Book Talk: Impresario

“That so many people across boundaries of age and class were captured for so many years by one individual’s idea of entertainment was a cultural first, and perhaps a last. That a mass audience would follow one man’s vision of cultural life for nearly a quarter of a century was testament to his odd, almost unconscious genius at sensing and gratifying his audience’s desires.”


“Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan” by James Maguire (2006)


Every Christmas for the last maybe fifteen years, I have read and loved the book Christmas with Ed Sullivan. And every year for the last several, I have contemplated buying a book about Sullivan himself; partly for confirmation of some of the things about his early life he relates in his collection of Christmas stories but mostly because I thought it would make for good reading. Like the autobiography of Hal Wallis I bought years ago, I thought that the story of Sullivan and his legendary TV program would provide lots of additional info on the appearances of the countless stars that graced Ed’s stage. I wasn’t exactly right but the story told in James Maguire’s book was much more fascinating than I could have hoped.

Personally, I enjoyed the fact that Maguire did reference Ed’s Christmas book a few times but I was sad to have confirmed for me something I had feared; “In reality he was a loner and a driven careerist who was typically too busy to bother with a Christmas tree until 9 P.M. Christmas Eve”. I’ll just leave it at that.

A young Ed Sullivan. An accomplished athlete, Ed got his start writing a sports column before turning to Broadway.

What you get from Impresario is a theoretical dissertation on Ed Sullivan and his legendary variety show and how it related to American society in the mid-20th century. Maguire makes an excellent point that Sullivan was more than a television personality and producer, he became the nation’s unofficial Minister of Culture.

From James Maguire’s book you will get some details of Sullivan’s birth in East Harlem and his young life in Port Chester, New York including talk of his twin brother who died at ten months old and his success in many and varied sports. His career as a sports writer and later chronicler of Broadway life are discussed.

“His vocal and unstinting support of equal rights would be one of the few facets of his career he pursued regardless of how the audience felt about it.”

The prominence of his Broadway gossip column lead him to a brief stint on radio. Maguire establishes that Sullivan was single-mindedly determined to be famous and discarded family and friendships in the pursuit. When his various radio shows failed to bring him fame, he was crushed. Much ink is spent on his years-long rivalry with Walter Winchell and on how Winchell’s success was galling to Sullivan. When Sullivan was offered the job of writing a column from Hollywood, Maguire describes how Ed jumped at the chance and attempted to parlay his work into film. Impresario gives details on the screenwriting Ed did and how the failure of the films he was involved in did much to dash his dreams of stardom.

Ed gained recognition as a producer of vaudeville shows and was a prolific MC. Here he is at the Harvest Moon dance contest in NYC with a couple of famous faces.

Maguire relates well Ed becoming prolific as a host of many variety shows and fundraisers which served the dual purpose of putting his face before the public and putting him into contact with a plethora of performers and celebrities, giving him an impressive list of contacts.

“He had great social ease, even charm, and spoke to anyone as an equal, whether the person was a cab driver or a major film producer.”

As this book’s prologue serves as a perfect intro to the book proper, so the chapters on Ed’s newspaper columns and his producing of variety and charity shows sets the table perfectly for the meat of the book which is obviously the discussion of Ed’s television show. Maguire gives a detailed account of the creation of Toast of the Town in 1948 and of its initial ratings battles with shows on rival networks. Much ink is spent on Sullivan’s wooden on-stage demeanour. CBS initially wanted a program to combat Milton Berle and then Colgate Comedy Hour and a variety show seemed the way to go. The network knew Ed had the connections and the know-how to stage such a show so they gave him the job of producer and host – a position they hoped to fill with a more engaging personality later. A snippet in Ed’s column in advance of his debut proved prescient; “as a ground-floor tenant (of TV), I’m concentrating on a long-term lease from which the television landlords will have to evict me bodily”.

Toast of the Town debuted in 1948. CBS was hedging its bets, springing for only primitive sets and providing a limited talent budget. This pic is from the first show and depicts Jerry Lewis at left. Martin and Lewis were booked on the show and paid $200.

