Book Reviews


 

 

Impresario -- The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan

By James Maguire

Review by Richard Sheppard

 

Mention Ed Sullivan in 2006 to anyone under 30, and they may, more likely may not, recall his two most renowned moments, the breakout Elvis Presley appearances or the first Beatles appearance on U.S. soil. Both were iconic events on the timeline of 20th century American culture. Few under a certain age will remember, however, that Sullivan's CBS show spanned twenty-three years, from 1948 until 1971, during which time, the author argues fairly convincingly, Sullivan served as America's defacto "Cultural Minister." Sullivan himself, who claimed his initial fame as a Broadway reporter, lacked any definable entertainment charisma. However, his experience covering Broadway during the tail end of Vaudeville, along with a sideline career of presenting live stage "variety" shows, honed Sullivan's keen knack for reading an audience. And that skill of knowing just what act might fit just where came in mighty handy at the start of the television era. 

Sullivan, who had failed several times to build a radio audience, was determined to succeed in TV. He saw the new medium as his ticket to "being famous", as opposed to being notable for "covering the famous" as a reporter. And though he had competition from some of the other early TV "greats" such as Milton Berle and Jack Paar, Sullivan's CBS show grabbed ratings good enough to establish itself during its Sunday evening timeslot. Once entrenched, Sullivan had a run few shows or TV personalities have enjoyed during or since. He persevered through the NBC "Colgate-Palmolive Comedy Hour" competition, and a few years when "Westerns" were TV kings. All the while, convinced his success depended entirely on his own hard-earned show-biz instincts, he maintained absolute authority over his show's guests, how much they were paid, and the precise sequence and content of their performance. Thus on every Sunday evening, his show was a smorgasbord for a still demographically-broad American audience. 

But huge demographic and societal changes were coming for America, and Sullivan. Sullivan's memorable Presley and Beatles shows presaged the coming of age of America's baby-boomers and the vast cultural changes that were on the Sixties horizons. The author makes a credible case that Sullivan was among the prime promoters of Rock-and-Roll, but, because these acts were often interspersed with some of Sullivan's growing-old standbys, his contribution to rock's ascendance was overlooked as a new generation of viewers attempted to sort out Sullivan's show.

The balance of old acts and new-era entertainment such as rock forced Sullivan into a balancing act he managed to maintain, probably, longer than viewing tastes may have permitted. Sullivan maintained his proven variety-show and talent-spotting instincts, he just couldn't hold an audience of post-war adults and their booming progeny. And so, after twenty-three years, the Ed Sullivan show signed off in 1971. 

Interestingly, the variety show was a stubborn fixture on TV as new aspirants (several who cut their teeth on Sullivan) tried to update the format: Carol Burnett, Flip Wilson, Sonny and Cher, and a few others. Eventually, adult audiences moved to later in the evening and gave rise to the likes of Jack Parr, and Johnny Carson, down through their contemporaries today. This reviewer, who just vaguely recalls the end of the Sullivan era, hardly sees any positive evolution with today's "late evening" hosts, who mock current affairs with bombast and glee, and turn off vast swaths of their audience in the process. While faltering near the end, Sullivan never took his audience for granted, or treated it with the all-too-smarmy condescension of today's hosts.