ELVIS PRESLEY: THE ED SULLIVAN SHOWS
Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows
By Greil Marcus
Topping the pop and country charts and very nearly the R&B chart as well, Elvis’s first single on the major label RCA Victor, “Heartbreak Hotel,” was released on Friday, January 27; the next day Elvis appeared for the first time on national television, with the first of six dates on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show. It was a low-rated variety hour; on that first night staffers sent out to Times Square in New York City truly could not give tickets away. Within weeks the audience had spiraled, and everyone was after Elvis. On April 3, ten days after the last Dorsey spot, came the first of two appearances on The Milton Berle Show, a step up. On July 1, it was the new Steve Allen Show on NBC—in direct Sunday night competition with the ruling juggernaut of American television, The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. After watching Elvis’s shocking leg movements to “Hound Dog” on The Milton Berle Show, Sullivan had pronounced him “unfit for family viewing,” but then the numbers came in. Sullivan scored 14.8 for an ambitious, imaginative show devoted entirely to a tribute to the film director John Huston, whose Moby-Dick would premiere that week. The Allen swamped the whale with 20.2.
Beginning on September 9, Elvis’s three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show focused the nation. As if in counterpoint to the contest between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his challenger Adlai Stevenson then just underway, the country tuned in, and suddenly you were on one side or the other. Was Elvis Presley a sexual predator, offering fantasies of ravishment to girls and rape to boys? A black man disguised as a white man? The hood who menaced you for your lunch money on your way to school and your new jacket on the way home? A homosexual in a pink shirt and dripping with make-up? A threat to all rules, of every kind, from every source, family, church, the law? Or was he the most exciting thing you’d ever seen? And was there a difference?
As you trace Elvis’s journey through the country in 1956, you can feel the tension build. From show to show, month to month, as Berle or Allen or Sullivan flitted around the ever more relaxed, seemingly invulnerable Presley, you enter a queer drama, where legitimate, northern, fully socialized and socializing individuals, great celebrities secure in their belief that they will and deserve to be remembered forever, try eagerly, or desperately, to at once distance themselves from and attach themselves to the Memphis Flash in the pan. It’s a trend, they’re going to ride it out, they were here before he was and they’ll be here when he’s gone, but they’re like moths drawn to his flame. Berle in a skit where girls tear his clothes off, then in another where he presents himself as Elvis’s twin brother, “Melvin,” who “taught Elvis everything he knew” (a sick, if not cruel idea, given the still-birth of Elvis’s real twin brother, Jesse Garon). Allen dressing Elvis in white tie and tails and forcing him to sing “Hound Dog” to a basset hound, and then Sullivan, for Elvis’s second appearance on his show, attempting an Elvis shuffle: “I can’t figure this thing out. He just goes like this—and everybody yells.” They can’t help hinting, all but shouting in their scripted confusion, that they have no idea what’s going on—or what might come next. It was a drama of anxiety, and never so well played as by the British actor Charles Laughton, for Elvis’s first night on The Ed Sullivan Show.
It was September 9, and the occasion was categorically different from anything that had come before. The Ed Sullivan Show marked Elvis’s first steps on the national stage, when a public much closer to everyone than had ever gathered before—more than eighty percent of the television audience, fully one of every three man, woman, girl or boy in the nation—was watching. “I have interviewed hundreds of people who saw Elvis at the small-time shows, while Elvis was still at Sun,” the producer Ernst Jørgensen wrote me in 2006. “These people refer to the show they saw and then almost everyone says ‘and then we saw him on Ed Sullivan.’ NOBODY ever says they saw him on the Dorsey Show, Milton Berle, or Steve Allen.” That was true from one end of the country to the other--and in a sense even those who weren’t watching were watching, as in the story the movie director David Lynch told the interviewer Chris Rodley some thirty years later. “Do you remember when you passion for music started?” Rodley asked. “Oh, absolutely,” Lynch said. “The exact moment. It gets dark, you know, very late in Boise, Idaho in the summer”—and summer in the west extends into what for the rest of the country is the fall. “It was not quite dark, so it must have been, like, maybe nine o’clock at night, I’m not sure . . . Deep shadows were occurring. And it was sort of warm. And Willard Burns came running towards me from about three houses down the street, and he said, ‘You missed it!’ and I said, ‘What?’ and he said, ‘Elvis on Ed Sullivan!’ And it just, like, set a fire in my head. How could I have missed that? And this was the night, you know. But I’m kind of glad I didn’t see it; it was a bigger event in my head because I missed it.”
