Chapter Sixteen: The Generation Gap
(Since its debut in 1948, the Sullivan show had always reflected the many changes in American popular taste. But as the country moved toward the social turmoil of the late 1960s, the show’s reflection of current trends began to alienate its older viewers. This chapter describes the process by which show, with its all-encompassing Big Tent booking policy, navigated in an increasingly divisive time period.)
Something fundamental was changing, or so it appeared by watching The Ed Sullivan Show’s 1968-69 season. Until this season, the show had felt like an updated version of its circa 1950s offering, despite the increased volume and tempo since the Beatles’ 1964 debut. But now, as the tumultuous changes happening outside the theater door began playing center stage, the show felt markedly different. Typifying the season was an act Ed presented in January 1969, the Peter Gennaro Dancers. An acclaimed Broadway performer-choreographer, Gennaro led his troupe that evening in a routine inspired by the headlines. Ed, with speech more garbled than ever before, brought them out with a flourish.
Dressed in a bulky astronaut outfit, Genarro danced as if he were gamboling on a moonscape. Six female dancers rotated around him, dressed in skintight silver polyester, with bare midriffs and tall silver headdresses. Their musical accompaniment was “Strangers In The Night,” but the arrangement was far from the familiar orchestral strains. Instead, the romantic ballad was rendered as if by a computer, the melody burbling forth in a disjointed bleep-blip style, twanged by filtered, syncopated guitars. The astronaut and his silver-clad space nymphs moved likewise, floating or moving herky-jerky like moon explorers buffeted by random lunar winds. As they concluded, Ed led the applause and mentioned that New York governor Nelson Rockefeller had invited him to the Waldorf-Astoria to meet the astronauts, who would attempt the first moon landing that summer.
Gennaro’s routine was enchanting. The problem was that, for Ed’s older viewers, there were now just too many dancing astronauts, strange rock bands, and comedians with a pointed sense of humor. It wasn’t that the show’s approach had changed – though it was making something of a shift – it was that the world outside had changed. In many ways, The Ed Sullivan Show was doing what it had always done: mirroring the culture as it evolved with the times. When Milton Berle’s vaudeville one-liners made him the leading comic in the early ’50s, Ed booked him; when Elvis burst on the scene in the mid ‘50s, Ed (reluctantly) presented him; when shifting tastes in the early ’60s made Mort Sahl’s socially conscious humor palatable to mainstream audiences, Ed invited him on. Sullivan’s coup in booking the Beatles, for all its headlines, was simply his latest step in staying culturally current. But in the 1968-69 season, as the national mood heated to a boiling point, mirroring the culture meant presenting a mix the show’s older viewers had little interest in watching.