Elvis in Context

Elvis in Context

Elvis Presley on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”

August 23, 2007

On Sunday night, September 9, 1956, more than 72 million Americans (80 percent of the country’s television audience) tuned in to the “Ed Sullivan Show” to watch a cultural phenomenon named Elvis Presley. Presley had already appeared on several national television programs, but none as popular as Sullivan’s. The performance transformed Elvis into a controversial icon, creating the generation gap in the process.

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Image Entertainment has released a DVD set of the three complete Sullivan shows on which Elvis appeared in 1956 and 1957. While most Elvis fans have seen these legendary performances, the opportunity to see these shows in their entirety is what makes this set unique.

On January 27, 1956, RCA released the single “Heartbreak Hotel.” The next day Elvis appeared on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s “Stage Show,” a low-rated national television program. A week and a half later, Presley was on “The Milton Berle Show.” Ed Sullivan was watching that night and dismissed Elvis’s seductive leg movements as “unfit for family viewing.” Later that summer, Presley was booked on NBC’s “The Steve Allen Show,” which went head-to-head with the Sullivan show on CBS. That night Ed Sullivan devoted his entire program to director John Huston, whose film Moby Dick premiered that week. Steve Allen’s show trounced “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the ratings. Sullivan soon adjusted his definition of “unfit for family viewing.”

The night of Elvis’ Sullivan program debut, Sullivan was recuperating from a recent automobile accident. British actor Charles Laughton was the guest host. Sullivan asked the dignified actor to open the show with some poetry to “give a high tone to the proceedings,” according to Laughton. The actor chose a tasteless poem: “Willie in the best of sashes, fell in the fire, got burnt to ashes. Though the room got cold and chilly, no one liked to poke poor Willie.”

Sullivan’s was a true variety show, featuring eclectic acts that included acrobats, Irish children’s choirs, opera singers, and a couple of hilarious ventriloquists, Arthur Worsley and Señor Wences. A young Carol Burnett also made an unforgettable appearance.

The commercials are fascinating time capsules. One features a stunningly gorgeous woman behind the wheel of a 1957 Mercury convertible. “One touch of her pretty little finger to Mercury’s keyboard control” is all that’s needed to begin the dreamy ride, says the announcer as he’s chauffeured around a Universal Studios lot. Then, to exhibit the ample room available in the backseat, the car stops at a medieval castle on a Universal movie set where three knights in full armor awkwardly climb in.

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