Sullivan was still recuperating from an auto accident when the first of Presley’s contracted appearances on his show fell; Laughton filled in as host for the hour-long variety hour, a totalistic version of a vaudeville revue. The Ed Sullivan Show explicitly promised something for everyone, which meant that nothing would offend anyone, and that everyone would like everything. For tens of millions, it was the Pledge of Allegiance every Sunday night. The show presumed a single national audience, one nation, indivisible; the act of watching made you a citizen. But the map was shifting.
Presley was the headliner, and a Sullivan headliner normally opened the show, but Sullivan was burying him. Laughton had to make the moment invisible: to act as if nobody was actually waiting for anything. He did it instantly, with complete command, with the sort of television presence that some have and some—Steve Allen, or Ed Sullivan himself—don’t. It’s a sense of ease, a querulous interrogation of the medium itself, affirming one’s own odd, irreducible subjectivity against the objectivity enforced by any system of representations: that is, getting it across that at any moment that you might forget where you are and say whatever comes into your head, which was exactly what half the country hoped and half the country feared might be the case with Elvis Presley. This night, Laughton was a near-ringer for Alfred Hitchcock, at the time opening and closing every episode Alfred Hitchcock Presents—less dry, sloppy in an upper-class way, unforbidding, but with the same inscrutability, the same casual refusal to give in.
He began by reading a few terrible poems, and then some better limericks, including a vulgar five-liner about “good class music”—the first dig that what everyone knew was coming. And then, five acts in—the Amin Brothers, an acrobatic duo who climaxed with one of them executing a headstand on the upraised foot of the other; the Broadway singer Dorothy Sarnoff, in formal gown and long gloves on a mansion set; the comedy polka band the Vagabonds; the smarmy tap dancers Conn and Mack—with Elvis’s first songs, via remote from Hollywood, a surprisingly mild, cautious set comprised of “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Love Me Tender,” having already filled the fourth spot—Laughton claimed the stage again. He noted that “in presenting something for everyone, I feel we have neglected the children.” He discussed the sadism inherent in children’s stories, such as “Little Red Riding Hood.” Laughton reprised the tale, with the Big Bad Wolf eating grandma, putting on her nightgown and nightcap to wait for Little Red Riding Hood in grandma’s bed, all but drooling his way through “‘What big eyes you have, grandma. What big teeth you have, grandma’—enough,” Laughton said with indignation, “to mark a child for life!”
“I brought a modern version of this story to read to you tonight, by James Thurber,” Laughton said. “It’s called ‘The Little Girl and the Wolf’—no, madam,” he said to a voice from somewhere, “it’s not that kind of a story.” He read: “‘She’d approached no nearer than twenty-five feet when she saw it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.” Laughton paused to savor the modern world: “‘Moral: It’s not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.’”
Can we decode this moment—which is only a fancy way of saying, what was happening? What was Laughton saying? The little girls in the audience had already screamed, as if on cue, when Elvis rolled his eyes in “Love Me Tender.” Who was being fooled? Who was being set up? For the first of his two appearances that night, as a performer Elvis had come on dressed in grandma’s nightgown and nightcap. With a songs yet to come later in the show, would he reveal himself as the wolf—and would Little Red Riding Hood pull out her automatic, or jump in bed?
After three ghastly acts—one Amru Sani from the Broadway revue New Faces; the comedian-magician Carl Ballantine, jiggling a deck of cards on a string as “Preview of coming attractions—Next week: Elvis Presley”; Toby the Dog, which knocked over a champagne bottle and mimed defecating into a pot—Elvis was back. Earlier, he stood before the Jordainaires, his vocal backup quartet, his band off-screen. Now they were all there, Elvis, Scotty Moore on guitar, Bill Black on stand-up bass, D. J. Fontana on drums, three Jordanaires on their feet, one at a piano. They were shown from behind; the camera pulled all the way back. They went into “Ready Teddy.” It was Little Richard’s most thrilling record, there was no way Elvis was going to catch him, but he didn’t have to—the song is a wave and he rode it.
