Edward Vincent Sullivan: September 28, 1901–October 13, 1974


Edward Vincent Sullivan was an American television host, impresario, sports and entertainment reporter and syndicated columnist for the New York Daily News and the Chicago Tribune New York News Syndicate. He was the creator and host of the television variety program The Toast of the Town, which was renamed The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955. Broadcast from 1948 to 1971, it set a record as the longest-running variety show in U.S. broadcast history. “It was, by almost any measure, the last great American TV show,” said television critic & historian David Hinckley. “It’s one of our fondest, dearest pop culture memories.”

Sullivan was born on September 28, 1901, in Harlem, New York City to Elizabeth F. (née Smith) and Peter Arthur Sullivan, a customs house employee. His twin brother Daniel was sickly and lived only a few months. Sullivan was raised in Port Chester, New York, where his family lived in a small red brick home at 53 Washington Street. He was of Irish descent and his family loved music, frequently playing the piano, singing and playing phonograph records. Sullivan was also a gifted athlete in high school, earning 12 athletic letters at Port Chester High School. He played football as a halfback, basketball as a guard and track as a sprinter. With the baseball team, Sullivan played catcher and the team’s captain, leading the team to several championships.

Sullivan landed his first job at The Port Chester Daily Item, a local newspaper for which he had written sports news while in high school and which he joined full-time after graduation. In 1919, he joined The Hartford Post, but the newspaper folded after his first week there. He next worked for The New York Evening Mail as a sports reporter. After that newspaper closed in 1923, he bounced through a series of news jobs with the Associated Press, the Philadelphia Bulletin, The Morning World, The Morning Telegraph, The New York Bulletin and The Leader. In 1927, Sullivan joined The New York Evening Graphic, first as a sports writer and then as a sports editor.

Throughout his entire career as a columnist, Sullivan dabbled in entertainment, producing vaudeville shows during the 1920’s and 1930’s in which he would appear as the master of ceremonies. He also directing a radio program at the original WABC and organized benefit reviews for various worthwhile causes.

In 1929, after Walter Winchell moved to The Daily Mirror, Sullivan was named the New York Evening Graphic‘s Broadway columnist. He left the paper for the city’s largest tabloid, the New York Daily News. His column, “Little Old New York,” concentrated mostly on Broadway shows and celebrity gossip. Sullivan also delivered show business news broadcasts on radio.

In 1933, Sullivan wrote and starred in the film Mr. Broadway, in which he guided the audience around touring various New York nightspots while meeting entertainers and celebrities. Sullivan soon grew professionally to become a powerful force in the entertainment world and one of Winchell’s main rivals, setting the El Morocco nightclub in New York as his unofficial headquarters against Winchell’s seat of power at the nearby Stork Club. Sullivan continued writing for the New York Daily News throughout his broadcasting career; and his popularity long outlived that of Winchell. In the late 1960s, Sullivan praised Winchell’s legacy in a magazine interview, which lead to a major reconciliation between the longtime rivals.

In 1941, Sullivan became host of the Summer Silver Theater, a variety program on CBS, with Will Bradley as his bandleader. The program featured a new guest each week.

In 1948, producer Marlo Lewis convinced CBS to hire Sullivan to host a weekly Sunday-night television variety show, Toast of the Town, which later would become The Ed Sullivan Show. Debuting in June 1948, the show was originally broadcast from Maxine Elliott’s Theatre on West 39th Street in New York. In January 1953, it moved to CBS-TV Studio 50 at 1697 Broadway, a former CBS Radio playhouse that was renamed the Ed Sullivan Theater in 1967.

Television critics originally gave Sullivan’s new television show and its host poor reviews. Harriet Van Horne alleged that “he got where he is not by having a personality, but by having no personality.” (Sullivan wrote her back, “Dear Miss Van Horne: You bitch. Sincerely, Ed Sullivan.”) Sullivan had little to no acting ability. In 1967, 20 years after his show’s debut, Time magazine asked, “What exactly is Ed Sullivan’s talent?” His mannerisms on camera were so awkward that some viewers believed the host suffered from Bell’s Palsy.

