As I have often previously observed, 1948 was in so many ways such a wonderful year. I was born. The State of Israel was born. The present Prince of Wales was born. It was a great year too in the infant industry of television. On June 8, The Milton Berle Show made its debut. And then, 70 years ago today, an hour-long TV variety show called Toast of the Town, hosted by New York entertainment columnist Ed Sullivan (1901-1974), also made its debut. It ran every Sunday, every season, until June 6, 1971. (On September 25, 1955, the show officially changed its name to The Ed Sullivan Show, and that is how it is remembered.)
I was four years old when my family purchased its first television; and, as far back as I can remember, The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday at 8:00 p.m. was a regular routine in my family - as it must have been in many families. Often we spent Sunday afternoons and evenings with my aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was at one of those gatherings that we all watched together Elvis's famous first performance on Ed Sullivan on September 9, 1956.
A lot of successful performers were introduced to the mass TV audience on the Sullivan show. The most famous instance of this, of course, was The Beatles. Sullivan had accidentally encountered the Beatles while passing through London's Heathrow Airport in 1963. Seeing their fans' over-the-top reaction, Sullivan sensed that they were, as he put it, Elvis all over again. A few months later, on February 9, 1964, the Beatles (photo) made their American TV debut on his show (a broadcast that drew an estimated 73 million viewers). And the rest, as the saying goes, was pop music history!
In addition to introducing new talent to a mass audience, Sullivan has also been credited with improving American attitudes to and treatment of mental illness, after a May 17, 1953, show at which Broadway director Joshua Logan talked publicly about his experiences in a mental institution.
The Ed Sullivan Show reflected the mores of the era (and its host's Catholic moral rectitude). Inevitably that would conflict with the emerging values of the late 1960s. Thus, when the Rolling Stones appeared on the show on January 15, 1967, they were famously required to change "Let's spend the night together" to "Let's spend some time together." By that time, inevitably, the show's viewership was beginning to decline, its audience increasingly older (a demographic disaster in the mentality of advertisers). So CBS cancelled the show after the end of the 1970-1971 season. And that was that!
Variety shows fit the mood of the 1950s. It would be hard to imagine such a show today., when viewers would likely channel-surf throughout. While that reflects our changing tastes and reduced attention spans, it also highlights how TV and popular entertainment no longer represent any kind of shared common space in our society, in which we have mostly all retreated to our separate cultural silos. Because at that time there was usually only one TV set in a home and there were only three networks and hence limited TV choices, families watched TV together and shared a common inter-generational experience, an experience they shared with individuals and families across the entire country, creating a common national cultural framework which now no longer exists. That loss of shared experience and common cultural framework is hardly the sole cause or primary explanation for the many social, cultural, and pollitical divisions we are experiencing now, but it does represent one contributing factor.