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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Never Count Vaudeville Out

Where Variety Went From Cheap To Free

So vaudeville died, did it. Or did it? I’ll say no for purpose of this meditation, and for having watched acrobats, comics, dog acts, and what not for a past several nights of You Tube cruising, plus DVD’s dug from storage. Vaudeville left plenty of performers, if not their performances. Television from beginning absorbed acts that would prove ephemeral as if done live for a turn-of-century public. In short, ninety-five percent of it is gone. Would we declare vaudeville dead if all of old TV survived, let alone was available for us to watch? Here’s my tally of Ed Sullivan shows to be seen in their entirety today: thirteen. Three with Elvis Presley, four with the Beatles, and six, if you can afford them (out of print, and $299.99, from Amazon), with the Rolling Stones. There is a four-episode group featuring the Stones that is more affordable. I mention this to point up the shocking dearth of Sullivan shows that we can enjoy today. He hosted variety hours from the late 40’s into the 70’s. That’s nearly as long as vaudeville had flush years. Do some math here: A big-time vaude house normally changed bills once per week. So did Ed. They had headliners plus meat-potato acts. Ed too. Vaude as done live is gone --- and there’s the case as well for Sullivan’s backlog. Does it all survive? And if so, who owns it? Presumably Andrew Solt’s estate. But who in a right mind would release all of Ed Sullivan on disc? Stream them maybe, and for all I know, someone already has.

There’s argument yet over death or survival of vaudeville. Adherents, ones like me who’d like to think movies and TV preserved variety in some state of authenticity, will say it lasted well past recorded demise of the late 20’s-early 30’s, when per se vaudeville went smash. Performers who were there and saw the vessel sink give no quarter, however. Fred Allen was among most eloquent of these. He wrote flat in his 1956 memoir that “Vaudeville is dead.” Any of us who thought otherwise were kidding ourselves. “A few diehards who knew and enjoyed vaudeville hover over their television sets, hoping for a miracle. They believe that the electronic device is a modern oxygen tent that in some mysterious way can revive vaudeville and return its colorful performers of yesteryear to the current scene. The optimism of these day and night dreamers is wasted. Vaudeville is dead. Period.” Allen stood for many who spoke truth to unrealistic hope. Writers pointed out that radio and presentation houses were no substitute for true vaude. Airwaves locked performance to microphones, and with radio of course, we’d not see performers perform. Big theatres with vast stages were no improvement. How could a lone artist register? The term “presentation house” meant groups, ensembles, lined up to amuse thousands watching. Bands or orchestras clicked best, these perceived as equal to grandeur of palaces designed to host them.

Read any interview with a veteran entertainer and they’ll get around to days in vaudeville. Those that worked the real thing, as in two-a-day and tank towns, are gone now. Even Baby Rose Marie has passed. Was there ever so close a fraternity as emerged from vaudeville? These people came of a common climb that was easy for nobody. All from top to bottom knew what it was to ride smoky trains and have audiences jeer at them. Vaudeville was the great leveler for all of show business. I don’t think it bred a single overnight sensation. Fortunately, there is a lot of oral history. The acts are there too, thanks to films learning to talk in time to capture vaude while it still thrived. Shorts were done by the peck in the late 20’s, most a single reel which was time enough to memorialize a routine or sketch. There is even Weber and Fields in a DeForest Photophone snip. Makes me wish Lillian Russell had lived a little longer (d.1922), but at least we have Alice Faye’s approximation from 1940. That’s as good a way as any to know vaudeville, movies that celebrated it made by those who lived or at least knew of circuit/touring life. Vitaphone volumes, generously had from Warner Archive, make the case for vaudeville as Great Lost Art, a notion put forth from a start, all agreed that this was entertainment to unify each and all of America. But wouldn’t movies, radio, and TV do as much in their own ways?

