February 1, 2014

The night The Beatles first lit up our black and white TVs.

It was 50 years ago today...

[CORRECTION: No, it's 50 years ago on February 9th. I'm writing too early in the morning and misreading the notation on my calendar. Today, is the 50th anniversary of The Beatles first hitting #1 in the U.S.]

.... and you're probably seeing lots of clips of the very familiar part of the show when The Beatles stamped the look of 1964 into our permanent memory, including the second-hand memory of those yet to be born, but do you remember what the evening of February 1, 1964 really looked liked?

Back then, everyone watched "The Ed Sullivan Show." And there was no fast-forwarding. You had to watch the commercials and whatever mix of performances Ed had for us that week. The TV schedule was studded with "variety shows," and Ed's was the biggest. You could see rock and roll, and your parents could have rock and roll inflicted on them, but you had to listen to opera or jazz and watch plate-spinning acrobats and whatever else Ed had decided was appropriate, including Ed himself, on stage and introducing and vouching for everyone.

Can you endure the complete Ed Sullivan shows with The Beatles? Back in the earliest days of this blog, 10 years ago, I willingly submerged myself in the first show, the one that's 50 years old today:
So I watched the first of the Ed Sullivan Shows with the Beatles, intriguingly intact, including commercials. How strangely sedate the commercials of that time were! Each one emphasized closeups of the product with a voice earnestly, quietly making assurances about how well it would perform. A "shoe wax" would make your shoes look like they had been coated with a new layer of leather, shaving cream would stay moist for the entire duration of a shave, pancakes would rise quickly after flipping. A headache was represented by a closeup of a man's face with one white dot after another appearing on it as the voiceover intoned "pain, pain, pain." The headache remedy ad came on immediately after The Beatles had opened the show with three peppy songs, and surely gave many parents around the country the chance to make wisecracks about rock and roll causing headaches. At the end of the commercial, his headache gone, the man tightens up his tie and combs his thinning hair — as if he had never heard of The Beatles! But he was happy, in a pleasantly serene way, because he didn't have a headache, and he didn't know that he looked all outmoded after the three songs that had preceded him that night.

After the ads, Ed tells the kids in the audience to be good and pay attention to the other acts, because The Beatles would be back in the end of the show. Then out comes a comic magician in white tie who does a long card trick that depends heavily on the continued reappearance of a black card in a group of red cards. But it's black and white TV! And The Beatles were just on! Then he does a long trick involving pouring salt from a salt shaker!

The next act is the cast of Oliver! No, I'm not excited. The exclamation point is part of the title, Oliver! The first person to sing is Davy Jones, future Monkee, who played the Artful Dodger in the musical. How sweet that little Davy is the first person to sing on TV after The Beatles. He does just fine.

Next is Frank Gorshin who does about ten impressions in his few minutes, turning into one celebrity after another in a routine based on the wacky notion, what if movie stars held political office? He starts with Broderick Crawford, in an impression that I've also seen Jim Carrey do. Jim Carrey clearly copied Gorshin's Broderick Crawford, though Carrey, when I saw him do it, made it seem as though it was a special Carrey sort of madness that he would make a weird choice like Broderick Crawford to impersonate — especially interesting since Carey played a role Gorshin had made famous, The Riddler. Anyway, Gorshin was just brilliant, doing Brando, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, and more.

The true horror of the evening is Tessie O'Shea, a very large woman who belted songs and played the banjo in a way that must have made sense when people still remembered vaudeville. The strange time overlap represented by this show reaches its height as Tessie tosses her white fur boa about and sings about her "curves" while stroking her huge abdomen.
I didn't have YouTube back in 2004 when I wrote that, but today I can show you what I was forced to describe in words: here's Tessie.  I added that link, above, to Jim Carrey doing the Broderick Crawford impression. I couldn't find the precise Frank Gorshin routine, but here he is a couple years later, applying his Kirk Douglas/Burt Lancaster impressions to the concept: What if they played Batman and Robin? And here's the "Oliver!" routine with Davy (and others).

