The biggest stage there was
New Ed Sullivan box showcases classic pop
By Todd Leopold (CNN)
(CNN) -- Ed Sullivan would probably be the last guy you'd think of to host a television show.
He had a "face for radio," for one thing: jowly, bags lined like tree rings under his eyes, coupled with a stiff-legged gait that made him look like he'd forgotten his place on stage and a voice only a newspaper columnist -- which he was, incidentally -- could love.
Sullivan mispronounced names. In Sullivan-speak, even his own program was "a reeellly big shew." He loved plate-spinners and ventriloquists. He hosted acts long since forgotten by pop culture, except for the fact they appeared on the Sullivan show: Topo Gigio, Senor Wences, Wayne and Shuster.
But, for most of Sullivan's 23 years on the air, if you wanted to know what was going on in American entertainment -- particularly what was heating up the pop charts -- you sat down Sunday night and turned on CBS, because Ed had 'em all: Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Supremes, the Doors, the Mamas and the Papas, the Jackson 5, and on and on and on.
"He lived, ate and breathed showbiz," says Andrew Solt, who owns the rights to the more than 1,000 hours of "The Ed Sullivan Show" as head of Andrew Solt Productions. "He loved the talent, the business, and his role in it. After the show, he'd be out 'til 3 or 4 a.m. looking [at the latest acts]. ... He tried different things, and always found something that worked.
"It was the true father of all the variety shows."
Many of the Sullivan rock performances have been gathered on a 9-DVD boxed set, "Ed Sullivan's Rock 'n' Roll Classics" (Rhino Home Video; Rhino is a division of AOL Time Warner, as is CNN.com). The vast majority is from the post-1964 heyday of Top 40 pop, from Motown to Sonny & Cher to Janis Joplin, and including one-hit wonders such as Smith (1969's "Baby It's You") and the Brooklyn Bridge (1969's "The Worst That Could Happen").
The Beatles are seen singing "Twist and Shout." The group's initial appearance on the show -- February 9, 1964 -- solidified Beatlemania and remains one of the highest-rated single programs in history.
Another of the most famous -- or infamous -- performances on the DVD is that of the Doors, who performed "Light My Fire" on Sullivan in August 1967, just after the song hit No. 1. After being asked by a Sullivan producer not to sing the word "higher," the Doors sang the song exactly the way they always did, earning them a lifetime ban from the show. (See sidebar.)
Keyboardist Ray Manzarek remembers the show fondly, though. Like much of the country, he'd watch the show weekly to see who the latest rock booking was. Sullivan would shrewdly position the rock bands to open and close the show.
"He'd have the Animals, the Stones, the Beatles," he says. "We had a great time on the show." Besides, he says, the Doors did what they wanted to do. "Jim had done everything. ... He was Dionysus personified on the national TV screen."
John Moffitt, who rose from a production assistant to director over the course of his 11 years with "The Ed Sullivan Show," remembers controlled chaos. When he arrived in 1960, the show was done live, leading to some quick entrances and exits. On one show, Henry Mancini appeared with a 40-piece orchestra -- in between the usual bunch of comics and variety acts.
"We had a great stage crew," Moffitt says -- in particular, a stage manager who had Broadway experience.
When it came to the rock acts, the show grew more sophisticated as the music did, he says. The artists eventually performed live to a track, and West Coast performers would sometimes be taped in advance on elaborate sets.
'We'd all be running to the record store'
The variety of the show came naturally to Sullivan. As a columnist for the New York Daily News, he already knew plenty of show business figures, and he had hosted a New York event called the Harvest Moon Ball -- the predecessor to his TV show. He was also a frustrated actor.
Aware of Sullivan's awkwardness on camera, CBS originally offered the show to sponsors either with or without the host, according to Alex McNeil's "Total Television." But Sullivan stayed and flourished. By the mid-'50s, the show -- originally "Toast of the Town" -- had been named for him, and in 1968 so was the theater, now home to "The Late Show with David Letterman."
For Solt, 54 and a child of the show, it was the rare program everybody watched together.
"It was the only show I watched with my parents as a kid," he says. The contents were a surprise to everybody. "TV Guide rarely had the information," Solt says. "Monday morning we'd all be running to the record store [to buy the latest seen on Sullivan]."
On the show, everybody was treated the same, says Moffitt. "There were no divas, no green room, no requirements for the acts," he says. "The dressing rooms were grubby. Everybody showed up on time for rehearsal and everybody was very polite. It was an innocent time."
He contrasts the Sullivan atmosphere with his experiences on later shows, such as "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert": "The egos got bigger and bigger."
Today, Sullivan is thought of as conservative, and certainly he personally preferred show tunes and standards to the rock 'n' roll he put on. But he was willing to take chances, as he did when he booked Bob Dylan, then a folksinger, in the early '60s. Dylan wanted to sing "Talkin' John Birch Society Blues," and Sullivan OK'd it, but CBS overruled him. Dylan never appeared on Sullivan, but never held it against the host.
"He'd call and drop by the show to see how things worked," recalls Moffitt.
Solt, who purchased the Sullivan library from the Sullivan family in 1990 (Ed died in 1974), notes that the entire run is almost intact. In the future, there may be compilations of comedy acts, Broadway performances, and several other themes.
Nowadays, a Sullivan-style variety show would probably fail miserably. Several hosts tried, from Howard Cosell to Dick Clark, and they've all gone down in flames. Moreover, the audience today is splintered in a million pieces, each one with its own remote control.
But the fact that it all worked -- and worked so well -- is as much a tribute to the host as his times, Solt says. Ed Sullivan had a certain expertise and he made the most of it.
"It was his one chance at television," Solt says, "and he didn't let it go."