Toby The Pup!
Much lamentation came with demise of true vaude. Talker screens got blame, then lavish theatres that used live acts to prop film fare. Sometimes it was hard to know where a tail wagged dogs, as with Sinatra or Martin/Lewis at vast venues and no one knowing what hell the movie was, even those that sat through twice to see hot favorites sing/mirth again. Radio meantime sucked up variety artists like a sieve, excepting “dumb” acts where visual routine was all. One wag said (though many claimed the quote) that television was the box vaudeville was buried in, which I suppose is accurate if not over-gloomy for demand vaude vets enjoyed again. But weren’t they kept busy through the war at camp shows? Lots argued a new fan base was born via armed force exposure to acts aged in wood that was variety. Again to disappearance of all that TV, deprivation so severe that we don’t even know what we’re missing. I watched a Sullivan Talk Of The Town (12-18-49) on YT. Ed opened with a “nostalgia” spot, as in fifty year back-glance at a gay, if vanished, 90’s. The guy who, in 1896, composed the tune for Sweet Adeline (Harry Armstrong) was there to sing it with a barbershop quartet. Then W.C. Handy, himself and aged 76, played St. Louis Blues, “The Most Widely Known Ragtime Composition.” Then Maude Nugent, who wrote Sweet Rosie O’Grady in 1896, sang and danced it. Are music historians aware of these appearances? And what of other Talk Of The Town shows? (there’s but a single complete one at You Tube) As with lost silent movies … best not to think about it. Will they be on TV or at theatres in Heaven? If not, maybe I’ll just stay here.

I am not a Beatles or Elvis faddist, though I much like them both. What I’ll say with certainty is that nobody else has lately watched their Ed Sullivan appearances in order to catch the other acts, that my sole goal toward understanding of old and (revolutionary) new on evenings that made amusement history. I recall bond shared with anyone when you asked what they recalled of the Beatles on 2/9/64 Sullivan, a toasty way to make friends right off, but no good for glassy Bug Off Old Man you get for mentioning it now. What memories can all folks share today? Talk about Elvis and they’ll stick you in a nursing home. But I’m not here to protest those things. I want to celebrate the Vagabonds singing Up The Lazy River, the Brothers Amin (acrobats), Conn and Mack (tap dance), and Toby The Dog. All these and more were there with Elvis, and host Charles Laughton. I said Charles Laughton, subbing for Ed on 9/9/56, and funnier than any comic he introduced. I think the word for Charlie here was nonplussed, but how he made that work. I’ve never seen CL pour molasses so lovingly. Did even Ed, presumably watching at home or at a distant hotel, figure he applied it too thick? Laughton twitches, gulps, eye-pops, and ad-libs to beat whatever bands he’ll introduce. I would like to have seen him duet with Elvis. What missed opportunity. Just thinking --- if Presley knew Laughton at all, it was probably from something like Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, for September 1956 was point where bulk of CL’s old movies were just beginning to show up on television.

Elvis for youth today would register “old” as The Vagabonds and trick dogs undoubtedly did to kids in 1956. Sullivan’s live audience was markedly more subdued than a madhouse that would cheer the Beatles eight years later. They even applauded long-form Lincoln-Mercury ads that were virtual shows in themselves. “Comedy and Magic” was a hard sit in any case where you’re waiting for the star act to come back, Sullivan doling both Elvis and The Beatles early, then late, on respective programs. He’d be a gracious host, but Ed was no fan, having been around too long for that. I’ll bet Sullivan missed pure vaudeville. He sure did more than anyone to keep it alive. Look at it this way: The Sunday night show being live, it was certainly “Big-Time” in every sense of a then-word, watchers getting nine or ten acts, if you’d forgive commercials. Folks liked to figure Ed Sullivan for a hopeless square, but he could and did give off warmth for artists he admired. Watch him laud comedian George Kirby on that Talk Of The Town survivor, a career boost for Kirby if ever there was one, and we’ve seen clips where Ed tells a world what a fine young man Elvis is. You had to see Sullivan enough to know his expressions and read his humor. The man was not for nothing the biggest long-run ratings-getter in the business.

