As a Journalist
Sullivan began as a part-time sports news journalist for a local newspaper named 'The Port Chester Daily Item' and was appointed full-time following his graduation. In 1919, he earned a job at 'The Hartford Post,' which became defunct in his first week of appointment.
Sullivan began working as a sports reporter at 'The New York Evening Mail,' which closed its operations in 1923. He eventually earned jobs with 'The Philadelphia Bulletin,' the ‘Associated Press,' 'The Morning World,' 'The New York Bulletin,' 'The Morning Telegraph,' and 'The Leader.'
In 1927, Sullivan was hired as a sports writer and was later promoted to the position of editor for 'The Evening Graphic.' Newspaper gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who had joined 'The Daily Mirror' in 1929, made him a ‘Broadway’ columnist.
Sullivan became the ‘Broadway’ columnist for 'Little Old New York' of the 'New York Daily News.'
Sullivan wrote and starred as himself in the 1933 pre-Code comedy film 'Mr. Broadway,' which marked the beginning of his lifelong rivalry with Winchell. Winchell had produced 'Broadway through a Keyhole,' which had a similar plot.
He made an appearance in the 1939 mystery feature 'Big Town Czar.'
Moreover, Sullivan, the new starmaker, began operating from the 'El Morocco' nightclub in New York, which was quite close to Winchell's 'Stork Club.' Sullivan rose to be more popular than Winchell.
Sullivan directed a radio program for 'WABC' (now 'WCBS'). In 1941, he produced the stage play 'Crazy with the Heat' on ‘Broadway.’ That year, he hosted the 'CBS' variety show 'Summer Silver Theater.'
In 1948, Sullivan was roped in for the 'CBS' Sunday-night variety show 'Toast of the Town,' which eventually became the iconic 'The Ed Sullivan Show.' Sponsored by 'Emerson Radio,' the show was a huge success.
Continue Reading Below
'Toast of the Town' premiered at the 'Oscar Hammerstein Theater,' which was later named after Sullivan.
The sponsors were not satisfied with the production of the show and hence took it off the air. Sullivan's show resumed when 'Lincoln-Mercury' came on board as the sponsor.
Sullivan's new show was heavily criticized. Critics slammed his awkward mannerisms, labeling him a patient of Bell's palsy. On the other hand, the key to Sullivan's iconic success was that he never outdid the skills of the guests on the show.
An example of Sullivan's great sense of humor was how he encouraged impressionists such as John Byner, Johnny Carson, Joan Rivers, Frank Gorshin, Rich Little, and Will Jordan to mimic him and his mannerisms on the show.
In 1954, Sullivan co-hosted the TV special 'General Foods 25th Anniversary Show: A Salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein,' aired on 'DuMont,' 'CBS,' 'NBC,' and 'ABC.' He was featured in a commercial for 'Kodak' cameras set in 'Disneyland' (1959) and a print ad for 'Western Union' telegrams. In 1955, he appeared in and narrated a trailer for 'Guys and Dolls.'
Sullivan was the creator of the TV biographies for Rogers and Hammerstein, Helen Hayes, Beatrice Lilley, Walt Disney, and Cole Porter. He also created TV specials such as 'The Story of ASCAP,' 'The Story of Samuel Goldwyn,' and 'The Story of Robert E. Sherwood.'
Sullivan was initially skeptical about inviting Elvis Presley to his show because of his "bad boy" image. However, Presley's growing fame altered his decision, and eventually, the audience saw Presley making three appearances on the show.
When Sullivan got to know more about Presley, he commented: "This is a real decent, fine boy."
Unfortunately, Sullivan and Presley's collaboration failed to stir a sensation in the TV industry. The next huge appearance on the show was that of the English rock band 'The Beatles.' However, back then, the band was not too successful. Hence, Sullivan was apprehensive about signing the group. However, he eventually did so, after legendary impresario Sid Bernstein persuaded him.
Continue Reading Below
On February 9, 1964, 'The Beatles' made their first appearance on Sullivan's show. The ratings shot up, making it the most-watched program in TV history at that time. The group performed 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' and 'She Loves You' on the show, which popularized the band worldwide.
‘The Beatles' delivered three more appearances, which marked the beginning of their historical success.
Sullivan encouraged delivering live music performances on his show rather than lip-syncing to pre-recorded tracks, which was a trend back then. Another unique element of the show was his use of catchphrases, which eventually got added to the American vocabulary.
Going against the prevailing practice of racial discrimination in the entertainment fraternity, Sullivan encouraged and appreciated African–American talent on his show. In 1951, he wrote an article for 'Ebony,' opposing such ill practice and asked: "Can TV crack America's color line?" For the first time in TV history, he hired an African–American dancer as part of his crew.
Sullivan also popularized country and Western music by featuring more of Nashville performers.
Apart from hosting his show, Sullivan had made appearances on programs such as the 'CBS' sitcom 'Mr. Adams and Eve' (1958) and the 'CBS' panel show 'What's My Line?' (1958). He had also filled in for the variety show 'The Red Skelton Show' (1961).
A song in the 1963 stage musical 'Bye Bye Birdie' took inspiration from Sullivan and featured him in its film adaptation.
Toward the end of 1965, 'CBS' started taping Sullivan's show to broadcast in the Pacific and Mountain time zones. This was when the network had just started to air color episodes of its weekly programs. By 1971, the ratings of the show dropped drastically. Thus, 'CBS' canceled it in March that year. This infuriated Sullivan.
The channel requested Sullivan to shoot a final episode, which he turned down. However, he made a few appearances for the network and hosted an anniversary special episode in June 1973.
Personal Life & Death
Sullivan was briefly engaged to 'Olympic' champion swimmer Sybil Bauer, who died young in 1927. By then, he was dating Jewish Sylvia Weinstein. Both the families did not support the Catholic–Jewish union. After an on-again, off-again relationship of 3 years, the two got married on April 28, 1930. They had a daughter, Elizabeth "Betty," 8 months later.
Sullivan was short-tempered and held grudges against those who backstabbed him. In an interview, Moe Howard from 'The Three Stooges' pointed out his forgetfulness. Actor Diana Ross had stated that he had once referred to the female guests on the show as "the girls," as he had forgotten their names.
Sullivan was the first to create shows for 'Army Emergency Relief' during World War II.
Sullivan died of cancer on October 13, 1974, in New York City.