Ed Sullivan Theater

The Ed Sullivan Theater at Broadway and West 53rd Street is most famous for the Beatles’ first appearance on American television on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. Garnering 73 million viewers (over 40% of the entire American population), it broke television records and changed music forever[1]. Built in 1927 by Oscar Hammerstein’s son Arthur, the theater housed musicals and a nightclub before being bought out by CBS, which started broadcasting there in 1936. From 1948 to 1971, Ed Sullivan hosted a variety show there that featured and manufactured the biggest stars of the day, including Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Supremes. After Sullivan’s program ended, the theater hosted a number of game shows and sitcoms before being used as the set for The Late Show with David Letterman and finally The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Originally known as “Hammerstein’s Theatre,” the venue first opened its doors on November 30, 1927. It was built by producer and playwright Arthur Hammerstein, who named it for his father, opera impresario Oscar Hammerstein I (not to be confused with his grandson, Oscar Hammerstein II, of songwriting partnership Rodgers and Hammerstein).[2] It was designed by theater architect Herbert J. Krapp, who also designed the thirteen-story office building above. The theater had a gothic design almost resembling a Catholic church, with scenes from Hammerstein’s operas featured on stained glass windows.[3] It was first used for Broadway productions. Its opening show was poorly reviewed musical “Golden Dawn” featuring Cary Grant.[4] Arthur Hammerstein ended up selling the theater to make ends meet during the Great Depression in 1931, and it subsequently became a nightclub.

CBS leased the property in 1936, turning it into a radio studio, “CBS Radio Playhouse #1.” Architect William Lescaze changed much of the interior, covering the walls with white paneling.[5] It would soon become “CBS Studio No. 50,” and would be used for television production for a few years before becoming the main home of The Ed Sullivan Show in 1948.[6]

Ed Sullivan in 1955. Visitors to the theater can almost feel his presence as they pass by this large portrait in the lobby.

Ed Sullivan’s variety program became the show to be featured on as a musician trying to make it in the United States. Elvis Presley’s 1956 appearance made him a national star, and the Beatles’ first American television appearance on the show in 1964 during their first visit to the United States unleashed chaos over New York and the rest of the country. So many people tuned into the Beatles’ February 9 appearance that, to this day, a popular wives’ tale persists that the national crime rate dropped significantly during their performance because just about everyone was inside watching television.[7] Nonetheless, the show’s musical director Ray Block told The New York Times, “I give them a year.”[8]

Sullivan with the Beatles during their first appearance on his show in 1964.

Sullivan is also famous for the number of artists he clashed with over censorship. Rock and roll was still considered relatively provocative in the 1950s and 1960s, and Sullivan wanted to make sure that he was running a respectable family program in order to maintain both his ratings and his reputation. In 1955, cameras showed Elvis Presley from the waist up so viewers could not see him swiveling his hips.[9] In 1958, Sullivan attempted to sabotage Buddy Holly’s performance in a number of ways following a clash with the artist over his scheduled performance of “Oh, Boy!,” which Sullivan decided was too raunchy of a song to air on his show. After a few choice words from Holly, Sullivan cut their set short, intentionally mispronounced Holly’s last name, and turned the volume down on his guitar.[10] Bob Dylan walked off of the set in 1963 after Sullivan told him that he could not perform “Talkin’ Bout John Birch Paranoid Blues” because of its political message.[11] Right before they went on air in 1967, the Rolling Stones were advised that they would have to change the lyrics of their recent hit “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together.” During the performance, Mick Jagger can be seen rolling his eyes every time he sings the line.[12] In 1969, Sullivan told the Doors that they would have to omit the word “higher” from “Light My Fire.” They sang the word in the live performance anyway, and were subsequently banned from the show.[13]

After Sullivan’s program came to an end in 1971, the theater was used for the set of a number of gameshows and sitcoms, and CBS ultimately sold it in the 1980s. They bought it back in 1993, however, when David Letterman switched networks from NBC to CBS, and began filming The Late Show in the theater. It was renovated again by James Stewart Polshek and Associates. The stained glass windows put in by Hammerstein were removed for storage, and the walls were covered in acoustic paneling.[14] When Letterman retired in 2015, Stephen Colbert took over the show and the studio space. It was renovated by Design Republic, who removed much of the paneling and restored it to its cathedral-like appearance. Its stained glass windows now feature depictions of Colbert.[15]

Colbert’s renovated interior in 2015.

