November 6, 2019

The "It's About TV" Interview: Rob Precht, Ed Sullivan's grandson

A while back, I got a very nice email from a gentleman named Rob Precht, who complimented the website and mentioned that he happened to be Ed Sullivan's grandson. [As well as the son of Robert Precht, Ed's son-in-law and longtime producer of the Sullivan show.] My first reaction was to be flattered that someone who knew a fair deal about classic television was reading and liking the site; my second was we have to talk! I asked Rob if he was up to being the latest participant in the It's About TV! Interview, and, to our great fortune, he was only too happy to comply.

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It's About TV: When did you first become aware that grandpa was actually someone pretty famous? 

Rob Precht: To me he’s always been grandpa. I sensed he was special when we would walk on the streets when I was around 6 and people would surround him asking for his autograph.

The show, which premiered as Talk of the Town in 1948, virtually at the outset of television history, runs all the way to 1971—23 years. And yet many see Ed Sullivan as the most unlikely person ever to host a television show. Impressionists loved to parody him (although I always suspected it was done more out of affection)—how did he manage to survive on TV for so long? 

Actually, he was a natural pick to host the show. Television was a brand-new industry in 1948. CBS executives were looking for someone to host a show. Ed had been a gossip columnist for many years and knew all the talents in New York. He could put them together in a show. Plus, he had done many live shows, the Harvest Moon Ball and Harlem Cavalcade among them. He was comfortable on stage. So, he was a natural pick. If one looks at the early kinescopes of the show one will see a man totally comfortable in this element. He didn’t feel he needed to impress people.

A lot of people look at Ed and wonder if he was really comfortable being on-screen, being so visible to the audience?

The better question is was he ever not comfortable being on-screen and the answer is no.

It also seems to me that I’ve read that he didn’t always think he was properly appreciated by CBS for his accomplishments as far as attracting viewers for the network and the sponsors.

The first two years of the show were high anxiety. Critics savaged Ed. At one point he learned CBS was shopping around the show to new sponsors “with or without Ed Sullivan.” That hurt him. But by 1950 or so the show was on a solid footing, and whatever resentments Ed may have had toward CBS dissipated.

Your dad, Bob Precht. produced the show for many years. How much of the responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the show, such as choosing the guests, was his, and how much of it was Ed’s?

Dad was an officer in the Navy when Ed recruited him to join the new industry of television, sort of like joining an internet startup in the 1990s.

He pulled all the elements together, but Ed was still in charge of choosing the guests. Dad also oversaw the show’s budget. He introduced more rehearsals to give the show a more polished look. But he presented all major decisions to Ed and Ed sometimes made changes.

Your mother, Betty, was the only child of Ed and Sylvia. What kind of a marriage did Ed and Sylvia have, with him being so involved in the entertainment world? 

Ed and Sylvia were devoted to each other. Ed had a racy night life as a columnist and liked to flirt with beautiful women, but my sense is their marriage was rock solid. Sylvia loved being the wife of Ed Sullivan.

One of Ed's better known feuds was with rival columnist Walter Winchell, who tried but failed to duplicate Ed's success on television. I know that in Michael Herr's novel about Winchell, he suggests that they made up late in life, but I don't know how based on fact that is.

Yes, he made up with Winchell and he introduced Winchell from the audience during one of the last shows.

Do you remember hearing about any controversies as far as acts that they wanted to be on the show but couldn’t get, or conversely acts that maybe they weren’t crazy about, but felt some pressure to have on either because of network ties, or because they’d bring in a big audience?

No. Obviously, Ed did not like anything that was in bad taste, such as telling dirty jokes. When acts were “censored” such as the lyrics of the Rolling Stones and the Doors, the censorship originated with CBS network executives not Ed. Also, the old story of Bob Dylan walking off the show needs to be clarified: Ed was perfectly happy for Dylan to sing his song spoofing the John Birch Society. It was CBS that objected to the song and asked it to be replaced by another song. Dylan refused.

I don’t know how many people are aware of the impact that Ed had as far as bringing black entertainers on his show, and bringing them into the public consciousness. 

Since his earliest days as a columnist in the 1920s, Ed valued and promoted African American talent. He objected to sports segregation in 1929. Being a New Yorker who traveled to Harlem frequently, he came into contact with African American athletes, singers, dancers and Jazz Greats. He detested racism. Ed brought that sensibility to his television show. He presented a huge array of African American performers from the very start. He did so not to send a message or to be sanctimonious. He featured African Americans because he couldn’t imagine any kind of quality show without them.

Was that a hard sell for him? Did he have difficulty with his sponsors, or with the network when he insisted on these performers? 

There were  grumbles from some southern sponsors during the early 1950s, but they were sporadic. Also, after Ed started featuring African Americans in 1948, it made it easier for later shows to do the same such as Arthur Godfrey and Ted Mack.

Rob Precht
It might be difficult for a lot of younger people to appreciate how different things were back in the age of three television networks, but your grandfather was basically America’s arbitrator of success. I mean, if you appeared on the Sullivan show, I don’t want to just say that you had it made, but you’d really accomplished something.

Yes, in a real sense Ed was the curator of culture for all of America. If a person or act appeared on the show it meant that here something you – the American people – should see and appreciate. Also, television was a much more communal experience than it is today. Families watched the show together, and friends and neighbors on Monday discussed who they had seen Sunday night. His show was a microcosm of a fully integrated society and I think it contributed to making the country more tolerant.

