so was Sullivan’s style of hosting. Most television hosts have that charming aura and confidence that would make the audience sit up and listen, but Sullivan had none of that. He had a rigid appearance and was unnatural before the camera. He was often lambasted and made fun of for his botched lines and awkward vocal mannerisms, including his famous “reeeeeelly big shew/shoe” line that has been parodied by many.
But it was this novelty and uniqueness that made Sullivan entertaining to watch, and in spite of the criticisms, the show did well. Prior to having his own show, Sullivan worked as a sports and entertainment journalist. His column in New York Daily paved the way for him to be an MC for vaudeville revues.
The Beatles' Debut on His Show Was Watched By Nearly Half the Population in the U.S.
On February 9, 1964, most Americans got exposed to The Beatles and their rock and roll music. It was the height of Beatlemania and there were 50,000 requests for 700 seats. The Beatles’ performance of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the most highly watched episode in a single show in television history. It was reported to have an estimated audience of 74 million in a time when the United States had a population of 191 million people. In 2014, a piece of their set during this particular performance was auctioned off.
Sullivan had the Beatles sign for three appearances. Due to the overwhelming response of the audience and extremely high ratings, Sullivan began inviting icons of the 1960s such as The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, and Marvin Gaye.
The Amount of Bands That Played on the Show Is Staggering
While Sullivan was not the kind of host that exuded personal charisma and screen presence, he was known for being able to uncover and showcase talent. He booked acts from virtually every type of entertainment—comedians such as Bob Hope, Buster Keaton, and Joan Rivers; classic performers such as Rudolf Nureyev, and singers such as James Brown, Sister Sourire the Singing Nun, and Janis Joplin.
He could pinpoint which stars would make it big. In fact, he was instrumental in giving big breaks to today’s legendary artists and acts. Many of these acts, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, and the Doors, had their breakout performances on the show.
The Show Aired Throughout Four Different Decades
The Ed Sullivan Show is considered to be the longest running variety show in television history. It aired from 1948 to 1971, which means that it went through four different decades—the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The show has somewhat become a Sunday night institution and has changed the landscape of American TV.
The show was the stage for iconic performances by artists from comedy, novelty, politics, sports, opera, pop music, rock ‘n’ roll and more. Some of the artists would soon make huge names for themselves in the music world. For almost a quarter-century, Sullivan introduced more than 10,000 performers and has truly entertained audiences right in their homes.
The Show Aired More Than 1,000 Episodes
Since The Ed Sullivan Show had a 23-year run, it should come as no surprise that it aired over 1,000 episodes—1,068 to be specific. When you think of longevity, The Simpsons comes to mind but the long-running animated comedy only had around 600 episodes. It’s amazing to think of how long both of these shows captured the hearts of viewers.
One can only think of how many entertainers have graced The Ed Sullivan Show stage and the various kinds of talented people there are all over the world. The Ed Sullivan Show was a variety show and it did show variety throughout the years, from sports to puppet shows to opera. It had almost everything.
An Aggressive Form of Cancer Took Ed Sullivan’s Life Too Soon
The iconic host passed away on October 13, 1974, three years after his final telecast. He was 73 years old and he died from esophageal cancer. It was in September of the same year when his x-rays showed that he had the advanced form of cancer and doctors gave him such a short timeline to live. But he was unaware of this because his family decided to keep the diagnosis a secret.
Ed died five weeks later at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. Sullivan will always be a prominent figure in American broadcasting. He was a mover and shaker who was not afraid to try new things and to push boundaries. The star maker has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He Had a Few Recurring Acts
The Ed Sullivan Show stage often introduced new but world-famous acts, but there were some acts that had recurring appearances. After Sullivan welcomed entertainers from Metropolitan Opera, Roberta Peters, the famous coloratura soprano, appeared 40 more times. The show also ushered in film and Broadway legends such as Pearl Bailey who appeared 23 times.
Sullivan loved the Borscht Belt comics so it was not a surprise when he booked the following funny men several times—Alan King with 37 appearances, Myron Cohen with 47, and Jack Carter 49 times. But Sullivan also had specialty acts that frequently appeared on the show. He had a puppet sidekick named Topo Gigio, a marionette mouse with an Italian accent and Señor Wences, a ventriloquist with a talking box.
