How can I explain the impact of The Beatles, in particular their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964 — 50 years ago today?
Here’s one way. The week before The Beatles made their Sullivan appearance, the #1 song in the U.S. was a Bobby Vinton snoozer called “There! I’ve Said it Again”. I’d suggest you listen to it now, but you my doze off.
With the likes of Bobby Vinton and innumerable sappy pop tunes dominating the radio (when radio mattered), The Beatles swept in with a revolutionary, explosive, propulsive sound. And we all got our first look at The Beatles on the Sullivan show.
Millions of words, most of them better constructed than these, have been written about The Beatles debut on the Sullivan show on this day. But I thought I’d do something different — watch the entire Ed Sullivan show, just as it aired 50 years ago. I can do this because in 2010, all four Beatles performances on the show were put on CD from Sofa Entertainment, just as they appeared on the show, complete with original U.S. commercials.
First, what was The Ed Sullivan Show?
Basically, it was video vaudeville. It was the ultimate variety show, a format that no long exists on TV. Sullivan, a New York newspaper columnist with all the charisma (and the appearance) of a mackerel, hosted the show from 1948 to 1971. It truly had something for everyone; if you didn’t like singer or the pop group, wait a while for the plate spinner, or the ballet dancer, or the comic, or Topo Gigio or Senor Wences (look them up). It’s hard to fathom that anything like it existed, but it did, and it was huge. Of course, the fact that there were only three channels in the U.S at the time (two in Edmonton) had something to do with it. We would quite literally watch ANYTHING on TV.
When Sullivan brought The Beatles to America, it caused a sensation. The Beatles guaranteed a huge audience for the show (70 million estimated, a staggering number), but what else to put on the show? As it turns out, it was a pretty good representation of the peculiar allure of the Ed Sullivan show. Here’s how it looked …
“Good evening ladies and gentleman,” intoned the announcer, informing us that the show was sponsored by Anacin (which promised “Fast pain relief” for neuralgia and neuritis, afflictions which seem to no longer exist) and Pillsbury refrigerated biscuits.
Ed appeared and, wasting no time, announced that The Beatles had received “a wire” from Elvis Presley and Col. Tom Parker, wishing The Beatles every success in America. Ed thinks this was very nice.
Ed then gives a rundown of all the great moments on the show so far that season, including the appearance of Topo Gigio. But before The Beatles, we have a commercial for Aero Shave, a shaving foam that “keeps drenching your beard while others dry out”. This is followed by an ad for Griffin Liquid Wax shoe polish.
After that, Ed — looking, as he always did, incredibly uncomfortable — introduced The Beatles, which was greeted with an explosive scream from the audience. The song was “All My Loving”, and the director wisely cut to the mostly female audience in various stages of pants-wetting ecstasy. That was followed by “Till There Was You”, during which the names of The Beatles were superimposed on the screen. John’s name included the caveat ‘Sorry girls, he’s married:’ complete with the peculiar colon. (I remember thinking that I had to memorize those names.) They followed that up with the joyous “She Loves You”.
Following a commercial for Anacin, the poor sap assigned the worst job in show business was a magician named Fred Kaps, who performed a completely baffling card trick (in that it was baffling as to what he was trying to achieve) followed by a better trick involving salt. Yes, salt. And it was pretty good. But the audience reaction was tepid at best, as expected. Turns out, it was pre-recorded for some reason, which may account for the audience reaction.
After that, it was time for another staple of the Sullivan show, a song from a Broadway show. In this case it was “Oliver!” featuring someone named Georgia Brown (and a very young and unbilled Davy Jones, later of The Monkees), singing “I’ll Do Anything For You”. As if that wasn’t enough, and it should have been, Brown then belted out “As Long As He Needs Me” in the overwrought, make-sure-they-can-hear-it-in-the-balcony style of Broadway singing.
The next commercial break was “something for you ladies,” according to Ed. The product was cold water All detergent, big news for “you ladies”. Then it was time for the great impressionist Frank Gorshin (left, later the Riddler on Batman) who did his spot-on impressions of Broderick Crawford, Dean Martin, Anthony Quinn, Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Alec Guiness. He actually went over well, getting a nice handshake from Ed. Then it was time for another Sullivan tradition, the introduction of a guest in the audience. This time, it was Terry McDermott, apparently the only American gold medalist in the winter Olympics.
Time again for another commercial, this time for Pillsbury (“nothing says lovin’ like something from the oven”). Back from commercial, Ed then went to an old school (even for the time) British music hall singer, a beefy old broad named Tessie O’Shea (right). She sang a seemingly endless medley of show tunes, accompanying herself on a small banjo. Seriously.
Things actually went downhill from there. Ed then introduced a “comedy” team named McCall and Brill, who performed a sketch of agonizing badness. Sample joke:
Brill (or McCall): “My little girl used to be one of The Beatles.”
McCall (or Brill): “Really, what happened to her?”
Brill (or McCall): “Somebody stepped on her.”
It was painful to watch, and probably as painful to perform. The above joke actually got the best — actually, the ONLY — laugh of the sketch. Following another commercial for Pillsbury (for moist lemon crème cake), Ed finally gave the audience another dose of The Beatles, “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (such innocence in those songs). Again, there were multiple crowd shots, including one where I could swear you could see a girl get a genuine chill up per spine. Ed then brought the lads together to a handshake, a thank you to the New York City police for keeping all the screaming kids in line, and a thank you to the newspapers for being “so darn kind” to the boys.
That should have done it, but Ed threw in one more performance — a “novelty” act as they were called — acrobats Wells and the Four Fays. It was straight out of the circus, and the most anticlimactic performance in history. Ed came back for one more plug for next week’s show, featuring The Beatles and Mitzi Gaynor (whom he seemed to be particularly excited about), and one more commercial break for Pillsbury. Ed came back to thank the audience for being so well behaved, “despite severe provocation” as he put it, and put in another plug for the next week’s show (Mitzi Gaynor, The Beatles, Allan and Rossi, Myron Cohen) before telling his audience to get home safely.
And that is what some 70 million people saw on this day, 50 years ago tonight. It was a really big show, as Ed actually never said.