Ed Sullivan was a legendary showman who grew up in Port Chester. His career and his decision-making were influenced by his upbringing in what was a small Westchester village when the Sullivan family lived there.
Ed Sullivan. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Edward Vincent Sullivan and his twin brother, Danny, were the third and fourth children born to Elizabeth Smith Sullivan and Peter Sullivan, who lived on 114th Street in Harlem, a neighborhood that was a mixture of Irish and Italian immigrants. Ed’s twin died before the boys celebrated their first birthday in 1902, and after losing another child in infancy, Peter Sullivan decided to move the family out of the city. He chose Port Chester, New York, to be their new home.
Ed was the middle child of the surviving five children; he had an older sister, Helen, an older brother, Charles, and two younger sisters. In his autobiography, Always on Sunday, Sullivan wrote: “I still recall the excitement of Helen, Charles, and me en route to Port Chester, when we first saw cows grazing in the country fields.” The family lived on the top floor of a two-family house at 53 Washington Street. At the time of their arrival, Port Chester was a small village, with tree-shaded streets, a village smithy and a doctor who made house calls via a horse-drawn carriage.
The entire family loved music, and someone was always playing the piano or singing. A phonograph was a prized possession; the family loved playing all types of records on it. His mother hoped that Ed would master an instrument, and she gave him money for piano lessons when she could. Ed dutifully left the house, but he went to the nickelodeon near Liberty Square instead!
While father Peter worked as a customs agent, the children understood the importance of contributing to the family income. When Ed was still in grammar school, he and Charles would meet after school and walk the three miles to the Apawamis Club in Rye, where they served as golf caddies for 35 cents a round.
Ed and his siblings attended St. Mary’s Catholic School and then Port Chester High School. Sullivan was a gifted athlete in high school, earning 12 athletic letters. He played halfback in football; he was a guard in basketball; in track he was a sprinter. With the baseball team, Ed was catcher and team captain, and he led the team to several championships.
Baseball made an impression on him that would affect his career as well as the culture of America. Sullivan noted that in high school sports integration was taken for granted: “When we went up into Connecticut, we ran into clubs that had Negro players. In those days this was accepted as commonplace; and so, my instinctive antagonism years later to any theory that a Negro wasn’t a worthy opponent or was an inferior person. It was just as simple as that.” Later, when Sullivan was a successful producer of his own television program, he defied the wishes of advertisers who wanted white talent only, and he had everyone from Nat “King” Cole and the Supremes to Pearl Bailey on his program. These performers got the same handshake or kiss on the cheek as any of the white performers. By giving black talent equal status with white, Sullivan was instrumental in diversifying American entertainment.
As the United States prepared to enter World War I, Sullivan wanted to be part of the action. He was turning 16, and when he was turned down by the local draft board, he traveled to Chicago, thinking that no one would know him there and he would be too far away for his family to stop him. Recruiters in Chicago would not accept him without proof of age, so he got a job as a busboy and worried about what to do next. After about six months, he contacted his brother Charles for money to buy a ticket home, and he returned to Port Chester. His father was so overcome with emotion at Ed’s return that Ed escaped punishment for running away.
He returned to high school and continued to play sports and also wrote about sports for the school newspaper. During his senior year, he approached the Port Chester Daily Item and asked them to run a column on high school sports that he would write. The editor agreed, and he was paid on a per column basis. Though an uncle offered to pay for Sullivan to attend college, Ed had tasted the life of a newspaperman, and he wanted to begin work right away. And who could blame him? One of his early stories for the Item was an interview with Babe Ruth who was in town for an exhibition game.
In 1919 he was hired by The Hartford Post. That paper folded almost immediately, and Sullivan moved on to The New York Evening Mail. When the Evening Mail closed, Sullivan worked for a succession of newspapers, including writing for the Associated Press. He eventually found a home at The Evening Graphic, where he wrote for the sports section, eventually becoming the sports editor. When Walter Winchell moved from the Graphic to the New York Daily News, Sullivan moved into Winchell’s spot, writing about Broadway and show business celebrities.
Eventually the Graphic folded, and Sullivan’s column, “Little Old New York,” was picked up by the New York Daily News, where he found a home and stayed for 40 years—throughout all of his years on television. His last column appeared in the paper the day after he died.
