- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

IMPRESARIO: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ED SULLIVAN

By James Maguire

Billboard Books, $24.95,

352 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY WILLIAM F. GAVIN

Ed Sullivan? To anyone under 35, the name means nothing. But to anyone over 55, it calls to mind not only a man, but an era. In “Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan,” James Maguire shows why Sullivan was so popular from the late 1940s until the late ‘60s, and why he is remembered, long after many of the stars who appeared on his Sunday night television variety show have been forgotten.

Mr. Maguire has done a thorough, professional job, using wide-ranging research about Sullivan’s personal and professional life, and especially about the show that gave him the one thing he craved — national fame.

Sullivan was born in 1901 in Harlem (then mostly Jewish and Irish), but his family moved to Port Chester, N.Y., where he grew up. As a high school student he began writing sports pieces for a local newspaper. Within a few years he found work at a number of papers, including the New York Evening Graphic, which used fake photographs (called composographs) and headlines like Doctor’s Death Bares Exotic Sex Orgies to sell copies and survive the Darwinian struggle that was New York journalism.

The star of the Graphic was a Broadway gossip columnist named Walter Winchell, in whose long shadow Sullivan worked for years. Sullivan himself became a Broadway columnist, copying Winchell’s rat-a-tat-tat writing style. But he was never able to give his column Winchell’s sassy, brassy, New York sense of excitement.

Still, Sullivan seemed to live a charmed life. He married Sylvia Weinstein, a beautiful Jewish girl (against the wishes of his Irish Catholic family), earned a good salary during the Depression, and knew every celebrity in New York and Hollywood. But it wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to be famous, not just in New York, but nationally.

Sullivan had done some producing on the vaudeville circuit and was known as someone who could coax, cajole, or pressure stars to appear in his variety stage shows. So it was no surprise that in 1948, the Columbia Broadcasting System, trying to get a foothold in the new television medium, asked him to be the (perhaps) temporary host of a new Sunday night television variety show, Talk of the Town (which became The Ed Sullivan Show). Television, just on its way to becoming a truly national mass medium, had found a man who understood what viewers wanted.

In Sullivan’s view, what they wanted was simple: to be entertained in one show by the best of the best, such that every family member could enjoy at least one part of the show and part of every show would appeal to the entire family. Thus, an average Ed Sullivan program would feature, say, a comedian, a scene from a Broadway musical or drama, an interview with a current sports star, an opera star singing an aria, acrobats and a ventriloquist.

Keeping all this flowing, more or less, was Sullivan himself, who introduced the acts. He lacked stage presence, not to mention charisma. He butchered words and phrases. He stood in a peculiarly rigid stance and rarely looked into the camera. When he introduced famous people in the audience, he would often mispronounce their names or misidentify them. He was awkward, his head was too big for his body, and his normal expression was that of man who had just sucked a lemon after hearing the IRS was after him.

But his quirks became endearing. Comedians did exaggerated imitations of him (on his show), and — I can attest to this personally — teenagers watched at least partly to see what kind of flub Sullivan would make each week. He was a shrewd producer with a fierce temper, and he exercised dictatorial control over his show. But when he walked before the camera he became ill at ease, a bit confused, seemingly petrified with stage fright. In short, he became one of us, an Everyman.

Sullivan is remembered best for his shows starring Elvis Presley and, later, the Beatles. Elvis, at the time criticized for his onstage gyrations (ah, how innocent we were then!), had appeared previously on other TV shows. But when he did the Sullivan show, with its high ratings, he gained Sullivan’s avuncular approval. This young fellow, Sullivan was telling Mom and Dad, is a clean-cut kid, or else why would he be on my show? But just in case, during one of his first appearances, the cameras never showed The King below the waist.

The first Beatles appearance on Sullivan’s show in February of 1964 was a ratings extravaganza and a news-making phenomenon. (More rock ‘n’ roll acts appeared on Sullivan’s show — a citadel of un-hip, not-with-it family entertainment — than on any other variety show of his time.)

Mr. Maguire lists the casts for many of the shows, which ordinarily would get boring fairly quickly. But I found myself fascinated by this reminder of the range of talent Sullivan presented. The first Talk of the Town in 1948 had Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, a ballerina, and a pianist named Eugene List, who played Chopin. There was also a singing fireman and Ruby Goldstein, a boxing referee. The juxtaposition of a ballerina, a referee and Jerry Lewis did not seem incongruous, but made a kind of crazy sense.

In his way, Sullivan created a TV art form, involving rapid and often disorienting changes of style and substance, integrated by the power of his odd personality. After 23 seasons and 1,087 episodes, the faltering show was canceled. It broke Sullivan’s heart. His beloved Sylvia died in 1973, and he died a year later.

Mr. Maguire, astute when it comes to show biz, is a true believer in the standard leftist version (unrevised) of American communism during the 1950s. He says actors accused of communist sympathy or party membership in the 1950s were guilty of nothing more than sympathy for the New Deal. He believes Alger Hiss was a “low-ranking State Department employee” convicted of perjury in a case involving his “alleged” membership in the Communist Party. And all this time I thought Hiss was a communist spy. Who knew?

William F. Gavin is a writer living in McLean, Va.

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