Book Review – Right Here on Our Stage Tonight

Today’s Machining World Archive: March 2010, Vol. 6, Issue 02

I started watching TV in 1947 on a little six inch Farnsworth. My friends came over in the afternoon just to watch the test pattern with its obnoxious hum. There was Howdy Doody and an occasional Cubs game, but not much else. Then suddenly, the medium exploded with three networks vying to dominate the airwaves. Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” soon ruled Sunday night.

Sullivan took an essentially dead genre—vaudeville—and transformed it into the variety show. The book, Right Here on Our Stage Tonight relates the saga of Sullivan’s 23 years as the nation’s promoter of traditional American values and barometer of popular culture. Author Gerald Nachman takes us through those years from dog acts and plate spinners to Elvis, the Beatles and beyond. Sullivan was the first impresario to regularly feature black performers, including Nat King Cole, the Supremes, James Brown and Richard Pryor—he even hugged Ella Fitzgerald, challenging both his and his audience’s conservative values.

Even though the show featured an astonishing 10,000 acts, it is mostly remembered for two momentous events—Elvis Presley’s first national TV debut and the Beatles’ four huge appearances. Yet I remember with great nostalgia the famously silly recurring acts like ventriloquist Señor Wences, who spoke through a mouth scrawled on his fist, Pegleg Bates, the one legged tap dancer and Topo Gigio, the mouse puppet that signed off with the familiar “Kees-a-me goo night, Eddie.” Then there were the “aging” (even for my generation) legends—Maurice Chevalier and Sophie Tucker.

But most of all, everyone remembers Sullivan as the uncomfortable stiff in front of the camera. Though he could easily ad-lib with a banquet audience, or even a studio audience during rehearsal, he could not perform well in front of that non-human, one-eyed mass of steel and wires. His unique speaking voice also provided fodder for comic imitators: “Laze and gennulmen, tonight’s really big shew— the Bea’les.” He looked like a mechanical man wound up with a key and set loose onstage.

In 2006, the History Channel named Elvis’ appearance on the show one of the “Ten days that changed America,” along with Antietam, the discovery of gold in California and Einstein’s atom bomb letter to FDR. In 1956, Elvis drew a record 60 million people, 82.6 percent market share, numbers today’s Super Bowl rarely reaches. While Elvis was clearly not Sullivan’s taste in music, Ed passed his blessing on to the new generation calling Presley “a nice, polite young man.” After the performance, Sullivan even praised the young audience that he had lectured before the show, saying, “I wanna tank all you youngsters; you were very, very good.”

In the end, it was the Beatles that changed the Ed Sullivan Show; first elevating, then transforming and eventually diminishing it. Once Sullivan opened the door to 1960s and 1970s music, the old “family” audience began dying off, both figuratively and literally. Viewers complained that what had been a good family show was now dominated by suggestive dancers and that “disgusting Tiny Tim.”

In 1970, the show dipped to number 27 in the ratings, and in 1971, it was cancelled. Sullivan himself declined physically and died less than three years later. His obituary read in part, “He was an excellent judge of entertainers. He was so honestly ill at ease on the program that viewers came to affectionately feel sorry for him.” The writer added, “He despised bigotry, fraud and irresponsibility.”

I remember that before there were 500 channels of cable, Internet and the iPod, there was Ed Sullivan, and he was, “The Toast of the Town.”

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