Comedians McCall and Brill
I felt tension in the 1964 audience, and so surely did acts other than the Beatles, an alien force having taken over their show world. Ed led with the Mop Toppers, promised they’d be back, then left the crowd dangling. Fred Caps and his “card and salt-shaker trick” immediately followed, him as wanted as a dog with froth on its mouth. You feel the mob simmering as they’re fed variety their grandparents might have seen and disdained. The cast of “Oliver” got the frost, any other night a surefire boff, but not this one. The “comedy/office” sketch by McCall and Brill is a slow and endless drip before lions-as-in-Beatles re-enter the arena. Dividends may have been better than the husband-wife team expected, as press and curious hordes forevermore inquired of them what this level of pressure was like. Ed Sullivan no doubt felt for the hapless lot. Wonder if he warned them of the chipper they'd be fed into. Frank Gorshin sustains the best, to my reckoning. Ed estimated in a newspaper interview that 74 million watched that February night, him paying the Beatles $8,000 for a total of three appearances. “Distinguished families” wanted tickets for their children, reported Sullivan, the kids coming in groups. In November ’64, nine months after the first Beatle appearance, Ed confessed his own preference for Jan Garber’s music over the Liverpool lot, and that teens eventually would too, “Anyway, I think the whole thing is on the way down now.”

More at Greenbriar Archive of vaudeville clinging to life in the 40's. 


Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

Not related to Sullivan's Vaudeville bookings, but I think it was a 1960 show (I was 6 years old) where he did a prototype of TCM Remembers, doing a montage of stars who passed away in the 1950s. It was the first time I was aware that Lou Costello and Oliver Hardy had died.

I would love to see that montage again if only to know if my memory is accurate. But as you say, Sullivan's shows are unavailable. I am surprised that this is the case. With Carson's Tonight Show available in various ways, you think there would be a market for Sullivan.

5:27 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

I have three-and-a-half grey-market TOAST shows, all obtained at Cinevent over the years from different vendors and different from the one you saw. One is from November '49, two are from early '50; the half is from '55 and was a special salute to old-time radio. One of the 1950 shows has teen-aged Teresa Brewer pretty much at the outset of her career, doing her hit "Music! Music! Music!" From the start, Sullivan kept a finger on the pulse of the "youngsters."

I believe most of what officially exists of TOAST OF THE TOWN resides at the Library of Congress.

5:55 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Oh, and poor McCall & Brill. Best article on that disaster is this one:

They fared much better on a 1969 JOHNNY CASH SHOW, which was my intro to them when I was nearly 10. Kudos to them for sticking it out.

5:59 PM  
Blogger Realist said...

Great article on this lost art. My understanding is that Ed Sullivan was in a car accident and thus had Laughton as a guest host for the first Elvis appearance while he was convalescing. I would bet there are many complete shows in the Sulivan archives, but DVDs issued in the past only featured select artist highlights (and some of these are not complete performances:(i.e. no Sullivan intros or Ed congratulating the band: which would have been a kick). Truly sad that many talented vaudeville performers who appeared on the Sullivan show won't see the light of day.

10:50 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I remember when we first saw Elvis on Ed Sullivan. My sister totally freaked as did nearly every girl in the world. I learned a helluva lot from watching Ed Sullivan.

For example, look at Winsor McCay's BUG VAUDEVILLE. Most use the same music style all the way through it. From watching Ed Sullivan I knew that each turn in the film required its own music. I also knew exactly what kind of music was called for. Score that film conventionally it's as flat as a pancake. Score it like an act on the Ed Sullivan Show it comes to life dynamically.

There's a treasure trove of information gathering dust in the vaults where the Sullivan shows are probably rotting. They represent a rich cultural heritage.

On a sidenote I'm dying to see Mae West's appearance on The Red Skelton Show. Why hasn't that one been dusted off?

