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Sunday Night is Ed's Again : CBS SPECIAL RELIVES SULLIVAN'S LANDMARK VARIETY SHOW

February 17, 1991|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was--everyone say it together now--a really big shew.

More than that, however, "The Ed Sullivan Show" was a TV-watching tradition. From 1948 to 1971, millions of viewers tuned in to the CBS musical-variety series every Sunday night to see such diverse acts as a talking mouse, Broadway composers, rock groups, actors reading the Bible, stand-up comics, opera singers and international animal acts.

No one really seemed to care that the host, a powerful New York gossip columnist, couldn't sing, dance, act, tell jokes or even pronounce words correctly.

CBS celebrates its landmark series Sunday with the two-hour special "The Very Best of Ed Sullivan," hosted by Carol Burnett, who was a frequent Sullivan guest.

The special's bread and butter will be clips of Sullivan performers, including what are probably the most well-known: Elvis Presley, with the camera judiciously shooting so that audiences couldn't see Elvis' gyrating pelvis, and the Beatles, in their U.S. debut and mid-America's first exposure to Beatlemania.

Other clips will include Judy Garland, Jackie Gleason, the Rolling Stones, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Julie Andrews, Sammy Davis. Jr., Richard Pryor, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Joan Rivers, Kermit the Frog and, of course, Topo Gigio.

The show also will feature interviews with Ella Fitzgerald, Michelle Phillips, Alan King, Jackie Mason, Carol Lawrence and Sullivan impersonator Will Jordan, all recalling their memories of Sullivan.

The series debuted June 20, 1948, as "The Toast of the Town." It officially became "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Sept. 18, 1955, and was top-rated during most of its run.

Marlo Lewis, who produced the series from 1948 to 1960, recalled the talent budget for the first episode was $400.

"Our first show had (Dean) Martin and (Jerry) Lewis," he said. "They got $25. My sister, singer Monica Lewis, got $25 and gave it back because she didn't want her brother to go broke. We had Rodgers and Hammerstein and they got $25. Richard played the piano and Oscar sang."

The series was an immediate hit with the audience. "Within four weeks we were told by the New York police that crime in the streets had dropped 25% during the time the show was on the air," he said.

But critics were less kind. "The press said (Sullivan) was inept, awkward and an amateur," Lewis recalled. "They labeled him the 'Great Stone Face.' Ed was very, very dejected by all of this. He was trying to bring the greatest people to television."

One of the most popular acts to appear on Sullivan was Topo Gigio, a mechanical Italian mouse who would gush, "Oh, Eddie I love you."

"He was probably on about 40 times," Lewis said. "That was Ed's brilliance. Ed had the ability to find things. Ed said, 'I got this little mouse.'

"It was a love affair between the two. Topo would say 'I love you Eddie.' We thought if the mouse says that, the audience is going to say the same thing."

Those celebrities sitting in the audience each week weren't there by accident. Sullivan would book them just as he would the on-stage guests.

"He would give them a plug for their show or book or whatever," Lewis said. "He wanted to have Gen. Omar Bradley on the show. The cue card boy had written out, 'General Omar Bradley, the famous hero of World War II.' When Ed saw that he said, 'Let's hear it for Omar Bradley, the hero of World War one one.' "

Besides Sullivan's verbal snafus--he also introduced opera singer Roberta Peters on three different occasions as Roberta Sherwood--the acts themselves sometimes had wrinkles. Lewis recalled the time singer Frankie Laine performed his hit, "I Believe," on the show.

"We said (to Laine) 'We will put you in a preacher's outfit,' " Lewis said. "We got dancing kids and we will dress them up and you will come in on a horse-drawn wagon and you will sing.' With that he drives his horse and wagon onto the stage and he starts singing and the horse starts to urinate. It was a riot, but Frankie went right through to the finish. It was one of the moments that nobody forgets."

"The Very Best of Ed Sullivan" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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