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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of song, "Hymn for a Sunday Evening (Ed Sullivan)")

Unidentified People: (Singing) Ed Sullivan. Ed Sullivan. Were going to be on Ed Sullivan.

HANSEN: The sentiment expressed in that song from the musical "Bye Bye Birdie" pretty much summed up the aura surrounding Ed Sullivan's iconic Sunday night television variety show. If you were on Ed Sullivan, you had arrived.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Ed Sullivan Show")

Mr. ED SULLIVAN (Host): Ladies and gentleman, The Beatles.

(Soundbite of screaming)

(Soundbite of song, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand")

The Beatles: (Singing) Oh yeah, I'll tell you something I think you'll understand

HANSEN: The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Van Cliburn, Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby are just a few in a long list of luminaries to appear on the show, which ran from 1948 to 1971. The lineup could be eclectic - from puppets, dancing bears and plate spinners to stars of Broadway, opera, classical music, ballet, even sports.

Bernie Ilson was Ed Sullivan's press representative in the 1960s. He's just published a book, "Sundays with Sullivan: How the Ed Sullivan Show Brought Elvis, the Beatles, and Culture to America." And he's in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. BERNIE ILSON (Author, "Sundays with Sullivan: How the Ed Sullivan Show Brought Elvis, the Beatles, and Culture to America"): Oh, it's a pleasure to be here.

HANSEN: Now, there's a lot of people that have been born after 1971 when the show went off. So, just give us a little thumbnail of Ed Sullivan. Where did he come from and how did he end up launching a variety show on television?

Mr. ILSON: Well, Ed Sullivan was basically a newspaper man. He didn't start his television show until he was 46 years old. And he had started at a newspaper as a sports editor - at the Port Chester Item. And then he went to New York and worked for The Graphic and finally worked for the New York Daily News.

He wrote a gossip column about Broadway and Hollywood. And when CBS was looking around for a host for a variety show, the head of CBS development knew Ed and knew Ed had done some work as an emcee for the Daily News Harvest Moon Ball dance contest. So, he chose him to be the host of the show.

HANSEN: The first show was broadcast on June 20th, 1948. It wasn't called "The Ed Sullivan Show." It was called "Toast of the Town," after his newspaper column. And there's a picture you have in your book on page 21, and it's the lineup for that show. There are the Toastette(ph) dancers, a singing fireman, a classical pianist. To what extent was Ed Sullivan personally involved in choosing the guests for his show?

Mr. ILSON: Well, he was very involved. I mean, he actually didn't have a booker at first, except his producer. His first producer was Marlo Lewis. And he was so familiar with the acts that he would personally call them up and ask them to be on the show.

Now, at the beginning, there wasn't much money to be paid, so he had to almost ask favors for them to be on the show. For instance, Rogers and Hammerstein came on just gratis, and I think Martin and Lewis got $200. And it was, you know, it was favors at first because the show was just beginning and not making money.

But eventually it became so popular and it built to where 35 million people watched that show every Sunday.

HANSEN: Elvis Presley was paid to be on, right?

Mr. ILSON: Well, Elvis Presley actually got the biggest salary because he had a wonderful negotiator in the colonel. And he got $50,000 to be on the show.

HANSEN: Colonel Tom Parker really was a great negotiator for Elvis, wasn't he?

Mr. ILSON: Right, right.

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Late Musician): This is probably the greatest honor that I've ever had in my life. There's not much I can say except it makes you feel good. And we went to thank you from the bottom of our heart. And now, don't be cruel.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Ed Sullivan Show")

(Soundbite of yelling)

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Be Cruel")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) Now, you know I can be found, sitting home all alone, if you can't come around, at least come

HANSEN: Did he think it was a big deal when Elvis made his appearance that the camera made sure it's pointed above his pelvis?

Mr. ILSON: The first show, he photographed him just as if he was any other performer, and they received thousands of letters and calls and so on saying that they didn't like it. But on the second time he played, you only saw him from the waist up. Nowadays, it would be absolutely nothing, but at that time it seemed to be a little risqu�.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Be Cruel")

Mr. PRESLEY: (Singing) Don't be cruel, (unintelligible)

HANSEN: It was a live program but was there any lip-synching on the show?

Mr. ILSON: At times I think there was. Just especially with dancers where they couldn't do both the singing and the dancing. But in general it was a live show. It was at a time when they had already started to tape shows. But Ed insisted that there would be no taping, unless it was it couldn't be done any other way. And he demanded that the performers perform live.

Mr. SULLIVAN: I want you to meet to young impressionist that came on from the coast; I brought him on from the coast. He's out there with Eddie Fisher. Will York(ph).

This week we're going to have for youin person on this stage for you next week, we're going to have on this stage in person for you next week

HANSEN: You know, Ed Sullivan was not your typical TV kind of personality. I mean, you know, so many people had done impressions of him over the years. In fact, don't you consider it rather brave of him to invite an impressionist who did an impression of him on the show?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ILSON: Well, he never minded people making, you know, fun of him in sort of that kind of way. You know, the way he spoke, the way he walked and so on. But I think he felt dehumanized though.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Ed Sullivan Show")

Mr. SULLIVAN: 742 polish dentists.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. SULLIVAN: It's going to be one of those really big tunes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: They're going to be here to perform their remarkable extractions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: And they're going to drill for you right here on the stage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: He just had such interesting mannerisms sometimes, I mean, you know, when he'd come out and say let's hear it for "Ave Maria," you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ILSON: Yeah, well, he always called Polly Bergen Barbara Britton(ph), and

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ILSON: and it was strange. You know why? He was looking at a teleprompter, so he was reading off a teleprompter most of the time. And he wrote the teleprompter, he wrote the script for the show. So, he was just a very nervous person onstage, I think.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Ed Sullivan Show")

Mr. JACK: Well, Ed, if I may be so bold - and I don't like to ask this - but actually how much do you make?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACK: I mean, how much money do you get for this particular job?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, Jack, I'd say approximately $800 million, $800,000. They raised it one time (unintelligible).

