“We’re gonna be on Ed Sullivan!” — Bye, Bye Birdie song lyrics

Vaudeville lived on for decades with Ed Sullivan.

Never mind that wooden persona—Ed Sullivan was a a tyrant impresario. True to the old vaudeville tradition, he put on a family show. If your joke was risque, you dropped it or else; if your dancing was too suggestive, you modified it, or else; if your song had sexy words, you changed them, or else. Cross Ed Sullivan and you’re practically blackballing yourself in the world of showbiz. The Sullivan show was live, so you could, theoretically, defy the man (as did Mick Jagger when the Rolling Stones sang a line in a song that Ed told him to change), but few performers could risk what that would do to their careers. Ed Sullivan had “a puritan’s nose for what might offend,” and he used his control to make certain there were no off-color jokes. This is exactly what happened in vaudeville. If the theater manager didn’t approve of one of your jokes, or of a line in your skit, or one of your songs, or of your plunging neckline, you changed it or you were cancelled.

All of Sullivan’s original competition—Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor, Jerry and Dino, saw their shows cancelled. But Sullivan ran non-stop from 1948 to 1971, from Harry Truman to Richard Nixon, from the arrival of television to the man on the moon. In human terms that’s one generation, but in TV land, it’s a lifetime. And he’s still on today, in reruns that continue to pull a large audience.

But you have to give Ed credit where credit is due. In the 1950s, when black faces did not appear on television (I still remember my shock in the 1960s when I first saw a commercial for laundry powder that featured a black woman, because I had never seen that before!), there were many African Americans on the Sullivan stage. Once Ed horrified a sponsor by hugging jazz singer Sarah Vaughn in front of millions, but he refused to discriminate. Very vaudeville.

Ed Sullivan and Michael Jackson

Ed was well aware of prejudice, coming from an Irish-American family and from a vaudeville tradition where the performer’s skill, not his gender, color, religion, or nationality was what counted. Vaudeville was hugely skewed toward Jews, immigrants, blacks, and women. The Ed Sullivan show would be similarly open to all. Think about that the next tie you’re tempted to diss poor old stiff-necked Ed Sullivan



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