Sixty Years Ago Today, Elvis Presley played the Ed Sullivan Show for the First Time. Introduced by Charles Laughton.
Sixty years ago, Elvis appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. He’d had a few other high profile TV slots in the course of the year, in the course of which the nature, extent and purpose of his pelvic performances were exhaustively discussed. Ed Sullivan had seen the ratings for these shows and was anxious to bag Presley (subject to terms and conditions and discreet camera work).
September 9 1956 saw Presley, on the Ed Sullivan Show, take the concept of national celebrity to something like a new level. Other TV shows might cover various fleeting sensations but it was the Sullivan show that conferred stardom. From sixty years ago today – the stardom of Elvis was granted something like permanency, something like eternity.
Except that Ed Sullivan wasn’t there. Ed Sullivan was recovering from a car accident, so Elvis was actually introduced by none other than Charles Laughton.
The effect of Laughton rather than Sullivan welcoming Elvis is interesting. Of course, in every conceivable sense Laughton is a more interesting character than Sullivan. Laughton was one of the greatest actors of his generation, someone whose face communicated complex and involving emotions like no other screen player, someone whose performative gifts deserve to live at least as long as those of Elvis. Laughton clearly has no idea who Elvis is, other than a young singer who has sold a lot of records, but there’s a kindliness to Laughton, a generous avuncular grace – which Sullivan lacks completely.
Because it is hard watching Ed Sullivan introduce acts from the 50s and 60s. His hair is too shiny and his smile too forced – a rictus of gritty professional necessity. He reminds me of Nixon. He was not, like Laughton, an artist in his own right. His only role was as “gatekeeper”. He stood at the door of mainstream television stardom and decided who was to be let in. His tolerance for Elvis would be strained through the 1960s as first The Beatles, then the Stones and finally The Doors tested the limits of what could be assimilated to Ed Sullivan’s idea of family entertainment.
The result of kindly and brilliant Laughton introducing Elvis rather than the bouncer Sullivan is to smudge the sense of generational revolution. Laughton greets Elvis as one artist to another, creating an intergenerational bridge rather than pointing out a small door in a brick wall. Sullivan (who subsequently introduced Elvis many times of course) never performed his crucial gate-keeping role in respect of the definitive mainstreaming of Rock and Roll, sixty years ago today.
Elvis sings “Don’t be Cruel” and “Love Me Tender”.
I like his suit.