A show like no other in TV history

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“Folks, we’ve got a really big shew (show) for you tonight. And now, right here on our stage ….”

With those introductory words, host Ed Sullivan opened another installment of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the popular TV variety program that ran on CBS from June 20, 1948, until June 6, 1971. That’s 23 years, 1,068 episodes and more than 10,000 performers.

Sullivan was a former New York newspaper entertainment columnist who got into television during its infancy in the late 1940s and hosted the show that was to become the longest-running of its kind in television history.

Occasionally, we can still see TV ads offering CD highlights of the show.

“The Ed Sullivan Show,” one of those rare offerings that all family members could watch and enjoy together, was a favorite of mine when I was a youngster. I recall sitting in our living room floor with big bowl of popcorn every Sunday at 8 p.m. My parents often watched too, and what’s more, my younger brother and I didn’t object to them being in the room with us.

More than 60 million viewers, some 82.6% of the national audience, watched Elvis Presley when he appeared on the show on Sept. 9, 1956, while 73 million viewers tuned in to watch the Beatles on Feb 9, 1964.

Musical acts appearing on the show were a virtual “Who’s Who” of the entertainment industry and included Ray Charles, the Supremes, Roy Orbison, the Dave Clark Five, Sammy Davis Jr., the Beach Boys, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Jackson Five, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones, the Mamas and the Papas, Judy Garland, Lovin’ Spoonful, Herman’s Hermits, The Doors, The Band, Buddy Holly and the Crickets and Stevie Wonder.

Among the many Broadway performers singing showtunes on the Sullivan stage were Carol Lawrence, Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, Robert Goulet, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lynde, Liza Minnelli, Pearl Bailey and Gordon MacRae.

Puppet appearances included the little Italian mouse Topo Gigio, the Muppets, Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, and Spanish ventriloquist Senor Wences with Pedro, his imaginary puppet in the box, who chanted “s’awright,” “s’awright.”

I can’t recall any names for the circus and tumbling acts on the show, but they were always fun to watch, especially the plate-spinners and acrobats turning somersaults, often on a trampoline.

Comedians, some established and some making their first-ever TV appearance, included George Carlin, Alan King, Richard Pryor, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Flip Wilson, the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Andy Griffith, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Henny Youngman, Joan Rivers and Rodney Dangerfield.

Sullivan also had many famous athletes on his program, among them Wilt Chamberlain, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Arnold Palmer, Eddie Arcaro, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Ben Hogan, Jack Dempsey, Joe DiMaggio, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Red Auerbach, Rod Laver and Arthur Ashe.

Ed Sullivan was not a handsome man, and his and mannerisms made it easy for comedians and others to imitate and make fun of him, something they did often. And when introducing acts, he often mispronounced names terribly or else got them wrong entirely.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that no one else has produced a show with the quality and quantity of star power Ed Sullivan brought to the stage.

And I doubt anyone ever will.

Keith Barnes, a Wilson storyteller and author, is a reporter for the Johnstonian News. Email him at kbarnes@johnstoniannews.com.