Other Acts That Shared 'The Ed Sullivan Show' Stage

The Ed Sullivan Show famously featured big stars like Elvis, Carol Burnett and the Beatles over the course of its quarter-century on the air. But the variety program was peppered with quirkier acts, like a Spanish ventriloquist who talked to his hand and a little Italian mouse named Topo Gigio. Author and journalist Gerald Nachman has written a new book about Ed Sullivan, called Right Here on Our Stage Tonight. Scott talks to Nachman about some of those less mainstream acts and the impact the program had on American culture.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Everybody knows Ed Sullivan as the man who first brought Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Supremes, Woody Allen, Carol Burnett and Richard Pryor into millions of American homes. But each week the man who was what amounted to the gatekeeper for American entertainment also presented a parade of plates spinners, Marine drill teams, weird animal acts, magicians, ventriloquists, and a tiny little Italian mouse.

(Soundbite of, The Ed Sullivan Show)

Mr. ED SULLIVAN (Host): What are you going to be when you grow up?

TOPO GIGIO: I would like to be a scientist and do experiments.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Thats a wonderful career.

TOPO GIGIO: Its too dangerous for me.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Why do you say that, Topo?

TOPO GIGIO: The other scientists might think Im the experiment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, thats Topo Gigio, of course, our little Italian mouse friend.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Of course, Ed Sullivan. Kind of hard not to do it as an invitation. Gerald Nachman has written a book about Ed Sullivan and the history of his show. Its called, Right Here on our Stage Tonight. Does everyone say that to you, Mr. Nachman?

Mr. GERALD NACHMAN (Author) A lot of people do and I find myself saying, even though I dont do very good at Sullivan impression. Everybody in time tries to do that.

SIMON: Mr. Nachman is joining us from member station KQED in San Francisco. His book is called, Right Here on Our Stage Tonight. When all is said and done, when you swipe out all the famous names, was this vaudeville on TV?

Mr. NACHMAN: He streamlined vaudeville for TV - you know, when you went to a vaudeville show - I never did, I'm not that old - but you would watch maybe two hours, two and a half hours ,and every act would be 10 or 15 minutes. Well, he had an hour show and he cut the comedians down to five minutes and the singer down to one or two songs. And he managed to pack in an awful lot into one hour.

SIMON: He would introduce a lot of, well, like retired prize fighters, retired athletes - just here tonight in our audience. We want to introduce - Im sorry, this is irresistible

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NACHMAN: Its catching, its catching, yes.

SIMON: And, you know, you could see Joe Lewis, the great old heavyweight champ would be introduced.

Mr. NACHMAN: Well, something I found out in researching the book is that obviously those people didnt just happen to be sitting on the aisle on the audience. They were all paid a $1,000 to stand up and wave. And he would have everybody on, famous people, you know, war heroes; as you say, prize fighters -and I think the idea was to let everyone watching know that this was the only place to be Sunday nights at 8:00.

(Soundbite of The Ed Sullivan Show)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. SULLIVAN: Ive been in the newspaper business, Ive never seen such a collection of stars in the place as are here tonight.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. SULLIVAN: (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

SIMON: The show was not an immediate hit.

Mr. NACHMAN: While the show was a gradual hit, he was an immediate flop. The critics just vilified him because he would freeze up when he got on TV, you know, turn into a cigar-store Indian. And eventually he turned that around by becoming kind of an endearing guy, partly through such devices as talking to Topo Gigio, and that helped kind of warm him up. And also everybody came on and did imitations of him and that kind of established his identity and his persona and he became famous for being terrible.

(Soundbite of The Ed Sullivan Show)

Mr. SULLIVAN: How long, Topo, do you think youll last in television if you cant sing or dance or act?

TOPO GIGIO: Eddy, how long have you being on the air?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: Topo, nobody likes a smart aleck mouse.

TOPO GIGIO: We have a really big show, a really big show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Talk to us, please, about our little Italian mouse friend, Topo Gigio.

Mr. NACHMAN: Well, it was a marionette and it took six people to move the arms and the legs and the toes would curl up and the eyes would roll. It was a very peculiar act and it was also an attempt by Sullivan to appeal to kids.

SIMON: And it was a show that families would watch together. That was the whole idea of having acts - now something for the kiddies, right?

Mr. NACHMAN: Yeah, unheard of today, that the whole family will watch - the grandparents and the parents and the kids will all watch the same show. But the kids watching that show would be exposed to things other than this, you know, then the music that they liked, they'd be exposed to comedians, they'd be exposed to, you know, ballet dancers and opera singers and every level of culture, and their parents, by the same token, would be exposed to rock singers and so on. And so it was really a way of, he really did kind of knit the family together on Sunday nights, for an hour anyway.

