April 28, 2011

Sullivan's Travels

Right Here on Our Stage Tonight: Ed Sullivan’s America
by Gerald Nachman
University of California Press, 466 pages, $18.95 paperback

(review is of hardcover edition)

Jonah Goldberg once said, “Our lack of imagination about how different the future will look causes us to extend the present off into the future.” In the same sense, our knowledge of the present causes us to extend that knowledge to the past. Since this is the way it is now, it’s not hard to imagine that this is the way it’s always been.

And that’s the problem when it comes to appreciating someone such as Ed Sullivan; For anyone under the age of 40, the name Ed Sullivan is a notation in a history book, someone you’ve read about or seen but never really experienced ; Most people have probably seen clips from the Sullivan show (which ran on CBS for a staggering 23 seasons, from 1948 to 1971), particularly the four appearances by the Beatles in 1964-65, but even then what we’re seeing is nothing more than a reference point for a history that is already understood. We watch it on YouTube already knowing how it turns out, what kind of impact it makes, how the future plays out – but imagine seeing it for the first time, not understanding the chaos on the screen in front of us, wondering if it’s all just a fad while perhaps asking ourselves what the world is coming to. In other words, while today we watch in order to see what happened, back then people watched to see what was going to happen.

For millions, the Sullivan show was a window to a landscape many of them had never seen before, a world of Broadway plays and grand opera, dancers from Russia and puppets from Italy, ventriloquists and comedians and plate spinners and nightclub singers, stars that had been heard of but never seen, and others that had never been heard of but would never be forgotten. It was a show the whole family could watch and often did, not only for what was on at the moment, but what might come on next.

Clearly, we live in another world today, beholden to the past but with only the most tangential of resemblances. And so one might be forgiven for wondering why all the fuss about a man who had the stage presence of a cigar store Indian, moved in stiff, stilted gestures, and spoke in garbled sentences about that night’s “really big shew.” What can a dusty old show like that tell us that we don’t already know? Plenty, according to Gerald Nachman in his book, Right Here on Our Stage Tonight: Ed Sullivan’s America.

Nachman, author of previous books on old-time radio and rebel comics of the 50s and 60s, would seem well-positioned to assess the cultural impact of the Sullivan show. But while there certainly is quite a story to tell, about television and pop culture and ourselves, I’m not sure Nachman is the one to tell it. For in many respects this is simply an awful book: poorly written and edited, contradictory, repetitive, and rife with factual errors – some are subtle mistakes that only TV junkies would catch, while others are absolute howlers. And since the reader’s interest is, presumably, in the history of the Sullivan show and its context within the larger scope of American culture, one can’t avoid focusing on those errors. You’ll pardon me, therefore, if I indulge in pointing them out in perhaps more detail than I ordinarily would during a book review.

Some of them are minor, if embarrassing: referring to Nat King Cole’s wife as Natalie, for example, when her name actually was Maria (Natalie, of course, being the daughter), and having the western classic Bonanza on ABC and the original Columbo on CBS, whereas both series were actually on NBC. Others are matters of interpretation: in assessing the impact of the Beatles’ 1964-65 appearances, he casually mentions that rock’s assent rendered variety shows hosted by stars like Dean Martin “passé.” Well, maybe – except that Martin’s show didn’t even premiere until 1965, and somehow managed, in spite of being passé, to hang on until 1974 – making its host, in the process, the highest-paid entertainer on television. Furthermore, in support of his dubious assertion, Nachman cites the youth-oriented music shows Hullabaloo, Hootenanny and Shindig as examples of the new face of music on TV. In fact, Shindig was cancelled in January 1966 and Hullabaloo in August of the same year, while Hootenanny didn’t even make it to the start of the Beatles revolution, disappearing in January 1964 – one month before the first Beatles show. Perhaps Nachman is right, but he has a strange way of proving it.

In another section, Nachman pulls off a hat trick of sorts while discussing the crucial role played by the sponsorship of automotive giant Lincoln in saving the show, managing three contradictory statements about Lincoln’s longtime commercial spokeswoman Julia Meade in the space of three paragraphs – first presenting her as hawking the “new 1961 Lincoln” (which probably occurred in the fall of 1960), while in the next paragraph mentioning that Lincoln stopped sponsoring Sullivan in the fall of 1959, and finally in the next paragraph saying that Meade, as Lincoln spokeswoman, was on the show from 1952 to 1962. Now, at least one of these statements has to be wrong, and it’s not inconceivable that all three are.*

*Based on something earlier in the book, if it can be taken at face value, statements one and three appear to be correct.