Beef With Buddy Holly
One of Ed’s well-known conflicts was with Buddy Holly and the Crickets. The band’s first appearance went smoothly but it was the second appearance that did not sit well with Sullivan. In 1958, the host thought that the lyrics to their song, “Oh Boy,” were too suggestive and he asked them to substitute it with another song instead. Holly refused and reasoned out that he had already informed his friends that the band would be singing “Oh Boy” for them.
Sullivan, who was not used to being turned down or having his demands questioned, decided to let them pay. He mispronounced Holly’s name during the introduction and had Holly’s guitar amplifier turned off. Onstage, he commented that that band did not seem to be too excited on the show. Ouch!
Ed Sullivan Helped Raise Public Awareness About Mental Illness
In an interview with Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) on June 1958, Sullivan revealed what he thought was the most important episode in the show’s first ten years. It was an episode in May of 1953 when they had a tribute to Broadway director, Joshua Logan. After asking Logan how he thought the show was doing, the director said it was becoming “one of those and-then-I-wrote shows.”
Sullivan gracefully accepted this criticism and asked some tips on what could be done. In response, Logan spoke about his time in a mental institution. Their conversation opened the eyes of the viewers about mental illness. Sullivan believed that the episode played a role in further educating the public, which in turn, caused studies in advancing the treatment of mental illness, including the abolishment of a law about the treatment of the mentally ill in Pennsylvania.
Elvis’ Debut on the Show Still Holds TV Records
The King of Rock and Roll’s first appearance on the show broke television records with unmatched ratings as 60 million people viewed the episode, which meant that it had 86.2 percent of the television audience. Sullivan previously swore that he would not book Elvis Presley because his swiveling pelvic motions were thought to be obscene and not fit for a family audience.
However, Presley became so famous that it was hard to ignore him. So, in 1956, he was signed for three appearances. Sullivan missed Presley’s first appearance as he was recovering from an automobile accident. But Sullivan came to know Presley over time and declared that “The King” was a decent and fine boy.
Every Type of Entertainment Appeared on His Show
The show served every type of entertainment that there was at that time. There were writers and poets who hogged the spotlight as well as trained dogs, tigers, and bears. Circus performers, ballerinas, sports stars, and Shakespearean actors took the stage too. It also featured comic acts, which Sullivan considered to be an entertainment that allowed the country to let go of tension and to learn to laugh at itself.
Sullivan also invited acts for children, in which Topo Gigio was introduced, and whom he had occasional interplay with. Of course, the musical acts were popular but even that was as diverse as could be.
Ed Sullivan Could Read an Audience Like No One Else
Just as Sullivan knew how to locate talent, he also had the pulse for what was hot and appealing to the viewers. He possessed a sharp insight into what distinct demographic segments his audience wanted. And because he knew how to uncover talent and discern which acts would work and which ones wouldn’t, he was able to deliver to his audience.
Plus, with a show as successful as The Ed Sullivan Show, he could book almost anyone he wanted. Sullivan also had a knack for capitalizing on the obsession of teenage girls and boys, thus rock and roll was brought to the show.
A Spot on His Show Was Almost a Guarantee of Super-stardom
Sullivan was a star maker, not only because he had a keen eye for talent but also because a lot of performers who appeared on his show became household names. Exposure on The Ed Sullivan Show was an opportunity to get a ticket to stardom. Anyone could go from being a nobody to being a star in just one night. In fact, the show was instrumental in giving breakthroughs for the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
Presley was already making waves and had made several TV performances but it was his breakout performance on The Ed Sullivan Show that seemed to set his fame skyrocketing. He caught the attention of over 82% of the TV viewing audience. What happened with Presley only goes to show that even if you’d played a lot of other venues, you hadn’t really “made it” until you had been on Sullivan’s show.
Wayne and Shuster Appeared on the Show the Most
The Canadian comedy duo formed by Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster appeared most frequently throughout the show’s run. They originally signed a one-year contract to appear for $7,500 per show, which included an agreement that Sullivan would not alter or cut their sketches. Said sketches often ran about 12 minutes or longer. Sullivan loved the duo so much that he repeatedly renewed their contract and, as such, they appeared on the program a full 58 times, which was a record for any performer.
