Ed Sullivan’s Not So “Really Big” Westchester Start

In today’s fast-paced, ultra-high-tech world of instant access, it might be hard for some to imagine a time when families, friends, and neighbors—regardless of age—were glued to their TVs for an hour every Sunday night. It’s perhaps even harder, in an era when virtually everything—and everyone—can be seen and heard in the time it takes to click a mouse, to imagine a time when people waited excitedly for a week to see a new comedian or pop group or icon perform on television. But that was reality for many Americans during the 23 years (1948-71) The Ed Sullivan Show aired on CBS. 

It may also surprise some that the Harlem-born Ed Sullivan was raised right here in Westchester—in Port Chester, to be exact. According to Gerald Nachman’s book Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan’s America, Sullivan recalled the excitement of leaving the City for Westchester with his family and seeing “cows grazing in country fields” en route to his new home in Port Chester.  

Edward Vincent Sullivan, whose twin brother lived only a few months, was born in 1901. After losing another child, his parents, Elizabeth and Peter, decided to move with their five surviving children—including the middle child, Ed—out of New York City and into the fresh air and open fields of Port Chester, where the Sullivans settled into the top floor of a two-story walk-up on Washington Street. It was in Port Chester that Sullivan watched the medicine men come through town. “[They] were my first contact with great showmen,” he later noted, according to the 1969 Michael Harris book Always on Sunday. “They had pace and great authority with an audience.”

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The Sullivan family loved music, and gathered around the piano regularly to play and sing. But Westchester was much more than a bastion of music for the young Sullivan. After school, starting in 1911, Sullivan and his brother Charles regularly trekked three miles to work as caddies at the Apawamis Club in Rye, where 10-year-old Ed wore caddie badge 98. Their 35-cent pay was usually deposited into the nickelodeon in Liberty Square.  After attending St. Mary’s Parochial School, the brown-haired teenager earned more than 10 athletic letters at Port Chester High School, captaining the baseball team to a league title. Shortly after graduating, Sullivan, who’d been the sports editor of his high school newspaper, convinced the editor of the Port Chester Daily Item to let him write a column on high school sports. It was a first foray into what would become a lifelong news and entertainment career. 

Sullivan quickly scaled the newspaper ladder, writing for the Hartford Post, the New York Evening Mail, and, eventually, the Associated Press. After picking up Sullivan’s column, “Little Old New York,” the New York Daily News kept Sullivan on board for more than 40 years. 

In 1947, CBS hired him to host a new show called Toast of the Town, which debuted in 1948. Though often referred to as the “Ed Sullivan show,” it wasn’t until 1955 that the show was officially renamed. The Ed Sullivan Show gained a large and loyal following, eventually becoming the longest-running variety show in TV history. 

Ed Sullivan was certainly not the best-looking man on TV. He also was not the most charming, the most suave, or the most eloquent. He often mumbled and his mispronunciations of guests’ names is legend. As the New York World Telegram and Sun wrote, “Sullivan got to where he is by having no personality; he is the commonest common denominator.”

But Sullivan also had an astute eye and ear for true talent. The show, whether directly or inadvertently, helped launch and/or sustain the careers of scores of entertainers, from Elvis to The Beatles, whose appearance on the show brought Beatlemania from Great Britain to the States. 

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Up-and-comers were balanced against well-known headliners like Mickey Mantle or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Even raw, edgy, ahead-of-their-time comedians like George Carlin had a forum on The Ed Sullivan Show, which drew 45 to 50 million viewers weekly (though when The Beatles performed in February 1964, the viewership skyrocketed to nearly 73 million). 

So influential was Ed Sullivan, and so important was it for entertainers to appear on his show—an appearance could easily make or break a career—that even Mick Jagger, upon request, changed the chorus lyrics of the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” (accompanied by a humorous and now-famous eye-roll). 

Through his historic rise, Sullivan often traveled back to Port Chester, raised money at local charity events, and kept in touch with old friends. In 1965, Port Chester hosted Ed Sullivan Day, celebrating with a large parade to commemorate his achievements.

CBS finally closed the curtain on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1971, citing rising costs and an aging audience. Sullivan publicly railed against the network for canceling before the 25th season. 

Three years later, Sullivan died from esophageal cancer at 72. More than 3,000 people attended his funeral, and Sullivan was returned to Westchester one last time for burial at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale.

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