Even today, The Ed Sullivan Show endures as an iconic television program. Critics still laud its staying power, and music lovers can cite all of the famous artists who got their start with Sullivan – the Beatles, anyone? Still, this popular program had plenty of secrets, as did its host, Ed Sullivan. So with that in mind, here are 20 behind-the-scenes secrets you weren’t supposed to find out.
20. Sullivan skipped college – and his family didn’t like it
No one could have predicted Ed Sullivan’s future as a famous broadcaster. Still, his family seemed to hope he’d take a more traditional path in life; they encouraged him to go to college and study. Sullivan instead followed his own instinct to work in the newspaper industry, which he did from 1918 to 1932.
During that time, Sullivan had bylines at a slew of different publications. Smaller papers like The Port Chester Daily Item and the Hartford Post gave way to publications in bigger cities. He wrote for The Philadelphia Ledger and a handful of New York-based titles, including The New York Daily News.
19. Sullivan wasn’t a natural TV presenter.
The TV personality’s experience in writing did little to prepare him for his future on-camera job. Indeed, he had started to dip his toes into the entertainment pond prior to The Ed Sullivan Show. He produced some vaudeville shows in the 1920s and 30s and served as the master of ceremonies for the stagings. Plus, he directed and hosted radio shows.
In front of the camera, though, it was a different story. Sullivan often flubbed his lines and seemed awkward while on-screen. In one instance, according to Vanity Fair, he referred to guest Irving Berlin as “the late Irving Berlin.” Sullivan introduced Samoan performers as “Samoans from Samoa;” and he incorrectly classified clarinetist Benny Goodman as a “trumpeter.”
18. Sullivan rejected the era’s racial divide
In the mid-20th century, television producers tended to shun African-American guests from shows like Sullivan’s, but the TV host rejected such a racist notion. Instead, he invited talented guests onto his program, regardless of color. And his openness helped launch the careers of such superstars as The Supremes, Louis Armstrong and James Brown.
Not everyone appreciated Sullivan’s efforts, of course; he received a lot of backlash from certain parts of the country. However, his racially unbiased program had an effect on the Civil Rights movement. Actress and singer Diahann Carroll, for example, said that his actions had a huge impact on black culture, according to Travelfuntu.com.
17. Sullivan used his platform to raise awareness for mental health issues
Nowadays, many celebrities make a point to talk about their mental health trials and tribulations, perhaps in order to help someone out of the spotlight who’s suffering. Back in Sullivan’s time, though, such behavior wasn’t commonplace. But the TV host made a point to highlight mental health on his show.
For one thing, Sullivan had a guest named Joshua Logan on-air in 1953, and Logan used the platform to recount his own mental breakdown. Sullivan also talked to a guest about his time in a mental institution; and this shed light on the country’s struggle with mental health. Furthermore, the record shows that Sullivan felt proud of this contribution to the country.
16. The show only featured live performances
Before The Ed Sullivan Show came around, musicians performed on TV, but they didn’t really perform. Instead, they lip-synced along with a track and that was it. But Sullivan refused to let such a system on his show; instead, the host required everyone to play live.
Sullivan’s insistence on live performances changed the face of TV. Indeed, tune into any late-night or daytime talk show nowadays and most guest musicians play and sing on the spot. Sullivan was the first to require it, thus kick-starting an industry-wide preference for live acts. And that’s just one way he revolutionized TV.
15. Sullivan didn’t laugh at his comedian guests
A comedian takes to the stage for one reason only; they want laughs. Those funny guys and gals lucky enough to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show could expect at least one cold audience member during their performances. According to comedian George Carlin, Sullivan would never laugh at his guests’ sets.
In his 2009 autobiography, Last Words, Carlin wrote, “The Ed Sullivan Show’s worst weapon of torture was that it was live. There were no second takes on Sullivan. During your set, Ed would stand onstage over to stage right. Out of camera range but onstage. So the entire audience never watched the comic. They were watching Sullivan to see if he would laugh. And he never did. Playing comedy to the Sullivan audience was agony. You’d get more laughs in a mausoleum.”
