It’s the birthday of a man who shaped popular culture in America for almost 25 years, Ed Sullivan, born in Manhattan, New York City (1901), who was a gossip columnist for the New York Daily News and occasionally moonlighted as a master of ceremonies for local variety shows and dance contests. He was working at a giant dance competition called the Harvest Moon Ball when someone asked him if he’d like to try hosting a show on this new thing called television. He was 46 years old.
The Ed Sullivan Show, originally called Toast of the Town, premiered live on CBS in 1948, and within a few years, about 50 million people watched it every Sunday night. Television was so new at the time that people didn’t know what to do with it. Sullivan modeled his show on vaudeville and did a little of everything, throwing together opera singers, rock stars, novelists, poets, ventriloquists, magicians, pandas on roller skates, and elephants on water skis. Sullivan had always hated that he was required to “dish dirt” in his gossip columns, so he decided that on his variety show, everything would be positive. He told every performer that he or she was wonderful.
Sullivan was a shy, awkward man offstage — couldn’t tell jokes or sing or dance. A car accident in 1956 severely damaged his face and his teeth, and he was often in terrible pain onstage, suffering from ulcers. But he loved performers, and he personally chose every guest for his show. He spent most of his free time searching for talent in nightclubs, often staying out until 4:00 in the morning.
Sullivan was one of the first talk show hosts to invite African-American performers and celebrities onto his show when it was still controversial: Jackie Robinson, Duke Ellington, Richard Pryor, and James Brown. His producers sometimes objected to his choices, but the only thing Sullivan cared about was talent. At the end of his career, in 1971, there were 20 different variety shows on television, all appealing to different demographics. Sullivan was the last television host who tried to appeal to everyone in America. Edward Sullivan, who said his formula for success was, “Open big, have a good comedy act, put in something for children, and keep the show clean.”