Every week for 23 years, columnist-turned-TV host Ed Sullivan promised his audience "a reeallly big SHEW tonight," and every week he delivered, packing his hour with the hottest singers of the day -- from pop and rock to opera -- plus dancers, comedians, circus acts and even dramatic recitations.
Sunday at 9, CBS will be back again with another really big show, "The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show," a two-hour compilation of as much of the best of Sullivan as producer Andrew Solt has been able to cram in. Carol Burnett hosts.
Solt, who owns all the footage from the show, has big plans for the material.
"This is the kickoff," he said. "After this, we're planning specials, home videos, and a half-hour series in syndication or on cable for 1992." His arrangements with a distributor will be signed this month.
Solt bought the show's footage from Sullivan's daughter and son-in-law, but said that going through 1,000 hours of old tapes "is very labor-intensive and time-consuming. I didn't realize until I got into it that there were 1,000 hours. It is like a natural resource in a way. It's a remarkable reflection of the talent over the years -- this show was the best of it.
"I've always loved music and history and journalism," said Solt, "and I've gotten into pop culture. I love taking a new approach to entertainment history and giving it to a new audience."
Sullivan's show premiered June 20, 1948, as "Toast of the Town," a name that was changed to "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Sept. 18, 1955. The hour-long variety hour ran each Sunday night on CBS until June 6, 1971, and both bandleader Ray Bloch and the June Taylor Dancers stayed with Sullivan as regulars.
According to TV historians Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin made their television debut on that first show and split their pay of $200, part of the $375 allotted for the talent. The balance went to concert pianist Eugene List, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and six June Taylor Dancers (then called Toastettes).
Among others making their American TV debuts on the show were Charles Laughton, Bob Hope, Lena Horne, Dinah Shore, Eddie Fisher, the Beatles and Walt Disney. Disney's own show, which premiered in 1954 on ABC, eventually passed Sullivan's as the longest-running prime-time network show.
Most viewers saw Sullivan's showcase on black-and-white TV sets of the era. But assuming that fans then watch color sets now, this week they'll be able to catch some of the footage that was actually being telecast in color.
Among those joining Burnett Sunday night will be Ella Fitzgerald, Michelle Phillips, Alan King, Jackie Mason, Joan Rivers, Will Jordan and Carol Lawrence. In 1957, Lawrence sang with Larry Kert in the original cast album of "West Side Story," a recording to be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame on Wednesday.
Solt said the retrospective includes two appearances by the Beatles, several by the Supremes, who were frequent guests, and the famous Elvis Presley television performances shot from the waist up. There's also the Jackie Mason "problem," in which Sullivan thought Mason made an obscene gesture, a situation that dogged Mason for years and hurt his career.
Viewers will also learn more about the unlikely impresario Sullivan, who had been a syndicated newspaper columnist; his public feuds with Arthur Godfrey, Jack Paar and Walter Winchell, and some of the battles he waged to book good talent.
Solt will offer footage of many original performances, including those of Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Durante, Jackie Gleason, Pearl Bailey, The Rolling Stones, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Julie Andrews, Sammy Davis Jr., Red Skelton, Richard Kiley, Richard Pryor, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, The Mamas and the Papas, Flip Wilson, Kermit the Frog and Topo Gigio, a mechanical Italian mouse.
Also, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five, Bobby Darrin, The Doors, The Fifth Dimension, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, The Four Tops, The Miracles, Steve Allen, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Lesley Gore, Johnny Ray, Teresa Brewer, George Carlin, James Brown, Janis Joplin, The Young Rascals, The Beach Boys, Rodney Dangerfield, The Stepp Brothers, Moms Mabley, John Byner, Bill Dana, Vaughn Meader, Wayne & Schuster and other novelty and circus acts.
Appearances by Jackie Robinson, Fidel Castro, Alan Jay Lerner and Fritz Loewe and other notables also will be recalled, said Solt.