Thursday, November 3, 2011

Forgotten Hits Salutes The Ed Sullivan Show ... The Andrew Solt Interview

Owning "The Ed Sullivan Show" is like owning The Holy Grail of Variety Television.  It harkens back to an earlier time when, with just three major network channels, the entire family would sit down together to watch an evening of television programming (typically built around the most "common denominator" as to what all could agree to watch on that particular evening.)

It was a time before Cable TV (and a TV set in every room) ... today, many (if not most) families isolate themselves behind closed doors so that each can watch what THEY want to watch, with little regard for what another family member may be viewing. 

But "The Ed Sullivan Show" had something for EVERYBODY ... great comedians ... major TV and Sports figures ... Broadway Plays (both musicals and dramas), opera, circus acts, animal acts and, beginning in 1955, the absolute latest in the world of Rock And Roll.  Something for EVERYBODY.

The program ran from June 20, 1948 (launched as "Toast Of The Town") through March 28, 1971, thus becoming the longest-running variety show in television history.  Along the way, its name was changed to "The Ed Sullivan Show" (after its incomparable host) and, by the time it ended, it was being broadcast from The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.  (Today this same building hosts "Late Night with David Letterman" ... in fact, a milestone was reached last year when Paul McCartney performed a few songs from the rooftop of The Ed Sullivan Theater, drawing back memories of both The Beatles' first American live television appearance on Ed's program in 1964 ... as well as their final performance together as a group on the rooftop of their own Apple Records Studio in 1969.)

If you grew up in this era, "The Ed Sullivan Show" was part of your weekly routine ... Ed was practically a part of your family.  Incredible as it may seem, this year marks the 40th Year since it was last broadcast on Sunday Nights on CBS Television.

In 1990, the exclusive rights to the complete library of "The Ed Sullivan Show" were purchased by Andrew Solt from Ed's daughter Elizabeth and her husband Bob Precht, a long-time Executive Producer on the show.  In all, this collection encompasses nearly 1100 hours of classic television, including over 10,000 live performances by virtually EVERY popular entertainer to pass through our collective existence between 1948 and 1971 ... many of whom went on to achieve super-stardom, quite often as a direct result of the exposure they received on Ed's weekly program.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down and visit with Andrew Solt and much of that conversation follows in this brand new, exclusive Forgotten Hits Series.  (Prior to actually speaking to him,  I pictured Andrew up at the very top of the king's tower, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of video tapes screaming "Mine ... All Mine!!!", which is probably what I would do if I owned such a collection ... but instead he was very approachable and down to earth about the whole thing ... very proud of his collection, to be sure ... and the legacy that it encompasses ... but also acknowledging that these tapes deserve to be seen by the people who grew up enjoying Ed's program.)  And that's really what it comes down to ... what good is HAVING all this one-of-a-kind video footage if you can't SHARE it with somebody!  

Thankfully, over the years, a few of these vintage performances have found their way to home video or were included as part of television specials and tributes to the legacy of Ed Sullivan ... and, according to Andrew, we're just getting started.  

Recently there has been a flurry of releases.  A few years ago, the best-selling DVD collection of ALL of The Beatles' appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" was released.  That was followed a short while later by the complete Elvis Presley appearances.  Both collections offer the viewer the opportunity to watch ONLY these landmark, legendary musical performances ... or view the entire program EXACTLY as it aired then, complete with original commercials!

The past several weeks has brought us The Ed Sullivan Motown Collection (featuring some of the biggest names in Motown) as well as special disks devoted to the performances of Diana Ross and the Supremes and The Temptations. 

Two other special editions are now available spotlighting the appearances of The Rolling Stones ... 

a 4-disk compilation was released on October 4th ... and, just this week, a deluxe 6-disk set which hit stores on November 1st ... meaning fans can now own EVERY appearance ever made by The Rolling Stones on Ed's program ... to enjoy as part of their home music / video library.


KENT KOTAL / FORGOTTEN HITS: You were born in London ... and spent some time in South Africa before moving to The United States in 1958. What was YOUR first experience with discovering The Ed Sullivan Show?

