Edward Vincent Sullivan, Irish American television personality, sports and entertainment reporter, and syndicated columnist for the New York Daily News and the Chicago Tribune New York News Syndicate, dies in Manhattan, New York on October 13, 1974. He is principally remembered as the creator and host of the television variety show The Toast of the Town, later popularly and officially renamed The Ed Sullivan Show. Broadcast for 23 years from 1948 to 1971, it sets a record as the longest-running variety show in United States broadcast history.
Sullivan is born on September 28, 1901 in Harlem, New York City, the son of Elizabeth F. (née Smith) and Peter Arthur Sullivan, a customs house employee, and grows up in Port Chester, New York. He is a gifted athlete in high school, earning 12 athletic letters at Port Chester High School.
Sullivan lands his first job at The Port Chester Daily Item, a local newspaper for which he had written sports news while in high school and then joins the paper full-time after graduation. In 1919, he joins The Hartford Post. The newspaper folds in his first week there but he lands another job on The New York Evening Mail as a sports reporter. After The Evening Mail closes in 1923, he bounced through a series of news jobs. In 1927, he joins The Evening Graphic as sports writer and eventually sports editor. In 1929, when Walter Winchell moves to the New York Daily Mirror, he is made Broadway columnist.
Throughout his career as a columnist, Sullivan dabbles in entertainment, producing vaudeville shows with which he appears as master of ceremonies in the 1920s and 1930s, directing a radio program over the original WABC (now WCBS) and organizing benefit reviews for various causes. In 1941, he is host of the Summer Silver Theater, a variety program on CBS radio, with Will Bradley as bandleader and a guest star featured each week.
In 1948, producer Marlo Lewis gets the CBS network to hire Sullivan to do a weekly Sunday night TV variety show, Toast of the Town, which later becomes The Ed Sullivan Show. Debuting in June 1948, the show is originally broadcast from the Maxine Elliott’s Theatre on West 39th Street in New York City. In January 1953, it moves to CBS-TV Studio 50, at 1697 Broadway in New York City, which in 1967 is renamed the Ed Sullivan Theater. The theater is later the home of the Late Show with David Letterman and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Television critics initially give the new show and its host poor reviews.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Sullivan is a respected starmaker because of the number of performers who become household names after appearing on the show, including Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, B.J. Thomas and the Jackson Five. He has a knack for identifying and promoting top talent and pays a great deal of money to secure that talent for his show.
By 1971, the show’s ratings have plummeted. In an effort to refresh its lineup, CBS cancels the program along with some of its other longtime shows. Sullivan is angered and refuses to do a final show, although he remains with the network in various other capacities and hosts a 25th anniversary special in June 1973.
In early September 1974, X-rays reveal that Sullivan has an advanced growth of esophageal cancer. Doctors give him very little time to live and the family chooses to keep the diagnosis secret from him. Sullivan, still believing his ailment to be yet another complication from a long-standing battle with gastric ulcers, dies five weeks later on October 13, 1974, at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital. His funeral is attended by 3,000 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, on a cold, rainy day. He is interred in a crypt at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
Sullivan has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6101 Hollywood Blvd.