Solid, savvy biography of the stone-faced showman who brought the whole spectrum of American culture into the nation’s living rooms.
Pop-culture author Maguire (American Bee, not reviewed) spends a bit too much time on his subject’s apprenticeship as a sportswriter and gossip columnist before moving on to the legendary variety show that ran from the dawn of television in 1948 through 1971. Sullivan (1901–74) was a fairly typical Broadway columnist, and his years as such certainly shaped his show’s all-inclusive ethos. It was only after years of failing to find a niche in radio or Hollywood (newspapers could never fully assuage his lust for media celebrity) that he found his true calling when CBS tapped him to host Toast of the Town. The fledgling network hoped Sullivan’s status as columnist could strong-arm major stars into appearing on the minimally funded program. It did, but the essence of Ed’s ability to fend off better-heeled rivals like The Colgate Comedy Hour lay in his keen sense of just what Mr. and Mrs. America—and their kids—wanted to see. The Ed Sullivan Show (as it was renamed in 1955) mixed opera stars and Broadway musicals with animal acts and rock-’n’-roll in a “Big Tent” that offered something for every taste. Maguire correctly notes that Sullivan’s role as host (derided for his stiff demeanor) was far less important than the influence he wielded as producer, choosing every act and often changing the lineup at the last minute based on the dress-rehearsal audience’s reactions. He was alert enough to trends to book Elvis and the Beatles, though their advent signaled a generation gap that would ultimately doom the Big Tent approach. Sullivan, who lived for his work, survived only a few years beyond the show’s cancellation and wife Sylvia’s near-simultaneous death.
Smart cultural history and a level-headed tribute to the impresario “always ready to proceed with cautious boldness wherever the audience was ready to go, and sometimes where they weren’t.”