(Soundbite of The Ed Sullivan Show)

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY: This song is one of the saddest songs youve ever heard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRESLEY: It really tells a story, friends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRESLEY: Beautiful lyrics, it goes something like this.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. SULLIVAN: (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog...

SIMON: You know, we can talk about the famous names, but let me ask you about some of the others. Eric Brenn(ph).

Mr. NACHMAN: Oh yeah, he was a master plate spinner.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. NACHMAN: And, you know, they had many, many plate spinners on the show and all kinds of tumblers and acrobats and

SIMON: I havent seen a good plate spinner in years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I havent seen a bad plate spinner in years.

Mr. NACHMAN: Where did they all go, thats the question I have.

SIMON: Exactly.

Mr. NACHMAN: Since the Sullivan s went off the air.

SIMON: Paul Draper was a serious dancer, wasnt he?

Mr. NACHMAN: Right, a great modern dancer, I think. I dont he was a ballet dancer.

SIMON: No, he was a modern dancer.

Mr. NACHMAN: Yeah, he was blacklisted from the show, as was Larry Adler, the famous harmonica virtuoso, and

SIMON: blacklisted because they were blacklisted.

Mr. NACHMAN: Well, yeah, I should say they were blacklisted from TV and Sullivan wouldnt have them on even though his sympathies were rather liberal, actually. People think of him as - because he looked like a banker or something, that people thought he was conservative. But he was a lower middle class Irish Catholic who was, you know, married to a Jewish woman, had an Italian assistant. But he caved in on the matter of performers who were tainted in any way, because for him, you know, he was looking out for himself and the show.

SIMON: To put something on the other side of his ledger he - however he did put on people like James Brown and The Supremes and Richard Pryor, for that matter, when a lot of other mainstream TV shows, and a lot of other mainstream news organizations wouldnt have them.

(Soundbite of The Ed Sullivan Show)

Mr. SULLIVAN: Now, ladies and gentleman, as everybody knows (unintelligible) whenever any new musical trend (unintelligible) the Charleston or the Black Bottom or any of the rhythm songs, the first area to find out about it in advance is Harlem.

Mr. NACHMAN: He brought black performers on the TV, almost all white TV in the early 50s, more than any other show. He would have Sammy Davis on when he was with the Will Mastin Trio, Pearl Bailey, kind of Harlem specialty acts like Peg Leg Bates, if you remember him.

SIMON: I was about to ask about - I couldn't remember his name, but the one-legged dancer.

Mr. NACHMAN: The one-legged tap dancer. And the guy named Pigmeat Markham, who allegedly became famous on laughing for here comes the judge. He would...

SIMON: Take us back if we could to the one-legged tap dancer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NACHMAN: All right.

SIMON: Wouldnt seem to be a good career decision for someone with just, who is a...

Mr. NACHMAN: Yeah, well, he was hell of a tap dancer, I guess, and he was on several times.

(Soundbite of The Ed Sullivan Show)

(Soundbite of tap dancing)

SIMON: Its very difficult to explain to people nowadays how well, anything about Senor Wences.

(Soundbite of The Ed Sullivan Show)

Unidentified Man: Your name? My name is Senor Wences. This is Yanni.

Mr. NACHMAN: He was a Spanish ventriloquist who has two characters. He would draw a face, two little button eyes and lipstick on his fist and he would talk to this little guy name Johnny, or Yanni, as he called them.

(Soundbite of The Ed Sullivan Show)

Unidentified Man: How is your throat today? Not good. No? (Unintelligible) now listen to me, follow me, let me say one thing. Doh re me fa so la tee doh. Good.

Mr. NACHMAN: And then he had a just somebody head in a box, a guy with a beard in a box. He would open and close the box and say, s'alright, and the guy would say s'alright. But it would be (unintelligible)

SIMON: Okay.

Mr. NACHMAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of The Ed Sullivan Show)

Unidentified Man: Hello, my friend. (Unintelligible) not yet. No, no, no, no. Are you tired? No. No? No. Okay, s'alright.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NACHMAN: It was very peculiar. And Sullivans taste was pretty mainstream. So for him this is kind of far out stuff but it caught on and, you know, as I say in the book, he didnt discover a lot of people, which is a misconception. He had people on who had already made it another fields, whether they were recording artists, they were in night clubs or movies or radio. So in a way the show is a prism of what America was like in the 50s and 60s, because I say that, you know, we can tell a lot about country by what they choose to amuse themselves with.

SIMON: Mr. Nachman, nice talking to you.

Mr. NACHMAN: Well, thank you, Scott. I appreciate being on very much.

SIMON: Gerald Nachman, his new book - can I do it one more time?

Mr. NACHMAN: Yeah, go ahead.

SIMON: Right here on this stage tonight - Ed Sullivans America. S'alright, s'alright, s'okay, s'okay. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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