ANDREW SOLT: I had never seen television before we moved here to America. I was eleven years old the first time I ever watched TV ... and I fell in love with The Ed Sullivan Show. I remember spending an afternoon with my brother watching nothing but game shows and even at that early age wondering "How does anyone get anything done here?" with all that great TV to watch. I was both fascinated and completely captivated.
(How much of an impact did this experience have on a young Andrew Solt?  In 1983, Solt produced an NBC television special titled "Those Wonderful TV Game Shows"!!! - kk)

kk:  Would you say that you have always been a "fan" of the series? What are some of YOUR favorite remembrances of this landmark series? What kinds of things did YOU tune in to watch, growing up in the late '50's and '60's?

AS:  The Ed Sullivan Show was always my favorite. Much like you, I may have first tuned in to see the rock and roll acts ... but I also grew to love the variety of SO many different forms of entertainment presented on the same stage during the course of an evening. Besides the rock music for the kids, Ed had Broadway shows, live drama, sports figures, ballet, opera, some great comedians, vaudeville and novelty acts, animals, circus performers and, of course, Topo Gigio! ... truly something for everybody.

kk:  It seems that Sullivan's shows strived to always have something for everybody. This was back in an age where the whole family sat down together to watch television on Sunday Nights ... with typically a choice of only three television channels to choose from.

AS:  You're right ... this was the golden era of network television ... three major networks and that was it ... not like the hundreds of cable channels we have today. If you lived in a major city, you might have six or seven channels ... the three major networks and perhaps up to three or four local affiliates ... but Ed Sullivan had a regular viewership that tuned in faithfully every Sunday night just to see who he was going to have on ... and week after week, he rarely disappointed, always having the biggest names in every field of entertainment on his program.

kk:  And it wasn't just the entertainers appearing on the stage ... it was amazing to see who might be sitting in the audience on any given night! Ed would always find a way to recognize every celebrity on hand.

AS:  He knew everybody ... and he was always looking for the next hot act. After working on his newspaper column and rehearsing the television show, Ed and his wife Sylvia would go out every night to nightclubs and theaters, often staying out till three in the morning seeking “the next big thing” for the show. This was the life they both enjoyed.

kk:  I'm sure I watched Ed Sullivan before 1964, but the night The Beatles first appeared on his program is still as clear in my mind as it can be, all these years later. (Watching the now-available DVD rebroadcasts of these appearance only confirms how truly vivid these memories really are!) I'll never forget going to school the next day and having The Beatles being the ONLY topic of discussion anyone wanted to spend time on! (In fact, the night after The Beatles' first television appearance, my Dad took us three boys to the barber shop to get haircuts. The running joke that night was whether or not the three of us basically flat top / crew cut boys wanted new "Beatle cuts" or not! A vivid memory to be sure ... of not only an IMMEDIATE fashion style-impact The Fab For had on America ... but also of the day when barber shops were still open on Mondays!!! lol)

AS:  So you remember that very first Beatles appearance? So many of us do ... it was a life-changing moment for many of us. By then, early 1964, we had heard the records but we had never SEEN The Beatles. You had the record album covers to look at, of course ... but we had never seen them perform live ... and witnessed their wit and charm and charisma. The Beatles' first performance drew 73 million viewers ... it's a mind-boggling statistic ... that THAT many people would tune in to see one act perform ... and a relatively unknown, unproven act at that!  But you have to understand that Ed's program regularly drew 30-35 million viewers, each and every week. That's almost unheard of in television today. Today the only programs that generate that kind of an audience ... 30 million viewers ... would be something like a major sporting event like The Super Bowl ... or perhaps the season finale of "American Idol" ... but Ed Sullivan delivered those kinds of ratings on a regular basis back then when there were less than half as many Americans.  Now consider that there were far fewer televisions in homes back then ... and the numbers become truly staggering.

kk:  This is true ... today most families have a TV in every room ... and each member of the family goes off on their own, closes the door and watches what THEY want to watch, from a choice of over 200 different channels! It's not like the old days where the whole family would sit down together and watch ... and enjoy ... the same program! Now I'll admit to leaving the room whenever something of lesser interest came on the screen ... but we didn't stray far for fear of missing something new and exciting. Ed ALWAYS seemed to have a way of catching an artist RIGHT when their latest hit record was soaring up the charts!