14. Sullivan had serious demands for the Rolling Stones
It’s hard to imagine any of today’s late-night talk show hosts demanding a particular performance from a musician, especially a group like The Rolling Stones. Sullivan had no qualms with requiring that the band change the lyrics to their song “Let’s Spend the Night Together” when they sang it on his show in early 1967.
Stones frontman Mick Jagger clearly didn’t like the edits to his song’s lyrics, so he rolled his eyes throughout his performance. Rumor has it that his attitude caused a rift between the band and Sullivan. Although they logged six total appearances on his show, the Rolling Stones never returned after their attitude-filled performance in ‘67.
13. Burt Reynolds said “no” to appearing on the show
It’s hard to believe any star would turn down a chance to visit The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1966 actor Burt Reynolds had just landed the titular role on a TV series called Hawk, on which he played a Native American detective. Sullivan loved the show, so he invited Reynolds onto his own.
However, Reynolds declined the TV personality’s offer for him to appear. Later, the actor explained that he didn’t feel like a big enough star to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. His refusal hurt the TV show host who was a big fan of Reynolds’ work; though eventually, the actor grew to regret his refusal to appear.
12. As a writer, Sullivan had a bitter rivalry – that ended in a brawl
Sullivan’s first column as a Broadway writer called out other columnists in the same position. He wrote, among other insults, “I have entered a field of writing which ranks so low that it is difficult to distinguish any one columnist.” The night after publication, Sullivan ran into fellow Broadway writer Walter Winchell, who asked him if he meant what he wrote.
According to Vanity Fair, Winchell wanted to know if Sullivan meant what he wrote in the papers that day. In response, the latter said he did it to make a bang with his first column, and Winchell thanked him for apologizing. But Sullivan didn’t mean this as an apology – instead, the star later wrote that he grabbed the man “by the know in his necktie.” From there, the writers embarked on a rivalry that lasted the rest of their lives.
11. Sullivan’s guest gave him the finger – so he got revenge
Comedian Jackie Mason had a six-appearance, $45,000 contract to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. But things went awry during one performance in which Sullivan signaled to the comedian that he had two minutes left in his set. Mason then somewhat mimicked the hosts behavior, and he using his own fingers to signal back to the host.
As he did so, Mason appeared to slightly separate his fingers, making it appear to Sullivan that his guest had flipped him off. This outraged Sullivan, who terminated the comedian’s contract. Mason eventually fought back against the claims, saying he didn’t flip Sullivan the bird. The two made amends, but Mason faced a permanent ban from the show when he impersonated Sullivan.
10. The Doors also faced Sullivan’s wrath
Sullivan didn’t just slap his name on a show and hand the reins over to someone else – he had all of the power in terms of his program’s creative direction. As such, he made a request of The Doors’ lead singer, Jim Morrison, when he and his band appeared on the show in 1967.
The Doors were slated to sing their hit song “Light My Fire,” but Sullivan didn’t like one of the lyrics. He asked the band to change the words, “Girls, we couldn’t get much higher,” to, “Girls, we couldn’t get much better.” Morrison decided not to oblige the host’s request and sang the real lyrics live, earning him and his bandmates a ban from the show.
9. Bob Dylan cancelled his appearance on the show
Clearly, not every performer scheduled to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show appreciated the host’s creative edits. Another such guest was singer Bob Dylan, who was slated to appear on the variety series in May 1963. That performance never came to fruition, though.
Dylan had wanted to sing “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” but the network censors disagreed. So, when Dylan came in to rehearse, they requested that he swap out the track for another of his famous tunes. Instead, the singer simply walked out, opting not to perform on Ed Sullivan at all.
8. Sullivan appeared super awkward
As previously mentioned, Sullivan didn’t spend his life preparing to be on TV. He often messed up his lines, and he mostly looked awkward and shifty while on camera. On top of that, Sullivan often appeared nervous meeting his guests, too, even though he was a bona fide star himself.
Sullivan’s demeanor didn’t make his viewers uncomfortable while they watched his awkwardness and listened to him mess up line after line. Instead, his behavior somehow endeared him to audiences across the United States. Perhaps his sometimes strange behavior is one of the reasons why the show endured on-air from 1948 until 1971.
