Elvis - The Ed Sullivan Show


Elvis Presley made no less than nine network television appearances before performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on the evening of September 9, 1956, but it was on that date that most of America first saw him. Sullivan, known for his stiff demeanor and habit of pronouncing "show" as "shoe," presided over a Sunday night variety show that was an American institution in an era when television was still a three channel universe. An appearance on Sullivan's show was an important step for any entertainer. It was tantamount to receiving the show business seal of approval.

But Sullivan originally did not approve of Presley and vowed he wouldn’t touch the singer with a ten foot pole. Presley was more than hot. He was scorching. The swivel hips that earned him the nickname “Elvis the Pelvis” (which he despised, calling it “childish”) and his expressive singing style made him a lightning rod of controversy. One journalist compared his stage act to that of a stripper. However, when Presley appeared on “The Steve Allen Show,” which was scheduled opposite Sullivan on Sunday nights, the ratings went through the roof. Sullivan reversed himself and offered Presley a then astounding $50,000 to make three appearances on his show.

Just how shocking Presley was in 1956 was never apparent in the frequently recycled clips of his performances. Now, thanks to Image Entertainment’s 3 disc DVD set, Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows, his performances can be seen in their full, original context.

Ironically, a car accident prevented Sullivan from being present that first night. Charles Laughton, the brilliant British stage and screen actor (and husband of Elsa Lanchester, The Bride of Frankenstein), was the guest host that night, kicking off the proceedings by reading some poetry followed by limericks. The Brothers Amin, an acrobatic act, came next, then Dorothy Sarnoff performed a song from Broadway’s The King and I. After a commercial break, Laughton, standing before a wall of Presley’s gold records, introduced the man whom a record 72 million views tuned in to see.

Wearing a plaid jacket and a guitar slung over his chest like a machine gun, Presley blasted his way into “Don’t Be Cruel” and it’s a little like Moses parting the Red Sea. Prior to Elvis, entertainment didn’t have to be rated with letters signifying what age group should be permitted to watch. Families watched TV and listened to music the same way they went to the movies: together. Now Elvis came to drive them apart.

Teenagers loved him, of course, especially the girls, and there was certainly a lot to like about Elvis. He was handsome, but in a way American men had not been before; he was threatening, yet still somehow tame, as if his mask of menace was only meant to conceal a wounded heart. He was, after all, very well-mannered, saying “Yes, sir” and thanking “Mr. Laughton." What was one to make of this guy with the unusual name, the pompadour, and the long sideburns?

“He just does this,” Ed Sullivan would say while shaking his body on the October 28 show, “and everybody yells.” Presley looked a little more sinister this time in his dark suit, and he offers reprises of “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” and “Hound Dog” while also introducing one of his sultriest numbers, “Love Me.”

What did Dorothy Sarnoff think? And what was the reaction of Senor Wences, who was on the bill the same night Presley appeared a second time?

Clearly, show business had been rocked into a new dimension.

Presley's third and final appearance for Sullivan came on January 6, 1957 on a show that also featured Carol Burnett. By now, the country was clearly divided into two camps: those who championed the King of Rock and Roll, and those who condemned him. Sullivan was now among the former, surprising audiences and Elvis himself by proclaiming him a “real decent, fine boy.”

But there was no turning back. Soon, people would be talking about the “generation gap” and, later, “youth culture.” The gap would widen in the ‘60s with even Presley taking his place among the old guard, but the gap started here. With the release of Elvis-The Ed Sullivan Show on DVD, it’s now possible to properly assess the earth shaking impact Presley had in the more innocent era of the 1950's.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2007 Brian W. Fairbanks. All rights reserved.

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