Critics were focused on Ed’s wooden performance as host and could not fathom why he filled that post. But, Maguire says, hosting the show was his least important role. “He was the show’s producer, its creator and shaper, the one who molded it into something enjoyed by a mass audience. His talent was as an impresario, not as a show host”. James Maguire describes how Sullivan shaped the show; and not just season-to-season or week-to-week but each week and each individual act were sculpted to suit Ed’s vision. Comics were told to cut lines, singers were often told what songs to sing and even trained animal acts were told to trim two minutes; “‘How am I going to explain that to the lion?'”. Ed was a master of pacing and sequencing and – because his show was presented live throughout its run – he was able to tweak even in mid-broadcast.

The author excels at describing the myriad acts that graced Ed’s stage and how their disparity defined his formula. Maguire asserts – and does it well – that the variety of acts presented on the show that was soon rechristened The Ed Sullivan Show were meant to appeal to the broadest possible audience. There was something for everybody; from sports figures to ballet, slapstick comedy to Bible readings, rock music to opera. Sullivan said that each show must appeal to four women; his mother, his older sister, his wife and his daughter.

Ed and Sylvia with daughter, Betty and Bojangles; no doubt a good boy.

Maguire gives details of Elvis Presley’s appearances on the show and how at first Ed thought Elvis “unfit for family viewing” until Steve Allen had Presley on and scored high ratings. Ed’s about-face in booking Presley depicts his desire for ratings and his acknowledgment that a large number of the American public wanted to see Presley on TV. Controlling how Elvis was displayed on his show proves Sullivan was “the guide and guardian of the American living room”.

Presley’s appearance and that later of the Beatles leads Maguire to his most penetrating elucidation regarding The Ed Sullivan Show and American popular culture. The author explains that for years Ed Sullivan presented entertainment for the whole family. For an hour every Sunday night, Mom and Pop, sister and brother would gather together and take turns being entertained. Dad would hang on every word when Ed interviewed a boxer or ball player, Mom would thrill to the ballet or Robert Goulet, little Tommy may love the acrobats or the animal acts and kid sister thrilled to the puppet shows. In a chapter Maguire calls “The Generation Gap”, he details the schism that occurred in American society during the 1960’s. Suddenly, it was impossible to get the whole family together to watch a single television show. All at once, what the parents called entertainment was very different from what the children called entertainment. Sullivan’s formula became unsustainable; consider that one Sunday night, Ed presented Duke Ellington and Vanilla Fudge on the same episode. In the end, Ed having a show that appealed to everyone proved to be his downfall. With the advent of “niche programming”, Ed Sullivan’s big tent show – with something for everybody – was canceled after a remarkable 23-year run.

Ed reads fan mail in August of ’56. He was in hospital after an auto accident that he never really recovered from.

What Maguire drives home in his account of the demise of this TV institution is that the fact that people no longer wanted to “see” The Ed Sullivan Show on television reflected the idea that many didn’t want to “see” the changes happening in society. The older audience that had always been Ed’s base did not want to tune in and see presentations from Hair or hear Sly and the Family Stone. If Ed’s show had always been a mirror of society, the images that were being reflected back now were unappealing to many. In other words, the show was not canceled because it became irrelevant; it was canceled because it became TOO relevant.

“Watching The Ed Sullivan Show meant enduring an hour with one’s parents. As for the older audience, they still revered Ed but they couldn’t stomach the show’s current youth-oriented fare. Getting the entire family to sit down together was increasingly difficult. The culture was coming apart at the seams; the big tent was being ripped asunder.”

– Maguire links The Ed Sullivan Show with American society

James Maguire wraps the story of impresario Ed Sullivan by reporting on his life after his show was canceled. Sadly, his beloved wife, Sylvia, passed away unexpectedly and Ed’s Alzheimer’s worsened. At the end, Ed Sullivan was simply exhausted and he passed away October 13, 1974; it was a Sunday night, around the time the evening’s instalment of The Ed Sullivan Show would have finished.

Ed with his family. His son-in-law, Bob Precht, assumed much of the responsibility for the running of the show during the second half of its tenure and urged Ed to book cutting edge talent.