In 1955, Time also stated that Sullivan resembled a cigar-store Indian, the Cardiff Giant and a stone-faced monument just off the boat from Easter Island.

“He moves like a sleepwalker; his smile is that of a man sucking a lemon; his speech is frequently lost in a thicket of syntax; his eyes pop from their sockets or sink so deep in their bags that they seem to be peering up at the camera from the bottom of twin wells.”

“Yet,” the magazine concluded, “instead of frightening children, Ed Sullivan somehow manages to charm the whole family.” Sullivan was received by his audience as just an average guy who brought the great acts of show business into their home televisions every Sunday night. “Ed Sullivan will last,” comedian Fred Allen said, “as long as someone else has talent.” Frequent guest Alan King said, “Ed doesn’t really do anything, but he does it better than anyone else in television.” A typical show would usually feature a vaudeville act (such as acrobats, jugglers or magicians), one or two popular comedians, a singing star, a figure from the legitimate theater, and an appearance by puppet Topo Gigio or a popular athlete. The bill was often international in scope, with many European performers appearing along with American artists.

Sullivan had a very healthy sense of humor about himself; permitting and even encouraging impersonators such as John Byner, Frank Gorshin, Rich Little and especially Will Jordan to imitate him on his show. Johnny Carson also performed a fair Sullivan impression and even Joan Rivers would on occassion imitate Sullivan’s unique posture. The impressionists exaggerated his stiffness, raised shoulders and nasal tenor phrasing, along with some of his commonly used introductions, such as “And now, right here on our stage … For all you youngsters out there …” and “a really big shew” (his pronunciation of the word “show”). This latter phrase actually in fact only existed in the exclusive domain of his impressionists, as Sullivan never actually spoke the phrase “really big show” during the opening introduction of any episode in the entire history of his series.

Sullivan was quoted as saying: “In the conduct of my own show, I’ve never asked a performer his religion, his race or his politics. Performers are engaged on the basis of their abilities. I believe that this is another quality of our show that has helped win it a wide and loyal audience.”

Although Sullivan was initially wary of Elvis Presley’s image and said that he would never book him, Presley quickly became too big a name to ignore; and in 1956, Sullivan signed him for three appearances. Six weeks earlier in August 1956, Sullivan and his son-in-law producer of his show, Robert Precht, were in a near fatal car accident near Sullivan’s Connecticut country home in Southbury, Connecticut and missed Presley’s first appearance on September 9, when Charles Laughton introduced Presley on the show. After Sullivan came to know Presley personally, he made amends by telling his audience, “This is a real decent, fine boy.

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Sullivan’s failure to scoop the TV industry with Presley made him determined to be the one who would book the next big sensation first. In November 1963, while at Heathrow Airport, Sullivan witnessed Beatlemania first hand as a cultural spectacle when the band returned from Sweden and the terminal was overrun by screaming teens. At first Sullivan was reluctant to book the Beatles because the band did not yet established a commercially successful hit single song in the United States, but at the behest of his friend Sid Bernstein, Sullivan went ahead and signed the group anyway. Their initial Sullivan show appearance was on February 9, 1964, and the most-watched program event in TV history up to that point. The Beatles would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show three more times in person and then submit filmed performances afterwards.

Unlike many of the contemporary shows of the time, Sullivan insisted most of his musical acts to perform their music live, rather than lip-synching to their recordings. However, some exceptions were made, such as when a microphone could not be placed close enough to a performer for technical reasons.

