Day 771: On Tonight’s Show… History

originally published February 9, 2014

Once the collective click of a few million TV sets shutting off had resonated throughout North America in the shadowy hours of February 9, 1964, the pentimento of American culture as it existed before that day was almost invisible. This is the news blurb that kids – and I include here many in my generation, those who played their opening number on this earthly stage some years after the 60’s had taken their bow – will gloss over and ignore. Precisely one half of a century has elapsed since the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.  

Trying to rationalize the significance of this broadcast to my children is a fruitless endeavor. Even in my limited history, the only television “events” that embedded a rusty touchstone in our shared timeline were series finales (M*A*S*H, Cheers, Seinfeld), sporting events or news stories. The first two would get us talking, but eventually they’d meander under the covers of the past. And while the scope of our world might have shifted after we all watched O.J. race through the arteries of Los Angeles in a Ford Bronco or after we saw the towers fall a few years later, television was merely the window through which we’d all observed a salient chapter in history. When the Beatles splashed down into 74 million pairs of eyeballs for the first time, it was culture announcing through its own mouthpiece that everything was about to change. 

There had never been an equivalent in the world of popular music. And given the splintered state of our popular tastes and the three-block buffet of media options at our disposal, such a singular jarring of our culture is not likely to ever occur again.  

First of all, there is no parallel to Ed Sullivan today. Sullivan’s show was a weekly stage for performers to hurl their skills at a national audience in hopes the exposure will crank their success meter up to the next notch. You’d see plate-spinners and dog trainers, classically-trained actors and world-renowned singers. The late-night talk show circuit is the closest to an equivalent today, but Ed’s show was about showing off his guests, not interviewing them to hear pre-rehearsed stories about the time George Clooney pranked them in the studio commissary. Sunday nights were our culture’s window into the wider world. 

On February 2, 1964, Ella Fitzgerald performed a rousing duet of “S’Wonderful” with Sammy Davis Jr. and Rip Taylor performed a set of standup (probably involving glitzy confetti). A week later, the line to get in (or to catch a glimpse of the show’s featured guests) was eight blocks long. Sullivan had witnessed the shared madness among British Beatle fans, and it was he who determined the group might bring a few grins to American audiences. I don’t think he could have predicted all of this. 

By the time the cameras clicked on for the 8PM broadcast, Ed Sullivan and CBS knew their advertisers would be happy with the night’s ratings. In between Ed’s expressing to the band’s manager Brian Epstein that he’d like to bring them across the Atlantic and that early February evening, the Beatles’ music had already swatted countless American turntables. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” had spent the previous three and a half months meandering to the top of the Billboard charts and “She Loves You” was patiently waiting at #7 for its hike to the summit. 

Kids were buying the records, and while at the time their flash-bomb of sudden frenzy might have seemed no more than a fleeting moment in extreme fad-dom, the Sullivan broadcast was exhibit A that there was more to it. The Beatles did more than cement their own fame that night, they did more than usher in the American outpouring of love (and record-buying cash) for British artists. They changed the way rock bands wrote songs, sang songs and marketed themselves. 

And what of the other acts who had the misfortune of lingering in the Beatles’ shadow on Ed’s show that night? And although the restless young audience was clearly just biding their time on the fragile brink of politeness until their favorite band reclaimed the stage (the Beatles opened and closed the show), should we pity those forgotten names? 74 million people is more of an audience than a Broadway cast usually gets in one shot. 

The Great White Way’s biggest smash at the time was Oliver. Two of the show’s stars, Georgia Brown and Davy Jones, performed a pair of songs to the crowd. Yes, it was that Davy Jones, who would eventually procure his own gaggle of shrieking girls as the lead singer of the Monkees. No doubt Jones was watching the crowd from the side of the stage, wondering how he himself could acquire that kind of adulation. 

Husband and wife duo Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill performed a sketch right before the Beatles’ second set. They couldn’t hear themselves or one another, and the crowd’s reaction could only be described as ‘impatient’. Huge audience or no, it wasn’t the big break they’d been hoping for. 

Frank Gorshin, who was at the time a popular comedian and impressionist, performed a stand-up bit about celebrities going into politics, which no doubt struck a poignant chord among the 15-to-17-year-olds in the bleachers. Gorshin would later take out his vengeance upon the world as The Riddler on the Adam West Batman series. 

Magician Fred Kaps performed a pair of tricks, one involving cards and the other a shaker of salt. Already a successful performer, Fred didn’t need the exposure, though wowing even the frail attention spans of 74 million people must have been somewhat of a rush. 

Also on the bill were Tony Award winner (and banjo songstress) Tessie O’Shea and the acrobatic stylings of Billy Wells & The Four Fays, a group which featured Jacqueline Jessica Anderson, the mother of Tony Basil, singer of the insipidly catchy 1981 hit “Mickey”. 

The Beatles performed five songs on the show that night, cementing the first chapter of their global legacy with the help of 728 seats-worth of abetting fans. It was the first time The Ed Sullivan Show had ever turned their cameras on the studio crowd, but the manic reaction of screeching young mouths and watery eyes helped to fuel the message: the culture was shifting, and that shift was hinged on this quartet of Liverpudlians. 

One critic called the band “androgynous and ugly”. Billy Graham – ever the beacon of hipness and forward-thinking – expressed that they were but a passing fad. Fifty years of hindsight has taught us differently. And while we may never see another singular axis-shifting bump to popular culture, the music from this one still holds up.  

A week later, The Ed Sullivan Show had shuffled on to another roster of big acts, including a troupe of sway pole acrobats, a unicycle balancing act, Mitzi Gaynor, Myron Cohen, and… yeah, the Beatles, on a live feed from Miami, playing another six songs. Ed knew how to brew up some ratings gold. 

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