Friday, June 20, 2008

Hymn for a Sunday Evening

Sixty years ago tonight, television history was made. Or, perhaps, it would be better to say, television history began.

Philo Farnsworth and Lee DeForest aside, the raw cultural power of television as an entertainment medium arguably sprang forth from a show that premiered on Sunday, June 20, 1948, from a midtown Manhattan theatre that now serves as the home of The Late Show with David Letterman.

Yes, it was on that night that a newspaper columnist with no discernible talent as a performer became the most influential prime time television host of the twentieth century. Gossip columnist Ed Sullivan took the helm of a variety program called Toast of the Town and made Sunday night the first "must see TV" for the American family.

Over 23 years on the air, Sullivan brought opera stars, Broadway musicals, classical pianists, and Shakespearean actors into our homes -- along with jugglers, acrobats, plate-spinners, folk dancers, and a mouse called Topo Gigio.

So influential was the Sullivan show that it could make or break a Broadway musical.

In his memoir, The Street Where I Live, lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner explains how bringing the stars of Camelot to the Ed Sullivan Show brought that production back from the brink of disaster. CBS was an investor in Camelot, which made what happened all the more significant.

"I have always had one way of judging if a play has gotten over or not," wrote Lerner:

If at ten o'clock on the morning after the opening there is a line at the box office window, the play is a hit. If there is not -- trouble is afoot. At ten o'clock I called the theatre. Trouble was afoot. But we still had an enormous advance sale and unquestionably the play would have a run. But how long? Nobody knew.
William Paley, the head of CBS, commissioned a Nielsen survey that concluded the "show could not possibly run past May."

The play had opened in December 1960, and the advance sale was based largely on the reputation of My Fair Lady, which had, like Camelot, been written by Lerner and Loewe, directed by Moss Hart, and starred Julie Andrews, as well as the distinguished Welsh actor, Richard Burton. The first few weeks floated on that advance. But Lerner continued:
I returned in February to a bleak Camelot. There was hardly any window sale at all and people were walking out of the theatre not by the dozens, but some nights by as much as two to three hundred. The album was rising slowly in the charts, but the word-of-mouth was not good and the chances of recovering the investment seemed infinitesimal.
The situation seemed hopeless. But, as Lerner put it,
And then came the miracle.

Three weeks before, Ed Sullivan, who then had the most popular variety show on television, had decided to do a full hour devoted to Lerner and Loewe. He had honored other composers and lyricists in the past and, in fact, it was the second time he had so honored us. The occasion was the fifth anniversary of My Fair Lady. The program usually consisted of a scene or two from whatever show the authors may have had running at the time, and a medley of their previous hits. When Ed, Fritz, and I were having a meeting to discuss the content of the show, I asked if we might be allowed to routine it ourselves. Ed, one of the most gracious gentlemen in television, gave us carte blanche.

It had always been the custom to do only the briefest possible moments from a current play, in order not to give too much of it away. What I had in mind was to do very little from My Fair Lady and then spend the last twenty minutes doing all the best songs and scenes from Camelot, much more than had ever been prsented before from any play running on Broadway.

The Sullivan Show was Sunday night. During the previous week the cast not only rehearsed the T.V. show but, under Moss's direction, the cuts and changes in the play as well. On the television show, Goulet sang "If Ever I Would Leave You"; Julie sang "Where Are the Simple Joys of Maidenhood?"; Richard did "Camelot"; and he and Julie together did "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" All in costume. And they were a smash.

The following morning I was awakened by a phone call from an excited manager at the Majestic Theatre. "You better come down here," he said, "and look at this." "Look at what?" I asked. He answered, "Just come and see what's going on at this box office." I got to the theatre as quickly as I could. For the first time there was a line halfway down the block.

That night the audience came to the theatre and saw the vastly improved musical that Moss had rehearsed the week before. And at eleven-fifteen the curtain came down! The reaction and the applause were overwhelming. The people came up the aisles raving.

Camelot was finally a hit.
Given Sullivan's background as a journalist who wrote mostly about Broadway and the entertainment world, it should come as no surprise that, when he came to television, he became Broadway's biggest booster. So big, in fact, that "Ed Sullivan" is the primary lyric of a song in the 1960 musical, Bye Bye Birdie, called "Hymn for a Sunday Evening." (In a case of life imitating art, Paul Lynde sang that song on The Ed Sullivan Show on June 12, 1960; the other guests that night included Dick Van Dyke as well as Louis Prima and Keely Smith.)

Two of the guests on the first episode of Toast of the Town were Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. No doubt they tried to resuscitate their failed experiment of a show, Allegro, which was then in its death throes. (It closed weeks later, on July 10, after only 315 performances -- a major disappointment after the blockbuster status of Oklahoma!, which had closed three weeks later after a five-year run, and Carousel, which enjoyed 890 performances.) Or perhaps they were plugging a show they hadn't written, but produced: Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun, which was in the midst of a three-year engagement of nearly 1,150 performances.

Television audiences who came upon Toast of the Town that first night would have seen the comedy team of Martin and Lewis -- Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, that is. And another comedy team, not so familiar to us now, called Goodman and Kirkwood. Other guests were John Kokoman, Kathryn Lee, Monica Lewis, Eugene List, and a dance troupe called "The Toastettes."

The Ed Sullivan Show went off the air on May 30, 1971, with a Memorial Day special. Generations of TV viewers have grown up without it, unless they have been fortunate enough to see individual episodes on DVD. (One set available for purchase, for example, includes the four episodes that featured the Beatles, whose debut on the Ed Sullivan Show was the biggest television event between Elvis' first appearance on that show and the moon landing -- which happened on a Sunday night (July 20, 1969), preempting Sullivan in favor of Neil Armstrong.) Sullivan's imprimatur made both Elvis and the Beatles (as well as the Rolling Stones, The Doors, and other rock acts) acceptable to Middle America.

While decidedly middlebrow in its approach, the Ed Sullivan Show brought highbrow culture into American homes along with the low-brow arts that appealed to the groundlings. Adults and children could watch together and know that, if what they were watching now is unsatisfying, they could wait five minutes and something more enjoyable would come along.

It's hard to believe it's been six decades.

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