Few television shows in the history of American popular culture have come to represent the sheer magnitude of Black musical and theatrical talent and creativity more than “The Ed Sullivan show.”
Broadcasting weekly – from 1948 until 1971, the show is the longest running variety show in television history. It not only changed the landscape of American television by providing a platform for Black performers, but also served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement, demonstrating the power of positive race relations and social cohesion.
An image of Diahann Carroll and Ed Sullivan during one of her appearances on The Ed Sullivan show. (Courtesy photo)
That often-overlooked history will soon hit theaters and households across the nation, thanks to a new documentary, “Sullivision: Ed Sullivan and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” which is produced and directed by Sullivan’s granddaughter Margo Precht Speciale and Suzanne Kay, the daughter of legendary entertainer Diahann Carroll – who appeared on Sullivan’s show nine times.
Speciale and Kay, along with Carroll, joined host Jackie Gales Webb at the 5th Annual March on Washington Film Festival on July 15, to showcase a teaser of the documentary and discuss the many joys and labors of detailing a history rife with both monumental feats and unparalleled threats.
“If you appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, most of America saw you; and if there was an African-American on the show, there were celebrations going on,” Webb told the audience of about 150 people. “It meant a lot to African-Americans, and for those who were not African-American, it had in impact on how they viewed Black people and exposed them to Blacks in a positive way.”
In 1948, CBS hired Sullivan to host its first variety show endeavor, a new format that combined vaudeville, a theatrical entertainment, with television and was nicknamed “vaudeo.” Promoted as television viewing with ‘something for everyone,’ the show included for the first time, the full gamut of Black performers who included Harry Belafonte singing Calypso, Miriam Makeba’s offering melodic Xhosa love songs, Motown’s finest (The Supremes, Temptations, and Jackson 5), as well as performances by Richard Pryor, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Carroll.
Sullivan, according to Kaye, took great personal and professional risks in booking Black performers, receiving a steady roll of irate mail and threats — including one claiming “you will get yours” from angry White viewers. Correspondence from the South included threats of boycotts if Sullivan continued to touch, hug, shake hands with, or laugh with Black performers.
“I had no idea about much of his involvement with the civil rights movement. I just knew him as grandpa until the last few years when I wanted to learn more about my roots and I came across an article that talked about my granddad as a civil rights icon,” Speciale said. “Social justice issues had always been so important to me and I found so many significant things he’d done that impacted race relations – and of course, he never stopped hugging and kissing and being warm and kind to the people who came on the show because that was just who he was.”
Carroll remembers her work with Sullivan with great fondness and respect, saying she was introduced to him, originally, by friend and co-star Harry Belafonte. She told Speciale that her grandfather was, a special man because he did the right thing against tremendous backlash.
“It was a glorious time because Ed was one of these people who was about human beings, so he naturally walked into a terrible situation. He was a humanitarian. There was nothing people could do to pull him away from bringing Black people to the world,” Carroll said. “For those of us who were actors and actors – he introduced us to each other. I don’t think he understood what he was doing as something exceptional, he was simply doing what was in his heart.”
Pre-production of the 70-minute documentary, wraps later this year. For more information, visit www.mpslegacyproductions.com