The duo were active professionally from the early 1940s until the 1980s. They first performed as a live act, then on radio, later as part of The Army Show to entertain the armed forces in Europe. Eventually, they landed on television.
Ed Sullivan Could Hold a Grudge Like Nobody Else
The Ed Sullivan Show did not come without bad blood and controversies. While many entertainers were privileged to have stood on the show’s stage, there were also artists that never even set foot on the show. Others did not get invited back. Sullivan got into some feuds with different artists and he was known for keeping a grudge for a long time.
Ed Sullivan was the type of man who was easily offended if he felt that he had been stonewalled. Some of the artists he had conflicts with included Bo Diddley, Jackie Mason, Walter Winchell, Frank Sinatra, Jack Paar, and Jim Morrison.
It is Consistently Ranked as One of the Best Shows of All Time
For a show to last for four decades, you can say that it’s not just because it is popular but because it also offered to give the audience excellent programming quality. The Ed Sullivan Show served the viewers novelty, uniqueness, and a mishmash of entertainment. It gave us the biggest and most current names in the music industry.
Years after its final telecast, media and audiences alike are still talking about it. The show has been included in TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. It came in at number 15 in 2002 while in 2013, The Ed Sullivan Show ranked number 31 in TV Guide Magazine’s 60 Best Series of All Time.
The Show Gave Big Opportunities to African-American Entertainers
Sullivan gave opportunities to African American entertainers and appreciated their talent so much that he defied pressure to exclude them and avoid the interaction. The host showcased various black entertainers such as Duke Ellington, Richie Havens, Louis Armstrong, Richard Pryor, Tim Moore, and many Motown acts like The Jackson 5. He also helped launch many careers, including those of The Platters, James Brown, and The Supremes.
Sullivan was criticized when he kissed Pearl Bailey on the cheek and shook Nat King Cole’s hand, but he didn’t mind and had to even ward off his hard-won sponsor’s fury because they did not like how he was interacting with his African-American guests.
CBS Butted Heads With a Few World-Famous Acts
Although Ed had some personal conflicts with some of the show’s guests, the network itself also had issues with a few of them. Some musicians were asked to remove a certain word or lines to their lyrics or change their songs entirely. Most of the acts abided by the rules but others ignored them. On more than one occasion, the artist’s ire was made abundantly clear in their performance. Jim Morrison of The Doors was one of those who did not relent to the rules; same goes for Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones.
Jagger was asked to change the titular lyric of Let’s Spend the Night Together to “let’s spend some time together.” But Jagger rolled his eyes and clearly emphasized and drew out the word “time” to show his insubordination. Sullivan was clearly angered by the act.
The Longest-Running Variety Show in U.S. TV History
The Ed Sullivan Show is definitely an institution unto itself. Shown for 23 years from 1948 to 1971, it has set a record for being the longest-running variety show in US history. It was like MTV, The Comedy Channel, The Tonight Show, and Bravo all at the same time. Back when cable did not exist, The Ed Sullivan Show gave you the choice to be entertained however you liked it because it had every spectrum of entertainment.
The show was a pioneer on so many levels and in so many ways; it discovered and baptized young singers, bands, comedians, and other personalities who are now household names.
They Brought in Replacement Shows, But None Worked
Everything has its end and so it was with The Ed Sullivan Show. After four successful decades, their ratings slowly dipped and fell. The birth of cable and new technology gave people immediate access to any programs they wanted. The Vietnam War also caused shifting value systems and the show was no longer the demographic mediator it used to be.
The Ed Sullivan Show was soon canceled and the producers tried to replace it with many different shows to recreate its magical appeal, but they discovered that no program on American television could equal the success and create the depth and diversity of The Ed Sullivan show.
Yet Another Feud
Another infamous feud that Sullivan had was with the now-legendary guitarist, Bo Diddley. He was asked to perform Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song, “Sixteen Tons.” Diddley accepted the proposal. But, when he got on stage, he performed “Bo Diddley” (a song title after his own name) and Sullivan was livid. He reportedly said that Diddley was the first black boy to cross him and that he would not last six months in the business.
