The Middlebrow on Sunday Night
In Bye Bye Birdie, the 1960 musical about the coming of rock and roll to small-town America, the members of an Ohio family sing a song called “Hymn for a Sunday Evening” in which they tell of their abiding love for The Ed Sullivan Show, the Sunday-night TV variety show on which they are about to appear with Conrad Birdie, an Elvis Presley–like pop idol: “How could any family be/Half as fortunate as we?/We’ll be coast to coast/With our favorite host.”
But while most people who see Bye Bye Birdie today—it remains one of the most performed shows in the American repertory—know that Sullivan, unlike Birdie, was a real person and that Elvis Presley’s 1956 performances on his program were a watershed moment in the singer’s early career, the larger point of the song is lost on younger viewers, few of whom are aware of how central a role The Ed Sullivan Show once played in American culture.
Originally called Toast of the Town, Sullivan’s program aired each week on CBS from 1948 to 1971. Throughout much of that time, it was one of the most popular on television. Countless families ritually watched it together in their living rooms every Sunday night. Though Presley and the Beatles, who appeared in 1964, are Sullivan’s best-remembered guests, some 10,000-odd other performers and groups—among them Woody Allen, Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Irving Berlin, George Carlin, Johnny Carson, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Noël Coward, Judy Garland, the Muppets, Edith Piaf, Richard Pryor, Barbra Streisand, and the Supremes—were seen on the show during its 23-year run. In the 50s and 60s, to be booked by Sullivan was universally regarded as a sure sign that an up-and-coming performer was well on the way to stardom. “When Ed put his arm around you and pulled you over and said, ‘She’s a really funny little lady,’” Carol Burnett recalled, “America said, ‘She’s a really funny little lady.’”
That Sullivan should also have become a star in his own right seemed as unlikely at the time as it now does in retrospect. A stiff-necked newspaper columnist with a hooty, nasal voice and a rigidly inexpressive face, he exuded discomfort whenever he stepped in front of a TV camera. “He remains totally innocent of any of the tricks of stage presence, and it seems clear by now that his talents lie elsewhere,” wrote John Crosby, the TV critic of the New York Herald Tribune, six months after the Sullivan show made its debut. Yet the most scathing of reviews failed to put the smallest of dents in his popularity.
In his prime, Sullivan used that popularity with a free hand. From its earliest years, black artists of every sort were welcome on his program. So were performers drawn from the rarefied realms of high culture. And virtually alone among his generation of TV hosts, Sullivan embraced rock and soul avidly. In addition to Presley and the Beatles, the Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Doors, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, and Stevie Wonder all appeared.
Yet the time came when the Sullivan formula ceased to be infallible. Starting in 1968, his show’s ratings plummeted, and it was unceremoniously canceled by CBS three years later. Why did so many viewers stop tuning in to one of the programs they had loved best? Had America’s favorite host lost his touch—or was American culture changing in ways with which he was incapable of coming to terms?
Sullivan’s life and career have been the subject of several books, the most recent of which is Gerald Nachman’s Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan’s America (University of California Press). Though poorly edited and tiresomely repetitive, Nachman’s book offers a readable account of the making of The Ed Sullivan Show, as well as a fair amount of information about Sullivan’s off-camera life.
Born in 1901, Sullivan entered newspaper journalism as a young man, first becoming a sportswriter, then changing hats to write a long-running Broadway column for the New York Daily News. Unable to move beyond the second tier of Broadway columnists, Sullivan sought to augment his income by hosting a series of failed radio shows and, more effectively, by doubling as a vaudeville producer and master of ceremonies in the last days of what was then a dying entertainment medium.
Later on, he hosted charity stage shows, a sideline that in 1948 brought him to the attention of Worthington Miner, a CBS executive who was seeking to launch a variety show that could be produced inexpensively (TV was not yet profitable in 1948).
Then and later, most variety shows were hosted by performers—usually comedians like Milton Berle, whose Texaco Star Theater was network TV’s first hit series—but Miner thought that a nonperforming master of ceremonies might wear better over the long haul. As he later explained: “[Sullivan] doesn’t compete or interfere with the acts. He just gets them on and off and lets the audience enjoy itself. On the TV screen, Sullivan comes off just like the guy next door.”
As for Sullivan, he had concluded that his career as a columnist was in decline and he was eager, even desperate, to try something new, even though the program that Miner had in mind would be done on the cheap (the talent budget for the earliest episodes of Toast of the Town was $375 a show, $3,300 in today’s dollars). Toast of the Town made its debut on June 20, and the show became a ratings success within a few months of its debut. Critics, however, found its popularity impossible to understand, and almost without exception they wrote contemptuously of the program and its host.
What they failed to understand was that Sullivan’s major contribution to Toast of the Town was not as the show’s on-camera host but as its backstage producer. He picked the acts, edited their material ruthlessly, and determined the order in which they would appear. The last of these functions was crucial. Sullivan instinctively understood that television audiences had short attention spans. In vaudeville, top-billed acts had usually gone on in the third and next-to-last slots of the evening, but Sullivan knew that TV viewers were too impatient for that. “You think people are gonna wait to see what you got at the end?” he said. “This isn’t vaudeville. People flip that knob.” So he kept his acts short—especially comedy routines—and opened each telecast with the most popular artist on the bill, usually bringing him back later in the evening to perform a second time.
And he programmed the show with an eye toward the broadest possible audience. Accordingly, each program featured a pop–music act, at least one comedian, and a novelty act for “the kids.” (Sullivan favored ventriloquists like Señor Wences, the Spaniard whose interactions with his own hand and with a disembodied head he kept in a wooden box bordered on the surrealistic.) Performers were ordered to “keep it clean,” an iron rule from which the host tolerated no deviations. “Blue” material was scissored from all comedy routines, and women were not allowed to show their cleavage on the air.
