Between 1948 and 1971, millions of Americans had two appointments on Sunday: church and “The Ed Sullivan Show” on CBS — a connection the 1960 Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie” made when it praised the show’s host in the number “Hymn for a Sunday Evening.”
SOFA Entertainment purchased the variety show’s library in 1990, and last summer that company and Universal Music Enterprises teamed up to create an official “Ed Sullivan Show” YouTube channel, which makes available daily uploads of “Ed Sullivan” clips. To date, there are more than 1,300, most of them spruced up to superb visual and audio quality.
“The goal is to stay true to the variety-show format,” SOFA’s president, Josh Solt, said in a Zoom conversation. “So you’ll see rock, you’ll see jazz, a Broadway novelty, magicians, some amazing sports figures. Going back to the history of the show, we have a responsibility to curate across all of these genres.”
Watching the live performances, it’s obvious that the show and its besuited, clenched-jaw host — who, on the surface, was the personification of a square father figure — were trying to both reflect and define midcentury American pop culture in all its genius, idiosyncrasies and contradictions while toying with the concept of what constitutes a modern canon.
The program’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach endures to some extent in the reality competition “America’s Got Talent,” which springs similar surprises — you never quite know what type of act is coming next. “The Ed Sullivan Show” aired for the last time 50 years ago this month, and yet, even now, surfing around its YouTube channel elicits a constant sense of discovery.
Here’s a look at some of the ground it broke, the fault lines it exposed, the bridges it built.
It mashed up genres before mash-ups were a thing.
In a May 1968 broadcast, the Supremes were in the middle of an Irving Berlin medley when Ethel Merman walked in and joined them during “You’re Just in Love.” The sight of the four women swaying together, sheathed in silver, sums up the very concept of crossover.
This wasn’t new for the show: In 1955, Pearl Bailey provided a comic running commentary on the action while the soprano Lily Pons sang two arias from the opera “Carmen.”
It exposed the battles of the sexes.
In the 36 joint appearances they made over the years, the married comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara explored gender relations. (A prescient 1966 routine even involved a couple that was “ideally matched by a computer.”)
They were not the only ones to mine this fertile vein — just search the channel for “marriage.” For every ba-dum-bump one-liner from Henny Youngman (“Take my wife, please”), there are counterattacks by women comedians like Moms Mabley, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, all of whom made no attempt to cover up the rage.
It had a perverse sense of humor.
Three days after winning the 1969 World Series, the New York Mets turned up to sing “Heart,” from the musical “Damn Yankees.”
It challenged racial and genre expectations.
On the show, Black performers (and white ones, for that matter) often abandoned their assigned lanes. A great example is Harry Belafonte’s blistering 1962 rendition of the galloping Jimmie Rodgers country song “Mule Skinner Blues.” You can also check out the now mostly forgotten Vanilla Fudge’s cover of the Supremes classic “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which probably registered on the Richter scale back in 1968.
It knew when to go big …
While the show was mostly broadcast from its studio on Broadway, it sometimes wandered, taking the show on the road to places like the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and to a Munich circus. In one notable example from September 1970, a Rare Earth performance of the Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You” was filmed at the Baltimore Civic Center around the time of its “Holiday on Ice Spectacular.” Hence the full-on psychedelic trip of its swooping crane shots and battalion of skating dancers in multicolored wigs.
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… and when to go small.
The show took the title of Peggy Lee’s “The More I See You” literally: 12 seconds in, the camera starts zooming in and doesn’t stop until Lee’s face fills the frame, remaining there until the end of the song. This looks jarring nowadays, as if Sergio Leone ventured into variety.
It opened suburban living rooms to youth culture …
On Aug. 16, 1969, Santana played a wild set at Woodstock. Just two months later, it brought “Jingo” to “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The performance still sounds incendiary, but imagine what it must have been like being Mr. and Mrs. Middle America watching these pioneering rockers and their Latin rhythms.
Just one lineup among hundreds: On March 8, 1970, the show’s guests included Nancy Sinatra, Bobby Vinton, Rodney Dangerfield and a psychic. The soprano Joan Sutherland and the mezzo Marilyn Horne were there, too, introducing “Sì, Fino All’ore Estreme” to millions of households.
… and to homegrown genius.
Richard Pryor was in fine form in his last appearance on the show, on Nov. 1, 1970, waxing poetic about his family and childhood in Peoria, Ill. “I was very afraid of my father and the police — got very Negro when the police showed up,” he said, going on to add in his best imitation of a square: “‘Hello officer, can I help you search myself?’”
It preserved historic stage hits.
Long before Rosie O’Donnell became a Broadway booster, Ed Sullivan featured musical-theater numbers. With many important shows and artists of the time, these videos are the only way to get a true idea today of what it was like to experience them live. “West Side Story,” for example, had been running on Broadway for two years when, in September 1958, Ed Sullivan introduced “this magnificent ballet, which is called ‘Cool.’” In December 1967, he invited Pearl Bailey to sing “Before the Parade Passes By,” about a month after she took over the title role in “Hello Dolly!” on Broadway.
It let us hear Marlon Brando’s soft, soft voice.
The Harlem Globetrotters were regulars on “Ed Sullivan,” but the YouTube channel also lets us discover the rival Harlem Magicians, here performing some serious wizardry in 1957. The show also convinced Jackie Robinson to share batting tips in 1962, the year he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.