Back to my 2004 description:
Then there's a comedy routine, a lesser Stiller & Meara called McCall & Brill...
Go to 5:34 here for Mitzi McCall's account of going on at the end, when the crowd was dying to hear more from The Beatles. At home, we were hearing McCall & Brill just fine, but the studio audience could not, because they were noisily anticipating The Beatles. The 2 comedians could not hear each other, and with no audience sounds relating to their performance, their timing was wrecked and they could only perceive themselves as bombing. A nightmare. "This American Life" did an episode called "My Big Break," with a segment about what happened to McCall & Brill.

Back to my account of watching the DVD:
... and finally The Beatles come back for two more songs, ending with "I Want to Hold Your Hand." But there's still more time on the clock, so out comes a comic acrobat, a woman encased in a costume that makes her torso appear to be a face. Somehow she's able to make the eyes look back and forth as she does a little dance and ends by taking off the costume hat, which had been covering her head. Great! Then The Four Fays come out and do comic acrobatics for a few minutes, ending with their finale: one woman lies down on a table, gripping its edges, and two other women each grab one of her feet and run around the table several times in opposite directions. The audience loves it!

That's the big show!
Were you sitting there, watching the show 50 years ago? Did you feel that the old world needed to clear out of the way so that there would be nothing henceforward but Beatles, Beatles, Beatles? Did you feel that the acrobats were delusional to think they could continue to perform in a world transformed by Beatles? Or did you perhaps think the acrobats and the comedians and the fat vaudevillian and theater folk and the magician and the impressionist were exactly right and just what we needed back then, 2 months after the Kennedy assassination, and Ed knew it.

38 comments:

mesquito said...

I was born two years later and then immediately taken overseas. My first experience with National Live Teevee was, I think, Jim Jones.

bandmeeting said...

Neat story in the Post this morning about a guy who stood in for George during a rehearsal because Harrison was too sick to do it. Must have been quite a thrill.

Ron said...

Isn't the Beatles on Sullivan Feb 9th, not Feb 1st?

http://www.edsullivan.com/the-beatles-american-debut-on-the-ed-sullivan-show-1964-2/

Shane said...

Ann: I am almost certain they arrived at newly named JFK airport of February 7th, and didn't play Sullivan until the 9th, then went to DC and Miami, where they did photos with Muhammad Ali and swam in that pool, the ocean and Joan Baez.

JoyD said...

I laughed when you reminded me of families watching together, and the parents "enduring it"...I remember very well the Beatles' first appearance, and my Dad saying "What's the big deal? Those skinny little runts." Maybe he was grumphing because he had to endure the playing of my little stack of 45s, over and over and over.
When he saw Janis Joplin on Ed Sullivan he was very vocally disgusted by her. That made me decide that she was very interesting.

Ron said...

Ann, even the link you have for the Sullivan shows mentions the 9th, not the 1st.

Ron said...

My favorite Fab story from Anthology was when they first went to Hamburg, they slept on bunk beds behind the screen of a porn theater. George lost his virginity to a dockside prostitute in his bunk with the other three Beatles silently in their bunks. (!) When George was done, the other three gave me a round of applause....

Ann Althouse said...

"Isn't the Beatles on Sullivan Feb 9th, not Feb 1st?"

Oh, yeah, you are right. I marked my calendar, but today is the anniversary of The Beatles first hitting #1.

Written too early in the morning!

Ann Althouse said...

Correction added.

Ann Althouse said...

I'm going to take this as a sign not to be too distracted by all The Beatles milestones that are going to come up in the coming weeks.

Today's post should have been about "I Want to Hold Your Hand" hitting #1. Then later, the Ed Sullivan material.

Ann Althouse said...

I'm going to take this as a sign not to be too distracted by all The Beatles milestones that are going to come up in the coming weeks.

Today's post should have been about "I Want to Hold Your Hand" hitting #1. Then later, the Ed Sullivan material.

virgil xenophon said...

I was a soph in college at the time, and didn't have TV in my dorm room, so missed it all. What I did see of them was occasional clips on nightly news at the fraternity house after dinner or on my parents tv when I was home for the summer. Their music, however, was everywhere...and collecting their album covers was instantly the big thing..

Shouting Thomas said...

I was 13 years old and already a working musician at the time.

I was playing in Swing Era Big Bands with a bunch of geezer high school music teachers from my area. I was their child prodigy.