Generally, the only way a visitor would be able to get into the Ed Sullivan Theater in 2017 would be to get tickets to a taping of The Late Show. However, a handful of lucky Beatles fans (the author included) had the opportunity to attend a panel hosted by CBS at the theater on the evening of February 9, 2014—the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. CBS also taped a two-and-a-half hour program, The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles, featuring footage Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr being interviewed by Letterman inside the Sullivan Theater a few weeks prior to the show’s airing.[16] McCartney also performed an impromptu concert on top of the theater’s marquee in July 2009 after being interviewed by Letterman.[17]

The theater has served as a microcosm of American culture for the better part of a century. On its stage have appeared the most popular entertainers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, through performances in Broadway musicals and on televised variety shows, as well as interviews with some of the most watched talk show hosts in the country. Some of the most-loved figures in pop culture, including the most commercially successful band of all time, owe their success in the United States to their appearances on the television show hosted by the theater’s namesake, Ed Sullivan.

[1] “The Beatles.” The Ed Sullivan Show, Accessed October 3, 2017. http://www.edsullivan.com/artists/the-beatles/.

[2] “Ed Sullivan Theatre.” IBDB: The Internet Broadway Database, Accessed October 3, 2017. https://www.ibdb.com/theatre/ed-sullivan-theatre-1182#.

[3] Gray, Christopher. “If The Soundproofed Walls Could Talk.” The New York Times, December 24, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/27/realestate/27scapes.html.

[4] IBID.

[5] IBID.

[6]  “Ed Sullivan Theatre,” Op. Cit.

[7] Rouner, Jef. “10 Beatles Urban Legends: True Or False?” Houston Press, February 9, 2011. http://www.houstonpress.com/music/10-beatles-urban-legends-true-or-false-6502857.

[8] Marks, Peter. “Recalling Screams Heard Round the World.” The New York Times, Feburary 6, 1994. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/02/06/nyregion/recalling-screams-heard-round-the-world.html?pagewanted=all.

[9] Gibson, Christine. “Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show: The Real Story. Elvis Presley Photos, Accessed October 3, 2017. https://www.elvispresleymusic.com.au/pictures/1956-september-9-ed-sullivan-show.html.

[10] Hutchinson, Lydia. “Buddy Holly’s Final Ed Sullivan Appearance.” Performing Songwriter, January 26, 2011. http://performingsongwriter.com/buddy-holly-ed-sullivan/.

[11] Swanson, Dave. “Why the Rolling Stones Were Forced to ‘Spend Some Time’ with Ed Sullivan. Ultimate Classic Rock, January 15, 2016. http://ultimateclassicrock.com/rolling-stones-ed-sullivan-spend-some-time/.

[12] The Ed Sullivan Show. “The Rolling Stones on the Ed Sullivan Show – DVD Sets.” YouTube, September 2, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7JEGcWGbKE.

[13] Swanson, Op. Cit.

[14] Gray, Op. Cit.

[15] Gonzalez, Sandra. “How Stephen Colbert’s beautiful ‘Late Show’ studio came to be.” Mashable, October 8, 2015. http://mashable.com/2015/10/08/stephen-colbert-late-show-studio-renovation/#EFYxX7w_yGqc.

[16] Moraski, Lauren. “The Beatles honored star-studded symposium.” CBS News, February 10, 2014. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-beatles-celebrated-50-years-later-with-star-studded-symposium/.

[17] Cobas, Carlos. “Paul McCartney on David Letterman Show Interview & Rooftop Performance.” YouTube, December 21, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t23dvnpiLYs.