Friday, August 20, 2021

Ed Sullivan


"I am the best damn showman in television."
  -- Ed Sullivan

Edward Vincent Sullivan was born in Manhattan on September 28, 1901.  He was the son of a customs house employee and grew up in the suburb of Port Chester.  His family shared a passion for music, often gathering around their treasured phonograph, no doubt laying the groundwork for his career to come.

Sullivan attended Port Chester High School, where he was a gifted athlete, earning twelve athletic letters in football, baseball and track.  This interest led to his first job, serving as a reporter for the local newspaper, the Port Chester Daily Item, while still in school.  Upon graduation, he went to work for the paper full time.

Throughout the 1920s, Sullivan wrote sports columns for a number of high-profile New York area publications, including The New York Evening Mail, The Philadelphia Bulletin and The Evening Graphic.  He also wrote for the Associated Press.  Then in 1929, he moved to the New York Daily News, replacing the popular Walter Winchell as the paper's new Broadway review and gossip columnist.  It was in this role that Sullivan first became a "starmaker," just as Winchell had been before him.  For the next thirty years, the two shared a friendly rivalry in this arena.

In 1941, Sullivan got his start in radio, hosting Summer Silver Theater on CBS.  It was his first step into the entertainment world, and would eventually lead to television.  In 1948, Sullivan was hired by CBS to host a new variety series called Toast of the Town, later retitled The Ed Sullivan Show.  But you already knew that.  It was not an immediate hit, as critics gave both the show and its host lousy reviews, with one declaring "(Sullivan) got where he is not by having a personality, but by having no personality."  Ouch!

Sullivan's performance was often described as wooden, but he was charming nonetheless.  Despite the critics, he won audiences over, who would often plan their Sunday nights around his program.  Just as he had during his years as a journalist, Sullivan understood what the audience wanted, offering a nice balance of music, comedy, magic and more.

The Ed Sullivan Show became a launching pad for many top acts, most famously The Beatles (above).  By 1964, the group had already topped the charts in England, but were nowhere to be found on American radio, due in part to a record label dispute.  That all changed after their appearance on the show in February of that year, an event watched by an estimated 73 million Americans, giving birth to "Beatlemania."  You can watch that iconic performance on YouTube.

It wasn't the first big name to emerge from the show however, as Elvis Presley had made his debut on the program in 1956 (below).  Although Sullivan had been wary of Presley's "bad boy" image, the singer simply became too big to ignore.  He'd appear on the program a total of three times.  Here's one from October 28th of that year.

Sullivan also gave the spotlight to a variety of African-American performers who had been left behind by other variety shows.  While most programs were comfortable presenting Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Pearl Bailey, they were hesitant to feature more obscure entertainers, who's acts originated beyond Manhattan.  Sullivan, himself having lived and worked in Harlem, gave the national spotlight to such acts as Bo Diddley, Fats Domino and The Supremes.

The show ran until 1971, when it was unceremoniously canceled after 23 years.  Although it still had another three months until it would be pulled from the schedule, Sullivan refused to host any new episodes, and reruns were aired instead.  

As it turns out, the timing was appropriate.  In 1974, Sullivan was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and doctors gave him very little time to live. But here's where it gets interesting.  Sullivan's family opted to keep this diagnosis a secret from the TV host, and he spent his final weeks believing he had nothing more than a gastric ulcer.  The cancer ultimately (and surprisingly) took his life on October 13, 1974.  He was 73 years old.

Ed Sullivan was interred in a wall crypt at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

Rest in peace.


  • Sullivan's life and series have been chronicled in a number of books.  Here are a few:
    Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan, by James Maguire (2006)
    A Really Big Show, by John Leonard (1992)
    Sundays With Sullivanby Bernie Ilson (2008)

  • Sullivan was known for his generosity, even covering all funeral expenses for Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who died broke.

  • While many are quick to remember Elvis Presley's first appearance on the show, they often forget that Sullivan was not the host.  Charles Laughton took over hosting duties that evening, while Sullivan was in the hospital recovering from an automobile accident.

  • Sullivan inspired a song in the Broadway musical Bye, Bye Birdie, later appearing as himself in the theatrical version.

  • Sullivan had what he called "an Irish temper" and loved to hold a grudge.  Celebrities on the receiving end of this included Buddy Holly, Jackie Mason and Jim Morrison.

  • In 2009, the U.S. Postal Service honored Sullivan, issuing a 44-cent stamp paying tribute to his show.  Today, that stamp is worth about 25 cents.

  • Ferncliff Cemetery is also the final resting place of Cab Calloway, Kitty Carlisle and Thomas Carvel.  Until 2018, it was also home to Judy Garland's remains, which were then relocated to Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

  • Ed Sullivan has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 6101 Hollywood Boulevard.