As the story goes, however, Diddley thought he was also requested to play the Bo Diddley song when he saw backstage a setlist that read “Bo Diddley. Sixteen Tons.” He thought it meant he had to play the two songs. An honest mistake to make.
George Carlin's First Appearance
The noted stand-up comedian, actor, and social critic, George Carlin, first appeared on the show in the 60s when he was 30 years old. The Ed Sullivan Show was trying to modernize the series and had been introducing a new generation of comedians. George Carlin was one of them. He performed “The Hair Piece” and quickly gained popularity.
Carlin disclosed his experience on the show in his autobiography and said that the show’s live format was torture because it meant that there were no second takes. Sullivan would also stand onstage to the right and people would watch Sullivan’s reaction to the performance, almost as if it should be a gauge of their own. Carlin said that the stiff Sullivan would never laugh, making the whole thing mighty awkward.
Sullivan Had a Twin Brother
Edward Vincent Sullivan was born on September 28, 1901, to Peter Arthur Sullivan, a customs house employee, and his wife Elizabeth. But Ed was not an only child. He had a twin brother named Danny, who sadly, lived for only a few months. He also had a sister who died when she was just an infant. He was only five years old then.
The family moved to Port Chester, New York after her death. Ed grew up loving music, as there was always someone in his family playing the piano or singing. He was also a gifted athlete in high school. He was a guard in basketball and he played halfback in football.
Sylvia Bauer was an Olympic swimmer who won the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke. She was also engaged to a young Ed Sullivan, who was still a New York writer at that time. Bauer was even set to retire to focus on her future family. But unfortunately, before they could get married, she died of cancer during her senior year of college when she was just 23.
In 1967, Bauer was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an “Honor Swimmer.” She was buried at Mount Olive Cemetery in Chicago. The future television host would later find the woman he would marry and spend 42 years of his life with.
A Long-lasting Marriage
When Sullivan started working for news organizations, including The Morning Telegraph and The Associated Press, he met Sylvia Weinstein and began dating her. Weinstein’s family was Jewish and was vehemently opposed to dating Catholics. Weinstein initially told her family that she was engaged to Ed Solomon, but her brother didn’t believe her and found out that she meant Ed Sullivan.
The pair had an on-again, off-again relationship for three years because both families were strongly against a Catholic-Jewish marriage. But they were finally married in 1930 in a City Hall ceremony, and about a year later, they welcomed their baby girl named Elizabeth.
The Ritz Brothers
Sullivan was often criticized for missing his lines and bungling his introductions. Moe Howard from The Three Stooges confirmed this. He narrated a time when The Stooges made an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and they were surprised when Sullivan introduced them as “The Ritz Brothers.” Sullivan improvised when he realized his mistake. He corrected himself by saying that they looked “more like The Three Stooges to me.”
Other artists also noticed Sullivan’s forgetfulness. Diana Ross, who often performed with the Supremes, recalled that Sullivan could not remember their names and always called them “the girls.” In 2012, Joan Rivers disclosed that Sullivan was suffering from dementia during his later years of life.
A Real Variety Show
Watching The Ed Sullivan Show was definitely a Sunday night routine to get your entertainment fix. Viewers were mostly in for a surprise every Sunday night since you would never know what to expect, just like one of the all-time favorite guests, Liberace. Liberace was a vivacious, flamboyant pianist who appeared on the show six times.
On his first appearance in 1954, he did a comical introduction and made fun of his snazzy outfit. He then played one of his mom’s favorite compositions, “Warsaw Concerto.” He also did a funny number with Patti Page and sang about his unsmiling demeanor. In another appearance, Liberace taught Sullivan how to play the piano and performed a duet of “Cement Mixer” with opera singer, Rise Stevens.
Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!
The show also featured circus act and animal entertainment such as animal trainer and lion tamer, Clyde Beatty, and his lions and tigers. Beatty was a circus showman with a “fighting act” routine. He would go inside a cage with wild animals and he would bring a whip and pistol cinched on his side.
