On this day in 1901, Ed Sullivan, who will become the host of the long-running TV variety program The Ed Sullivan Show, is born in New York City. During the peak of its popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, Sullivan’s program showcased a wide range of entertainers, including Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Rudolf Nureyev, Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope.
Sullivan worked as a newspaper reporter and columnist in New York during the 1920s and 1930s and also hosted and produced vaudeville shows and benefits. In 1948, he became the master of ceremonies of a weekly TV variety show dubbed Toast of the Town. In 1955, the program, which aired Sunday nights on CBS, was renamed The Ed Sullivan Show. Although Sullivan was often awkward and self-conscious on camera, he was a hit with audiences and his program had broad appeal. In addition to big-name entertainers, the show featured animal acts, athletes, comedians, dancers and opera singers, along with such regulars as Topo Gigio, a mouse puppet with an Italian accent, and a ventriloquist named Senor Wences.
Notable moments in the history of The Ed Sullivan Show include its broadcast on January 6, 1957, when Elvis Presley appeared on the program and the cameras shot him from the waist up because his gyrating hips were considered too scandalous for family television. On February 9, 1964, more than 70 million viewers tuned in to the show for the American TV debut of the Liverpool-based rock quartet The Beatles.
Sullivan was also notable for featuring African-American performers on his program. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications: “At a time when virtually all sponsors balked at permitting black performers to take the stage, Sullivan embraced Pearl Bailey over the objections of his sponsors. He also showcased black entertainers as diverse as Nat “King” Cole, Leontine Price, Louis Armstrong, George Kirby, Richard Pryor, Duke Ellington, Richie Havens and the Supremes.”
The Ed Sullivan Show was cancelled in 1971. Sullivan died of cancer at the age of 73 on October 13, 1974. In 1967, CBS renamed the Billy Rose Theater, from which Sullivan broadcast his show, the Ed Sullivan Theater. Since 1993, David Letterman has hosted his late-night talk show from the Ed Sullivan Theater, which is located at Broadway and 53rd Street in Manhattan.