‘The 4 Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring the Beatles’: A Generational Divide

The DVD begins rather worryingly with generic cod-Beatle music, like that episode of Gilligan’s Island with the Mosquitoes. It’s a world in black and white, one in which the kids are about to go way overboard festooning their brittle limbs with a kaleidoscope of color. This is a moment in history, in part because the Beatles were riding the crest of that particular wave.

The timing of this new two-disc DVD set, The 4 Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Beatles, is perfect, especially if you’re a fan of Mad Men. Never mind the commercials, which don’t just seem quaint when viewed through a contemporary lens, but might also have resulted in Peggy Olsen and the gang receive a withering dressing down by a drunken Don Draper at 11:15 in the morning during a presentation pitch. Mad Men is roughly at this point in history this season, and among the standard bad behavior by its ensemble, there’s also rumblings of a generational shift that swept across the country in the storyline. Why not have a look at it in black & white, then?

This is history, though in truth only two of the four episodes really hold that weight.

The first is the obvious choice, a three-week run beginning in Sullivan’s midtown Manhattan theater on 9 February 1964. If the Beatles hit America like a freight train, this is the context in which they delivered the blow. Sullivan knew he’d have a massive audience, and he knew they were there for the Beatles.

However, while the show opens and (nearly) closes with the Fab Four, there’s a long stretch in-between where the variety staple hedges its bets, refusing to completely sell itself out to the youth market. So it’s fun to imagine legions of teenage girls all across the country writhing on the Oriental rugs on their family’s living room floors to a Paul McCartney-heavy trio of songs suddenly struck furious or bored by the Catskills-ready comedic slight-of-hand when magician Fred Caps takes to the stage.

Though they couldn’t have known it yet, teenyboppers were granted a window into the future during that first show when Davy Jones appeared with the Broadway cast of Oliver! a full two years before making his debut with the Monkees.

Another face destined for pop culture ignominy is also sandwiched between the Beatles numbers on 9 February: that of Frank Gorshin, a comedian and impressionist who would soon go on to play the Riddler in the campy Batman TV series.

The Beatles returned late with two songs – “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – but the show was actually closed by Wells & the Four Fays, an acrobatic act that, while certainly flexible, were the kind of act the British Invasion came to destroy.

Of those three initial appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, the second, on 16 February, is probably the least successful. Taking place in the ballroom of a sprawling Miami Beach hotel, the crowd is dressed to the nines in the kind of oppressive heat people from other parts of the country can’t even begin to imagine happening that time of year. This time around the Beatles really do open and close the show, though try as they do, it’s not a great performance. Microphones bob and weave like a prize fighter, and while John Lennon’s voice is much too high in the mix, McCartney’s is comparatively inaudible.

The other acts this time around are even squarer and out of step, with excruciating comedy routines by Allen & Rossi and Myron Cohen. If the septuagenarians in the crowd get the gags, their appreciation is lost in the corners of the vast hall. Mitzi Gaynor’s song and dance act is not without its charms, but it goes on far too long. Sullivan treats her booking as though he’d pulled off some major coup, and maybe he had. Even with dresses which defy gravity and a sweaty chest that defies the assumption that old time network censors were stodgy asexual drones, Gaynor’s welcome probably wore out before her voice did. At least that’s how it looks as a Beatles fan.

Therein lies the trouble; the set is clearly designed as a Beatles package. The episodes which aired live were clearly built around the Beatles, but Sullivan’s show had a far broader appeal than the teenage demographic. If we’re tuning in to see the Fabs in 2010, we’re perhaps more likely to find the other acts on the show difficult to sink our teeth into than young viewers might have way back when. Or are we? Because as history has repeatedly made a nagging point of telling us about the ‘60s, everything was changing.

