March 1971…The End Of An Era: Ed Sullivan Canceled By CBS

March 1971…The End Of An Era: Ed Sullivan Canceled By CBS

Ed Sullivan began with CBS in 1948, when he was hired to host their first variety show endeavor called “Toast of the Town,” which debuted on June 20, 1948. Sullivan assembled a show for the launch that included the budding comedy act of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Rodgers and Hammerstein, a pianist, a ballerina, a troupe of crooning firemen and a boxing referee whose next assignment was the much anticipated Joe Louis – Jersey Joe Wolcott match the next week.

The first five years of the show came from the first theater CBS had converted for television, The Maxine Elliott Theater, which was designated Studio 51. Still titled “Toast of the Town,” the show moved from Studio 51 to Studio 50 in January of 1953. At the start of the eight season, on September 18,1955, the program was renamed “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

I don’t have to tell you how much history was made on this show, because you already know. Everyone does, but…

Towards the end of the show’s 23 year run, with the country divided by the Vietnam War and polarizing values, the show’s format had lost much of it’s wide range of demographic appeal. In it’s heydays, Sullivan and company had owned the 8 o’clock Sunday night slot, and although occasionally someone could beat their ratings, like “Maverik” or “The Steve Allen Show”, Sullivan always came back. By this time though, counter programming from NBC’s “Wonderful World Of Disney,” and ABC’s “The FBI,” were gaining on the show.

When producer Bob Precht got the call from CBS president Bob Wood, he was in an edit session. When Wood delivered the news, it wasn’t a total surprise to Precht, but it was to Sullivan who did not take the news well.

Bob called Ed at his Delmonico suite with the news and Ed took it as yet another example of the network’s lack of respect for him. “Well I’ll be a son of a bitch…after all I’ve done for the network over the years”, was Ed’s reply.

Precht (who is also Sullivan’s son in law) had already been reading some of the handwriting on the wall. When CBS did not renew “The Red Skelton Show” and canceled “The Jackie Gleason Show” in 1970, that was a warning signal, but around the same time Ed’s show was canceled, so was “The Beverly Hillbillies”, “Green Acres”, “Petticoat Junction” and “Hee Haw”. It was the CBS “rural purge” that was based on the idea of dumping the older, less affluent demographic and shooting more for the younger demo that advertisers would pay more for.

Unfortunately, there is a more heartbreaking side to the story. In what is a very personal and difficult topic for many of us that have experienced the effects of dementia with a loved one, the Sullivan show family was there too.

In this clip from The Archive of American Television’s Emmy Legends interviews, Sullivan’s long time assistant director and later director, John Moffitt, describes the confusion that prerecording some of the musical acts in the final years of the show caused Mr. Sullivan, how they worked around his condition, and Ed’s general decline.

Edward Vincent Sullivan died October 13, 1974, at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital. His funeral was attended by 3,000 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, on a cold, rainy day. Sullivan is interred in a crypt at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

Although gone, as long as there is such a thing as television and people to study its history…he will never be forgotten. Long Live The King! -Bobby Ellerbee


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