Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Really Big Sheww

They don't know the difference between the Civil War and World War 2 or who Abraham Lincoln was and think the United States of America is the source of all evil in the world.

 I"m convinced that the only thing most of the people in this country know about American history is that the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in February of 1964.

Unfortunately there's nothing I can do about the fact that these are the same people who are going to elect our next President.

 So, I'm going to talk about Ed Sullivan.

He was a nice man, and a good show business columnist. Newspaper show business and Broadway columnist.  Television executives, not known for their intellectual brilliance figured that his stature and success in one field would naturally crossover smoothly to the relatively new field of television.

Sometimes that worked. But in Ed Sullivan's case, it didn't.

But yet it did.  Everyone who ever saw him agreed that he was the most awkward misfit for a TV host that anyone had ever seen.

He couldn't even pronounce the name of the show.
Ed Sullivan and the Beatles

We all remember his, "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to our really big sheeeew."

However he hosted the most successful and longest running variety show in Television history!

The choice of Ed Sullivan as master of ceremonies seems ill-advised,” wrote Jack Gould of The New York Times in the summer of 1948, after the second broadcast of the series. John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune an article titled  “Why? Why? Why?” wrote, “One of the small but vexing questions confronting anyone in this area with a television set is ‘Why is Ed Sullivan on it every Sunday night?’ ”

An article in Vanity Magazine 1992 claims that because of his strange movements and expressions the mistaken belief  got around that he had a metal plate in his head.
 “I received hundreds of letters congratulating me on my courage in continuing despite such a handicap,” Sullivan recalled. Others applauded his triumph over Bell’s palsy.

Ed Sullivan
The magazine story continued, " Maladroit and malaprop, his faux pas were legion. They became American family jokes, and were the kind of embarrassing slip your pop might make at the Kiwanis club. Irving Berlin, who would outlive Sullivan, was referred to as “the late Irving Berlin”; clarinetist Benny Goodman was a “trumpeter.” Roberta Sherwood was Roberta Peters, Barbra Streisand became Barbra Streisland . A group of Samoans were presented as “Samoans from Samoa,” while a group of native New Zealanders became “the fierce Maori tribe from New England.” Robert Merrill was greeted with the words “I’d like to prevent Robert Merrill.” Dolores Gray was welcomed as “one of the fine singing stars of Broadway now starving at the Alvin Theatre.”

Comedian Jack Carter claims that Sullivan once said,  “Let’s hear it for the Lord’s Prayer,” upon forgetting the name of singer Sergio Franchi on the 1965 Christmas show.

Yet Americans watched him by the millions every Sunday night.  Even the smooth, talented and brilliant Steve Allen couldn't make a dent in Sullivan's ratings.

Strangely enough, the word in TV circles was that off camera, Sullivan was as smooth as silk.  But when those studio lights went on.....he became the bumbling host that he was.

Phil Rizuto
The trend in radio and television to hire "non radio and TV trained people" to perform as hosts and
sportscasters began seriously in the early 60's with the hiring of Phil Rizuto of the NY Yankees.

Eric Severied referred to this as "Creeping Phil Rizutoism."

In Rizuto's case, it was a brilliant move, as he became one of the most successful and beloved sportscasters of all time.

The "radio and TV school graduates" didn't like the trend at all, but the genie was out of the bottle, and most everyone now realizes how logical that decision was.

But I digress.

One spring afternoon in 1967 as I was working on my next day's TV interview show, I learned that Ed Sullivan was in the building (WTOP-TV in Washington) for some kind of contract negotiations or something and I was able to buttonhole him in the hall between meetings and got him to agree to a quick interview with me before he  left to return to New York.

Back in those days, a TV interview couldn't be done at the drop of a hat. The studio had to be lit, the cameras warmed up, a director and crew had to be found, etc, etc.....
Sullivan with Topo Gigio
but luckily, the crew was just finishing up a previously scheduled interview, so all I had to do was sit down with Ed and start talking. I told Ed it wouldn't take more than 10 minutes.

To make a long story short, just as we sat down in the studio, the shop steward of the engineer's union announced that the taping could not proceed...until after the engineers' lunch break.

So, I took Ed down to the station's cafeteria to hopefully keep him "entertained" while waiting.  I had no idea what to talk about for an hour other than (may the good Lord forgive me") how "cute" I thought "Topo Gigio" was and how much I enjoyed those dumb circus acts.

Baronton Sisters on the Ed Sullivan Show
I expected him to back out at any moment, but as we sat and waited he spotted a vending machine which featured his favorite snack, ice cream sandwiches.

One hour and 3 ice cream sandwiches later, Ed and I sat in the studio for the interview. It was going  about like a typical local celebrity interview  of that era went until I asked Ed if I could test that theory about his being totally different when the TV lights weren't on. Not known for his sense of humor, I got the impression that he had never heard that theory and had no idea what I was talking about, but he agreed to do the rest of the interview with barely enough ambient light to register in the TV camera.

Lights on or lights off, he was no different.

But I liked the guy. Anyone as famous as he was who hung around as long as he did just for some local TV host (me)...and all he got was 3 lousy ice cream sandwiches...will always be a great guy in my book.

But I wouldn't be surprised if when he returned to New York he told somebody that while in the Nation's capitol he finally met a TV performer as "bumbling" and out of it as he was. "This bozo does TV interviews in the dark!

Vanity Fair concluded their 1992 article with a quote from John Crosby of the Herald Tribune:

“Mr. Sullivan has grown no more skillful with his hands or his face or his prose. But he is still there, which is more than you can say about a lot of people who are enormously skillful in all these departments. There is a great lesson in this for all of us, but I’m damned if I know what it is.”