For generations of Americans, the name Ed Sullivan was synonymous with entertainment and showmanship, thanks to an influential career spanning decades and a legacy that lived on well after his passing. A native of New York City, he began as a sportswriter, radio personality, and nightclub emcee before being tapped in 1948 to host a vaudevillian type of show on the new medium of television. Originally titled "Toast of the Town," the program was eventually renamed "The Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-1971) after becoming one of the most popular shows of its day under his direction. Sullivan was undeniably a star-maker, and arguably, an arbiter of national taste, showcasing the hottest new acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, alongside up-and-coming comedians, such as George Carlin and Richard Pryor. This was in addition to an ever-changing roster of classical pianists, dance troupes, plate-spinners, puppets, and anything else he felt would entertain his vast viewing audience. While conservative in his personal views, Sullivan was an avid supporter of African-American performers, flying in the face of controversy when he showcased acts like The Supremes, The Four Tops, and The Jackson 5. As the cultural landscape began to shift in the late 1960s, Sullivan's ratings slipped out of the Top 20 slot it had held for so long, and in 1971 "The Ed Sullivan Show" was cancelled. It was telling, however, that decades after his series went off the air, many entertainment giants still expressed debts of gratitude to Sullivan, and hammy emcees in small towns everywhere were still kicking off talent shows with the exclamation that audiences were in for "a really big shoo."
Born Edward Vincent Sullivan on Sept. 28, 1901 in Harlem, NY, he was the son of a customs agent and the brother of a twin, Daniel, who died within a few months of their birth. From an early age, Sullivan was a student of his beloved home city, forgoing a traditional institutionalized higher education. As a young man, he earned money on the local boxing circuit before starting his media career as a sportswriter for several city newspapers. After marrying Sylvia Weinstein in the mid-1920s, Sullivan edged closer to the world of entertainment when he began hosting Broadway-themed radio programs, featuring the likes of Jimmy Durante and Irving Berlin. His big break as a journalist came after famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell left The New York Evening Graphic and Sullivan was brought in as the new theater reporter. In 1932, the New York Daily News lured him away, and his column "Little Old New York" became a popular source for the latest Broadway news and entertainment gossip. He also ventured into the new medium of film, writing and starring in "Mr. Broadway" (1933), in which Sullivan, as himself, acted as tour guide, visiting area hotspots and hobnobbing with the brightest stars of The Great White Way. For a brief time he joined the exodus to Hollywood, where he set up camp for his ongoing newspaper column and wrote several screenplays before ultimately returning back East. It was a heady time for Sullivan, during which he enjoyed being at the epicenter of popular culture and entertainment, operating out of his de facto headquarters at New York's ritzy El Morocco nightclub, and engaging in a much publicized rivalry with Winchell.
Little did Sullivan know that when he emceed the Harvest Moon Ball for the Daily News in 1947 it would be an event which would forever change his life. Unbeknownst to him, the show had been recorded for that very latest entertainment medium, television. The following year, CBS recruited Sullivan to host their new variety show, "Talk of the Town," a sort of televised vaudevillian spectacular. The program made its premiere on June 20, 1948, broadcast live from the network's Studio 50. Among its notable highlights, the program featured the television debut of the comedy team Martin and Lewis, fresh off their hugely successful nightclub run. Setting the template for variety shows ever after, Sullivan's production offered something for everyone - more established acts alongside fresh faces; classical performances balanced out with a bit of quirk. From the beginning, Sullivan had a firm hand in virtually every aspect of the show; acting as executive producer, deciding everything from the order in which the acts would appear to how long each performance would last. Initially, Sullivan was not well received by many critics at the time. Famously, he replied to one of his early detractors, TV columnist Harriet Van Home, with the brief note, "Dear Miss Van Home: You bitch. Sincerely, Ed Sullivan." Sensing they had a good thing going, CBS stuck with their maligned emcee, even going so far as to rechristen the program "The Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-1971) in 1955. For all of his perceived lack of screen presence - he soon acquired the nickname "Old Stone Face" - it was Sullivan's uncanny ability to not only spot talent, but to foresee the coming wave in popular entertainment that quickly made the show a bona fide success.
Decidedly conservative in his personal values, Sullivan initially vowed to never have on the show the singing sensation Elvis Presley, whose hip-gyrating act he considered vulgar and in poor taste. He acquiesced, however, after Presley's TV debut on a competing program earned huge ratings, and although the singer was only shown from the waist up on his show, Sullivan vowed to never again be "scooped" when it came to premiering new talent. No act better illustrated this than when Sullivan spearheaded the British Invasion with his booking of The Beatles in 1964. A cultural event of seismic proportions, the appearance fueled the fire of Beatlemania and received the highest ratings of any program in broadcast history for many years to come. In recognizing the undeniably growing popularity of modern music, Sullivan helped to legitimize the genre in the world of mainstream entertainment. Over the years, he booked the biggest acts in rock-n-roll. The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Doors, and dozens of others performed on Sullivan's stage, although not always without incident or controversy. Sullivan was also a pioneer in the arena of racial inclusion on television, and was a staunch supporter of African-American talent, inviting performers like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, and Diana Ross on the show with regularity, often to the vocal dismay of many conservative sponsors. Despite the periodic dust-ups, there could be no denying the enduring popularity of the show. In 1968, CBS expressed their respect and gratitude by renaming the studio in which the show was taped, The Ed Sullivan Theater.
Contrary to his perception by many as a glowering sourpuss, Sullivan understood the value of comedy, viewing it as the connective tissue that held his show together. Not only did he tolerate the many comics who impersonated him, but encouraged the caricatures endlessly supplied by the likes of Rich Little and frequent guest impersonator Will Jordan, the man largely responsible for the iconic line, "We've got a really big shoo." However, despite regular appearances by cutting-edge comedians like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, contemporary music acts such as Janis Joplin, as well as a pre-"Sesame Street" appearance by Jim Henson's Muppets, Sullivan's variety show was becoming regarded as old hat in the changing landscape of television during the late-1960s. With its ratings sagging and its network aggressively courting younger viewers, "The Ed Sullivan Show" was cancelled in 1971 - along with many other shows that skewed toward an older audience. Sullivan was furious about the decision, in particular because he had been determined to see the show through to the 25-year landmark. Bitterly disappointed, he refused to do a final episode, although he did agree to participate in the 25th anniversary special in 1973. Tragically, at about the same time, Sullivan's wife of nearly 43 years, Sylvia, passed away. Less than a year later, Sullivan himself died of esophageal cancer on October 13, 1974, at the age of 73. Sullivan's legacy lived on in entertainment for years to come, with a special nod of appreciation coming from late night talk show host, David Letterman, a lifelong fan who made the refurbished Ed Sullivan Theater his show's home in 1993, often tipping his hat to who and what had come before.