[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.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).
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.
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!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.
That's the big show!