This scene was to present his courage and mastery over the beasts. Sometimes he would have around 40 lions and tigers. On May 19, 1957, Beatty had already complained at the rehearsals of the show that the stage was too small and could be dangerous. But he was told to push through with the act...
During the performance, Beatty lost control of the act as he was being chased by one of the animals. Sullivan took action to take away the audience’s attention from Beatty and he introduced some of the celebrity guests. Beatty fired blank cartridges to restrain the lions and luckily, there were no injuries sustained by him or his animals.
Sullivan considered this as the roughest act he’d ever showcased. One of the assistants to the producer even froze as the huge animals bumped against the bars, inches away from where he was standing. While it was scary, it surely displayed how exciting and unexpected the show could be.
Ed’s 42-year-marriage to Sylvia bore one daughter—Elizabeth—named after Sullivan’s mother who died that same year. Elizabeth, who was better known as Betty, was born on Dec. 22, 1930, in New York City. Betty attended a private girls’ school called Miss Hewitt’s Classes and when she graduated in 1948, there were only nine of them. She then enrolled at UCLA and met her future husband, Bob Precht, an NROTC student.
The pair were married in 1952 right after graduation. Bob later became The Ed Sullivan Show’s producer. Bob and Betty gave Ed five grandchildren, namely Robert Edward, Vincent Henry, Andrew Sullivan, Carla Elizabeth, and Margo Elizabeth. Betty passed away in 2014 at the age of 83.
Home at the Delmonico Hotel
The former skyscraper hotel on Park Avenue was home to the Sullivans for many years. They rented a suite of rooms in 1944, including a family suite. Next to it was a suite that Sullivan used as an office until his show was canceled. The hotel is quite historic, because reports have circulated that Bob Dylan visited the Beatles at the hotel and introduced them to marijuana.
Donald Trump has since converted the former hotel into a residential condominium. Prior to staying at Delmonico Hotel, the Sullivans lived at the Astor Hotel in Times Square and this is where they were at the outbreak of World War II. Betty’s room had a view of the Wrigley Gum sign and she could see the crowds of Broadway.
Out on the Town
Sullivan’s show made him a powerful and influential personality. They were always out on the town, meeting other prominent figures and socializing with the rich and famous. Sullivan was associated with celebrities, presidents, and even various Popes. They ate out five nights a week at the most popular restaurants and clubs.
The Sullivan family’s frequent dining spots were Danny’s Hideaway, the Stork Club, and Jimmy Kelly’s. They had a good social life that was not exactly flamboyant. Sullivan’s daughter, Betty, was even enrolled in a private girls’ school. She also dined with her parents at the trendiest restaurants and, sometimes, she ate at the Automat with her companion.
The Ed Sullivan Theater
The Ed Sullivan Theater, the place where the show was filmed, was originally called the Hammerstein’s Theater in 1927. It was built by Arthur Hammerstein and named after his father, Oscar Hammerstein I. Golden Dawn, a three-hour musical, was its first production in which Cary Grant was the second male lead.
Hammerstein eventually lost ownership of the building and it was later named Manhattan Theatre. The theater was renamed for the hosting legend at the end of his 20th-anniversary celebration. It became The Late Show’s home back in 1993 until 2015 when David Letterman was the host. Today, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is being filmed in this theater.
One of Sullivan’s favorite guests was Topo Gigio, whom he interplayed with, showing Sullivan’s soft side. Topo was a lead character of a kid’s puppet show on Italian television in the 60s. He was a soft foam mouse that had a pair of whimsical eyes and a friendly personality. He was often voiced by the actor Giuseppe Mazzullo, and later by Davide Garbolino.
Topo was famous in Italy and he did not only appear on TV, but also in children’s magazines and movies. There was even a line of Topo Gigio merchandise. But his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show made him an international sensation.
Walter Winchell was Sullivan’s fiercest rival. Their feud started way back when Sullivan was a columnist. Sullivan focused on Broadway shows and gossip for his Little Old New York column and so did Winchell. They also did entertainment news broadcasts on the radio. When Sullivan became the star-maker that he was and set up El Morocco as his unofficial headquarters, Winchell was also doing the same thing with the Stork Club as his seat of power. We all know how Sullivan holds a grudge.
