As befits the very earliest days of television, there couldn’t have been a simpler program format. Bring on a wide variety of acts, introduced by a handsome, charismatic host. This long-running show, originally called Toast of the Town, had all of this – except the handsome, charismatic host. It had Ed Sullivan.
Ed was an entertainment columnist for the New York Daily News, and he drew upon his contacts in the early days of the show to get some of the biggest names in entertainment. Nowhere else on TV could you hear a song by a Broadway cast, watch a team of acrobats, laugh at a comedian, cringe at an opera singer, and then hear the hottest pop group of the day.
The show ran from 1948 to 1971, and featured some of the era’s most memorable events. For example, Elvis appeared on the broadcast on three occasions, and indeed was shown only from the waist up during the up-tempo portions of his songs. His first appearance drew 82.6% of the television audience, an amazing number even during the three-channel era.
All America again gathered in front of the Sullivan Show in February 1964, as the Beatles performed on three consecutive Sundays. The first week they sang “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” They drew a studio full of screaming girls, and the largest audience in television history at that time.
Of course, there were some low moments as well. The Doors were instructed to change “You know I couldn’t get much higher,” to “You know I couldn’t get much better,” but didn’t, and were permanently banned from the show. Jackie Mason allegedly gave Sullivan the finger, but filed a libel suit and eventually received an apology. And Bob Dylan was scheduled to perform a protest song, and was told it wouldn’t be allowed. So he walked out and never appeared on the show.
You can watch full episodes at tv.com and see what it was like “back in the day.” Tonight’s video can’t be embed, but it’s worth seeing – ten minutes of the Best of Sullivan, including songs by the Beatles.