It really was a who's who: Elvis, the Beatles, the Supremes—the Supremes were a personal favorite of his, weren’t they?

He particularly liked Diana Ross and the Supremes. He liked the borsht belt comedians and old-time vaudeville stars like Sophie Tucker. I would not say the Beatles or Elvis were “favorites” of his. He knew they were hot, and he wanted him on the show, like a newspaperman scooping the competition.

Right. So there are these big pop stars, and the Muppets, and Bill Cosby, all kinds of people who went on to great fame. But he was also committed to what might have been called the middlebrow culture of the day: excerpts from the newest and biggest Broadway plays and musicals, fully staged scenes from operas being performed at the Metropolitan, and classical performers like Roberta Peters, who was I think a guest over 60 times. Why do you think it was so important for him to include these kinds of performances?

Because these performers were the best at what they did. They were champions in their fields. Ed respected champions and wanted others to see them.  He once devoted 15 minutes to a Met opera. The ratings took a dive, so when he presented opera the next time it was two songs at most. Also, he devoted a full hour to the Moisyiev Ballet from Moscow. Inconceivable today.

And yet it’s not only inconceivable that you’d see this on TV today, I can’t even begin to imagine what show they’d appear on. It would be hard to picture Placido Domingo on the Letterman show.

The late night shows are not venues for audiences composed of all age groups, the way the variety shows were in the 1950s.

Gerald Nachman, who wrote what I thought was an interesting but very flawed biography of your grandfather, nevertheless raised a particularly interesting point in suggesting that by welcoming the Beatles and their successorsthe 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. As someone who is both an aficionado of classic television and one with intimate knowledge of the show, would you agree with that statement?

No, I don’t agree. Television was becoming more fragmented in ways that had nothing to do with Ed’s decisions. Households had more than one TV in the 1960s so the kids could tune into their own shows like Shindig. Cable brought more channels and choices too. Ed’s ratings were always high, but his viewership was getting older, and CBS wanted shows to appeal to younger people. That’s why his show was cancelledit appealed to an older demographic. But this was the fate of many old-style television shows that were born in the early years of television. The country changed and so did television.

I suppose Johnny Carson would have been the successor to Ed in terms of being that kingmaker or queenmaker, and introducing those young entertainers.

No, Carson was not a successor since his show appeared late at night. Ed had no successor.

The show was finally cancelled in 1971, after debuting in 1948. Do you remember how Ed reacted to the cancellation, how he took it? After all, it wasn’t that it was a ratings failure, but that the network and sponsors had decided the audience was too old.

Of course, he was disappointed. But I think he realized he had had a great run.

I’m curious, because we’re both fans of classic TV—how do you view the state of television today? Does it compare to the era in which Ed’s show was on, is it better—some call it the Platinum Age, as opposed to the Golden Age—or is there something about today’s shows that is missing? Call it humanity, or tact, or restraint?

Television is no longer a communal experience, that’s the biggest change. Television shows are no longer produced live, like Ed’s show, so there is a lack of spontaneity and excitement. Consumers of media these days are siloed in their own worlds. As a consequence, people are not exposed to as much culture as they were in the days of Ed Sullivan when Rock and Roll stars, talented dogs, opera singers, Jazz Greats, ballerinas and scenes from the latest Broadway shows appeared on the same stage, live, and were viewed by millions of people at the same time.

Is it a fair question to wonder what Ed would think of the entertainment scene today, considering how immersed he was in the entertainment world, even excluding the show?

Grandpa was a newsman at heart. He presented what was new and happening.  If he were alive today, I think he’d still delight in getting the scoop, being the first to introduce new talents.

OK, so I have to ask this: what did Ed think of Topo Gigio, the little Italian mouse puppet who was kind of a semi-regular?

Ed liked Topo because it gave him a chance to express his tender side.

Well, I just want to say that I think Ed Sullivan is a very important figure not just in the history of television, but in the American culture of the time. I enjoy watching those old shows immensely, because they’re kind of a time capsule into who and what was popular, what was going on in America, at any given time. And I think that we have to keep alive this institutional memory of what television was like, how it got to be the way it is; we have to remember people like Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Dave Garroway, Pat Weaver, Your Show of Shows, Dragnet, Gunsmoke—people both in front of and behind the cameras, and the shows that helped shape TV and America. Thanks for doing your part.

Thank you for asking me to contribute to your wonderful website.

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No, Rob, thank you. I've been doing this website for a few years now, and these interviews never get old. My only concern is that I'm not a good enough interviewer to capture the stories that my guests have to share with you all. As I mentioned in my final question, it is so important to keep these memories alive, as more and more figures from the era pass away. Rob is one of the good guys, helping keep these alive. He's currently working on a book about his grandfather, and when that comes out I'll be waiting to get a copy for my bookshelf—and you'll read about it here. Meanwhile, you can read about Rob and his work as founder and president of Justice Labs here.

If you're interested in more about The Ed Sullivan Show, a great resource is the wonderful Television Academy Interviews website (and YouTube page), which does so much to curate the oral history of television. Here is their Ed Sullivan page, featuring interviews with several of Ed's guests. TV  

1 comment:

Thanks for writing! Drive safely!