TV variety shows have come a long way since their beginnings in the 1940’s, but when you think of variety shows, you can’t help but think of the name Ed Sullivan. Sullivan’s namesake variety program is the longest running in television history. Over the course of its twenty-three year run, Sullivan had the pleasure of hosting over 10,000 acts, including legends like Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Julie Andrews, and so many more.
Sullivan was born and raised in Harlem in the early 1900’s. His family loved music, and everyone enjoyed singing and playing the piano. These early moments helped to shape his appreciation for music and performance.
The Sullivans eventually moved to Port Chester, where Ed completed high school. It was here that his interest in journalism first began while writing for both the school paper and a local paper, The Port Chester Daily Item. After graduating, he was offered a full-time job there, but shortly after he moved onto another paper, The Hartford Post.
Throughout the 1920’s, Sullivan wrote for a number of publications, like The Associated Press and The Morning Telegraph, and by the 1930’s he was a regular columnist for the New York Daily News. In addition to his career as a journalist, he also dabbled in entertainment. He produced and served as a master of ceremony for several vaudeville shows.
In 1947, Sullivan hosted an annual dance competition called the Harvest Moon Ball on CBS and caught the attention of the network. They asked him to host a variety show that was set to debut the following spring called the Toast of the Town. By 1955, the program had been renamed The Ed Sullivan Show.
Each Sunday night, tens of millions of viewers tuned in, eagerly awaiting the week’s star studded lineup. While Sullivan wanted to appeal to a wide audience, he also had a passion for expanding the music and entertainment landscape. Sometimes the acts were controversial, but Sullivan relentlessly fought for diversity on the stage, welcoming Soviet dancers, musicians from the countercultural movement like the Doors, and African-American artists like Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, and the Supremes. One of the most watched shows in TV history was the U.S. television debut of the Beatles in 1964.
In the 1970’s the landscape of TV started to change, and The Ed Sullivan Show aired its final episode in the spring of 1971, almost twenty-three years to the day that the show originally aired as The Toast of the Town. Just three years later, Sullivan passed away from esophageal cancer.
In that crucial year that changed the course of Sullivan’s life and career, he received a gift that he would carry with him through the ups and downs of the entertainment industry: a yellow gold Tiffany’s wristwatch. This Omega Automatic was a Christmas gift from his once close friend Frank Sinatra, and features an engraving on the caseback that reads, “Thanks Ed, Frankie, December 25, 1947.” Years later, the two had a falling out that stemmed from Sullivan’s desire to feature more diverse and at times controversial acts. Sullivan reportedly offered to return the gift to Sinatra but never followed through.
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons, EdSullivanShow.com, IMDB, and Nate Sanders.
Updated 11/7/17 to include details of the watch.