Monday, April 2, 2007

Ed Sullivan and other Shared Cultural Moments

On Sunday nights forty-five years ago, three fourths of all the television sets in the United States were turned to a variety show broadcast from New York. The host was a famed local gossip columnist with a horse face who had the charm of a coat rack who had never in his long career ever said or wrote anything that has lived beyond his death in 1974, nothing that is, other than his tag line: "really big show," which he pronounced: "really big shoe." The first feature on the variety program was meant to appeal to the very young; quite often it would be an Italian puppet mouse named Popogigio (sp. ?) who was no more witty than old Ed himself, but who always declared his love for everyone and would give Mr. Sullivan a kiss before he disappeared behind the stage's sequined curtains. Next would a series of adult entertainments, some of them conventional (Steve and Eddie, Jewish comedians named Shecky, members of the Rat Pack, British actors doing readings from Shakespeare) and some of them quite strange (Hungarian jugglers balancing stacks of plates, Chinese acrobats riding bicycles through flaming hoops, intoxicated ball players introduced in the audience, the intoxicated Liz and Dick introduced on the stage, the sober Walter Brennan narrating the tale of "Old Rivers"). Then, in the last ten minutes, there would be a celebrated act for the teenagers (Sly and Family Stone, the Supremes, and--most famously--the Beatles). Just before the final applause died out Ed would say "good night" and blow an awkward kiss to his vast audience.
An adult--or as we called them in those days, a partent--watching the "Ed Sullivan Show" got a taste of what their youngsters were listening to when Mom and Dad were not about, and youngsters learned what the folks would go to see if the folks ever took a vacation in Vegas. Everything that could be considered popular culture, anything that appealed to anyone and sometimes odd stuff that no one had ever heard of, got presented once a week in every American household for our consideration. It was difficult to be underground or counter culture in the late 1950s and early 1960s, back when Ed was about. Beat poets appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show," as did Charles Mingus and Lenny Bruce. Nor was there any irony (at least none of the intentional variety) in throwing these different personalities in front of the American public. There were only three networks then, and it made sense to put everything the country had to offer on a single program in hopes that something would shown appeal to everyone.
By the late 1960s, only two years after the Sullivan show was canceled, no truely hip band or singer would have appeared on network TV. Most with-it musical acts were only on FM radio, as AM was left for the likes of Glen Campbell and Anne Murray. The Rat Pack and the Jewish Comedians went back to Vegas and stayed there. The actors went to the movies. TV became sit coms and cop dramas that offended no one and attracted only a targeted spectrum of the total audience. The drunken actors and jocks had to stay in their lonely hotel rooms, where they watched TV rather than appearing on it. Today, all of the acts that graced (if that's the right word) Mr. Sullivan's stage would be on different cable networks, and no one person would know of them all, and they would not even know of each other. The only TV show that draws anything like a percentage of the nation's viewers Mr. Suillivan brought in every Sunday is the yearly Super Bowl, and because I never heard of them, I do not know what singers my students enjoy. I did not even know the groups my daughter liked when she was young and still lived at home, for as is true of so many other aspects of modern life, there is no longer any part of popular culture we, the sundry Americans, share in common, and other than the carnage of the grid iron, there is apparently nothing left that all of us can enjoy.

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