A whimsical look at life growing up in the small town of Waldron, Arkansas in the 1960s and 1970s, plus occasional observations from the present. Want to start at the very beginning? Click HERE.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Ed Sullivan Show

He was about as unlikely a TV star as you could possibly imagine.  He was stiff, wore an expression like he had just taken a bite out of a lemon, and had a particular way of speaking that was ripe for mockery.  But Ed Sullivan was the biggest thing on TV in the late '60s.  In the days before downloads, YouTube, and iPods, Ed was our source of whatever was hot at the moment.  Every Sunday night, you would get a mix of the very best of rock music, Broadway tunes, comedy, and dance, all in one neat package.  It was, as Ed was often parodied, a "really big shew."

I usually got home from church in time to catch the last half of the show.  My favorites were the comedians.  Jackie Mason, Shecky Green, and probably Ed's most frequent guest, Allan King.  Some of the comedians specialized in impersonations, which has become almost a lost art today.  Frank Gorshin was a particularly good impressionist, and he did an impression of Ed himself that was extremely funny.  Frank later went on to play The Riddler in another favorite TV show, Batman.  Another great impressionist was David Frye, who did a side-splitting impression of LBJ and later, President Richard Nixon.  And of course, we all were introduced to a clean-cut young man named George Carlin, who gave us the character of Al Sleet, the Hippy Dippy Weatherman.

For those who think their job comes with a lot of stress, I suggest viewing this video of one of Ed's regular guests, Erich Brenn the Plate Spinner.  Ed was known for his novelty acts, whether it be the Plate Spinner, an animal act like the Berosini Chimps, or the perennial favorite Senor Wences and his creative hand puppet. 

And speaking of puppets, Ed Sullivan introduced the world to a very talented young man named Jim Henson, who created a unique world inhabited by creatures he called Muppets.  When The Muppets first appeared on Ed Sullivan, they were a somewhat darker and slightly ominous troup, who's skits usually ended with one or more of the Muppets being eaten.  Here's a clip of an early Muppet routine featuring their version of the song Manah-Manah.

Perhaps the most unique novelty act of all was Topo Gigio.  Ed eventually became a part of the act whenever Topo was on the show, and it was actually kind of sweet when Topt would request, shyly, "Edddddie.......keees me goodnite."

Of course, everyone of my generation knows that in 1964, American was introduced to The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.  You see, kids, there once was a group of four young men from Liverpool, England who sailed across the ocean an conquered America, long before anyone ever thought of Lady Gaga.  In this clip of their first appearance, the near pandemonium of the young females in the audience is evident.  The producers conveniently superimposed the name of each Beatle over their image on the screen, adding to John's name the information, "Sorry girls; he's married."

We also cracked up at the antics of two musical brothers, Tom and Dick Smothers.  The Smothers Brothers combined skillful folk singing with a recurring comedy theme of Tom's jealousy over his mother's favoritism toward his brother.  Later on, the brothers got their own show on CBS, but as their politics became more radicalized, their show was eventually cancelled.

By 1971, America had grown tired of the variety show format, and The Ed Sullivan Show was cancelled.  But a generation had grown up with Ed, and countless performers had established their careers there.  There's never been a show like it since.

1 comment:

  1. Bill:

    I don't have a lot of time to comment, as I read this (and the two entries just below it) on a break at work. If I did have a lot of time, I'd fill up a page or so with my own memories triggered by yours. These were all wonderful pieces.

    I'd give anything to see some complete episodes of the Sullivan show. PBS runs a few compilation shows, mostly of the music, but seeing a complete show gives the essence of Sullivan. It was the mish-mash of acts that made the show what it was, going from one interesting thing to another. Like you, the comics were my favorites (Aside from King, I especially liked Rodney Dangerfield, Flip Wilson, and an old Jewish storyteller whose name slips my mind at the moment... Myron Cohen? I think that was it.)

    Great stuff, anyway. I may do a couple of posts based on the ideas you put into my head, in a while. If so, I'll give you a link and credit for inspiring me.