Sullivan also had a deep professional appreciation for black entertainers. According to biographer Gerald Nachman, “Most TV variety shows welcomed ‘acceptable’ black superstars like Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis Jr. … but in the early 1950s, long before it was fashionable, Sullivan was presenting the much more obscure black entertainers he had enjoyed in Harlem on his uptown rounds — legends like Peg Leg Bates, Pigmeat Markham and Tim Moore … entertainers who were mostly strangers to white America.” Sullivan hosted TV pioneering appearances by Bo Diddley, the Platters, Brook Benton, Jackie Wilson, Fats Domino and numerous other Motown acts including the Supremes, who appeared on his show 17 times.

At a time when television had not yet embraced country and western music, Sullivan regularly featured Nashville performers on his program. This in turn paved the way for future shows such as Hee Haw and variety shows hosted by Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell and other country singers. The Canadian comedy duo Wayne and Shuster made the most appearances of any act throughout the show’s run with 67 appearances between 1958 and 1969.

Sullivan was quick to take offense whenever he felt he had been crossed and he could supposedly hold a grudge for a long time. As he told biographer Gerald Nachman, “I’m a pop-off. I flare up, then I go around apologizing.” Nachman wrote, “Armed with an Irish temper and thin skin, Ed brought to his feuds a hunger for combat fed by his coverage of, and devotion to, boxing.” Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Jackie Mason and Jim Morrison were parties to some of Sullivan’s most storied conflicts.

For his second Sullivan appearance in 1955, Bo Diddley planned to sing his namesake hit, “Bo Diddley,” but Sullivan told him to instead perform Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song “Sixteen Tons.” That would have been the end of my career right there,” Diddley told his biographer, so he went ahead and sang “Bo Diddley” anyway. Sullivan was enraged: “You’re the first black boy that ever double-crossed me on the show,” Diddley quoted him as saying. “We didn’t have much to do with each other after that.”

Buddy Holly and the Crickets first appeared on the Sullivan show in 1957 to an enthusiastic response. For their second appearance in January 1958, Sullivan considered the lyrics of their chosen number “Oh, Boy!” too suggestive, and ordered Holly to substitute another song. Holly responded that he had already told his hometown friends in Texas that he would be singing “Oh, Boy!” for them. Sullivan, unaccustomed to having his instructions questioned, angrily repeated them, but Holly refused to back down. Later, when the band was slow to respond to a summons to the rehearsal stage, Sullivan commented, “I guess the Crickets are not too excited to be on The Ed Sullivan Show.” Holly, still annoyed by Sullivan’s attitude, replied, “I hope they’re damn more excited than I am.”

During Jackie Mason’s October 1964 performance on a show that had been shortened by ten minutes due to an address by President Lyndon Johnson, Sullivan—on-stage but off-camera—signaled Mason that he had two minutes left by holding up two fingers. Sullivan’s signal distracted the studio audience, and to television viewers unaware of the circumstances, it seemed as though Mason’s jokes were falling flat. Mason, in a bid to regain the audience’s attention, cried, “I’m getting fingers here!” and made his own frantic hand gesture: “Here’s a finger for you!” Videotapes of the incident are inconclusive as to whether Mason’s upswept hand (which was just off-camera) was intended to be an indecent gesture, but Sullivan was convinced that it was, and banned Mason from future appearances on the program.

Sullivan decided that “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher,” from the Doors’ signature song “Light My Fire,” was too overt a reference to drug use, and directed that the lyric be changed to “Girl, we couldn’t get much better” for the group’s September 1967 appearance. The band members “nodded their assent,” according to Doors biographer Ben Fong-Torres, then sang the song as originally written. After the broadcast, producer Bob Precht told the group, “Mr. Sullivan wanted you for six more shows, but you’ll never work the Ed Sullivan Show again.” Jim Morrison replied, “Hey, man, we just did the Ed Sullivan Show.”

