It is ironic that while television helped kill vaudeville, Ed Sullivan kept it alive for nearly 25 years. First called “Toast of the Town” when it premiered in 1948, his variety show was changed to “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1955 and kept going until 1971. And the man himself—who couldn’t sing or dance and could barely speak before an audience—brought into the limelight all sorts of performers, some of whom faded quickly, some of whom became superstars.
There is now a 6-DVD set on the Star Vista label titled “The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show.” It should have great appeal to two audiences. There are those who recall the original telecasts and want to wallow in nostalgia; and there are those born too late but will enjoy seeing the early appearances of artists who became familiar to them in later years.
The first disc, “Unforgettable Performances,” runs 88 minutes and is a quick history of highlights from the series. This show is hosted by Carol Burnett, who is seen in an early appearance. “50th Anniversary Special” (46 minutes) is more of same, including some repeated spots. “The All-Star Comedy Special” (70 minutes) breaks the subject down to nightclub, musical, impressionist, ventriloquist, and team acts. Here Mary Tyler Moore hosts.
The bizarre “World’s Greatest Novelty Acts” (55 minutes) includes jugglers, contortionists, balancing acts, acrobats, and even a quick draw and a lasso act. Some today will object to “Amazing Animal Acts” (60 minutes), but they are straight out of vaudeville and sensibilities then were different. “Bonus Interviews” (115 minutes) are the least exciting but have many moments of interest.
Listing the performers would take me far beyond my word limit. But to give some idea, here are just a few: Elvis Presley (from the waist up), Carol Burnett, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lucille Ball, The Beatles (with screaming female teens in the audience), Richard Prior, Marlon Brando, The Supremes, Janis Joplin, Alan King, Rodney Dangerfield (he who gets no respect), Henny Youngman (“take my wife, please”), Flip Wilson, Milton Berle, and Joan Rivers.
Most valuable (to me) are the stars of then-current Broadway shows recreating numbers from shows that once closed could never be accessed again as they were first seen. The most interesting is Paul Lynd and his “Bye, Bye Birdie” family singing the hymn to Ed Sullivan. The most dramatic moment is when Jackie Mason angered Ed with what Ed considered an obscene motion with a finger. Ed was furious and nearly ruined Mason’s career.
Although a bit spotty in organization, this set has great historical as well as entertainment value.