So, I already knew the history of American popular music. I was a huge fan of Louis Armstrong, Artie Shaw, Big Joe Williams, the Dorsey Bros., etc.

The geezers I was playing with thought the Beatles were a little silly, because their music was so simple. I always listened to everything and tried to figure out what everybody was doing. However, to their credit, my geezer guys listened and learned to play the Beatles' tunes, too, just orchestrated for Big Band.

The Beatles changed quite remarkably during their studio years, becoming far more complex and lyrical.

madAsHell said...

The Ed Sullivan Show was on right after the "Wonderful World of Disney".

So, what played on the Disney show that night?
Scarecrow
Pollyanna
Toby Tyler....or anything with Kurt Russell.

Shouting Thomas said...

The teenage rebellion thing that so fascinates you, Althouse, looks very different to me... because, I guess, individual experience differs.

Yeah, I went through it, much to my chagrin.

So many good men invested so much in me. My father, my geezer teacher friends, my priest friends, my athletic coaches.

I've spent 40 years struggling to undo the damage caused by that brief rupture in those relationships. The damage didn't affect those men. They shrugged their shoulders and went on with their lives. It affected me.

God is the father. Father investment is the crucial component in child rearing. Turning against the father is a disaster. I lost so much in those years when I turned against the father.

Fandor said...

John Philips of the "Mamas and Papas" reflected that being on the Ed Sullivan Show was one of the most extraordinary experiences of his show business life. Backstage resembled the old vaudeville days, with all the hurley burly of acrobats and jugglers rehearsing, singers harmonizing, muscians tuning up their instruments, comedians sick with stage fright and beautiful long legged dancers practicing their high kicks. It was a panoply of the very best the world of entertainment had to offer, all under the guidance of Ringmaster Sullivan's deft promotional instinct.

St. George said...

You know if you told this story to a group of teens, i.e. your grandchildren, they'd listen politely for precisely seven seconds.

Uncle Frank said...

I watched it, but I was only 7. What amazes me about this is a one-hour TV variety show with 7 acts where the headliner plays 5 songs. That's never going to happen again.

Ah yes, the days when TV was free and phone calls were expensive...

Tank said...

I was alive, but managed to miss this.

Damn.

E.J. Towey said...

All great observations, but you should know that the Ed Sullivan Show incorporated previously recorded segments into the live show, and many of these were the circus acts like those you described, and possibly even the magician. Sullivan traveled to Europe each summer to videotape these acts and the European performers were thrilled to do it cheap. Spots on the Sullivan show landed them lucrative lucrative Las Vegas gigs. In addition to filling time if needed, the recorded segments in the show also allowed for making set changes on the small Sullivan change.

E.J. Towey said...

All great observations, but you should know that the Ed Sullivan Show incorporated previously recorded segments into the live show, and many of these were the circus acts like those you described, and possibly even the magician. Sullivan traveled to Europe each summer to videotape these acts and the European performers were thrilled to do it cheap. Spots on the Sullivan show landed them lucrative lucrative Las Vegas gigs. In addition to filling time if needed, the recorded segments in the show also allowed for making set changes on the small Sullivan change.

E.J. Towey said...

But I repeat myself.

traditionalguy said...

I really miss those plate spinners. Plate spinning seemed so unconnected to anything real that you watched hoping to see a plate crash. But that may have been the beginning of NASCAR watching cars circling and hoping to see one crash.

uffda said...

I had a head start on my Rock 'n Roll education from my older cousin baby sitter's 45s.. Because we had a television and she didn't, I can remember the excitement of seeing Elvis on the Sullivan show at age eight.

The Beatles phenom was a bit different. No one had heard of them a month or so before the tv appearance. The power of "Hold Your hand" is hard to understand today, but believe me, it was mesmerizing from the beginning. To this day I have not seen a tune instantly capture it's audience like that bit of fluff.

In 1965 I saw the boys at the MN Met Stadium concert. Two, three words then non-stop pubescent screaming sums that one up.

Paco Wové said...

"I was born two years later and then immediately taken overseas"

What a coincidence! I was born one year earlier, and was already overseas!

Okay, not much of a coincidence.

