Sunday, February 9, 2014


When exactly was it? How did it happen, I often wonder, that our language descended into such decadence that the only thing left for it is the phenomenon of 'semantic satiation'? Was it the advertising hucksters who threw adjectives against nouns with punny commercial abandon? Was it the politicians seeking to waltz already malleable truth? Understanding isn't really necessary, even when it is still possible. I suppose this rumination originated with posts on Facebook. Some people post wonderful, funny, fascinating things. Images, videos, articles, news stories, memes. There are many posting groups centered around themes, such as "classic movies", "cute cats and funny furry animals", "my sad tale of woe", "horrid Hollywood homicides", "liberal politics", "Obama is destroying our country", etc. Some of these groups make money for advertisers by delivering a targeted audience. Many times, links are posted to web pages which, of course, contain paid advertising. A 'linked' article may require one to page through, well, several "pages". Pages with advertising. And pop up windows with advertising, and buttons to "like  this" on Facebook, Twitter, or any of a half dozen or more other "social networks". "Liking" basically translates as, "this will cause your friends who use said service to see your name and picture recommending this post, and there is even room for you to make a comment! You will show everyone that you are just so cool and with it by sharing this interest. Or educate them in this topic. Our headline and a few sentences will stay. And, Oh!, we have ads for you, too!") Each page view is rewarded with some one thousandthmillionth something or other of a cent. Volume is money. Advertising brings volume. So, in Social Media Land one doesn't have a "cute cat pic", one has "The Funniest cat pic of all time! I laughed so hard I wet my pants!" A minor and slightly unfortunate happenstance is suddenly an "Utterly Huge Fail!!!". (The latter phrase always seems to be used by individuals who betray no irony in using that particular verb as a noun.) "The Most Incredible Thing Ever of All Time!" It's like an all news channel, constantly producing raised levels of stress.

I'm not an Obama fan, but these "memes" are visual hyperbole and very annoying.
This post was originally going to note that we are midway through the awards shows season, and compare those programs and their breathless reportage with the State of the Union address. Hyperbole being a seemingly necessary ingredient all around. At the moment, however, I've become overwhelmed by "the night that changed the world" and several variations of that phrase. The night referenced is this very evening (February 9th), exactly 50 years ago. In this case, there is no exaggeration.

At 8pm Eastern Standard Time that night, Marconi Mark IV television cameras began broadcasting from what was then known as the CBS 'Studio 50'. It had opened in 1927 as the 1,400 seat Hammerstein's Theater. At various times, it was known as the Manhattan Theater (twice!), Billy Rose's Music Hall, and served as a nightclub. In 1936 it became Radio Theater #3, and then the CBS Radio Playhouse. It was converted into a television studio in 1950. Shortly thereafter, it became the home of "Talk of the Town", which soon changed its name to what everyone was already calling it - the "Ed Sullivan Show". 

Studio 50, at 53rd and Broadway, was a busy place. The Honeymooners was broadcast from there for several years.
As were What's My Line, To Tell the Truth, Password, the Rogers and Hammerstein Cinderella, Kate and Allie, etc.

Sullivan had been a boxer who had segued into being a sports reporter for The New York Evening Graphic. When Walter Winchell left the paper for the Hearst syndicate, Sullivan took over as theatre critic and gossip columnist. He soon had the power to make and break careers using the El Morocco as his home base (Winchell used The Stork Club). As the era of café society began fading, CBS hired him to host a variety show. The show was a huge hit and quickly became required viewing in any home with a tv set. And then there was the night in 1956 when Elvis Presley was on. Close to 83 % of the US tv audience tuned in - over 60 million people. (If someone tells you that they saw that show, ask them about the look on Sullivan's face after seeing Elvis perform. If they describe it, they didn't see the show. Sullivan was sick that night and "Elvin Presley" was introduced by guest host Charles Laughton.) By the way, Elvis was not "cut off at the hips" on that broadcast. That didn't happen until his third appearance.

By 1960, the Sullivan show was so famous that it was used as a plot device in the Broadway musical "Bye Bye Birdie". There was even a song called, "Hymn for a Sunday Evening", which was in the sequence that aired on the Sullivan show (advance the video player to 6 minutes into this clip if you want to just see the number in question performed by Paul Lynde and the cast):

In 1963, Sullivan was traveling through Heathrow airport as the fans of a band returning from a tour went wild. He said it was 'like Elvis all over again'. He offered the band top dollar for a guest spot. The band's manager, Brian Epstein, said he would take far less money - as long as The Beatles got to appear on three consecutive shows, got top billing, and numbers at the beginning and end of each show. Their first appearance was 50 years ago this evening.

Sullivan wisely planned for the bedlam which would follow the Beatles opening segment, and had the second act, a card magician, prerecord his appearance. The third act was the cast of the London musical, "Oliver", which had just transferred to Broadway. While waiting to go on, they had cheered their countrymen from the wings. The teenager playing the Artful Dodger was so impressed by the Beatles' screaming fans that he decided that he would have to become a rock star. After his run in Oliver, he signed with Screen Gems, the tv arm of Columbia Pictures, appeared on a few tv shows, and recorded a record for their label.  He soon became famous as Davey Jones of the Monkees.

The Beatles' Sullivan shows were broadcast in black and white - the show didn't make the change to color until 1965. (1965 was the first year of widespread color broadcasts. In those days, CBS had its own color process, which was different from the other networks. NBC used the system and cameras developed by RCA, which happened to own NBC. ABC was still too poor to afford its own color cameras, so they leased from NBC. In one of those moments of true irony, when color recording was desired for use in the US space program, the RCA designed equipment ended up using the CBS system to accomplish that goal.)

There will be a big Grammy tie in celebration of the Beatles anniversary tonight at 8pm. It will take place in the Ed Sullivan Theater, formerly Studio 50. For the last may years it has been the home of the David Letterman show. I don't know if they will use the old black and white footage - if they do, you'll note that Paul and Ringo often look up - they were looking at the fans in the balcony, which has since been removed. It's a much smaller theater now - these days, they use less than 400 of the seats. When the theater was rehabbed to house hi-definition broadcasts a few years back, a little known passageway to CBS' Studio 52, around the corner on 54th street, was sealed up. That studio, by the by, became better known as the nightclub "Studio 54". The Sullivan show faded away in 1971, victim of an aging demographic and lack of interest in vaudeville style entertainments. And the Beatles? Well, if you don't know that part... just check Facebook tomorrow. There will be lots of posts about them and the show tonight, with headlines like "Greatest Night Ever!", "Colossal Grammy Fail - What Were They Thinking?" and etc.

1 comment:

Delores said...

The hubs is tuned into it tonight..reliving his glory days. Thankfully I'm not on Facebook or Twitter so I'll happily miss out on all the posts and tweets.