When I received the three screener discs for Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows, they were mailed to me without any packaging, so I had no idea what was on them; I just assumed they contained the three historic appearances Elvis made on the old The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 and 1957. If somewhere in the back of my mind I wondered why a couple of five or ten minute clips from those three shows needed to be spread out on three discs, I'm sure I just assumed that a load of extras would round the presentation out. I was more than pleasantly surprised to see, after putting the first disc in, that these were the entire, complete Ed Sullivan episodes – uncut, with all of the performers that appeared on the nights Elvis was scheduled, included. Now this is what vintage TV lovers have been waiting for: a DVD release that respects what TV lovers want: more TV. We want complete historical records, not edited down "best moments" clips. The Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows presents, in vividly clear kinescopes, the complete episodes for all three of Elvis' Sullivan appearances, right down to the live Mercury automobile ads (Lincoln Mercury was the show's sponsor) that Ed performed. It's an amazing historical record which puts the Presley performances in their proper context for the first time since they aired – with some surprising conclusions drawn from that context.
The grainy black and white image of Ed Sullivan intoning, "And here he is, Elvis Presley!" has been shown so many times in discussing the importance of Elvis' appearance on Sullivan's show, that you can forgive most people for thinking this was Elvis' first appearance on national television. But it wasn't. Actually, Elvis' TV debut happened in January, 1956, on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's Stage Show, on CBS. Those six appearances really started the Elvis mania rolling, and Ed Sullivan took notice. He toyed with the idea of having Elvis on (for the relatively small amount of $5,000), but after a particularly bad experience with Bo Diddley, Sullivan swore off all rock 'n' roll performers from his show. Then, Elvis appeared on Sullivan rival Steve Allen's show, trouncing Sullivan in the ratings. Ed, who didn't like to be bested, acquiesced to the demands of the public, and booked Elvis for three appearances on September 9 and October 28, 1956, and January 8, 1957, for the unprecedented sum of $50,000.
Despite the earlier appearances on the Dorsey and Allen shows, in America, during the 1950 and 1960s, you hadn't officially arrived on the entertainment scene until you played the Sullivan show. And Elvis needed the mainstream legitimacy that Ed Sullivan provided. Ed Sullivan, who though talentless as a performer, connected with his vast TV audience by being totally himself. People trusted him, and his judgement and discretion when putting on an act for his show. There was a true spirit of variety to his Sunday night show, where an animal act was followed by an opera singer, who was followed by a magician, who was followed by a popular singer. Certainly, all of these acts didn't become famous, but if Ed felt they were appropriate for the millions of family audiences that tuned in every Sunday night, well, then they were good enough for John Q. Public. It's hard to believe today, but at the time, there were a significant number of Americans – both influential and the general public – who felt Elvis Presley was Enemy Number One in the continuous assault on traditional American values. His music was considered immoral, and his suggestive body movements were openly called criminal. So it was quite a turnaround in Elvis' career trajectory when he not only appeared on Sullivan, but garnered a personal endorsement from Ed (on his final third show appearance), who stated to everyone in America, that Elvis was a "real, decent, fine boy." Coming from Ed Sullivan, that was a powerful endorsement for a performer who was seriously likened to the Devil by millions of Americans. And forget all that nonsense about filming Elvis from the waist up; as Elvis would later state to both Ed Sullivan and Sullivan producer Marlo Lewis, that particular marketing ploy only enhanced the hysteria that the Elvis phenomena was causing – I suspect Ed Sullivan, the consummate showman, knew exactly what he was doing when he made it very public that Elvis's final appearance would be filmed from the waist up. A case could be made that had Elvis not appeared on, and received a personal endorsement from someone like Ed Sullivan, his career may have been seriously damaged due to growing public displeasure with his antics. But due to his Sullivan appearances, Elvis went from Spawn of Satan, intent on ruining the morals of young America, to that "fine boy," who also happened to sing. That particular image would serve Elvis well in his subsequent movies and public appearances, and Ed Sullivan had a big hand in cementing it with the public.
What's fascinating about Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows is that Elvis' appearances are now shown in their proper context. We see the entire Sullivan episodes on these discs, with Presley making appearances throughout the telecasts. What we are given, then, is an amazing time capsule of the times, as far as entertainment is concerned. We see the coming tsunami of modern rock 'n' roll, and how it will utterly sublimate the various other "respectable" acts that appear on the same show. Stars of Broadway, opera stars, and other "legitimate" entertainers that regularly appeared on Sullivan, would soon be eclipsed in the public's mind by new stars like Presley. Elvis represented the coming youth explosion that entertainment would cater to, while the jugglers, animal acts, old-time comedians and Broadway singers represented what the oldsters liked, and therefore, in a rapidly evolving society that obsessed on youth, they were soon to be discarded.
Which is why I found Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows so interesting, because the other acts found on these shows were so talented. After decades of just showing the isolated Elvis clips from the show on TV, the other performers who appeared on those particular shows have been forgotten. But for many of them, this was their big night, too – they just had the misfortune of being booked on the same show with the biggest cultural explosion of the latter half of the 20th century. You may think the exposure of being on a show that 70 million people watched would be an incredible boost to a career, but most viewers were just waiting around for Elvis -- the other performers, to the impatient viewer, were just filler. Shown in comparison with Elvis, where admittedly, the visceral impact of his debut has now been muted by the passage of time (as well as by the ridiculously elevated level of "shock" that America has now come to endure), many of these other acts come over rather well. What struck me first was how polished and professional most of the other acts were, in comparison to the charismatic, but obviously scared as hell, Elvis. This really was at the very start of his career, and it's apparent that he knows the stakes of his performances. His career is riding on these shows, and he's well aware of it. At times, he blows his lyrics (which was showbiz taboo at the time; a faux pas that would cost most performers their shot at the big time). Most disturbing, though, are several moments where he makes grotesque faces – either as a defense mechanism from nervousness or as an attempt at over-the-top humor – that doesn't go over with the audience at all. Overall, the performances are an odd mixture of innate showbiz instincts, magnetic audience attraction, obvious talent, and a still-developing stage craft. Most of the other performers, though, are cool as cucumbers; old veterans and pros of the show business era, like Senor Wences and Carl Ballantine, who know the performing ropes inside and out.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the discs, if