4:45 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

We used the watch Ed Sullivan regularly when I was a kid. When we watched the show, my family seemed to be a proto-GONG SHOW judges panel. We loved deeming acts worthy and unworthy.
I was too young to comprehend the first appearances of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, but I distinctly remember later when Ed played a clip of HEY JUDE and my mother immediately got up and turned the TV off grumbling something about "drug taking hippies".

8:27 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Was there ever a more memorable Sullivan regular than "The Banana Man"?

10:13 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Thanks John for another great post, and thanks Michael J. Hayde for the WaPo article -- all fascinating.

And thanks Fred Allen -- I'm now using "REALTY TELEVISION = People Who Have Nothing To Do Watching People Who Can't Do Anything" as my email signature...

11:48 AM  
Blogger JonCow said...

Saw The Banana Man on Sullivan and also on Captain Kangaroo.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Senor Wences was always hilarious. Plate spinners fascinated me. But would Ed Sullivan be remembered as much as he is if not for the Beatles?

1:13 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Ah, yes -- Senor Wences and those wonderful plate spinners. And, of course, THE GREAT BALLANTINE with his well-trained dog.

3:30 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I recall Sullivan jokes and impressions as being all over the place, but now can remember only two specific ones: On the old "Mickey Mouse Club", a mouseketeer introduces a number while doing the "really big shoe" schtick. And there was a "Modern Mapcap" (one of the Paramount cartoons bought by Harvey Comics) featuring a Sullivan character who was literally kept on ice before each broadcast to assure his trademark stiff delivery. The cartoon itself seemed to be a parody of a specific TV detective show, although I'm not sure which one. The hero/narrator is introduced playing with a jazz combo ("Music is my hobby.").

Beyond the Beatles and Elvis, Sullivan's biggest claim to immortality may be the stage and screen versions of "Bye Bye Birdie": Informed that they will appear on Sullivan's show, a typical American family performs a hymn to their favorite host. The film makes him an onscreen presence, so modern audiences get that he's a big deal (do they get that he's real, as opposed to the Elvis parody title character?).

Very annoyed that some classic variety shows have been released in truncated form, usually dispensing with musical segments. Carol Burnett and Laugh-In can be found intact; it's not all gold (Laugh-In isn't nearly so fast and wild as remembered) but there's some entertainment in all of it. But Jackie Gleason feels a bit cheesy without the dance numbers, and I'm reluctant to pick up Red Skelton discs where hour episodes somehow clock in at forty minutes or so.

4:13 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff recalls when Ed Sullivan played himself:

Dear John:

A small delight of (the recently reissued by Criterion) 1978 comedy I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND is the featured role for Will Jordan, Sullivan impressionist non-pareil, as Ed. It's sometimes forgotten today that Jordan was easily the best of Ed's apers (of which there were many).

That said, perhaps the funniest Sullivan impersonation on film is probably... Ed Sullivan, himself -- in Jerry Lewis' THE PATSY. Sullivan clearly relished the opportunity to go way, way over the top in trying to outdo his numerous imitators; he accentuates all of his awkwardness, idiosyncratic mannerisms and "really big shew" expressions. Sullivan isn't really better at "doing" himself than Jordan, but the idea that he's so outrageously sending himself up makes the bit funny. In his patter in Lewis' film, Sullivan references the appearance of famous acts on his big stage, including Elvis, Martin & Lewis (!) and, of course, The Beatles (the scene must have been shot not long after the Fab Four's February triumph; the movie was in theatres by July).

-- Griff

7:38 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

I remember seeing, perhaps in the 80s, syndicated versions of many of Sullivan's shows. They would take a single episode and cut it down to a half-hour. Most were the color shows from the mid 60s to early 70s, but several black and white shows from earlier sourced from videotape, were included in the syndication package. I think these might have been running on PBS in the late 80s or early 90s.

An interesting note on the dvd release of the Beatles first appearance on "Sullivan" - they had to substitute one of the original commercials on the dvd. It was an ad for a cigarette with an asbestos filter. The ad agency that owned the rights wouldn't allow them to use it, so the producers substituted another Pillsbury commercial in its place. You can see the original on-site at the Paley Center.