Sullivan’s goal was to create a program that the whole family could watch together, and he succeeded brilliantly. In the mid-50s, one out of every four Americans tuned in to The Ed Sullivan Show regularly.
Yet his programming instinct soon led him beyond what was then considered standard variety-show fare. Not only did the Broadway-conscious Sullivan air scenes from such plays and musicals as Cabaret, The Member of the Wedding, My Fair Lady, Picnic, and West Side Story, but also Maria Callas, Van Cliburn, Rudolf Nureyev, Itzhak Perlman, Roberta Peters, Andrés Segovia, Edward Villella, and Jerome Robbins’ Ballets: U.S.A. all performed for his cameras, some of them repeatedly (Peters made 41 appearances on the program).
“If a comic, an actor, a singer, opera star, ballet dancer, or a lady who knits with her toes pleases me,” Sullivan said in 1968, “the chances are she’ll please everybody in town or the country.” More often than not, he was right. But he also took great care to make such “difficult” fare palatable by integrating it into shrewdly balanced mixed bills. A typical 1966 show featured the soul singer James Brown, the comedian Stan Freberg, the impressionist Rich Little, Nancy Sinatra, the U.S. Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon—and a scene from Maxwell Anderson’s 1930 play Elizabeth the Queen performed by Dame Judith Anderson.
This willingness to present so wide a range of artists in the setting of a popular variety show was largely without precedent in TV or radio. But it was all of a piece with the tone of American popular culture in the 50s and early 60s. Throughout this period, America’s deep-seated collective longing for self-improvement, enabled by the power of the mass media, fostered a “middlebrow moment” in American culture, a period when ordinary middle-class Americans took a greater interest in high culture than at any time before or since.
To look back at Ed Sullivan’s America is to see a different country, one in which Leonard Bernstein lectured about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on TV and high-culture icons appeared with reasonable frequency on the covers of Time and Life. No less exemplary of the middlebrow moment was the actor Charles Laughton, who in the 50s toured the country reading from the Bible and performing George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell in high-school gymnasiums as part of the First Drama Quartette, an ensemble of aging movie stars. Laughton, a frequent guest on The Ed Sullivan Show, spoke in 1950 of how “people had—contrary to what I had been told in the entertainment industry—a common shy hunger for knowledge.” By feeding that hunger, Laughton and others like him raised the tone of American cultural life, in the process making themselves rich and famous.
Ed Sullivan’s special contribution to the middlebrow moment was not merely to put high culture on TV but also to present it on a plane of equality with pop culture. In this way, viewers received the subliminal message that high art is deserving of respect and accessible to everyone.
For the most part, intellectuals of the period cast a frigid eye on the middlebrow moment. They feared, not altogether unreasonably, that to breach the dam that separated high art from pop culture would lead to the watering down of the former by the latter. As Dwight Macdonald wrote in “Masscult & Midcult,” the 1960 Partisan Review essay that crystallized highbrow thinking about middlebrow culture, magazines like Life paid dubious homage to high art by publishing “nine color pages of Renoir paintings followed by a picture of a roller-skating horse.” To those who argued that Life was thereby introducing Renoir to people who might otherwise have known only about roller-skating horses, Macdonald snippily replied, “Somehow these scramblings together seem to work all one way, degrading the serious rather than elevating the frivolous.”
Yet middlebrow culture also nurtured a generation of Americans who went on to become full-fledged highbrows—not a few of whom first made the acquaintance of high culture via Ed Sullivan. “The first time I ever heard an opera singer was on The Ed Sullivan Show,” the great American bass Samuel Ramey, who grew up in a small Kansas town, has said. “I’d never been exposed to opera at all before then. I remember seeing Roberta Peters. I just fell madly in love with her.”
Just as the ascendancy of the Sullivan show marked the apogee of the middlebrow moment, so did the show’s decline and fall mark its terminus. By the end of Sullivan’s run on CBS, his program had fallen to No. 43 in the Nielsen ratings.
The proximate cause of his demise was the discovery by TV executives that younger viewers, enabled by America’s growing affluence, bought more of the products advertised on TV commercials than did their parents. This made it more cost-effective to produce shows specifically pitched to younger, urban-based audiences.
For a time Sullivan managed to fend off the inevitable by booking more rock groups, but teenagers grew increasingly unwilling to sit through the rest of the show in order to see their favorites. Not only were the rock groups of the 60s more interested in making albums than performing on TV, but the young people who bought their albums also had other entertainment options that were not available to their older brothers and sisters. A growing number of them now had television sets and cars of their own, and they had no interest in staying home on Sunday nights to watch TV with their hopelessly uncool parents.
Today, nearly four decades after Sullivan disappeared from prime time, the common middlebrow culture that he exemplified has disappeared as well. Americans under the age of 50 find it all but impossible to imagine a time when there were TV programs that “everybody” watched, much less that many of those same programs went out of their way to introduce their audiences to high art. The communal experience of watching Sullivan on Sundays has now been supplanted by the solitary experience of downloading TV shows from iTunes and viewing them on an iPod. Today one sees and hears exactly what one wants, and nothing else. On The Ed Sullivan Show, by contrast, those who tuned in to see the Rolling Stones or Señor Wences would also be exposed at the same time to Count Basie or John Gielgud or Margot Fonteyn, an aesthetic encounter whose long-term consequences might be—and very often was—both unforeseen and profound.
Hence the powerful feelings that were evoked when I watched the cast of the recent Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie sing “Hymn for a Sunday Evening.” The lost world that they hymned, for all its undeniable flaws, was one that thought well of cultural aspiration—a kind of aspiration that, like The Ed Sullivan Show itself, is now a thing of the all-but-unimaginable past.