Anyway, my earliest TV memory was watching some track & field event at the '68 Olympics. Or maybe news reports of the excitement at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago (my brain might be inventing that one).

uffda said...

In fourth grade teacher had each of us stand and sing a few bars of our favorite song. Twinkle, twinkle little star, three blind mice, then my turn - "Hey Bo Diddley, hey Bo Diddley. I got a girl that lives on a hill..." BIG quiet in the room.

Gary Petersen said...

My aunt was one of The Four Fays on that show. She got to have a cup of coffee with one of the Beatles right around the show. I've never seen the performance, though. Thanks for posting this.

virgil xenophon said...

@uffda/

Re: Seeing Elvis on Ed Sullivan. Yes, saw that event, but I also caught him when he actually first appeared on nat TV seven months earlier on the Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey Show. In fact he appeared six times during the Jan-Mar period. (I didn't catch every one but at least four) Few people seem to remember that, perhaps because the Dorsey's show was on Sat nite when more people were out on the town while the Sullivan show was a Sun nite dealieo when most people stayed home.

SteveR said...

I would have been six and my father watched Sullivan but I don't have any specific memory of that and the Beatles eventually became a blur of events. I do remember some kids in first grade singing She Loves You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah on the playground.

Unknown said...

The Mitzi McCall link doesn't work. Great post though.

Fandor said...

Concerning Ed Sullivan and the acts on his show, I quote, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Ann Althouse said...

"The Mitzi McCall link doesn't work. Great post though."

Sorry. Fixed.

Alex said...

I typical just fast-forward to the Revolver-Abbey Road years. The early mop-top stuff is for silly girls.

cubanbob said...

Reminds me of a tune from Bye, Bye Birdie.....

R.B. Glennie said...

That's very interesting: I've never heard that before, Davy Jones of the Monkees was on the same telecast which premiered the Beatles in North America!

You'd think someone would have made note of that by now, on some Internet list or another.

Broomhandle said...

My Dad had an ironclad rule against television on school-nights. Under relentless pleading from my two teenage sisters, this was the only night in my childhood where that rule was waived.

Gary Rosen said...

"No one had heard of them a month or so before the tv appearance"

What was amazing about Beatlemania was not only its intensity but the suddenness with which it came, at least in the US. I had just turned 13. It was like one week no one ever heard of them, and the next week they were not only the only musical act that mattered, they were the only *thing* that mattered. I was not that intense a Beatlemaniac myself though I liked them. Later on it was the Rolling Stones that really captured my attention.

cf said...

I am wayyyy late, but your final question makes me have to comment anyway.

Yes, I witnessed that black and white broadcast. It was like I was living in one book, and all of a sudden I had flipped to live forever in a whole different one.

I was eleven, how perfectly pitched. As my girlfriends and I hiked back from Seco Creek that afternoon, I remember Phyllis saying there was going to be a rock and roll band on Ed Sullivan for three weeks straight starting that night. A rock and roll band. Three weeks straight? THAT was very different. Funny that I can remember I was watching my feet balancing along the railroad tracks as she said it, and resolved I would check this event out.

Funny because I remember that detail, but nothing about that first show itself. Leading up to it, yes, and then afterwards, in the next week, when Johnnie Lee, Phyllis and I put our dimes together and bought the "she Loves You" single with that awesome picture of their skinny selves on the sleeve. We sat on johnnie Lee's bedroom floor playing it over and over, and I hoped my buddies wouldn't notice how I could not stop staring at their gorgeous silhouettes, all smart and tight in their boots and Nehru jackets. I really didn't want my friends to know how Gone I was.

And I do remember that I knew I had to see them that second Sunday -- alone!

So I was lucky that my brother was gone that second Sunday evening, and so were Mom and Dad, who cares where, hurray! I got in my folks' big bed and when I got my first sight of John, Paul, George and Ringo again, moving, living, real right there again, my whole self began to explode -- seriously. explode. I had to grab a big pillow and squeeze it hard to my stomach to keep from breaking wide open, but that just made me bust into huge sobs. Oh, god. I was so happy and suffering all at the same time.

I have reviewed over the years how intensely personal it was -- AND a gazillion other eleven-year-old girls must have been intimately exploding across the continent all at the same time, haha.

such a funny, fine mystery to be human.