Friday, June 20, 2008

60 Years Ago Today The Ed Sullivan Show Debuted

It was sixty years ago today that a show called Toast of the Town debuted. If that name does not sound familiar to you, then I am sure that the name by which it was eventually became known will: The Ed Sullivan Show.

In many respects Ed Sullivan was wholly unique as the host of a variety show. This was not simply because of his own peculiar delivery, but he was not himself an entertainer. While most other hosts of variety shows were either comedians or singers, Sullivan was a journalist. Ed Sullivan woreked for a variety of papers in swift succession: The Port Chester Daily Item, The Hartford Post, The New York Evening Mail, The New York World, The New York Morning Telegraph, The Philadephia Ledger,and The World and Bulletin. He eventually became sports editor at The New York Graphic. It was in 1931 that the Graphic's theatre columnist Walter Winchell left for The New York Mirror. Sullivan took over for Winchell as the paper's new entertainment columnist. Unfortunately, The New York Graphic would close a year later. Fortunately, Ed Sullivan was not without a job for long. He found a home at The New York Daily News, for which he wrote until his death in 1974. As early as 1931 and 1932 Ed Sullivan was a part of the world of broadcasting. He did radio interview shows at both NBC and CBS. In fact, it was Ed Sullivan who introduced the legendary Jack Benny when he made his radio debut on WABC in 1932. From 1936 to 1952 he would have his very own radio show on CBS, Ed Sullivan Entertains.

By 1948 Ed Sullivan was a nationally known figure and well respected in the field of entertainment reporting. His influence and power rivalled, perhaps even surpassed that of legendary gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Having had a long relationship with CBS and known for his uncanny ability to spot talent, it was only natural that CBS producer Worthington Miner would hire Sullivan to host the network's first variety show, Toast of the Town. The basis behind the show was simple. It would bring the principles of vaudeville to the television screen; that is, on each show a variety of performers would appear, everything from comedians to acrobats to singers. Oddly enough, the going was not easy for Toast of the Town in the beginning. Although popular, its original sponsor, Emerson Radio, had serious doubts about the show and dropped its sponsorship. Fortunately, it soon found a new sponsor in the form of Lincoln-Mercury, who would advertise on the show until the end of its run.

That first show was much like those that would follow. It featured the popular comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, dancer Kathryn Lee, pianist Eugene List, composers Rogers and Hammerstein, and a group of singing New York firemen. Throughout its run, the series would always feature such a variety of acts. While its format would remain the same for its twenty three years on the air, its name would not. Although officially named Toast of the Town, the show was known colloquially as The Ed Sullivan Show from the beginning. In 1955 it was officially renamed The Ed Sullivan Show. Eventually CBS Studio 50 from which the show was broadcast was renamed The Ed Sullivan Theatre in 1967, the name by which it has been known ever since (and which Late Night with David Letterman calls home).

Throughout the many years Ed Sullivan hosted some of the most famous acts in show business. His was not the first programme on which Elvis Presley appeared, but it was certainly the most famous. Initially Sullivan did not want to book Elvis on the show, believing that he was not suitable for family viewing. At the time, however, Toast of the Town was locked in a battle for the ratings with The Steve Allen Show. Allen had booked Elvis on his show, so to keep up in the ratings, Sullivan naturally had to change his mind and allow him on this show. Ed Sullivan did not introduce Elvis on his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, having been in a car accident. He was instead introduced by the show's guest host, actor Charles Laughton. While Sullivan did allow Elvis to perform on the show and even devoted considerable time to him, on the singer's third performance he did insist that Elvis be shot only from the waist up so his well known gyrations would not be seen throughout the United States. In the end Ed Sullivan would declare Elvis to be "...a real decent, fine boy,"

