A DVD collection recalls the importance of The Beatles’ guest shots on Ed Sullivan’s TV series
It was 47 years ago this month when the rock’n’roll British Invasion came to America, when the yeah-yeah-yeah lyrics took hold of the pop charts and barbershop profits got clipped when boys wanted to grow their hair long. And nearly a halfcentury later, it’s still hard to believe that a decidedly square, unhip variety-show TV host in his 60s had something to do with it.
That central incongruence is the link to appreciating the treasures of The Four Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Beatles, a two-DVD collection from Universal Music that pretty much lives up to its title: It presents the band’s appearances on Sullivan’s CBS-TV show, surrounded by the other acts that the video vaudevillian would also feature to flesh out the hour. All this in glorious black-andwhite video plus vintage commercials, too!
For three successive Sunday nights in February 1964 (incidentally, a TV ratings sweeps period), the buzz surrounding the Sullivan-Beatles gigs swept the nation, creating a pop-cultural youthquake that surely equaled the one nearly a decade earlier when some Tupelo kid started swiveling his hips. Yet what’s most valuable about this DVD collection is that it’s emphatically not the usual clips-and-commentary paste job, with the songs pulled out and rendered orphans amid a down-memory-lane retrospective.
So don’t expect any scholarly analysis from Beatles buffs, who already know, for instance, that manager Brian Epstein agreed to a combined rock-bottom fee in the $10,000 neighborhood for the band’s three 1964 shows because he knew the Sullivan exposure would reap massive dividends. Or, for that matter, no jabber from sycophants of Sullivan, who was always at heart an old-school journalist in search of the next big scoop. (He always regretted missing out on the opportunity of being first to officially anoint the coming of Elvis Presley.) Nope, this DVD package just offers the historical artifacts themselves, albeit digitally spruced up to look perhaps even better than they did in 1964 when those long-ago Philcos were adorned with rabbit-ears antennas.
The initial Beatles appearance, performed live on Feb. 9, 1964, is still the most iconic. It seems obvious now that while some of the TV bits were preplanned, like the superimposed lettering on the screen during a solo shot of John Lennon that states, “Sorry girls, he’s married.” Yet the video crew was also working on the fly to convey the many out-ofcontrol aspects of the screaming fans from the theater’s balcony, and it’s a wonder that anyone could hear a single lyric amid all the din.
(The Robert Zemeckis-Bob Gale 1978 movie comedy I Wanna Hold Your Hand, about ticket-less lasses trying to crash the show, amusingly captures the madness of this event.)
More than 70 million viewers witnessed this seismic encounter, many of them recordbuying kids, as the songs of The Beatles were warbled within the confines of school buses the very next day. And those baby boomers probably forgot that other guests were also on the bill, which makes this collection even more of a valuable contextual treat: It depicts the ways that variety shows were constructed in that era, and how they’ve since been deconstructed by today’s late-night hosts, including David Letterman, the guy who has since inherited the Ed Sullivan Theater. Per usual for a Sullivan installment, the Feb. 9 edition also featured songs from a Broadway show (watch a pre- Monkees Davy Jones as the Artful Dodger in scenes from Oliver!), a brassy medley from Welsh music hall queen Tessie O’Shea of “Two-Ton Tessie of Tennessee” fame and the copycat mimicry of Frank Gorshin, whose facial contortions of then-popular screen personalities were still miles beyond the shtick of current impressionists like Frank Caliendo.
The Feb. 9 live telecast still feels like a gonzo gangbusters moment in the Zeitgeist that depicted the eternal divide between young and old, yet such behavior was tamped down during the Feb. 16 show. The Sullivan camp relocated to the swanky Deauville Hotel in Miami (which Sullivan pronounced as “Miama”) and the audience configuration unfortunately forced the kids to sit next to their parents, which is the probable uncool equivalent of an adult chaperoning his teen daughter to a Lost Horizon heavymetal blowout. If the “youngsters” (Sullivan’s term) seemed slightly out of it compared to their Manhattan counterparts, The Beatles still delivered their half-dozen tracks with gusto, and the viewership again climbed to 70 million. Also on the program: a sweaty yet sultry Mitzi Gaynor dancing up a storm and taped footage of a high-flying outdoor acrobat routine in which some stiff Florida winds nearly spelled doom for the company.
According to some sources, The Beatles’ Feb. 23, 1964, three-song appearance was actually taped on the afternoon of Feb. 9 (the boys had returned to England on Feb. 22). For variety-show fans, however, this shortened set leads to more bizarre trivia such as a Pinky and Perky puppet routine (involving Pat Boone’s “Speedy Gonzales” song, no less) and now-forgotten comedy acts like Dave Barry, Morty Gunty and Morecambe & Wise. Too bad the moptops weren’t around to savor the showstopping artistry of Cab Calloway as he performs “St. James Infirmary.”
The last Beatles-Sullivan joint venture took place on Sept. 12, 1965, and it’s the final Sullivan show in black and white, as the series switched to color the following week. (Perhaps the blackand-white decision was made because the band taped their six-song appearance a month earlier during preparations for their Shea Stadium concert.) There is some occasional cultish weirdness courtesy of guest Soupy Sales, who went into the audience at one point to perform his dance craze “The Mouse,” which might be the unintended non-Beatles high point of the entire set.
Regarding The Beatles, however, what a difference a year makes. No longer boys in search of a U.S. break and now bona fide movie stars with A Hard Day’s Night in theaters and Help! on the way, the lads could do pretty much anything they wanted at that point. And they did, including a performance of the B-side “I’m Down” (watch a hammy Lennon stroke his elbow across the keyboards) and Ringo Starr’s rare solo on “Act Naturally.” Their relaxed sense of goofiness closes out the DVD on an ebullient high, and even showman Sullivan seemed caught up in the Beatlemania as he momentarily traversed the generation gap. Sadly, both entertainment factions were at career crossroads just a few years later: The Beatles would break up in 1970 and in 1971 CBS, in search of a viewership consisting of a younger demographic, canceled Sullivan’s show after a 23-year run.
Universal Music’s DVD set is essentially a reissue of a long out-of-print 2003 edition from SOFA Entertainment, albeit with about a dozen minutes of extras, mostly footage from other Sullivan shows where he simply mentions the latest in Beatles news. In addition to upgrades in video presentation, there are audio options of the original mono or a Dolby Digital 5.1 aural experience. Best of all, the DVDs still feature those long-ago commercial spots for Lipton tea (with pitchman George Fenneman), Pillsbury, Anacin, Chef Boy Ar Dee pizza (yum!) and other 1960s-era products. Which begs this question: If these complete Ed Sullivan shows can be presented this way, why couldn’t those old Johnny Carson classics have been similarly resurrected for the recent mega-box set The Tonight Show collection?