LONDON, ONTARIO – Read any account of a North American boomer’s awakening to the wonders of the 1960’s popular music scene and you’re going to find a reference to The Ed Sullivan Show. And I’ll touch on the giddy excitement of that transforming moment in musical history in a bit. But first of all let’s take a few minutes to consider what a wildly eccentric showcase that staid old variety program of Ed’s was . . . and the grounding it gave its viewers of all ages in all kinds of entertainment whether they wanted that wider purview or not.
Consider the case of a certain Senor Wences who died in 1999 at the enviable age of 103. That name isn’t ringing any bells? You’re not thinking hard enough. Cast your mind back to the mid-show doldrums of Ed’s Show. You’re twelve years old and have been waiting forty freaking minutes for somebody reasonably cool like the Rolling Stones or the Animals to sing their latest hit record when this skinny Spanish ventriloquist comes on with the lamest arsenal of theatrical props ever.
You’re determined to not enjoy this guy. None of his puppets or dummies even have properly delineated bodies, for goodness’ sake. One of them, Pedro, is nothing bit a moustachioed head in a box. “S’okay?” asks Wences, throwing open the box’s lid. “S’awright,” answers the growly-voiced head, and Wences snaps the lid shut in a paroxysm of fear. It shouldn’t be funny but against your will, you crack a smile and start to laugh.
Another falsetto-voiced character, Johnny, is nothing but a hand puppet which Wences creates by draping a blond wig over his right hand which he sets on top of a small stand in the form of a crude and utterly static body. Dots to either side of the big knuckle on his index finger are Johnny’s eyes. A smear of lipstick around that finger and a tucked-in thumb are Johnny’s lips. “How pathetic,” you think, until Wences starts drinking a glass of water while Johnny magically sings or places a lit cigarette in Johnny’s gob for a second and the puppet somehow exhales a series of perfectly formed smoke rings. “Holy crumbs,” you have to admit. “This guy’s pretty good.”
Senor Wences wasn’t the weirdest act to turn up on the Ed Sullivan Show. That title might belong to any one of the Borscht Belt comedians who trotted out their exotic old shticks – like the no-necked, thug-like Shecky Greene or mild-mannered, sweet-faced Myron Cohen. Or did that honour go to Topo Gigio, the little Italian rodent whose too-frequent visits toward the end of the Sullivan show’s twenty-eight year run seemed to indicate a softening of Ed’s brain? “Eddie, Eddie, kees me goodnight,” the mouse would chirrup while prancing in Ed’s cupped palm. Worryingly, Ed seemed genuinely touched by the slushy request and invariably complied.
I was especially grossed out by Sophie Tucker, a once-salty vaudeville singer who croaked out corny songs in a two pack-a-day voice and gesticulated with such vigour on key lines that the fat on her upper arms would flap back and forth like white hammocks in the breeze. More pompous but just as obscene somehow were regular appearances by Kate Smith who’d always close her set by standing forth like some chest-heavy Easter Island statue as she belted out a wet-eyed rendition of God Bless America.
I mean, when you stop to think about it all, what a grotesque menagerie. And then, of course, there was Mr. Sullivan (1902–74) himself, the unlikeliest, stiffest collection of physical and vocal mannerisms to ever headline his own variety show. He seemed to exhibit that same innate discomfort in his own skin that made Richard M. Nixon such an awkward trial to behold. But Ed didn’t get his own show because he was charming or smooth. He got it because, as a former entertainment columnist and Broadway producer, he had developed some of the best show biz connections and instincts in all of mid-century America.
Boomers of all nations are forever in Ed’s debt for radically reshaping our worldview by arranging with their manager Brian Epstein to book the Beatles for three consecutive Sunday night appearances in the spring of 1964. What a vital alternative they were to all the lame ass Bobbies – Vinton, Vee, Rydell, and endlessly etcetera – who’d routinely filled the pop music slots on American TV before that.
Somehow, we assume today that the Beatles’ global domination was inevitable, but I’m not so sure. There wasn’t much of a trans-Atlantic bridge in place for pop entertainers until Sullivan and Epstein forged that link. Then a veritable two-way stampede transpired to the immense enrichment of youth culture in the old world and the new. And right up until Ed’s death eight years later, there was usually a band worth catching (well, Gary Lewis and the Playboys maybe not so much) every week.
In the mid to late ‘60s, teenagers would’ve killed for a non-stop television network devoted to nothing but pop music. And what if we’d had access to YouTube and DVD players to store and record precious appearances by our idols? Though it now might seem we were deprived, (and I really don’t think it’s just my age talking here) I somehow think we had the richer experience and brought a more avid and focussed attention to the shows we watched. In a universe of streaming services and hundreds of specialized channels where nothing can’t be stored in some cloud to be enjoyed later ... when we have monitors and TVs in every room of the house and even our phones have screens ... we’ve lost that urgent sense of electronic community that used to grip the world every Sunday night at eight p.m.
And the next day, in schoolyards and around water coolers, people of all ages recalled the same communal spectacle from the night before and pieced together their favourite details and highlights. While each age group had their favourite segments, the Sullivan Show also worked what seems an even rarer miracle today – it brought the generations together in the glow of a single cathode ray and in addition to teaching them how to cultivate patience, exposed them to something wider and weirder than their own particular preferences. And I think that was more than ‘S’okay.’ In a rather significant and community-binding way, I actually think that was ‘S’awright.’
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