Flying acrobats! The original Broadway cast of Oliver! The guy who played the Riddler on “Batman!” And, of course, The Beatles. All were part of a typically diverse, family-friendly episode of “The Ed Sullivan Show” that aired live on February 9, 1964. As usual, Sullivan tried to give the lineup a little something for everybody…but it’s doubtful that a lot of kids went to bed that night and dreamed of the acrobats.
From 1948 to 1971, Sullivan hosted the kind of variety show that you just don’t see any more. On a given night you’d see circus acts, stand-up comics, puppets, Broadway numbers, old-school pop singers, and then some rock & roll for the kids. A former newspaper writer, Sullivan had a stiff, slightly square personality that was part of his appeal. His weekly promise of a “rrreally big shew” became a cultural catchphrase. But while Sullivan was hardly a rocker, his show made rock history more than once. In 1957 Elvis Presley played the show, famously being filmed only from the waist up. But Elvis also returned to appear in full frontal glory, and Sullivan himself shook his legs in tribute.
The Beatles made four live appearances on Sullivan’s show, sharing the stage with everybody from jazz-singing great Cab Calloway to comic Frank Gorshin (the future Riddler) to young English singer/dancer Davy Jones (who was in the Oliver! cast and later became a member of The Monkees). After that the floodgates were open, and there’d be a great rock band on the show most weeks – though the show stayed family-friendly against the odds. The Rolling Stones in 1967 did their current hit “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” but at Sullivan’s behest they changed the words to the more innocent “Let’s Spend Some Time Together.” Mick Jagger rolled his eyes while he sang the censored line.
The building itself – at 1697 Broadway between 53rd and 54th – is full of history. During the ’30s it was an underworld nightclub where mobster Lucky Luciano sold bootleg liquor during Prohibition. Following Sullivan’s reign it was used for TV shows by Jackie Gleason and Merv Griffin. Finally, David Letterman moved into the theater in 1994. It’s been the home of his show ever since. But after all these years, the building is still associated with The Beatles, and that subject comes up often on Letterman’s show. In May 2004 the band Phish, which was about to break up for a few years, played an outdoor show on top of Letterman’s marquee, echoing The Beatles’ pre-breakup show on the Apple Corps roof. Closing that performance, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio said some familiar words: “Thanks, and I hope we passed the audition.” More recently, Sir Paul McCartney made history when he took to the theater’s roof for a surprise free concert, bringing memories of a rooftop show from days gone by.