Jerry Bowles once wrote that Sullivan took his rage out on Winchell by grabbing and holding his head in the bottom of the urinal and draining the flush lever. Winchell reportedly uttered “sobbing noises.” However, the two have apparently buried their feud and, to prove it, Winchell appeared on Sullivan’s show.
A True Star
On February 8, 1960, the legendary host was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which is located at 6101 Hollywood Blvd. Ed Sullivan is remembered for being a broadcasting pioneer and a star maker who has brought the most iconic names in the show business industry to the viewers.
The Ed Sullivan Show is an unofficial institution and according to TV critic, David Hinckley, it was the “last great TV show.” Although he was awkward, he had extraordinary showmanship. Sullivan has contributed much to television entertainment for many years. For that, he has received many awards over the years including a George Foster Peabody Special Award.
The Show’s Impact on Civil Rights
The Ed Sullivan Show gave African American entertainers a platform to showcase their skills and talents. In fact, Sullivan helped launch many of their careers—James Brown, Louis Armstrong, The Supremes, and so many more. The public and the sponsors weren’t too keen on having them on his show, much less having Sullivan interact with them.
Once a sponsor of the show told him to stop having so many black acts and another asked why he had to put his arm around Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. But Sullivan kept inviting them and continued supporting everyone equally. African American actress, Diahann Carroll, was one of many guests who were so grateful to Sullivan because he definitely helped her career.
Suzanne Kay, Diahann Carroll’s daughter, and Margo Precht Speciale produced and created the documentary film entitled Sullivision: Ed Sullivan and the Struggle for Civil Rights. The documentary took a look at how the show helped break down racial barriers and how it steered black artists into the mainstream of American culture at a time when racial discrimination was so apparent.
Carroll appeared on the show nine times and the exposure has greatly boosted her career. She is the first black woman to win a Tony for the musical No Strings. She was also the star of Julia—the first sitcom that had a black character that was not a servant. Carroll won the 1969 Golden Globe for her role on the sitcom.
Jackie Mason's Contract
One of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time, Jackie Mason, appeared on the show on a few occasions. At this time, he was writing his own material and had a unique brand of humor. His act, which was thought to be far ahead of his time, ruffled some patrons who were not yet exposed to a comic that seemed to ridicule them. But when he appeared on The Steve Allen Show, the audience was already open to his kind of humor.
Mason would soon figure in one of the most notorious controversies at The Ed Sullivan Show. Even though Mason had a contract that was worth $45,000 ($365,000 in current dollar terms), it all went out the window because of a conflict that blew up in 1964.
The "Finger" Incident
Mason reportedly gave Sullivan the finger on air during his October 1964 performance. Mason was doing his stand-up comedy when Sullivan started giving him signals using two fingers. Sullivan was onstage but off-camera and he was trying to tell Mason that he only had two minutes left because CBS needed to cut away his performance to show a speech by then-President Lyndon Johnson. Sullivan’s hand signals distracted the audience and Mason wanted to get their attention back so he also played with his fingers and said that he had been “getting lots of fingers.”
He then pointed towards Sullivan with his middle finger somewhat separated and said, “Here’s a finger for you and a finger for you.” Sullivan was so infuriated that he canceled Mason’s contract. Mason insisted that he did not make a rude gesture toward Sullivan and that he didn’t even know what the “middle finger” meant. Whether he was telling the truth or not, Mason and Sullivan later made up, and Mason did get to appear the show five more times.
Jim Morrison and The Doors
The Doors were also notorious for their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in September of 1967. And it all started with a request from Sullivan to change one single word in their lyrics. The Doors’ signature song, “Light My Fire,” had lyrics that were obviously pertaining to drug use. Sullivan wanted the “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” part to be changed into “Girl, we couldn’t get much better.”
The band reportedly nodded and agreed to change the line. But during the performance, Jim Morrison sang it as it was written. He also sang it loudly and even emphasized the word “higher.” Can we chalk it up to artistic integrity?
