BY: David Bauder
NEW YORK – A new DVD about the Beatles’ initial appearances on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show‘ is like cracking open a time capsule.
Almost as interesting as the band making its musical introduction to America in 1964 is the context in which it is placed. The DVD presents the programs exactly as they appeared that night — complete with hapless magicians or comedians, commercials that would shame ‘Mad Men‘ and illustrations of how the pace of television has changed.
The first night, Feb. 9, 1964, is a landmark in television. An estimated 73 million Americans tuned in, the largest ever for a TV show at the time, or three times the amount of people who watched the latest ‘American Idol‘ finale, according to the Nielsen Co.
A generation of musicians can trace their career choices to that night. One was Dennis DeYoung, former Styx lead singer, who told the Montreal Gazette that he watched it while at a high school dance.
“I looked at that and I went, ‘Oh, my God! What is that? And how do I apply for that job?’” he recalled. “That was it. There was never any doubt in my mind what I wanted in my life.”
Film clips of the Beatles on Sullivan have been available, but never the whole event until Tuesday’s release of “The 4 Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring the Beatles.” SOFA Entertainment, which owns the archive of Sullivan shows (a staple on CBS’ Sunday night schedule from 1948 to 1971), is putting it out after getting the OK from the Beatles’ Apple Corps Ltd.
Sullivan, the competitive old newspaper columnist, clearly knew the high stakes involved that night and gave the Beatles two showcases on the first show.
While the Beatles’ appearance stands in memory like a thunderclap, their power seemed muted the first time they hit the stage. Their first two songs, “All My Loving” and ‘Til There Was You,” were both Paul McCartney showcases and the band didn’t really hit its stride until the powerful “She Loves You.” Even then, the cameras seemed to shortchange John Lennon in favor of McCartney.
For all the attention paid to that first night in New York, their performances on the following week’s show from Miami are much better. They had repeats: “She Loves You” was played both weeks.
Cutaways to the audience show young girls who can barely stay in their seats from the excitement of it all. Older people look bored, annoyed and clueless to the generational change staring back at them.
The Beatles’ cheekiness, enthusiasm and talent was bracing.
“It’s like they were in color and everybody else was in black and white,” said Andrew Solt, CEO of SOFA Entertainment.
Watching the magician with the hard luck of following the Beatles to the stage that first night is painful. Fred Kaps’ show biz career never really recovered from that moment, Solt said. It seemed his routine would never end.
The sense that television moves much more quickly today is one of the most interesting finds in the DVD time capsule. Mitzi Gaynor, who was once the princess of musical comedy, gave a sweaty performance from Miami, has enough time for costume changes. Comic Frank Gorshin’s routine with movie star impersonations was interminable.
The comic team of McCall & Brill, with a punch line about an “ugly girl,” would not have made it past today’s taste police.
One other performance in that first week came from the cast of the Broadway show ‘Oliver,’ including a young Davy Jones, whose life was changed in the wake of the Beatles’ performance in a way he couldn’t have imagined. A few years later, he was cast as one of the Monkees, a prefab rock band that was a Beatles knockoff.
Sullivan “didn’t spend too much money on talent that week because he knew he had the audience,” Solt said.
Producers plainly believed people had an attention span then, certainly much more so than now. Perhaps the knowledge that viewers had to get out of their seats to turn the channel — and then had a couple of choices, not north of 100 other networks — was on their mind.
The same is true of the ads. Can you imagine a commercial break with only one commercial?
Maybe it was what they were hawking, but the ads are stunningly unimaginative. What were the Madison Avenue pitch men of the day thinking? Then again, even an image of waves lapping up on a tropical shore couldn’t save an instant pineapple upside down cake that was stocked in a supermarket freezer. Cold water detergent All was called “revolutionary.”
The DVD also contains Sullivan shows from Feb. 23, 1964 and Sept. 12, 1965 when the Beatles also performed. Twenty songs in all are performed, including three versions of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The DVD also has a short interview Sullivan did with the Beatles in London in May 1964 that hasn’t been seen since the day it aired.
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