Nachman also struggles when analyzing the competition faced by the Sullivan show throughout its run. The first major competitor was NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour, which ran against Ed from 1950 to 1955 and was frequently hosted by Martin and his partner, Jerry Lewis*, but it’s anyone’s guess as to how the two shows did against each other in the ratings. In rapid succession Nachman mentions that Sullivan “was ahead more nights than not,” quotes Jerry as saying he and Dean beat Sullivan “28 times in a row,” and finally, after NBC moved Steve Allen into the Colgate timeslot, says (in citing Allen’s success against Sullivan) that NBC had bested Sullivan only twice in the preceding six years. Those were, of course, the six years that made up Sullivan’s dual with Colgate. If in fact the last comment is true, that would factually validate the assertion that Sullivan led “more nights than not” (although that statement itself implies that the competition was much closer), but makes a hash of Lewis’ statement. So which is it? He then goes on to mention that ABC’s western Maverick, starring James Garner, routs Sullivan in the ratings in March 1959 but collapses within two seasons – and then, in the very next paragraph, says that Maverick “knocked Sullivan from the top ten in 1961 and 1962” (emphasis added) – the very time in which Maverick was supposedly collapsing.

* In a throwaway line he also mentions that the white-hot Martin and Lewis “quickly departed TV for movies,” when in fact they were the only one of Colgate’s rotating hosts to stay with the show for its entire run. They may have hit it big in flicks, but they remained on TV for several years. It is ironic, although, that Martin and Lewis were guests on Sullivan’s first show.

Now, this might seem picky to you, but it matters, especially when one tries to assess Sullivan’s impact on television and entertainment. Nachman tells us how Sunday nights belonged to Sullivan, but clearly he makes a hash of the documentary evidence. And the ratings are important, not only because of Sullivan’s eternal insecurity when it came to his relationship with CBS, but in understanding how the drive for ratings helped precipitate Sullivan’s alliance with rock music: one which, arguably, sowed the seeds for the show’s ultimate downfall.

There really isn’t any excuse for errors like these. I understand, when a writer finds himself on a roll, that it’s not always possible to stop and check minute facts – but that’s what editors and fact-checkers are for! Furthermore, this kind of thing does tend to undermine the reader’s confidence that you, as an author, know what you’re talking about and are qualified to position yourself as an expert.

And yet, for all that, this book matters. And I’m recommending that you read it. (Granted, you’d probably be best off getting it from the library.

How, you may ask, can this be?

Well, the fact that Nachman cares for vintage television (and radio) and understands its importance in the shaping of American culture is a point in his favor right off the bat, and it’s obvious that he speaks with real affection about the era and its icons. He resists the temptation to paint the Golden Age as a time of unalloyed triumph on television – yes, he believes (as I do) that TV was of a higher overall quality back then, but it doesn’t mean that everything on the tube was wonderful. He’s also unwilling to sugarcoat Sullivan’s complex and contradictory life, presenting it warts and all – the man who insisted on programming appropriate for the whole family yet constantly stepped out on his wife, the impresario who could be smooth and charming one moment, cold and calculating the next, the host who demanded wholesome material from comedians and enforced it with profane tirades. He gives Sullivan deserved props for his willingness to bring black entertainers on the show (while at the same time pointing out how he wouldn’t touch anyone on the blacklist).

Nachman scores most of all when he veers away from documenting history and sticks to analyzing it, especially in his description of the Beatles’ triumphant conquering of America*, and specifically Sullivan’s role in persuading his viewers that the Beatles were “safe” for family consumption. He raises a particularly interesting point in suggesting that by welcoming the Beatles and their successors – the Stones, the Doors, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, etc. – Sullivan was in effect making a deal with the devil: he got the high ratings that he coveted and the relevancy he craved, but in doing so he also undermined the homogeneity of his audience, highlighting the growing generation gap and eventually rendering irrelevant the very acts that had served to carry him to such heights. Absent them, and with newer rock acts sniffing their noses at television, Sullivan’s show was doomed.

*Curiously, unless I overlooked it he omits perhaps the best-known anecdote about Sullivan’s influence on culture: that people, even today, identify the Beatles in order as John, Paul, George and Ringo because that’s the order in which Sullivan introduced them. Maybe it’s just apocryphal, or maybe Nachman thinks we know that already. Nonetheless, it’s curious that he doesn’t even mention it.







This perspective carries over to his discussion of the post-Sullivan cultural era. His commentary on celebrity, reality television, and the nature of entertainment are provocative, as are his insights into today’s lack of shared experience brought on by the advent of cable television, the internet, and personal entertainment devices. Above all, Nachman demonstrates not only how Sullivan defined an era, but how that era in turn defined him. Sullivan continued to hobble on for a couple of years after his show was cancelled, and the age of family-based variety shows carried on for a few years more, but ultimately the two eras that had supported each other for so long faded away together.

I said at the outset that Sullivan is a footnote to many, but that’s not quite true. DVDs of the shows continue to pop up, meaning that Sullivan is never completely out of the public eye, and his name alone has become a kind of shorthand for the times in which he lived. But saying that the videos don’t do justice to him itself doesn’t really do justice. To watch Sullivan today, removed from his original context, is to watch a recreation of history; watching him live, for over two decades, was to see that history as it was created. And that’s something completely different.

Gerald Nachman’s book is far from perfect, and one can’t help but think there’s a better version of it out there somewhere, just waiting to be written (or edited, perhaps). But Ed Sullivan was a strange bird, perhaps the most unlikely television star the medium has ever produced, and maybe it’s fitting that a book about him is just as messy. You might not get as much out of this book as you should, but you’ll still wind up with more than when you started.


The Beatles wow 'em on September 2, 1964

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