More famous even than Elvis's appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show are the appearances of The Beatles on the show. Contrary to popular belief, The Ed Sullivan Show was not the first American on which The Beatles had appeared. "She Loves You" appeared on the Rate a Record segment of American Bandstand in September of 1963. The Beatles themselves would appear in a news story on The Huntley/Brinkley Report (AKA The NBC Evening News) on November 18, 1963. On December 7, 1963, The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite featured another news story on the Fab Four. A clip of The Beatles performing "She Loves You" appeared on The Jack Paar Show on January 3rd, 1964. While the United States had been exposed to The Beatles well before their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, it was Ed Sullivan who would give the band their first extended appearances on American television. Sullivan had decided to sign The Beatles when he was at Heathrow Airport in London late in 1963 and witnessed the crowds of screaming fans waiting for The Beatles. The Beatles would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show for three consecutive broadcasts, for which they were paid $4000 per appearance. Their first appearance on February 7, 1964 drew an estimated 73 million viewers, at the time the largest audience for a single broadcast of a TV show ever. On that first appearance the band performed "All My Loving," "Till There Was You," "She Loves You," "I Saw Her Standing There," and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Following their famous February 1964 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, they would appear once more on September 12, 1965. While they never performed live on the show again, many of their promotional films would be shown on the programme.

Over the years Ed Sullivan would host several other famous individuals and performers on his show, including Mickey Mantle, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Bob Hope, Nat King Cole, The Supremes, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and many others. Sullivan also regularly brought performances from Broadway's current show to American homes, among them Camelot, The King and I, My Fair Lady, and Oliver (in fact, future Monkees Davy Jones, who played the Artful Dodger in the play, appeared with the rest of the cast the same night that The Beatles debuted on the show). Ed Sullivan also had his favourite acts, who would appear time and time again on the show. Among these was the puppet mouse Topo Gigio, with whom Sullivan would often interact, and comedian and mime Senor Wences. At a time when many African Americans were excluded from many shows, Ed Sullivan frequently had African Americans as guests.

Of course, Ed Sullivan would also have his share of controversy. When Bo Diddley appeared on the programme, he wanted the singer to perform "Sixteen Tons." Instead, Diddley went ahead and performed "Bo Diddley." Sullivan banned Diddley from the show afterwards. On October 18, 1964, during his routine comic Jackie Mason noted that Sullvian was off stage giving him finger signals. Mason then began joking about "the finger" and thumbed his nose at Sullivan. Unfortunately, Sullivan believed that Mason had given him The Finger (the obscene gesture in which the middle finger is extended and pointed upward). Sullivan then terminated Mason's contract for any further appearances on the show. It is clear from the video tape that Mason never gave Sullivan The Finger and Sullivan would eventually apologise to the comic.

Such controversies would become more common during the Sixties when various folk artists and rock bands appeared on the show. CBS feared that Bob Dylan's song "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" would be too controversial for broadcasts and asked that he not perform it. Dylan told CBS that if he couldn't perform the song, then he would rather not perform on the show. He then promptly left. Dylan was never invited to the show again. CBS's Standards and Practices demanded that The Doors change the lyrics to their hit "Light My Fire" on the show. Jim Morrison went ahead and sung the lyrics as they are. Despite their popularity, The Doors never appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show again. The Byrds faced no censorship when they made their single appearance on the show in 1965, although reportedly David Crosby got into an argument with the show's director. They were never invited back. Oddly enough, despite their rough and tumble reputation, The Rolling Stones complied with Sullivan's request that they change the lyrics of their song "Let's Spend the Night Together" to "Let's Spend Some Time Together" when they performed on January 15, 1967. Despite this, Mick Jagger noticeably rolled his eyes every time he got to the chorus of the song!

Of course, at the centre of it all was Ed Sullivan himself. He was stiff. He was not particularly comfortable in front of the cameras. He given to odd vocalisms (such as his oft imitated "...really big shew tonight..." And at times he could even make flubs on air. He once forgot the name of the group The Supremes and simply called them "the girls." Once when he spoke about the fight against tuberculosis, he accidentally said, "Good night and help stamp out TV." He referred to British comedy team Morecambe and Wise as Morrie, Combie and Wise. If anything else, Sullivan's very awkwardness in front of the camera only endeared him to Americans even more.