According to one version, Morrison was nervous and had forgotten to change the line. The CBS executives could not change it because videotape editing back then took many hours. Sullivan was enraged and the band was told that, while they were supposed to come back for six more appearances, with what happened, they would never be invited again. To which Morrison famously replied, “Hey, man, we just did the Ed Sullivan Show.”
While Sullivan indeed never invited them back, the show still worked as the band’s launching pad. The incident was even enacted in a biographical film by Oliver Stone, namely 1991’s The Doors.
A Piece of Sullivan History For Sale
On February 1964, The Beatles had their debut performance on The Ed Sullivan Show and on that same day, the legendary band wrote their names on one of the most significant pieces of music memorabilia. Using a thick black marker, the four men signed the backdrop that was used during The Beatles’ first performance, without a clue how big of an impact their signatures would go on to have.
Each member also added a drawn caricature. Their debut was the most highly watched episode in television history and had an estimated audience of 74 million. The band has forever changed pop culture, so it’s no surprise that any piece with their signatures would sell at a tremendous amount. Read on to discover just what happened with this pivotal piece of Beatles history...
The Best Beatles Memorabilia and a Shocking Sullivan No-Sale
Exhibitor, Wayne Johnson (also owner of Rockaway Records), auctioned off the piece in 2014 with a hefty price tag of $550,000 to a million. The Beatles-signed backdrop was considered to be one of the top-signed pieces in existence and was even called the Holy Grail of Beatles memorabilia.
The owner wanted to auction it for the 75th anniversary of The Beatles’ first appearance in the US but he believed that he would no longer be alive on that day. So did anyone purchase the historic piece? Surprisingly, no one bought the memorabilia at the auction and it was eventually sold privately.
Steve Spurrier Was Also a Guest
In the 60s and 70s, it was not unusual to see college football players and big names in entertainment and politics all on one stage. This was especially so with The Ed Sullivan Show. Sports was Sullivan’s first passion and he first wrote for a sports column when he was starting his career as a newspaper reporter. Several times, he booked athletes on his show including Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jack Dempsey, Yogi Berra, and so many other famous sports figures.
Former football player (and now head coach of the Orlando Apollos of the Alliance of American Football), Steve Spurrier, made a special appearance on the show in a 1966 episode. At that time, Spurrier was a quarterback for the University of Florida.
An Apology for Being Left Out
In an earlier All-American Football Team segment, Sullivan mistakenly left Spurrier out. In fact, the cameras erroneously panned Syracuse running back, Floyd Little, and identified him as Spurrier. Sullivan also wrongly mentioned Spurrier’s school as he said that Spurrier played for the University of Miami instead of the University of California.
The host received a call that Spurrier had been angered by the mistake and so had to quickly apologize for the blunders that he had done. As we’ve learned, Sullivan was known to forget his lines and mess up his introductions but that gave him a certain kind of appeal. It made people feel that he was like the ordinary American, unlike the other charming television hosts.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson
Sullivan always supported everyone equally and he did not think of less of anyone for their race (show him your middle finger though and it was a whole different story). Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was the highest paid African-American performer in the first half of the twentieth century. He was an actor and tap dancer whose style was considered to be impeccably exact and specific.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s signature routine was called the Stair Dance, where he would tap up and down a set of stairs in an intricate series of steps. He is also known for his dancing with Shirley Temple in several films and for the musical, Stormy Weather, loosely based on his own life. Robinson’s popularity has helped break down racial barriers and Sullivan’s unquestioning acceptance of him was also pivotal for inspiring people to start seeking racial harmony. Yet Sullivan’s actions get even sweeter than that...
Sullivan's Beloved Dog Was Named After Robinson
Even though Robinson was highly paid, he was broke when he died and Sullivan paid for his funeral. Sullivan was a longtime fan and friend of the artist and he considered Robinson to be one of the greatest hits he’d had on the show. He was a tap dancing wonder and was mentioned along with the names of other great African-American entertainers including Bunny Briggs, another tap dancing sensation and Judge Pigmeat, a great comic genius of modern show business.
Such was Sullivan’s admiration for his friend that he even named his family’s dog after Robinson. They called their cherished pooch poodle Bojangles.