Compared to moments on the Dorsey shows, on the Berle show, it was ice cream—Elvis’s face unthreatening, his legs as if in casts—but it didn’t matter. The thrill and fear that comes when the outsider, the barbarian, the stranger most of all, enters the mainstream, the public square where no one can turn away, where none can say they didn’t know, that they didn’t have to choose—was present. And that, for the country at large, was what made Elvis’s first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show an event, as if what he did that night was more shocking by half than anything anyone had seen in the previous eight months. Compared to Elvis’s performances on the first Sullivan show, what happened on the Dorsey shows—Elvis all but bursting out of dark clothes, his eyes almost blackened with shadow, his hair impossibly high, Moore and Black at his sides as if the three were an advance patrol behind enemy lines, the whole performance shot for lights flaring up in gloom—was back-alley noir compared to Sulllivan’s Broadway, less family entertainment than muggings at one end of the street and five-dollar tricks turned against the wall at the other, but the breadth of the moment told its own story. The country singer Butch Hancock was one of the sixty million people who watched. “That was the dance that everybody forgot,” he told the journalist Michael Ventura many years after the fact. “It was the dance that was so strong it took an entire civilization to forget it. And ten seconds on The Ed Sullivan Show to remember it.”
With Sullivan back to host Elvis’s second and third appearances, story played itself out. On October 28, following the Little Gaelic Singers from County Derry—not that little; they were all old enough to be regulars on American Bandstand—Elvis came out looking pleased, at home. He reprised “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Love Me Tender.” He laughed at himself, burlesqued his performance, as he would throughout the night—except for odd moments, as with “Love Me,” in his second of three segments, when, after “Oh, so lonely,” with the camera in close he simply stopped, and a quiet smile drifted across his face, a moment of beauty and peace, just before he remembered to lift his upper right lip. He closed with “Hound Dog.” He was burned in effigy in Nashville and St. Louis; the ratings were huge.
“I SPOKE TO SULLIVAN TODAY AND THERE SEEMS TO BE SOME MISUNDERSTANDING REGARDING PRESENTATION OF PRESLEY,” Elvis’s manager, Tom Parker, had written in a telegram to his agent, Harry Kaclcheim of the William Morris Agency, on July 12, just after the Elvis-in-tails Steve Allen Show. “I WILL DO WHATEVER IS FAIR BUT MUST INSIST ON COMPLETE CONTROL OF PRESENTATION AS TO SONGS WE HAD TOO MUCH ADVERSE PUBLICITY ON LAST SHOW REGARDNG ELVIS BEING TIED DOWN TOO MUCH AT LEAST TEN TO ONE.” If anyone had tied Elvis down on his first two appearances on the Sullivan Show, it was Elvis himself, but on his third and final appearance, on January 6, 1957, the notorious night when Elvis was shown only from the waist up—not only for “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” but even for the closing spiritual, “Peace in the Valley”—Elvis did not tie himself down. Leaving behind the bland clothes he had worn on the first two shows, he stepped out in the outlandish costume of a pasha, if not a harem girl. From the make-up over his eyes, the hair falling in his face, the overwhelmingly sexual cast of his mouth, he was playing Rudolph Valentino in The Shiek, with all stops out. That he did so in front of the Jordanaires, who this night appeared as the four squarest-looking men on the planet, made the performance even more potent. Though the self-parody remained, the strangeness was back.
In a show highlighted by the national television debut of “a very pretty young comedienne,” as Sullivan introduced Carol Burnett, who did a series of impressions of hapless female singers auditioning on Broadway, a breathtaking routine from the British ventriloquist Arthur Worsley, and more than eleven endless minutes devoted to the Broadway musical The Most Happy Fella, Elvis didn’t fit. Every time you looked at him, you wondered who he was, what he was doing there: where, in his heart, he really was. There was a time in the second of his three segments that night, in the midst of “When My Blue Moon Turned to Gold Again,” when a kind of vortex opened up, and there was a moment of suspension. In a close-up, the uniqueness of Elvis’s face escaped from its presentation; for an instant, he was too handsome, and too handsome in too different a way, for the show, for any show, for the spectacle he himself had enacted throughout the previous year, to contain. “May God bless you as he’s blessed me,” Elvis had said with eloquence and feeling as he closed his performance on October 28, but on the last night no words so clear would have done, and so, outside of the eloquence of the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey’s words in “Peace in the Valley,” there were none.
“It’s an adventure story,” John Huston had said to Sullivan of his film of Moby-Dick back on July 1, when the failure of that show against the ratings Steve Allen piled up opened the national door that, in the second half of the year, Elvis walked through: “An adventure of the spirit as well as of the flesh.” He could have been back on that last night, stepping out just as Elvis disappeared into darkness at the close of “Peace in the Valley,” to say exactly the same thing.