The Ed Sullivan Show ultimately lasted twenty three years. When it was cancelled in 1971, it was part of the "Rural Purge" that saw CBS cancel any shows who viewers either lived in rural areas or whom the network simply felt were too old. Cancelled late in the season and not giving Sullivan enough time to plan a farewell show, Sullivan was angered by the cancellation. Despite this, he would return to CBS for several specials until his death of oesophageal cancer in 1974.

The impact of The Ed Sullivan Show is impossible to measure. It was central to American society for nearly its entire run, and was capable of actually making a performer's career. References to the programme are frequent in movies. It was mentioned in the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, as well as the Broadway musical Bye, Bye Birdie and the 1963 movie based on it. It is also mentioned in Marty, Days of Wine and Roses, The Apartment, The King of Comedy, and many others. For many biographical films and period pieces, the show has even been recreated, including The Buddy Holly Story, The Doors, Down with Love, and others.

I grew up with The Ed Sullivan Show, watching it for the first eight years of my life. Every Sunday night my parents would tune in to the show, part of a ritual that included The Wonderful World of Disney and Bonanza. I then have many fond memories of the show, many including Topo Gigio and Senor Wences. When collections of clips of the old shows were syndicated under the name The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show, I watched it regularly. Even after all these years I must admit that I miss Ed Sullivan. His show may well have been "vaudeo," as early critics labelled it, but it gave television something it badly needed and perhaps still needs. It was a variety show that truly featured a variety of acts, everything from the latest rock performers to performing animals.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dancer Cyd Charisse Passes On

Dancer and actress Cyd Charisse passed yesterday at the age of 86. The cause was an apparent heart attack.

Cyd Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea on March 8, 1922 in Amarillo, Texas. She earned her nickname "Sid" because her older brother couldn't say "Sis." She had been sickly as a child and after a bout with polio took up dancing to regain her strength. When she was 12, while on vacation in Los Angeles, her parents enrolled her in ballet classes. Among her teachers was Nico Charisse. As a teenager she returned to the school to attend full time. It was there that Colonel W. de Basil, then director of the Ballet Russe, saw her dance. He invited her to join the company and she danced under the names Natacha Tulaelis and Felia Siderova (dancers in the Ballet Russe were required to adopt Russian stage names). It was in 1939, while touring with the Ballet Russe in Europe, that she eloped with Nico Charisse. The marriage would end in divorce in 1947, producing a son, Nico.

With World War II the Ballet Russe broke up. She returned to Los Angeles where ballet dancer David Lichine asked her to appear in the film Something to Shout About. The film, released in 1943, gave Charisse her first screen credit, under the name "Lily Norwood." Charisse would make uncredited appearances in the films Mission to Moscow and Thousands Cheer, both in 1943. Thousands Cheer would be her first film with MGM. Choreographer Robert Alton, who had also discovered Gene Kelly, got her signed to the Freed Unit at MGM (the unit responsible for the studio's musicals). She appeared in one more uncredited part in This Love of Mine in 1944 before appearing as Deborah in The Harvey Girls in 1946. It was her first screen credit as Cyd Charisse--"Cyd" a variation in spelling of her childhood nickname, Charisse from her first husband.

For the next several years she would appear in speciality dances in films such as Ziegfeld Follies, Til the Clouds Roll By, and The Kissing Bandit. Her dark haired beauty would find her cast in ethnic roles, such as a Hispanic in Fiesta and as a Polynesian in On an Island With You. Her breakout role would be in the movie Singin' in the Rain, in which she danced with Gene Kelly in the Broadway Melody Ballet. It was thereafter that Cyd Charisse's career reached its height. She played the lead opposite Fred Astaire in the moviesThe Band Wagon and Silk Stockings. She played opposite Gene Kelly in the leading role in both Brigadoon and It's Always Fair Weather.

Unfortunately, the Hollywood musical would decline, resulting in a slowdown in her career. She appeared in dramatic and comedic roles in films such as Party Girl, Five Golden Hours, Something's Got to Give, The Silencers, and Maroc 7. She and husband Tony Martin (whom she married in 1948 and to whom she remained married until her death) developed a cabaret act in the Sixties. She also made guest appearances on television, appearing on such shows as Medical Center, Hawaii Five-O, The Fall Guy, and Frasier.

