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A Really Big Show

We all remember exactly where we were for the 1963 assassination of JFK or the great Northeast Blackout of 1965. Similarly, our parents’ generation recalled their whereabouts on V-E Day and our children will always note where they were on 9/11. We tend to share those personal details when we talk about these historic events.

This month marks the anniversary of an occasion every bit as momentous to anyone born before 1960. On February 9, 1964, The Beatles came to The Ed Sullivan Show. But, nobody has a story about where they were when John, Paul, George and Ringo took to the stage in front of 728 live attendees and 73 million television viewers. That’s because we were all in the exact same place … in our living room or den, with our entire families, huddled around a grainy, black and white television. That was the power Ed Sullivan held over American families from 1948 to 1971 when audiences exceeding 50 million were the weekly norm.

Though I was still very young when the Beatles debuted on Sullivan – they actually appeared on three consecutive Sundays ending their run the day after my fifth birthday – my memories are relatively strong and surprisingly accurate. I recently consulted You Tube and confirmed my dominant recollection that the poor lighting and subpar makeup made the Lads from Liverpool appear to have runny noses as the sweat beaded above their lips. I also recalled the bizarre overhead shots from a boom camera that had the boys looking up nervously. I even remembered that Frank Gorshin was on the bill that first night – though I just discovered, in a surreal collision of cultural forces, that a young Davy Jones (later of the Beatles-inspired Monkees) performed prior to The Fab Four as part of the Broadway cast of Oliver.

More than a few historians have zeroed in on that Beatles appearance as the tipping point of the countercultural revolution that followed throughout that turbulent decade. I can’t comment on the validity of that theory, but, I do know that the more time passes, the more I miss Ed Sullivan.

To be fair, Ed Sullivan was not the kind of guy you miss. He was a man of little personality and no obvious talent. But his cultural impact rivals anyone in American history. In his 1997 essay entitled Ed Sullivan Died for Our Sins, John Leonard accurately describes Sullivan as, “A one-man cable television system with wrestling, Bravo, comedy channels, Broadway, Hollywood, C-SPAN, sports and music videos. We turned to him once a week in our living rooms for everything we now expect from an entire industry every minute of our semi-conscious lives.”

Bernie Ilson’s book Sundays With Sullivan: How Ed Sullivan Brought Elvis, The Beatles and Culture to America makes the point that this weekly parade of entertainers and newsmakers forced us to diversify our attention, if not our interests.

In other words, our parents were forced to watch The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or The Doors simply because Ed Sullivan booked them. But those of us in the younger generation were similarly forced to watch – and sometimes enjoy – Maria Callas, Edward Villella, Mario Lanza, and the cast of Oklahoma! To his credit, Sullivan also required Middle America to watch emerging black entertainers including The Supremes, Dick Gregory and Flip Wilson. And we were all subjected to a never-ending parade of circus acts, vaudeville holdovers and painfully wooden interviews with military heroes, astronauts and athletes.

At the end of the day, that was the odd magic of Ed Sullivan.

Eventually The Ed Sullivan Show went the way of all television shows and we were left with a media universe so abundantly rich that it actually serves to leave us poorer. We will never again be forced to diversify our attention. Anyone sending a monthly check to Cablevsion, Comcast, Time Warner, et al, can spend the rest of their lives blissfully watching the same genre of movies over and over. They can watch and listen to a single type of music. Or experience food without ever tasting it. They can stare endlessly at “reality” that is anything but. They can even choose the spin they want from their news.

In this post-Sullivan world – nearly fifty years after the tame, articulate and well-dressed Beatles somehow scared the bejeezus out of our parents – my wife and I went to the local Multiplex last night to catch up before The Academy Awards. Of course, the vast majority of theatergoers had little interest in True Grit, The Fighter or The Black Swan. It was all about Never Say Never; the biopic of 16-year-old heartthrob Justin Bieber.

I’ve often heard Bieber’s voice described as “soulful” and I am aware that serious critics elevate him a notch or two above more manufactured stars like Miley Cyrus and The Jonas Brothers. I admit that I’m encouraged by that promise of creative excellence. While our parents worried terribly that rock and roll would open our minds to dangerous new ideas, I am more likely to worry that today’s pre-fabricated music and entertainment will cause our children’s minds to shut down even further. Many of us feel as though the constant barrage of media messages – delivered through television, video games and hand held devices – has created a generation more likely to react to rapid fire stimulation than to come up with an original thought of their own.

I wish I could make the younger generation see the danger in this – just as my parents undoubtedly wished they could broaden my horizons.

But, standing in the midst of prepubescent humanity last night, I was struck by a truly strange reality. Despite having a nine-year-old daughter in my home with posters of the curiously coiffed Bieber on her bedroom wall, it occurred to me that I have never heard the young man sing. I’d never even heard him speak before his Super Bowl commercial with Ozzy Osbourne.

When my daughter and I drive together, we don’t argue over the radio station like my parents and I did. My daughter savors those purportedly soulful sounds attached to an I-Pod via a set of earbuds while I enjoy the car radio or the rare silence. Nor do we argue about what to watch on TV. There are plenty of TVs to go around. She watches Disney Channel in one room and I watch more adult fare in another. We only come together for Video On Demand, Jeopardy, Mets games, and the less objectionable Disney or Nick sitcoms.

We are not distant from each other. We talk all the time -- about school, about people, even about her entertainment likes and dislikes. But I engage in those conversations with limited perspective.

I distinctly remember a relatively intellectual conversation with my parents about the legitimacy of characterizing Bob Dylan as a genius. I was probably in the 8th grade. Though I don’t remember the specifics or the outcome, that long, measured discussion could only have happened in the wake of my winning control of the radio for a moment. Or perhaps there was nothing on the six available television channels to interest either of us.

Those days are gone forever. Does that mean those types of parent/child discussions will never happen?

I hope not. Maybe Justin Bieber is a genius. Is it any more wild a notion than the idea that four kids over from England in 1964 would help change the world?

I think I need to find out. I owe it to my daughter. I owe it to my parents. Most of all, I owe it to Ed Sullivan.


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