Mr. JACK: He's reading it and he got it wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: We remember the big names he had on the show, the rock and roll stars and the comedy stars, but he also - and it's a quotation: he strived to elevate the taste of the audience by inserting drops of culture.

Mr. ILSON: Right. And the drops of culture were a ballet star, like Noreav(ph), a classical pianist, like Van Cliburn or Eugene Liss(ph). And he actually brought the Metropolitan Opera stars to television.

HANSEN: The singer who appeared the most times on his show was the Metropolitan Opera star Roberta Peters.

Mr. ILSON: Right.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Ed Sullivan Show")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ROBERTA PETERS (Opera Singer): (Singing)

Mr. ILSON: He loved Roberta Peters and he had her on the show 41 times, more than any other classical singer or pop singer.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PETERS: (Singing)

(Soundbite of applause)

HANSEN: You have a chapter in the book about the color line, and you made the note that "The Ed Sullivan Show" was the first TV show to include an African-American in the dancing chorus. What sort of influence did the show have on African-American performers?

Mr. ILSON: Well, he loved to have African-American performers. He had nohe was colorblind. And he's always had a great ear for listening to who the public wanted, and he felt they wanted people like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. And he actually paid for Bill Bojangle Robinson, the great tap dancer, he paid for his funeral and he staged his funeral from Harlem down Broadway all the way to Times Square when Bill died.

So, if there's anybody who really opened up the door to African-American entertainers in television, it certainly was Ed Sullivan.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Ed Sullivan Show")

(Soundbite of song, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag")

Mr. JAMES BROWN (Late Singer): (Singing) Papa's got a brand new bag.

(Soundbite of song, "I Feel Good")

Mr. BROWN: (Singing) I feel good, I knew that I would now. I feel good, I knew that I would now

HANSEN: I wanted you to know we've put out the word about our interview on our NPR Weekend account on Twitter and we received a few questions that our listeners would like to ask.

Mr. ILSON: sure.

HANSEN: Okay? So, the first one is from Doug Wood: did Ed really like talking to the puppet Topo Gigio?

Mr. ILSON: Yes, he loved it, and he's the one who found Topo Gigio on Italian television. At first he wasn't supposed to do that repartee with a little Italian puppet, but there was nobody else. So, he tried it once. He just talked to it like it was a little boy and

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ILSON: and it worked. And he loved it. And Topo Gigio was on 50 times. And Ed insisted that on the last show, the very last show, that he would be the last thing on the last show.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Ed Sullivan Show")

Mr. SULLIVAN: Congratulations. You were great.

Mr. TOPO GIGIO: Thank you. And now, Eddie, before I go to sleep, kiss me goodnight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ILSON: Kiss me goodnight. Yeah, Ed used to walk through New York and there would be, you know

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ILSON: there would be people and taxi drivers hollering out, hey, Eddie, kiss me goodnight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Very funny. We have another listener, Joe Sokol(ph), on Twitter, what about dressing room antics? He wants to know about drugs, sex and booze use among the guests.

Mr. ILSON: I will tell you that there was no such thing. That was a very straight-laced show. I don't know if you realize, Ed was a very religious person. He was a Catholic. Very moral, very straight, and nobody was allowed anything. If drugs and anything went on, it did not go backstage. It was very clean.

HANSEN: You worked directly with the man.

Mr. ILSON: Right.

HANSEN: What was Ed Sullivan like as a person?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ILSON: He was an interesting guy. Like Bob Precht, who was his producer and his son-in-law, married to Betty Precht, his only daughter, once said to me: I never know what he's thinking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ILSON: I'll tell you one thing: he was a real nice person to me. And he used to send notes, personal notes, personally-written notes, to the stars of the show that had been on. You know, after they were on, he said, well, I want to thank you for being on the show. And he did that for all 23 years that the show was on.

HANSEN: Wow. Do you have a favorite act or performance from the show that we could end our interview with?

Mr. ILSON: I had many, many people that I really enjoyed. George Carlin was on the show many times. And I think the comics were sensational.

HANSEN: Well, given that George Carlin passed away not too long ago, I think we'll hear a little of him.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Ed Sullivan Show")

Mr. GEORGE CARLIN (Late Comedian): So, be like a bear, be fair with your hair, show us you care, wear it to there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLIN: Or to there, or to there, if you dare. My wife bought some hair at a fair to use as a spare. Did I care? Au contraire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLIN: Whose fair hair is fair? In fact, hair can be rare. Fred Astaire has no hair, nor does a chair nor a chocolate �clair. And where is the hair on a pear? Nowhere, mon fr�re.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLIN: Now that I've shared this affair with a hare, I think I'll repair to my lair and use Nair. Do you care?

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

HANSEN: Bernie Ilson is author of "Sundays with Sullivan: How the Ed Sullivan Show Brought Elvis, the Beatles and Culture to America." He joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks so much.

Mr. ILSON: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

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