At the age of 70, Charisse made her Broadway debut in the musical Grand Hotel, which ran from 1989 to 1992. She also appeared on stage elsewhere, in Charlie Girl in London and a summer stock production of Cactus Flower.

Cyd Charisse was quite simply the greatest female dancer in Hollywood history. Trained in ballet, she could perform nearly any dance, from the a pas de deux in Ziegfeld Follies to her sexy dance in Party Girl. She simultaneously combined strength with grace. Fred Astaire once said of her, "When you've danced with her you stay danced with!" Not only was Cyd Charisse a fantastically talented dancer, her classical training offering a stark contrast to Hollywood dancers before her, Charisse also differed from them in other ways. For much of the history of the Hollywood musical female dancers tended to be cute and bouncy, Alice Faye and Vera Ellen being perfect examples. On the other hand, Cyd Charisse was downright sexy, possessed of incredible beauty and long, shapely legs that are often counted as being the greatest to ever grace the big screen. Paticularly when she danced, Cyd Charisse simply oozed sex appeal. No female dancer has ever matched Cyd Charisse in terms of raw talent and exquisite beauty. I very seriously doubt any female dancer ever will. Cyd Charisse was one of a kind.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Visual effects Wizard Stan Winston Passes On

Stan Winston, the master of special effects and make up who worked on films ranging from Aliens to Iron Man, passed yesterday at the age of 62. The cause was multiple myeloma, which he fought against for the past seven years.

Stan Winston was born on April 7, 1946 in Richmond, Virginia. As a child he loved puppetry, drawing, and horror films. He graduated from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville in 1968 where he studied sculpture and painting. He then attended California State University, Long Beach. He moved to Los Angeles, hoping for a career in acting, but found little work. He eventually accepted an apprenticeship at Walt Disney Studios in the make up department.

Winston's first on screen credit was for the cult television movie Gargoyles in 1972, where he worked on the make up. For the next few years Winston would work on make up for the TV movie Bat People, the TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1974, and the feature film The Man in the Glass Booth in 1975 (his first feature film credit). In 1976 he received a credit for special effects for the first time, for the feature film W.C. Fields and Me.

For the next several years Winston would handle makeup for several low budget films and TV projects such as Roots . His big break would come in 1982, when Winston did additional make up effects for John Carpenter's remake of The Thing. Winston would go on to provide special effects for films such as Invaders From Mars and Predator. He would work in the make up department for such films as Edward Scissorhands and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. He directed his first film, Pumpkinhead, in 1989. It would go onto become a cult classic.

Arguably, Stan Winston came into his own in the Nineties, working on several upscale projects. Winston would do special effects for such films as Jurassic Park, Congo, The Relic, and Galaxy Quest. He would work in make up on Batman Returns, Interview with the Vampire, and the 1996 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau. The Naughts would see Winston's career continue to thrive, despite being diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He provided special effects for such films as Artificial Intelligence: AI, Jurassic Park III, Big Fish, and Iron Man. He worked in make up on such films as Pearl Harbour, Artificial Intelligence: AI, Constantine, and Tideland. Winston's last screen credit is on Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins, set for release in 2009.

Stan Winston won Oscars, for Aliens (Best Effects, Visual Effects), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (Best Make Up and Best Effects, Visual Effects), and Jurassic Park (Best Effects, Visual Effects). He was nominated for many more.