Along the way, Maguire provides some excellent nuggets from Ed Sullivan’s life:

  • Maguire examines Ed’s infamous “stone face” and his seeming discomfort in front of the camera. He suggests it may have begun as a sort of armour against his father’s rage. As canny a producer as he was, Ed was simply never comfortable on stage. However, his wooden persona became a trademark and lead to a plethora of impersonators.
  • His discomfort in front of a microphone resulted in Sullivan’s legendary malapropisms. Maguire’s list had me chuckling; comedian Jack Carter knew Ed well and appeared many times on the show. This familiarity didn’t stop Ed from introducing him as John Crater, Jack Carson, John Kerr and Carson McCullers! A troupe from New Zealand were introduced as “the fierce Maori tribe from New England”. Trombonist Benny Goodman was introduced as a trumpeter, Roberta Peters became Robert Sherwood and Ed once brought on Robert Merrill by saying “I’d like to prevent Robert Merrill!” And in rehearsal, Ed introduced Janis Joplin as being from Joplin, Missouri and she had to correct him. That evening come showtime, he introduced her as being from…Joplin.
  • CBS was so unsure of the show that, for the first year, Ed worked for free. But in 1954, Ed’s contract was renegotiated and he was signed for 20 years. For the first seven years of the contract, Ed would receive $176,000 a year. For the last 13 years of the contract, Ed was guaranteed $100k per annum whether he had a show or not. Eventually, the studio from where the show emanated was renamed The Ed Sullivan Theater.
  • Ed became known as one of the fathers of rock & roll as he began to book rock acts on his show, thereby endorsing the genre. In rehearsal, Bo Diddley played “Bo Diddley”. Ed said he didn’t like the song and told Bo to play “16 Tons”, currently a big hit. When the curtain went up, Bo played “Bo” and was never invited back. Ed almost came to blows with Buddy Holly when Sullivan asked Holly to choose another song after Ed objected to “tonight there’ll be no hesitatin'” in “Oh Boy”. In a first, Holly stood his ground and said it was that song or nothing. Ed gave in; somewhat. He cut Holly from two songs to one and placed him at the end of the show. Eventually, though, all John Lennon wanted to know when the Beatles played the show was “is this the stage where Buddy Holly stood?” Ed liked the clean-cut Beatles but when Brian Epstein asked for the exact wording of Ed’s introduction of the band, Ed told him to get lost. The Rolling Stones were another story. After they were on the first time, Ed told their manager that they would only be asked back if they promised to bathe.
  • Sullivan’s daughter, Betty, married Bob Precht who turned out to be Ed’s right hand. The younger Precht was hep to Dylan and booked him on the show but the network asked Zimmy to sing a song other than “Talking John Birch Society Blues” and Dylan declined to appear. During the ’65-’66 season, at Bob Precht’s urging, Sullivan became the outright owner of his show and its library of episodes. From this point forward, Bob was not just the show’s co-producer but also a 49% owner of a program loaded with some of the most iconic performances in rock history.

Bottom line is James Maguire has done his homework. I felt like I may have thought that he detailed every act on too many episodes but I could appreciate why he did that. And he is fair and takes no sides, often sharing an anecdote and adding that it may or may not be true. His access to Sullivan archives allows him to be expansive and to tell the whole story. And it just so happens that the story of Ed Sullivan and his Sunday night institution is also the story of the American century.

2 comments

  1. It’s fascinating how his ‘great social ease’ never quite made it to the screen, although he certainly carved out his own unique style, even if by default. Perhaps it was a good thing, in that it allowed the guests to shine. There’s a lot to be said about that style of television, which doesn’t seem to exist now, with everything all about the host. Dick Cavett, and Michael Parkinson whom we’ve talked about, were examples of that bygone style as well. I was also very interested to read how the unifying nature of that kind of variety television disappeared with the dramatic social and musical changes of the 60s.

    It’s also interesting to note the author suggesting that Sullivan’s enthusiasm for Elvis was perhaps a little cynical (that might be too strong; pragmatic perhaps?) But he certainly went over and above with his ‘real, decent fine boy’ introduction, which probably set Elvis on the way to much wider acceptance. That might not have been what some of his older, more conservative audience wanted to hear.

    I can’t believe that you could possibly think there could ever be too much intricate detail about individual episodes 🙂

    • Yes, it’s very different now and is all about the host. Lots of good talk in the book about the cult of impersonation and how Ed impersonators became such a thing. So, even having no personality helped his popularity.

      I like to think that he at first was unimpressed by EP’s gyrations and wanted no part of it and thought mature Americans didn’t either. Could even say he was “wrong” on this. When he saw how many were interested in seeing King, well, he had to have him on. Once he met him, he was taken with him and gave him his stamp – which, as you say, was no small thing.

      I think what Maguire was doing in detailing so many episodes was driving home the variety of acts presented. It got a bit tiresome hearing about so many artists. Just me, though, you’re right; I generally thrive on such details!

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