Who was Ed Sullivan, the emcee of a variety show that aired on CBS television for twenty-three years? Baby boomers will certainly remember him as a rather stiff host who rarely did anything other than announce the acts and talk to celebrities. Without displaying any obvious talents, like singing, dancing, or acting, he was a fixture of early television. Why? In Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan, James Maguire examines the man in the context of his culture.
Long before television, Sullivan was in the public eye, first as a sports reporter and columnist and then as an entertainment columnist. Working for a variety of newspapers in New York, he got to know many sports heroes and then most of the stars of Vaudeville, Broadway, early films, and early radio. He hung around restaurants and clubs nightly, even becoming friends with organized crime figures. Though his daily columns were always overshadowed by the work of Walter Winchell, he was sought out by important people to promote their acts, records, plays, or movies.
Sullivan became more involved in entertainment when he organized some variety reviews for charitable causes. He eventually decided to turn his talent at booking and producing into a profession, without ever giving up his newspaper column, which ran until he died. When CBS needed a variety show to compete with Milton Berle's Texaco Theater on NBC, Sullivan pitched his services to the company.
Maguire tells some surprising stories about Sullivan. As a younger man, Sullivan once worked for a socialist newspaper, giving a leftist perspective to sports reporting. He later supported blacklisting anyone who had been a communist.
Sullivan and Winchell had terrible jealousies and would stoop very low to hurt their opponents reputations. When Winchell was dying, Sullivan came to his aid.
Though Sullivan sometimes used ethnically prejudicial words in his columns, he regularly booked African-Americans acts on his Sunday night program, beginning with his second episode of Toast of the Town in 1948. He ignored the hate mail he received after shaking hands with Nat King Cole on national television.
Trying to prove he was more than a mere entertainer, Sullivan scooped CBS News by getting an interview with Fidel Castro in the wake of his victory in Cuba.
Impresario includes chapters on bookings of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Bob Dylan once played the Sunday afternoon rehearsal but was cut from the show when he would not drop "Talking John Birch Society Blues" from his performance. The Rolling Stones washed their hair and altered their lyrics to make the show. The Doors made promises they did not keep.
The index which includes the names of people and performers Sullivan met throughout his long career is thirteen pages.
Impresario is a biography of a man full of contradictions. Readers of the book will also learn much about the history of American popular culture. The book is a long 306 pages of small print and narrow margins, but it worth the effort.
Maguire, James. Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan. New York: Billboard Books, 2006. ISBN 0823079627