A Really Big Show: Ed Sullivan & Other Variety Programs

If you have parents my age, well, first of all it freaks me out that I am so old that you’re over 18 years old.  But anyway, folks my age may occasionally use the phrase “It’s a really big show,” with “show” pronounced more like “shoe.”

Barbara Streisand on Ed SUllivan
Barbara Streisand on the Ed Sullivan Show 1969

What Big Shoe? You might ask incredulously.  Back in the day when information in any form was not instantaneous or viral, one’s entree into the world of “show business” for American audiences very often meant you appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.  People like Barbara Streisand, The Beatles, The Doors, The Jackson Five, Liza Minelli all got the mass market introduction via this program which aired Sunday nights.  The performances were usually live so anything could happen.

According to EdSullivan.com which represents the show’s current owner, SOFA Entertainment:

Many unforgettable moments took place on Sullivan’s stage including the three historic appearances of Elvis Presley in 1956-57 and The Beatles’s U.S. television debut in February 1964. The Sunday night showcase also benefits from the fact the musical performances on the show were almost always performed live — whether they were pop, rock, jazz, Broadway, opera, classical, etc. The library also includes great comedians, novelty acts, children’s favorites and appearances by film and theater stars as well as top names from the worlds of sports and politics.

Ed Sullivan
Ed Sullivan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ed Sullivan’s aim was to produce and host a show for the entire family and for 23 years Americans gathered around the television sets on Sunday nights at 8 pm.to enjoy the entertainment Ed chose to offer them. Sullivan became a much beloved TV personality who the public related to for his everyman qualities and his down to earth style. Over time, Ed became a key arbiter of American taste and popular culture. EdSullivan.com


I have a lot of fond memories of watching the show with my family on our 13 inch black and white television.  If you remember the show, what was your favorite? Did your family watch together?  One of my favorite acts was Topo Gigio, a bashful mouse puppet with an Italian accent.  Here’s a video from YouTube (http://youtu.be/7PAj2hWD_Pg):

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could get away with something like Topo Gigio today; we would take it all very seriously. But, even more, that one program could hold so much influence over the hearts and minds of the American people. You have to remember this was before the internet, before cable TV and our parents had grown up in the depression of the 1930s when vaudeville still existed and movies, news reels and the radio were the only non-print forms of mass communication. In short: it was a different world.

Even in the 1960s and 1970s we had three networks and PBS. TV broadcasts where I lived in Albany, NY, in the 1960s actually turned off in the wee hours of the morning. If we couldn’t sleep we had to read! So we depended on shows like the Ed Sullivan show to bring these artists to our attention.

Because Sullivan got top talent he was very popular. I remember seeing performances by artists I would never have known of otherwise. This was still when people had acts: America’s Got Talent reminds me of it but without the competitive aspect. Some of these acts came were jugglers, Russian Dancers, and all kinds of family acts like singers, and acrobats. These were like vaudeville. There was something for everyone. The show was on from 1948 to 1971. It spawned many other variety shows like “Laugh-In,” “Sonny and Cher” and the “Carol Burnett Show.” Until American idol and other performance based reality shows, variety television was out of fashion.