Winston was very much a legend and had every reason to be. He was both a wizard in make up and special effects, making him an almost singular individual. What is more, he was equally adept at both. John Dykstra is a wizard of special effects. Ben Nye was a master at make up. But Stan Winston was one of the few men who could do both. It is so very sad that he had to die while at a relatively young age. He was truly one of the legends in the film industry.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

IMDB's New Design (or) If it Ain't Broke, Don't "Fix" It

It was in February 2007 that the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) unveiled its new design. Unfortunately, the new design was and still is vastly inferior to the old design. First, it is unattractive. It is cluttered to the point of being an eyesore. The Arial font that they used is not only hard to read, but also very unpleasant to look at. There are not only too many photos, but they are all too large. Second, it was much harder to navigate than the old design. Part of this is due to the size of the font, but much of it is simply because, unlike the old design, information and links are not arranged in any logical order. Fortunately, in February 2007, one could still use the old design through making a choice in one's Preferences.

Unfortunately, as of June 13, 2008 (a Friday the 13th, perhaps a fitting day) The Internet Movie Database made the old design no longer available. According to Col Needham, IMDB's founder and managing director on IMDB's boards, this was due to the fact that support costs for the old design had grown and the staff was having to devote more and more time to supporting the old design. Furthermore, the old design was only being used by 0.012% of all IMDB users. They removed the option to hide images for the same reasons.

Sadly, despite a year and a half in which they have had to make improvements, the new design is no more attractive or navigable than it was when it was unveiled in February 2007. It still utilises the same, ugly Arial font. The layout is still in no rational order, making it hard to navigate. It is for this reason that the decision to discontinue the old design has proven very unpopular with many of the Internet Movie Database's most loyal users. Needham's announcement on the board resulted in a flurry of replies from faithful IMDB users. And not of a one of those replies were in favour of discontinuing the old design or praising the new design. In fact, most were very much in favour of discontinuing the new one! The displeasure with which loyal IMDB users have reacted to the new design can be seen in various posts and web sites around the Web. Someone at Userstyles.Org developed a style sheet that is compatible with both Firefox and Opera which will make IMDB look more like the IMDB of old in one's browser. There is a petition at Petition Online to "Get rid of the new IMDB layout." As early as February 2007 users were expressing their displeasure regarding IMDB's new look on boards across the Internet. With the discontinuation of the old design, such discussions have been revived on many boards. Many on both IMDB's boards and other boards have stated that they will no longer use IMDB. It is quite clear that many of IMDB's most loyal users seriously dislike the new design.

The good news is that according to Needham on the boards, the Internet Movie Database has plans to change both the fonts and the colour scheme, which from my vantage point should correct much of what users dislike about the new design. After the fonts are reset, they will look at the spacing on the new design to see if it should be reset as well. From the sounds of things, this could correct much of what IMDB's faithful find displeasing about the new design. Still, the fact remains that many of IMDB's most loyal users not only hate the new design, but are very upset by the fact that old one was discontinued.

While I can understand why the Internet Movie Database decided to discontinue the old design, I don't think it was quite justified. I have no doubt that 99.988% of users use the new design, but this also ignores a very important fact. It seems to me that 99.988% of users who using the new design may well be casual users who do not visit IMDB that often. Many may not even be registered users. If I were IMDB, then, before even going ahead with the new design I would have asked, "Do I really want to go ahead with a design that only people who visit IMDB once every month at most use, when so many of the users who use IMDB every day and often many times a day dislike it so?" Given that I rather suspect it is the faithful IMDB users who visit the site every day who probably provide the site with the bulk of its revenue through ads and so on, not to mention contribute much of its content, I think I would have not only continued the old design, but discontinued the new one! From my perspective, web sites should be designed for their faithful followers, not someone who only visits once month or even less.

Despite the firestorm of protests that have resulted from the Internet Movie Database's decision to discontinue the old design, I seriously doubt that they will bring it back. And I am concerned that the changes in colour scheme and font will necessarily improve the new design. Regardless, I will not cease using IMDB, despite my hatred for the new design and my disappointment that they discontinued the old design. IMDB is still much too useful for a chronicler of pop culture like myself to cease using. That having been said, I have installed Userstyles.Org's old design approximation style sheet into Stylish on my Firefox, so that now every time IMDB is loaded it looks much more like the old version. I recommend that any of you out there similarly unhappy with IMDB's new design do the same. Who knows? Perhaps if enough people demonstrate their unhappiness towards the new design, they will yet revert to the old one!