So, how much fuss can a guy in a plaid sports jacket cause? Plenty, if he happens to be the lip-twitching, hip-swiveling Elvis Presley.
The year was 1956, and Ed Sullivan, who had previously vowed never to book the rock 'n' roll sensation on his show, caved in after the man who would be The King appeared on the rival "Steve Allen Show" and got the nation all shook up. So Sullivan opened his wallet and paid Presley a then-record $50,000 to appear on three shows, telecast on September 9, 1956, October 28, 1956, and January 6, 1957.
This DVD from Image Entertainment shows all three historic performances, but fans ought to know two things. First, these are not the entire "Ed Sullivan Show" installments. Other than the show title sequence and intros/outros, Presley's performances are the only things on the disc. Now, that's good and bad news for fans. The good news is that Elvis-lovers don't have to slog through some of the tedious circus and vaudeville acts that Sullivan typically booked, just to get to Elvis. The bad news is that his performances aren't seen in context. Was it a bear act with the trainer coaxing them to ride bicycles that aired just prior to Elvis? Or maybe a guy spinning plates, or a not-so-funny comedian? Second, Elvis didn't vary his repertoire much for these three appearances, so you get a triple dose of "Don't Be Cruel," "Love Me Tender," and "Hound Dog," some in abbreviated/medley form. So by the time Elvis sings "Heartbreak Hotel," "Love Me," and "Ready Teddy," you're ready for a little variety on this variety show. He also sings "Too Much," "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again," and a Gospel standard, "Peace in the Valley," the latter as a way of plugging Hungarian relief. In the fall of 1956, the people of Hungary rose up in spontaneous revolt against the Soviet/Stalinist government, and some 2,500 Hungarians were killed and more than 200,000 became refugees. We don't think of Elvis as being politically minded, but when he was first tasting fame he was already conscious of using it for good purposes.
What's interesting now, in retrospect, is to see how Elvis appeared somewhat shy and awkward in these appearances, and couldn't keep a smile from breaking out whenever he'd try one of his patented sneers or gyrations and heard screams from the audience. While we've heard about the "sexual politics" on "The Ed Sullivan Show" involving Elvis's sexual groin antics (which resulted in him being filmed only from the waist-up for his third appearance), the whole screaming girls thing was also a political football. On the one hand, you have Sullivan making young fans in the audience promise not to scream, and on the other you have Elvis cupping his ear at several points as if to say, "I'm not hearing anything, SCREAM, baby, SCREAM"--obviously coached by his manager, Col. Tom Parker. In this too, Elvis looked extremely awkward and bashful, and several times we hear a paternal Sullivan raise a finger at the audience when squeals and screams break out, admonishing them, "You promised." At another point, Sullivan patronizingly tells the audience that they were well-behaved and kept the screaming to a minimum. That paternal tone comes out again at the end of one show when Sullivan tells the millions of Americans that Elvis is a nice young man, and for a star he was just the nicest person to deal with. Sullivan meant it, and he wanted all of the people getting uptight over Elvis's gyrations and music to realize that this was a decent, moral, human being. That couldn't come across any better than if Sullivan had hired a skywriter to criss-cross America in s stunt bi-plane. In the first appearance, the rotund Charles Laughton filled in for Sullivan, who was hospitalized following a car crash. Laughton was in New York, and the show cut to a live feed in Hollywood, with Elvis and the Jordanaires performing in a studio there. Elvis was in Hollywood to film "Love Me Tender," but you also have to wonder if maybe the long-distance appearance was to placate a disappointed Sullivan, who recovered and greeting Elvis in person in New York for his second appearance. By the third appearance, Sullivan was grasping and gushing. He liked this boy from Tupelo, Mississippi.