7. The Ed Sullivan Theater has a sketchy past
Nowadays, The Ed Sullivan Theater is all bright lights and old-school glamour. The building that once housed the famous host’s eponymous show has also set the backdrop for CBS’ The Late Show since 1993, first for host David Letterman and now for Stephen Colbert. It sits on the National Register of Historic Places, and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission considers the interior to be noteworthy.
Of course, not all that glitters is gold. The Ed Sullivan Theater actually has a sketchy past, tracing back to 1933. At that time – in the midst of the booze-free Prohibition era – the theater struggled to stay afloat. So, it appeared to become a music hall, but it was actually a front business for notorious mobster Lucky Luciano.
6. A mistake got guitarist Bo Diddley on Sullivan’s bad side
Guitarist Bo Diddley counts as yet another musician who had problems with Sullivan. However, the legendary musician claims that his beef was unintentional. When he accepted the invitation to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, Diddley had been asked to play just one of his songs, a track called “Sixteen Tons.”
Before his performance, however, Diddley became confused when the teleprompter scrolled, “Bo Diddley, Sixteen Tons.” The singer just so happened to have a song called “Bo Diddley,” as well as one called “Sixteen Tons.” So, he misinterpreted the message to mean he would play two tunes on-air. Diddley started with the first on the list, but never got the chance to play the hit Sullivan actually requested – leaving him quite angry.
5. Sullivan should have had a twin.
Sullivan rose to meteoric levels of fame, and he did so without the twin he was meant to have by his side. On his birthday, September 28, 1901, Sullivan came into the world with a twin brother. Sadly, though, the second Sullivan son died before the pair of boys reached their first birthday.
You might think such an occurrence so early in Sullivan’s life would not have affected him. Instead, according to Travelfuntu.com, “The loss of his brother is said to have had a profound impact on him.”
4. Sullivan lost the love of his life at a young age
Loss marred the early years of Sullivan’s life – first, his brother died, and then, the woman he loved. In the 1920s he fell for Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer, Sybil Bauer. Although he popped the question, the pair would never make it down the aisle. At just 23 years old, Bauer lost a battle with cancer.
The future TV host eventually moved on from the loss of Bauer. In 1930 Sullivan married Sylvia Weinstein, and he stayed with her for more than four decades. Still, some people opine that his long-term marriage to Weinstein couldn’t replace his relationship with Bauer – and he never got to marry his true love.
3. Tigers almost attacked the show’s audience
Sullivan made a point to bring in a variety of acts to perform on his eponymous TV show. One out-of-the-box choice was animal tamer Clyde Beatty. But when the latter visited the Ed Sullivan Theater’s stage, he knew something was wrong. Namely, the space would be too small for him to perform his tiger-centric act.
But Sullivan wouldn’t let Beatty out of performing; instead, he coaxed the animal tamer to perform the routine anyway. So, Beatty and his tigers hit the stage, but things didn’t go as planned. The ringleader lost control of the animals, who almost made their way into the show’s audience area. Fortunately, the tiger tamer got the big cats under control before disaster struck.
2. Sullivan disliked both Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra
When he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, Elivs Presley performed “Hound Dog” for more than 60 million American TV viewers. His performance grabbed 86.2 percent of the whole U.S. watching audience that night, but it did little to ingratiate him with Sullivan. Instead, he’s said to have never liked Presley because of his vulgar hip thrusting and lyrics.
It’s clear Sullivan didn’t hold back when he didn’t like someone. Along with Presley, then, crooner Frank Sinatra also rubbed Sullivan the wrong way. No concrete reason was given, but he couldn’t stand the “My Way” singer. Sullivan also had feuds with the likes of Nat King Cole and Arthur Godfrey.
1. The show ended for a strange reason
TV critics look back on The Ed Sullivan Show with incredible fondness. Indeed, the show remained on air for more than two decades, and it became the longest-running variety show of its time. Still, it eventually had to come to an end, and it did so for quite a strange reason.
Once upon a time, TV executives aimed their programming at non-coastal areas of the United States. However, that all changed when a man named Fred Silverman took over daytime programming. He swapped focus from these rural areas to coastal cities, thus removing any program aimed at the American masses. The Ed Sullivan Show counted as such a series, so it got the axe in 1971.