Moe Howard of the Three Stooges recalled in 1975 that Sullivan had a memory problem of sorts: “Ed was a very nice man, but for a showman, quite forgetful. On our first appearance, he introduced us as the Three Ritz Brothers. He got out of it by adding, ‘who look more like the Three Stooges to me.” Joe DeRita, who worked with the Stooges after 1959, had commented that Sullivan had a personality “like the bottom of a bird cage.”

In a 1990 press conference, Paul McCartney recalled meeting Sullivan again in the early 1970s. Sullivan apparently had no idea who McCartney was. McCartney tried to remind Sullivan that he was one of the Beatles, but Sullivan obviously could not remember, and nodding and smiling, simply shook McCartney’s hand and left.

Sullivan, like many American entertainers, was pulled into the Cold War anticommunist sentiment of the late 1940s and 1950s. Cold War repercussions manifested in a different way when Bob Dylan was booked to appear in May 1963. His chosen song was “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” which poked musical fun at the ultraconservative John Birch Society and its tendency to see Communist conspiracies in various situations. No concern was voiced by anyone, including Sullivan, during rehearsals; but on the day of the broadcast, CBS’s Standards and Practices department rejected the song.

Sullivan was engaged to champion swimmer Sybil Bauer, but she died of cancer in 1927 at the age of 23.

In 1926, Sullivan met and began dating Sylvia Weinstein. Initially she told her family that she was dating a Jewish man named Ed Solomon, but her brother discovered it was Sullivan, who was Catholic. Both their families were strongly opposed to their interfaith marriage, which resulted in a discontinuous relationship for the next three years. They were finally married on April 28, 1930, in a City Hall ceremony. Eight months later Sylvia gave birth to Elizabeth (“Betty”), named after Sullivan’s mother, who had died that year. In 1952, Betty Sullivan married the Ed Sullivan Show’s producer, Bob Precht.

The Sullivans rented a large suite of rooms at the Hotel Delmonico in 1944 after living at the Hotel Astor on Times Square for many years. Sullivan rented a suite next door to the family suite, which he used as an office until The Ed Sullivan Show was canceled in 1971. Sullivan made a habit of calling his wife after every program to get her critique.

The Sullivans regularly dined and socialized at New York City’s best-known clubs and restaurants including the Stork Club, Danny’s Hide-A-Way and Jimmy Kelly’s. Sullivan’s personal friends included other entertainment celebrities and U.S. presidents. He also received audiences with several popes. Sylvia Sullivan was a financial advisor for her husband. She died on March 16, 1973, at Mount Sinai Hospital from a ruptured aorta.

In the fall of 1965, CBS began televising its weekly programs in color. By 1971, the show’s ratings had plummeted. In an effort to refresh the CBS lineup, CBS cancelled the The Ed Sullivan Show in March 1971, along with some of its other long-running shows throughout the 1970–1971 season. Angered, Sullivan refused to host three more months of scheduled shows. They were replaced by reruns and a final program without him aired in June. However, he remained with the network in various other capacities and hosted a 25th anniversary special in June 1973.

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In early September 1974, Sullivan was diagnosed with an advanced stage of esophageal cancer. Doctors gave him very little time to live, and the family chose to keep the diagnosis secret from him. Sullivan, a lifelong smoker, believed his ailment to be yet another complication from a long-standing battle with gastric ulcers.

Sullivan died on October 13, 1974, at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital. His funeral was attended by 2,000 people at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on a cold, rainy day. Sullivan is currently interred at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

Sullivan was a broadcasting pioneer during the early, golden years of American television. As television critic David Bianculli wrote:

“Before MTV, Sullivan presented rock acts. Before Bravo, he presented jazz, classical music and theater. Before the Comedy Channel, even before there was The Tonight Show, Sullivan discovered, anointed and popularized so many young comedians & entertainers. Before there were 500 channels, before there was cable, Ed Sullivan was where the choice was. From the. very start, he was indeed ‘the Toast of the Town.’

Sullivan has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1985. In 1996, Sullivan was ranked number 50 on TV Guide’s “50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time.” ✪