Like newspaper people today, Ed Sullivan found he needed to find ways to make additional money. He wrote screen plays for B-level movies at one time, and then in 1942 started doing a radio show, “Ed Sullivan Entertains.” Modeling himself very much after Winchell, who headquartered at the Stork Club, Sullivan based his shows at El Morocco. He also began producing vaudeville shows, serving as master of ceremonies as well. He was also a willing volunteer, and he put together benefit shows for various causes. During the war years, he was particularly in demand for this work.
In 1947 he was serving as master of ceremonies of the Harvest Moon Ball, an annual event sponsored by the New York Daily News, which was held at Madison Square Garden. CBS was televising the event—their very first remote broadcast—when CBS executive Worthington Miner saw ability in Sullivan and hired him to host a show CBS wanted to launch called “Toast of the Town.” Sullivan was 46 when he first hosted the program, and soon found himself not only the talk of the town but the talk of the whole country. The show ran on CBS from June 1948 to 1971, a very successful 23-year run of what Sullivan pronounced as “a rilllly big shew!”
Sullivan served as both host and impresario for “Toast of the Town,” nailing down the guests he wanted to have on the air. Long before “American Idol” or “America’s Got Talent” was even a glimmer in any producer’s eye, Sullivan was picking and choosing acts, and he soon became known as a starmaker. If you appeared on Sullivan, your future as a performer was secure. In 1955 the title of the show was changed to “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Mr. Sunday Night
The show was broadcast from CBS Studio 50 at 1697 Broadway at 53rd Street, and eventually settled into its long-running time slot—Sunday night from 8-9 ET. When asked by a reporter from The Coronet to explain his success, Sullivan shared his secret: “Open big, have a good comedy act, put in something for children and keep the show clean. I believe in getting the best acts I can, introducing them quickly, and getting off.” In short, he believed in something for everyone. He also gave credit to the medicine men who used to stop in Port Chester to peddle their wares: “Those medicine men were my first contact with great showmen. They had pace and great authority with an audience.”
Between 45 and 50 million people tuned in weekly to see live performances of the biggest music acts, performances of numbers from Broadway musicals, an array of stand-up comedians, magicians and jugglers, as well as ventriloquists, dog acts, Chinese tumblers and drill teams. But Sullivan had his “misses” as well. He tried to introduce opera to middle America, but families either changed channels or quickly turned off the set.
Steve Allen actually was first to bring Elvis Presley to television, and when he beat Sullivan in the ratings, Ed was on the phone to Presley’s manager within 24 hours. Presley was booked immediately for three Sullivan appearances, and for a princely fee. The Fab Four, the Beatles, appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show on February 9, 1964, in a television moment that anyone alive at the time will not forget.
Ed Sullivan with The Beatles, 1964.
Sullivan became a legend, but the key to his success was booking legends, and sometimes legend-to-legend battles occurred. If a singer insisted on introducing a new song when Sullivan expected him to perform an old favorite, then that performer (including Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan and Bo Diddley) soon found he wasn’t invited back.
Sullivan himself received mixed reviews. Critics described him as “wooden,” and said that his eyes “popped out of their sockets” and that he looked like a man “sucking a lemon.” He was awkward and could garble almost anything at any moment. One night he offered, “Right here in our audience, the late Irving Berlin!” And he introduced one musical theater star as “now starving on Broadway.” While his mannerisms and awkwardness were pure Ed, some of his physical traits had an explanation. In 1956 he had been in a serious car accident; his sternum and ribs were crushed inward, and his front teeth were knocked out. When asked how to explain Sullivan’s success, comedian Alan King said: “Ed Sullivan does nothing, but he does it better than anyone else on television.”
In 1971 CBS cancelled the show because they were looking to find a younger audience. Sullivan felt so betrayed that he refused to do a final show for the season. However, he and CBS finally agreed to a truce, and Sullivan subsequently produced and hosted a number of specials.
On April 28, 1930, he married Sylvia Weinstein. They had one daughter, Betty, who eventually married “The Ed Sullivan Show” producer, Bob Precht. For many years, Ed and Sylvia lived at the Demonico Hotel in New York City, and he was said to call Sylvia after every show to get her comments.
While Sullivan’s life was mostly centered in Manhattan in later years, he returned to Port Chester occasionally to help out with local benefits. In 1965 he was honored by the village with Ed Sullivan Day, and it was celebrated with a big parade.
Sullivan died of esophageal cancer (age 73) at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital on October 13, 1974. His funeral, attended by 3,000 people, was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He was then returned to Westchester, where he is interred in a crypt at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale.
Ed Sullivan brought popular culture to all of America at a time when families were excited to gather around the living room television set just to see what Mr. Sunday Night had to offer them. It was always a really big show.