Ed Sullivan! Ed Sullivan! We're going to be on "Ed Sullivan!" -- Lyrics from "Bye Bye Birdie"
Oh, THE Sunday nights we had. Bears danced for us, jugglers and tumbers juggled and tumbled, divas trilled, actors emoted, ballerinas twirled, comedians cut up and hoofer hoofed. Ziegfeld would have been proud. Barnum would have been proud. Ed Sullivan was very proud.
For hundreds of Sunday nights over 23 generally glorious years, "The Ed Sullivan Show" on CBS was a recreational centerpiece for the viewing nation and the most important variety show on the air. Now not only is Ed gone, but so are all the other variety shows -- gone, gone, gone, until Feb. feb. 26, when NBC attempts to revive the form with "The Big Show," a bombastic revue whose title recalls Sullivan's promise of not just a big but a "really big shew" each week.
One thing about Television Land: Old times there are fast forgotten and hard to revive. Marlo Lewis who co-produced Sullivan's show for its first dozen years, says he has low hopes for NBC's effort at a successor.
"I predict it will fail," says Lewis from his Palm Springs home. "That day and age is gone. The network never understood the day when we had it. I honestly believe they never realized what made it work and why Ed was possible."
Lewis and his wife, Mina Bess, are the co-authors of "Prime Time," a new book about their careers in television, mostly on the Sullivan show. "Youngsters" -- as Sullivan like to call anyone under 35 or 40 -- may not recall how unlikely a TV hero Sullivan was, but the Ewis book brings him back in quirky splendor.
On the air, Sullivan was awkward, tongue-tied and terminally ahsen. His fluffed introductions of acts were legion; Sergio Franchi was once introduced as "Sergio Freako," Shelly Winters was mistakenly identified as Shelly Berman, Nanette Fabares' last name was so embarrassingly mispronounced that she later changed it to Nanette Fabray, and Sullivan once read "World War II" off the cue cards as "World War One One."
But it was precisely his lack of finesse and absence of demonstrable talent that endeared him to the audience and made him a member of the family.
"Ed was never a performer, and though there was great pressure from the network for Ed to join in the acts, he never succumbed to it," Lewis says. "Ed was the audience's cheerleader on stage." His cries of "let's hear it!" became part of innumberable impersonations of him done by comedians often invited onto the show.
Surely there's a place in television for the kind of show Sullivan perfected. A little singing. A little dancing maybe.It couldn't hurt.
"I don't know," says Lewis. "Times have changed. Today, what people find exciting on television is the self-confessional, the kiss-and-tell talk on the talk shows. Following the revelation about his or her sex life, the performer gets up and does a song or something. That's what's attracting an audience now.
"We've got an over-entertained public today. They're fickle. And they've seen all the great acts on TV already. In recent years, Howard Cosell, Dick Clark, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore have all tried to bring back the variety show and all failed dreadfully. That's why I think NBC will fail, too."
In their book, the Lewises bring back television's whacky, reckless, pioneer days with true tall tales and some rollicking, evocative anecdotes (all of it hidden behind the ugliest book jacket illustration ever done). No one quite knew, at the beginning, what a money-made behemoth television was to become. The production budget for the first Ed Sullivan show, over and above network costs, was a peanuttiest $400.
That's when the show still went by its original title, "The Toast of the Town," and before it became the toast of the nation.
The book's portrait of Sullivan is especially candid and touching. One moment he was bravely barking orders to even such temperamental artistes as Marja Callas and the next he might collapse in tears at a rare kindness done him by a network executive. Lewis recalls how badly Sullivan's feelings were hurt and how aggravated his ulcers were by the catcalls of fellow journalists who ridiculed his on-screen bumbling.
And Lewis also remembers the first time he happened upon Sullivan, backstage before showtime, scarfing down belladonna to soothe his duodenal ulcer. The drug dilated his pupils and contributed to the helter-skelter cue-card reading that became a part of his TV personality, to stretch a term. c
Ed Sullivan died in 1974, three years after his show, a television institution, was canceled by CBS. Soon Sunday nights where bears had danced became the domain of cops and guns and screeching sitcoms.
As producer, Lewis filled many roles. He made sure there were oxygen tanks and a nurse standing by on those nights when Ed had indulged his weakness for hiring oldtime vaudevillians to performe. And Lewis personally flew to the West Coast to direct the cameras during Elvis Presley's second appearance on the show -- one that became legendary because Elvis was shot only from the waist up.
The story always went that the camera-shy approach was prompted by the suggestive nature of Presley's Elvis-the-Pelvis undulations. In fact, Lewis reveals, the precaution was taken because of rumurs that Elvis might get prankish and, just to add another dimension to his act, stuff a pop bottle down one leg of his trousers. Sort of a special effect. He didn't, but shooting him from the waist up turned out to be one of the most strategic pieces of publicity the singer ever got.
Lewis had left the program long before it ended and a few years before Ed presented a group he called "The Bee-Ulls," those mischievous lads from Liverpool. When Lewis left, he says, "Sullivan was booking rock'n'roll acts left and right." And Mina Bess says, "The show was becoming trendy rather than contemporary." Besides, says Lewis, "I was a lunatic. I was working seven days a week. It was mad. Exciting. Inventive. But too much."
He also suffered increased frustration with network brass who came more and more within "the suffocating embrace of researchers." They told him an Army comedy starring a balding Jewish comdian would fall flat on its face on TV, and when they finally did put it on, they gave it the worst time slot on the air, opposite the mad monarch of monochrome, Milton Berle. But later, Phil Silvers as the immortal Sgt. Bilko in "You'll Never Get Rich" unseated Mr. Tuesday Night and became one of TV's most cherished smash-hits.
It's always both too easy and too tricky to pinpoint ends of eras, but maybe a big one, a great one, ended the day James T. "Smiling Cobra" Aubrey took over CBS programming in late 1959. "He ushered in the age of the vulgarian," says Mina Bess. "Instead of entertainment for its own sake, he pandered to the lowest common denominator. He made television a vulgar business."
Of course he had help -- hundreds and hundreds of salesmen, market researchers, cost accountants and Nielsen-brains. "I am so glad to be out of it, I can't tell you," Marlo Lewis says.
Among other programs Lewis helmed was a short-liver Frank Sinatra series in the early '50s. Lewis doesn't know if the shows themselves have been preserved anywhere (much of live TV is lost), but he says in his book that the applause from the studio audience on that show was so tremendous that it was recorded, saved and used for years and years afterwards as canned reaction to other programs. We may be hearing some of it yet today.Thus have the glory days ended but their ghostly echoes remain.