Everything was changing, something which Mad Men has done an excellent job this season of pointing out. As much as Jon Hamm’s Don Draper is meant to come off as a bastion of Sinatra cool, his world is crashing down around him. He dismissively throws in a few Beatles records on a shopping list for his children’s Christmas presents, then later proves how square, old and white he is by pulling for Sonny Liston in the rematch against the brash Cassius Clay, who by then had joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, a distinction people appeared to go out of their way not to recognize. Ed Sullivan himself makes continued references to the initial Clay-Liston bout, which took place in Florida the day after the Beatles’ third and final February 1964 appearance on the show.

That third performance, which took place back in New York City on 23 February, saw the Beatles perform just three songs, two less than they’d done two weeks earlier and three less than just one week before. Sure, Sullivan goes on and on about how polite they are, but maybe it was just time to wrap things up and make it clear these well-mannered longhairs were not on the fast track to become the show’s house band.

Despite having done pretty much the same exact act for a thousand years, Cab Calloway’s appearance on this episode is terrific. Less so is a performance of “Safety in Numbers” by Gloria Bleezarde, a supposedly funny bit in which society’s over-reliance on everything having a number is put to agonizing song. Bleezarde has half a gallon of eye makeup on and looks about 50, but she plays the bit a little too much like a precocious child for comfort.

Lest anyone think the arrival of the Beatles yielded immediate cultural changes, there’s an excruciating puppet act called Pinky & Perky, hokey Broadway-style performances by Acker Bilk and Gordon & Sheila MacRae and a generationally divisive standup comedy shtick by Dave Barry. While the Beatles were new on our shores, they’d already leveled their own England well before turning up here. Even so, their fellow countrymen Morecambe & Wise perform a dreary comedy routine more likely to register with anyone over 30 (at the time) than the shaky ocean of pink-armed teenagers who’d tuned in for the Beatles.

The Beatles wouldn’t return to the Ed Sullivan Show for more than a year, and by the time they did on 12 September 1965, the shockwaves from their first run were still being felt. The Fabs themselves were shaggier, more comfortable in their own skin and were unapologetically moving forward. Their songs – including “Ticket to Ride”, “I Feel Fine”, “Yesterday” and “Help!” were already far more sophisticated than their earlier material.

As with the earlier episodes, the Beatles’ songs feature numerous crowd shots, invariably containing at least three teenage girls on the verge of emotional collapse and a pair of well-groomed older folks who just don’t get it, maaaaann.

Cilla Black performs a pair of songs on this 1965 episode, including a wonderful take on “Goin’ Out of My Head”. There’s another mostly unfunny Allen & Rossi comedy bit featuring a corny Beatles-style number, and an even more unbearable ball of yuks by Soupy Sales, who performs “The Mouse”, a colossally awful song which at the very least shows that the seating in the theater hasn’t changed all that much since David Letterman began taping his late night CBS show there over a decade ago.

These four shows were actually released on DVD for the first time in 2003, though according to the press materials the audio and video has been cleaned up considerably by Universal Music Group for this package. In a digital age with room-sized high definition television sets it’s might be hard to see how the picture was improved, though archival footage available on the internet ought to set it into perspective.

Also unique to this release are a series of extras, clips in which Sullivan either discusses the Beatles on other episodes of his show, or in one instance briefly and somewhat uncomfortably interviews them during the filming of A Hard Days Night in London.

For an event which not only shaped the course of television history but which also cemented his position as a champion of the youth movement, two of the clips show Sullivan to either not know or not care exactly when it all happened. In a clip from 29 May 1966 Sullivan mentions the Beatles having first performed on his show in 1963 from Miami Beach, a mistake repeated in a clip from 26 November 1967 while reading a telegram from the Beatles.

Fans might be tempted to buy the DVD and just watch the Beatles songs. Fair enough, but it’s worth sitting through every second of every show at least just once to pretend you were there when it really happened, to see what entertainment and advertising were like in a bygone era and to see why a band singing about holding hands hit the country like an A-bomb.

RATING 8 / 10