If you're looking for a poor-cousin substitute for "Sullivan", many episodes of ABC's "Hollywood Palace" are floating around on YouTube, sourced from time-coded reference videotapes.

8:28 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I watched a "Hollywood Palace" hosted by Nat King Cole while getting this post together. Terrific stuff, with many fine guests, including Allen and Rossi, who credited Nat with an early career break.

8:37 PM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

Back in the late '80s, I was able to purchase a copy of Bert Wheeler's 1960 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show directly from CBS when I was writing the Wheeler & Woolsey book. All you had to do was submit a written request from one of the performers who appeared in a sketch. Tom Dillon, who teamed with Bert in their comedy act (playing Bert's "son" to Wheeler's old hag-"bag-lady") dashed off a note that I submitted to CBS Archives in New York. Two weeks later I had a video copy of a 16mm kinescope. At that time all of The Ed Sullivan shows were stored at Bonded Services in Fort Lee, New Jersey; for all I know they're still sitting there.

12:05 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Something really neat on You Tube: producer George Sunga telling about his encounter with Ed Sullivan on THE PATSY in 1964. Also good insights re Jerry Lewis as director of that film.

8:13 AM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

Excerpt from I DREW A MAP OF CANADA:

...There were certain pundits who maintained that this epidemic corruption of White American innocence all started with The Beatles — those madcap, mop-topped cherubs of the damned who just wanted to hold your hand and love you Yeah-Yeah-Yeah — which was not an altogether unreasonable theory. Indeed, their music was intoxicating, seductive, floating through the airwaves like a narcotic cloud, lulling its listeners into a hypnotic trance. The Beatles were cute and blithely irreverent (the Brits called them “cheeky”) and all the fuss was about the length of their hair. Their arrival on American soil shortly after the Kennedy assassination did prove to be a welcome diversion to a grieving nation, a bright source of merriment for a country that was still shivering in the gloom of the Cold War, and these four “Teddy Boys” seemed harmless enough at the time, while the very real threat of Soviet aggression lingered like a famished bear at our doorstep. The United States had never been more united in its resolve to bear the standard of democracy for the rest of the world, rigidly marching in lock-step to the drill of the American paranoia-parade, so there was really nothing to worry about — until The Beatles came along. And when they made their U.S. debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, there arose a swell of high-pitched shrieks that was heard ‘round the world, like a swarm of starlings whose numbers blocked the sun. From then on, The Beatles were the golden calves of Rock’n’ Rock, to be worshipped and adored. A new Voice in the Wilderness that could not be ignored...

Copyright 2015 B. F. Davis

2:14 PM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...


Please pardon my editorial skills. My crippled fingers meant to type “The Beatles were the golden calves of Rock’n’ ROLL” instead!

2:38 PM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

Excerpt from BLOOD IN THE MILK Of Human Kindness:

...Before his induction into mandatory service, I had seen Elvis the Pelvis perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. He shivered and shook and danced around the stage, though his body was only visible from the midriff, or, rather, from his guitar on up. Below the belt his gyrating hips gyrated off-camera, as the young girls in the audience squealed hysterically and even fainted at the sight of Elvis. He smiled sideways and his hair was slicked back neatly and piled on top of his head pompadour-style, with one rakish strand that hung loosely over his brow in the staged dishevelment of mock sexual abandon. My own hair sometimes looked like that after a bath, after I combed and parted it on the side, but the effect didn’t last very long. I just didn’t have what it took to be a teen idol, I reckoned...

Copyright 2016 B. F. Davis

7:33 PM  
Blogger EricSwede said...

The cut down half hour versions that were syndicated years ago are currently running on the Decades channel.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Brother Herbert said...

Just posted, here is audio from the March 3, 1957 Sullivan tribute to MY FAIR LADY, home-recorded by someone with a reel-to-reel tape recorder:

6:54 PM  

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