Last Friday, Bruce Springsteen was on Stephen Colbert to promote his new book, Born To Run. Colbert’s show takes place in the Ed Sullivan Theater, and the conversation between Colbert and Springsteen turned to what had been a seminal event in Bruce’s life: watching the first appearance of Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show.
I looked it up, and that first appearance was on September 9, 1956.
Like most Americans alive on September 9, 1956, I was sitting in front of the TV watching Ed Sullivan. How do I know most Americans were watching Ed Sullivan that night? Well, somewhere I came across an estimate that, by 1956, 70% plus homes in the US had a TV. Multiply that by a Neilsen rating of 86.2 – thanks, Wikipedia, I really should make a donation…. – and you get 60% of everyone. Oh, I know, this calculation is imperfect. Maybe my four year old brother Tom was watching, maybe not; and my 9 month old brother Rick was probably in bed. And, as this was the midst of the Baby Boom, plenty of other households had little kids who would have been too fidgety and squally to sit through Ed Sullivan.
But I was six, pushing seven, and I surely was able to watch the really big show (actually pronounced ‘shew’), as Ed would have had it. And my sister Kath was, too.
We, of course, were a family of Ed Sullivan regulars.
First off, there didn’t used to be all that many choices. In 1956, there were three broadcast networks, and that was about it. Later on, there were UHF stations unaffiliated with a national network, but if there were any broadcasting in the Worcester area in 1956, they weren’t beaming into our living room. We got the Boston stations – 4, 5 and 7, and the Providence stations – 10 and 12. (Poor forlorn little Worcester: we didn’t get a TV station of our own until Channel 27 blew into town. I take it that it’s now a Spanish-language station, but back in the day it carried excellent content like reruns of B&W 1950’s TV shows, Abbot and Costello and Bowery Boys films, and a really low-rent version of Bozo. Given the caliber of high-rent versions of Bozo, it’s difficult to imagine a low-rent version being even worse, but trust me on this one.)
But we were Ed Sullivan watchers not just by the baptism of there being not much else on, but by the desire watch it.
For one thing, Ed Sullivan was a Catholic. (Extra points for being an Irish Catholic.) So what if he always seemed so pinched and dour. So what if his wife was Jewish. He was on of us, which made Sunday night with Ed almost a Holy Day of Obligation.
Not to mention the varied entertainment that the show offered: Metropolitan Opera singers, guys spinning plates on their noses – for acts like this, my father would always ask out loud how someone managed to find out they had this talent - Borscht Belt shtick comics, bits from Broadway shows, classical violinists, dancing bears… And, of course, on September 9, 1956, Elvis Presley.
We watched in the living room of the new house we’d moved into just a few months earlier, moving on up the hill behind my grandmother’s, into a single family home that I believe was smaller than the flat we had in my grandmother’s decker. But which was ours. Sure, the rooms may have been pokey – the bedrooms, once the beds and dressers went in, had maybe 10 square feet to maneuver around in. And we’d left a large eat-in (and sleep-in*) kitchen with pantry for a tiny little kitchen in which, once everyone was squished around the new Formica dinette set, no one could move. But it was ours. It had a far bigger yard to run around in than Nanny’s decker did. And we didn’t have to worry about disturbing Nanny’s peace. (Not to mention that it had the unimaginably posh extra of a second bathroom.)
So there we were, on Sunday night, September 9, 1956, watching Elvis Presley wiggle his hips and sing “Love Me Tender,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and a tiny bit of “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog”.
I don’t remember the music. Nor do I remember that Ed Sullivan was out that night, and Charles Laughton was the substitute host.
I do remember liking it that Elvis shook it up, and that he reminded my quite of bit of my sixteen-year old Uncle Bob, who also had black pompadour-ish hair and a penchant for outsized sport coats. (Or did Bob adopt this look post-Elvis? In any case, Bobby was one of my heroes, having won me a plaster-of-Paris kewpie doll at Riverview Park in Chicago on one of our visits to my mother’s home ground. Plus Bobby had the immense cool to hang foam dice in his hot rod. What’s not to love?)
But mostly what I remember was school the next morning.
When Sister Aloysius St. James asked our class whether anyone had watched Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan the night before, 50 little hands shot up. We were so little – only six or seven – we didn’t yet smell a typical nun trap. You’d think that, having endured the first grade torture chamber run by Sister Marie Leo the prior year, we would have wised up. But, no.
Having told us we could put our hands down, she asked Question Number Two: how many families turned off the television set once Elvis Presley began performing?
This time, only Francis George’s hand was raised.
Ah, Sister Aloysius St. James told us with a sigh, there was only one decent Catholic family in our entire class, and that was the Georges.
I’m not sure what words she used to describe Elvis, but I’m sure evil and sin factored in there. Filthy probably, indecent. She may have thrown in immoral, although none of us would have known the word.
When Bruce Springsteen saw Elvis Presley, he was inspired to become a rock and roller.
Me, I thought Elvis, the way he swiveled his hips, was funny. But the next morning, when Sister Aloysius St. James asked her question, and told me and 48 other little kids that our families weren’t very good, the little seed was planted in my little mind that kept asking and asking and asking: if they’re telling me that my mother and father are bad people for watching Elvis on Ed Sullivan, what else are they telling us that flat out isn’t true?
Anyway, I hadn’t realized that I’d missed the 60th anniversary of Elvis on Ed Sullivan. But know it now, thanks to Bruce’s book tour. The book sounds pretty interesting by the way, even if you’re a casual or non fan of The Boss.
Meanwhile, I wonder whether Francis George is still a good Catholic, or whether the pronouncement on his family’s goodness woke him a bit up, too.
*Sleep-in kitchen, you might be asking yourself? Yes, indeedy. Our kitchen, as did my grandmother’s, had a studio couch in the kitchen that was used for seating – the kitchen was truly the hub of the hangout universe – and, when folded out, sleeping facilities for two guests.