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Variety Shows: Plenty of Nothing

7 minute read

In the quick-shift, sudden-death world of television, only two things are constant: commercials and Ed Sullivan.

While the rest of the industry cele brates a three-year run as something akin to a three-minute mile, Sullivan is hosting his 20th season on the longest-running show in the history of TV.

Governments have fallen, wars have been won and lost, generations have passed into manhood, but the Mount Rushmore of TV endures. Each season the reappearance of his granite visage on Sunday evenings inevitably provokes the same old question: What exactly is Ed Sullivan’s talent?

He doesn’t sing. He doesn’t dance.

He doesn’t tell jokes — at least not intentionally. His malapropisms (“I would like to prevent a new singer”), his carny-barker pleas for applause (“Let’s hear it for the Lord’s Prayer!”), and his pen chant for forgetting names (Singer Polly Bergen is invariably introduced as Bar bara Britton) are part of TV lore. His wincesome looks and quirky mannerisms—such as hunching his shoulders and reeling around like Quasimodo doing the lindy—still bring serious letters from shut-ins commending his courage for appearing despite such an obviously bad case of Bell’s palsy. Jabbing and pointing his finger like a traffic cop, he once brought on a hypnotist with the familiar “Here he is!” and poked the poor fellow in the eye.

“Get Lost.” If for no other reason, Sullivan seems to have endured simply because he is such a fertile subject for mimicry. Comics who have played the show liken him to “a greeter at Forest Lawn cemetery,” crack that “he is one of the few men who can light up a room—just by leaving it.” Perhaps the most telling quip about Sullivan’s secret of screen longevity came from Fred Allen: “He will last as long as someone else has talent.” To Sullivan, there is no mystery. “I am,” he says matter-of-factly, “the best damned showman on television.”

His talent, he explains, is his ability to spot talent. More precisely, as the single most influential starmaker in TV, he shrewdly uses his power to gather, pay for, juggle, condense, cut or otherwise shape the talent to the needs of his show. He takes no guff from stars, advertisers or agents. When Beatles Manager Brian Epstein told him, “I would like to know the exact wording of your introduction,” Sullivan coolly replied, “I would like you to get lost.” The one influence that guides his taste is “public opinion, which is the voice of God.”

Deadly Purse. The voice—as revealed to Sullivan—speaks on Sunday afternoons, when an audience is invited to watch the dress rehearsal. Pacing the stage like a disgruntled midwife, Sullivan keeps his baleful blue eyes on the hall. What the audience likes he likes, and performers have come to recognize a certain pursing of his lips as the kiss of death. After the run-through, he huddles with his son-in-law, Producer Bob Precht, and jiggers the sequence of acts, deletes some and pares others from 10 minutes to 90 seconds.

Known in the trade as “the Pope of Video,” Sullivan keeps a sharp lookout for anything that might be suggestive. He recently disapproved a Playtex bra commercial because “we don’t want to show a girl in a filmy thing on a day when everyone’s been to church and all.” After he signed Elvis Presley for a record $50,000 for three appearances, Sullivan would not allow the camera to show the singer’s gyrating pelvis. “He may be a purist,” says Comic Jack

Carter, “but you can’t argue with the fact that he knows his audience.”

Finger Stitcher. And his audience knows him—as a straight, if sometimes confusing, pitchman whose lack of polish is somehow his shining virtue. “There’s too much damn talk on TV,” he says. “Other variety shows have skillful and amusing hosts, but they spend too much time getting into the act. The most difficult thing in the world is to shut up. Besides, whoever said a master of ceremonies had to be a glamour boy? What counts is the kind of product he puts out.”

With a weekly budget of $150,000 and a vast network of talent scouts, Sullivan’s product sells chiefly because it is first with the best. His first show, in 1948, introduced a young comedy team named Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Since then, he has presented the U.S. TV debut of such performers as Edith Piaf, Clark Gable, Maria Callas, Humphrey Bogart, Jackie Gleason, Marian Anderson, Julie Andrews, Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, and the Beatles, not to mention such oddities as Liberace and Rise Stevens singing

Cement Mixer, Burt Lancaster doing acrobatics, Jayne Mansfield playing the violin, Lauren Bacall reading Casey at the Bat, and James Cagney and Jack Lemmon dancing.

To keep abreast of new talent, Sullivan is out most nights until 4 a.m. prowling theaters and nightclubs; in the summer, he spends six weeks abroad rounding up Swiss bell ringers, Japanese jugglers and enough animals to stock the Bronx Zoo, including such rare species as a water-skiing elephant and a piano-playing dog. For many years, his scout on the Chicago vaudeville circuit was the late Poet Carl Sand burg. “He got us the Australian woodchopper act,” says Sullivan proudly, “and the fellow who stitches his fingers together with a needle and thread.”

Sure as Mass. Sullivan says that he would like to smile more, but he claims that his stiff upper lip is a habit that he cultivated after having his teeth shuffled while playing high-school football. He has since got new choppers, but he hesitates to flash them because he feels that his friendly-undertaker look has become an important part of his image. With a weekly salary of $20,000, ratings that have placed him in the top 20 for most of two decades, and advertisers waiting in line to spend $52,000 for 60 seconds of air time, he is not about to change anything. He says that he has learned to control his celebrated temper and swears that he no longer dashes off such angry letters to critics as the one he sent to Harriet Van Home when she was TV colum nist for the N.Y. World-Telegram: “Dear Miss Van Home: You bitch. Sincerely, Ed Sullivan.”

His feuds have cooled too. Gone are the days, he says, when he dismissed Walter Winchell as “a cringing coward” and Hedda Hopper as “downright illiterate” for printing “garbage” about celebrities; during his frequent clashes over the pirating of talent, he put down Steve Allen and his manager as “two punks” and squelched Arthur Godfrey with the line, “By the way, what does he do now?” (He hosts a CBS Radio morning show.) During a contract dispute with Frank Sinatra some years ago, Sullivan took a full-page ad in Variety to lambaste the singer for “false and reckless charges”; Frankie countered with his own ad calling Sullivan “sick, sick, sick.” Such is his relative benignity that the worst he can say for his old competitor Jack Paar is that he is a “thoroughly no-good son of a bitch. That’s spelled son. . .”

Now 65, Sullivan is mumbling again about retiring, but no one believes him. Sure as Mass on Sunday, Old Stone Face will be back next season with yet another “really big shew” and everyone will be asking the old question. Perhaps the best answer is given by an old Sullivan regular, Comic Alan King. “Ed does nothing,” he says. “But he does it better than anyone else in television.”

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