  • Side note:  This blogger has always believed that The Beatles were over-rated.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Erma Bombeck


"Fame is Madonna.  Success is Helen Keller.  Know the Difference."

Erma Bombeck was born Erma Louise Fiste in Bellbrook, Ohio on February 21, 1927.  Truth be told, this blogger didn't know too much about her before visiting her grave, which in itself is so impressive that I felt it deserved a blog.

She grew up in a working class family in historic Dayton, Ohio, her father a crane operator and her mother a housekeeper.  She began elementary school one year early, and it was obvious from an early age that she had an interest in reading and literature.  She also enjoyed the popular humor of the time, no doubt laying the groundwork for the career that would come.

When Erma was nine, her father passed away from polycystic kidney disease (more on this later) and her mother remarried a moving van operator.  At the same time, Erma was developing an interest in tap dancing and singing, and began appearing professionally on a local Ohio radio station.  For eight years, she starred on a children's revue program.

Her first writing gig came in 1940 as a student at Emerson Junior High, where she wrote for the school newspaper.  She'd continue the tradition in high school, often using humor in her stories.  It garnered the attention of the Dayton Herald, who hired her as a copygirl (a term undoubtedly sexist today).  In this role, Bombeck landed her first professional interview with no less than child superstar Shirley Temple.

After graduation, Bombeck enrolled in Ohio University.  She stayed on with the Herald as a means of paying her own tuition. Now there's an outdated concept!  She later transferred to the University of Dayton and was forced to find more traditional means of supporting herself, working in both a department store and at the local YMCA.  She graduated in 1949 with a degree in English.

After taking a few years off to start a family with her husband Bill, Bombeck began writing for the Kettering-Oakwood Times in 1964.  She wrote a weekly column that earned her $3 per article.  Although it was a slow start, within a year her column, aptly titled "At Wit's End," would be syndicated in 36 papers across the country.

Bombeck's popularity continued to grow.  By 1966, she was on the national lecture circuit, bringing her signature wit to cities all across the country.  Just three years later, her column had spread to 500 newspapers throughout the United States and she was simultaneously writing for Good HousekeepingReader's Digest and Family Circle, just to name a few.

Having had a taste of the good life, Bombeck and her family relocated to Phoenix, Arizona.  From there she continued her column and began writing humorous books as well.  Her first one, entitled The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, was released in 1976 and became a best-seller.  Within two years, she'd sign a $1 million contract for her fifth book, If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?

By the mid-1980s, Bombeck's column was being published by 900 newspapers, having extended across the border up into Canada.  She was making more and more public appearances, and even served as Grand Marshal for the 97th Tournament of Roses Parade in 1986.  The theme that year was "A Celebration of Laughter."

Like her father before her, Bombeck was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, both incurable and untreatable.  She kept her condition within the family for more than 40 years, finally going public in 1993, after surviving breast cancer and a mastectomy.  She remained on a kidney transplant list for years, finally being matched in 1996.  Although she underwent surgery in early April, she would pass from complications just three weeks later on April 22.  She was 69 years old.

Erma Bombeck was laid to rest right beside the main entrance of Woodlawn Cemetery in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio.  The sign points the way......

There is no headstone or marker.  Instead, a large stone, transplanted from her adopted hometown of Phoenix, adorns the grave.

Rest in peace.


  • Bombeck wrote enough books to open up a library.  Check out her impressive collection at Amazon.

  • In the early 1950s, Bombeck and her husband were assured by doctors that it was unlikely they would ever have children.  They adopted a daughter named Betsy.  By 1958 however, the couple had produced two sons, Andrew and Matthew.  Never give up!

  • Bombeck was an active participant for the final implementation of the Equal Rights Amendment, serving on the Presidential Advisory Committee for Women in 1978.

  • Bombeck made regular appearances on Good Morning, America from 1975 to 1986, offering commentary, interviews and occasionally, gag segments.  Here's one such segment featuring her with comedian Phyllis Diller.

  • Bombeck was also involved with a number of projects for television, none of which saw much success.  Her first television pilot, The Grass is Always Greener (1978), never made it to series. She tried again in 1981 with Maggie, a series that ran just four episodes on ABC before being canceled.  Interested?  Here's an episode on YouTube.  Look closely and you'll undoubtedly recognize the living room set.  It was later re-purposed for the Bundy Family on Married With Children.

  • The Bombeck Family house in Centreville, Ohio is now a national historic site. Incidentally, the Bombecks were neighbors with Phil Donahue at the time.