AS:  It didn't take long for people like Berry Gordy of Motown to catch on ... back then the new record releases came out on Monday ... and if your act was performing on The Ed Sullivan Show Sunday Night, it was pretty much a sure thing that the kids would be hitting the record stores the very next day, buying the latest hit record they heard on TV the night before. And Ed Sullivan knew this. He was very in tune with the power of the media and the power of his program.

kk:  His program always seemed to capture an artist at exactly the right time ... just as their latest record was about to break big, they'd be on the Sullivan stage performing it live!

AS:  And certainly those performances helped to break that new record big ... and the record company executives KNEW this. It was quite the coup to be asked to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show.

kk:  And the way he found these acts was sometimes amazing, too. Had he not been at the airport in London at the exact moment The Beatles were landing, he may never have even booked the lads on his television program!

AS:  You're right ... Ed was landing at London's Heathrow Airport when he and his wife saw literally THOUSANDS of screaming girls ... and a few boys ... waiting for The Beatles' plane to come in from Scotland. Ed asked what all the fuss was about ... at first he thought perhaps this crowd had turned out to see The Royal Family! When he learned that they were all there to see a pop group called The Beatles, he immediately started seeking out their manager when he got to his hotel. Now this was in November of 1963 ... The Beatles weren’t even dominating the charts in America yet ... in fact, they had yet to have their first U.S. hit record ... but he made Brian Epstein a standing offer on the spot that whenever they were ready, he would book The Beatles on his program ... same deal he had given Colonel Parker and Elvis Presley in 1956 ... three separate appearances. And The Beatles were smart to wait ... as part of the negotiation, Brian Epstein insisted on three things that had previously been decided upon by John and Paul: that The Beatles would not come to America until they had a #1 Record ... that they would have their first major concert appearance at Carnegie Hall in New York City ... and that they would receive top billing on Ed's program ... again, a VERY bold move for an act that had no proven history with an American audience up to this point. The Beatles themselves were unsure as to just how well they would go over here in America ... no British act had ever really had this type of blow-out success before here in The States ... but Brian Epstein believed in his band and negotiated a pretty remarkable deal that Ed Sullivan whole-heartedly agreed to. The Beatles' appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show proved to be ultimately more popular than those of Elvis Presley some eight years earlier!  It was seen by over 72 million people and had an 82% share of the audience.  Amazing!

kk:  It was quite exciting to see ... and the footage still holds up incredibly well today. And who would have ever thought that also on the bill that night was a young Davy Jones, then acting in the musical "Oliver" on Broadway!

AS:  Yes! A very happy coincidence to be sure!  
(And Davy has since said that watching The Beatles perform from the wings of The Ed Sullivan Theater is what inspired him to try his hand at rock and roll. Two years later, he'd be starring in his own television series BASED on The Beatles ... when The Monkees was born! - kk)  
You know some people say that The Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was NOT their first American television appearance ... and they'll site a short clip that aired on The Jack Paar Show two weeks before ... but that clip didn't really show The Beatles performing ... it showed the fans turning up at the airport to greet The Beatles and made fun of their unusual hairstyles. In fact, right before their Sullivan appearance, Walter Cronkite had run a short newsreel clip of the pandemonium of Beatlemania at a European appearance ... but The Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was their first LIVE appearance on American television ... and this is the one that we all know gave rise to Beatlemania here in full-blown fashion. The Beatles only made four  live appearances on Ed Sullivan ... the original three as stipulated by their contract signed in 1963 and a fourth appearance in 1965 that aired just prior to their appearance at Shea Stadium.

kk:  Right ... this was the one where Paul performed "Yesterday" completely solo without the other three ... something ELSE that was unheard of for the time. And then Ed went on to introduce them at Shea Stadium, too.

AS:  Ed seemed to have a real rapport with The Beatles ... and certainly they were appreciative of the exposure his program brought them in America.   Sullivan Productions produced the Beatles’ Shea Stadium concert and the film that was made of the historic event.  Even though they never appeared again live on his program, they would send in films of themselves, performing their latest hit records ... videos like "Paperback Writer" and "Rain" ... some of the very first rock music videos really ... they stayed connected to The Ed Sullivan Show for the rest of their careers. They had miming laws in Great Britain that didn't allow an artist to lip-sync their records on television so The Beatles started making music video clips of their latest hit singles ... and several of these aired here first in America on The Ed Sullivan Show.

You can own the complete collection of The Beatles' appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show ...
Check out the link below: