Elvis’ Three Appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show: Watch History in the Making and from the Waist Up (1956)

Oh, to be in the stu­dio audi­ence of CBS’ Tele­vi­sion City in Hol­ly­wood on Sep­tem­ber 9th, 1956, to see Elvis Presley’s gyrat­ing pelvis rock­et him to super­star­dom on The Ed Sul­li­van Show.

His appear­ance made tele­vi­sion his­to­ry, but 60 mil­lion home view­ers were left to fill in some major blanks, as the ris­ing heart­throb was filmed from the waist up when­ev­er he was in motion.

Sul­li­van had been hes­i­tant to book Elvis, not want­i­ng to court the out­rage the mag­net­ic young singer had sparked in two “sug­ges­tive” appear­ances on The Mil­ton Berle Show ear­li­er that year. Elvis, he told the press, was “not my cup of tea” and “wasn’t fit for fam­i­ly enter­tain­ment.”

Tele­vi­sion host Steve Allen, pre­sum­ably alert to sim­i­lar red flags, attempt­ed to skirt the issue by shoe­horn­ing Elvis into tie and tails to per­form “Hound Dog” to an inat­ten­tive, top-hat­ted bas­set hound.

Elvis was dis­pleased by this jokey spin, but sub­mit­ted, and new­com­er Allen’s rat­ings clob­bered Sullivan’s that week.

Sul­li­van sent Steve Allen a telegram:

Steven Pres­ley Allen, NBC TV, New York City. Stinker. Love and kiss­es. Ed Sul­li­van.

Whether Sul­li­van was throw­ing down a gaunt­let, or deliv­er­ing con­grat­u­la­tions with a side of poor sports­man­ship is some­what unclear, but Sul­li­van was now ready to claim his stake, at ten times the price.

The $5,000 appear­ance fee that had been float­ed pri­or to Elvis’ appear­ance on The Mil­ton Berle Show, had bal­looned to the jaw drop­ping sum of $50,000 for 3 episodes.

Sul­li­van and Presley’s names are for­ev­er linked for that his­toric first appear­ance, but injuries from a car crash knocked the host out of com­mis­sion. Actor Charles Laughton subbed in as host from Sul­li­van’s New York stu­dio, and was charged with ush­er­ing in Elvis’s remote appear­ance in a very par­tic­u­lar way.

As cul­tur­al crit­ic Greil Mar­cus writes:

Pres­ley was the head­lin­er, and a Sul­li­van head­lin­er nor­mal­ly opened the show, but Sul­li­van was bury­ing him. Laughton had to make the moment invis­i­ble: to act as if nobody was actu­al­ly wait­ing for any­thing. He did it instant­ly, with com­plete com­mand, with the sort of tele­vi­sion pres­ence that some have and some — Steve Allen, or Ed Sul­li­van him­self — don’t. It’s a sense of ease, a queru­lous inter­ro­ga­tion of the medi­um itself, affirm­ing one’s own odd, irre­ducible sub­jec­tiv­i­ty against the objec­tiv­i­ty enforced by any sys­tem of rep­re­sen­ta­tions: that is, get­ting it across that at any moment that you might for­get where you are and say what­ev­er comes into your head, which was exact­ly what half the coun­try hoped and half the coun­try feared might be the case with Elvis Pres­ley.

Laughton, who else­where in the show used a read­ing of James Thurber’s Red Rid­ing Hood par­o­dy, “The Lit­tle Girl and the Wolf” to insin­u­ate that “it’s not so easy to fool lit­tle girls nowa­days as it used to be,” set­tled on a non-com­mit­tal “and now, away to Hol­ly­wood to meet Elvis Pres­ley!”

Elvis, clad in a non-threat­en­ing plaid jack­et on a set trimmed with gui­tar-shaped cut outs, thanked Laughton, and wiped his brow:

Wow. This is prob­a­bly the great­est hon­or I’ve ever had in my life. Ah. There’s not much I can say except, it real­ly makes you feel good. We want to thank you from the bot­tom of our heart.

His first num­ber, “Don’t Be Cru­el,” had an imme­di­ate effect on the teenage girls in atten­dance, who knew what they were see­ing.

“Thank you, ladies,” he said, coy­ly acknowl­edg­ing what all knew to be true, before going on to debut the title song of the motion pic­ture he was in town to film, Love Me Ten­der, his first of 31 such vehi­cles.

Disc jock­eys tuned in to tape the unre­leased song for play on their radio shows, shoot­ing pre-sales up to near­ly a mil­lion.

Lat­er in the show Elvis returned to cov­er Lit­tle Richard’s hit, “Ready Ted­dy,” and wish the show’s reg­u­lar host a swift recov­ery. And then:

As a great philoso­pher once said…’You ain’t noth­in’ but a hound dog!’

Cue screams.

A week lat­er, The New York Times’ Jack Gould alleged that in book­ing Elvis, Sul­li­van had failed to “exer­cise good sense and dis­play respon­si­bil­i­ty,” mor­al­iz­ing that “in some ways it was per­haps the most unpleas­ant of (the singer’s) recent three per­for­mances:

Mr. Pres­ley ini­tial­ly dis­turbed adult view­ers — and instant­ly became a mar­tyr in the eyes of his teen- age fol­low­ing — for his striptease behav­ior on last spring’s Mil­ton Berle pro­gram. Then with Steve Allen he was much more sedate. On the Sul­li­van pro­gram he inject­ed move­ments of the tongue and indulged in word­less singing that were sin­gu­lar­ly dis­taste­ful.

At least some par­ents are puz­zled or con­fused by Pres­ley’s almost hyp­not­ic pow­er; oth­ers are con­cerned; per­haps most are a shade dis­gust­ed and con­tent to per­mit the Pres­ley fad to play itself out.

Nei­ther crit­i­cism of Pres­ley nor of the teen-agers who admire him is par­tic­u­lar­ly to the point. Pres­ley has fall­en into a for­tune with a rou­tine that in one form or anoth­er has always exist­ed on the fringe of show busi­ness; in his gyrat­ing fig­ure and sug­ges­tive ges­tures the teen-agers have found some­thing that for the moment seems excit­ing or impor­tant.

Cue more screams.

A month and a half after his first Sul­li­van Show book­ing, Elvis and Sul­li­van met in the New York stu­dio for a fol­low up, along with a chaste youth choir, the Lit­tle Gael­ic Singers, and ven­tril­o­quist Señor Wences(S’alright? S’alright.)

“Don’t Be Cru­el,” “Love Me Ten­der,” and “Hound Dog” were on the menu again, along with a brand new release — “Love Me,” above.

Señor Wences was not the tough act to fol­low here.

The appear­ance result­ed in more wild­ly high rat­ings for Sul­li­van, and a grow­ing aware­ness of the per­ils of rock n’ roll, as embod­ied by Elvis’ well lubri­cat­ed nether regions, which the cam­era, fool­ing no one, again shied from at cru­cial moments.

Cue anoth­er mil­lion teenage fan club enroll­ments, as well as par­ents, cler­gy and oth­er con­cerned cit­i­zens who came togeth­er to burn the singer in effi­gy in Nashville and St. Louis.

Near­ly as notable, from the per­spec­tive of 2021, was the pub­lic ser­vice Elvis per­formed back­stage, allow­ing him­self to be pho­tographed receiv­ing the polio vac­cine, in hopes his legions of admir­ers would fol­low suit.

Elvis’ third vis­it to Sullivan’s show, Jan­u­ary 6th, 1957, would prove to be his last, owing to the astro­nom­i­cal fee his man­ag­er Colonel Tom Park­er set for future tele­vi­sion appear­ances: $300,000 with the promise of two guest spots and an hour-long spe­cial. An attempt to book Elvis for Sullivan’s 10th anniver­sary cel­e­bra­tion, was thwart­ed by the fact that Elvis was abroad, serv­ing in the Army.

Anoth­er mas­sive audi­ence tuned in for anoth­er help­ing of hits — “Hound Dog,” “Love Me Ten­der,” “Heart­break Hotel,” and “Don’t Be Cru­el,” as well as new­er mate­r­i­al — “Too Much” and “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again.”

Between songs, Sul­li­van advised the swoon­ing teenagers to rest their lar­ynx­es and intro­duced Elvis’ per­for­mance of the gospel stan­dard, “Peace in the Val­ley,” by urg­ing view­ers to con­tribute to a Hun­gar­i­an refugee relief fund Elvis sup­port­ed.

While many fans per­sist in the belief that the gospel num­ber was includ­ed as an affec­tion­ate nod to the singer’s beloved moth­er, Gladys, a let­ter from Colonel Parker’s assis­tant to Elvis sug­gests that the choice had more to do with his host:

Mr. Sul­li­van thought it might be very appro­pri­ate for you to sing a hymn or a semi-reli­gious song on the show. You cer­tain­ly can sing a hymn very effec­tive­ly and I think it would make a very strong impres­sion on all the view­ers. It has been sug­gest­ed that a song like ‘Peace in the Val­ley’ might be held in readi­ness. We have obtained the music on this song and are for­ward­ing it to you.”

This time, home view­ers real­ly were left to guess what was going on below the star’s sequined vest and open col­lared blouse, described by Mar­cus as “the out­landish cos­tume of a pasha, if not a harem girl:”

From the make-up over his eyes, the hair falling in his face, the over­whelm­ing­ly sex­u­al cast of his mouth, he was play­ing Rudolph Valenti­no in The Sheik, with all stops out. That he did so in front of the Jor­danaires, who this night appeared as the four squarest-look­ing men on the plan­et, made the per­for­mance even more potent.

Sullivan’s first co-pro­duc­er, Mar­lo Lewis, inti­mat­ed that the deci­sion to for­mal­ize a waist-up pol­i­cy for Elvis’ third vis­it was sparked by a rumor that had dogged his pri­or appear­ances. To wit:

Elvis has been hang­ing a small soft-drink bot­tle from his groin under­neath his pants, and when he wig­gles his leg it looks as though his peck­er reach­es down to his knee! 

Mean­while, it appeared Sul­li­van was no longer will­ing to be lumped in with Elvis’ detrac­tors, clos­ing the show by say­ing:

I want­ed to say to Elvis Pres­ley and the coun­try that this is a real decent, fine boy, and wher­ev­er you go, Elvis, we want to say we’ve nev­er had a pleas­an­ter expe­ri­ence on our show with a big name than we’ve had with you. So now let’s have a tremen­dous hand for a very nice per­son!

Had Elvis won him over, or was it, as cul­tur­al crit­ic Tim Par­rish asserts, that Colonel Park­er, “had threat­ened to remove Elvis from the show if Sul­li­van did not apol­o­gize for telling the press that Elvis’s ‘gyra­tions’ were immoral.”

Watch all of Elvis Pres­ley’s per­for­mances on The Ed Sul­li­van Show in HD here.

For a glimpse of the 1956 Gib­son J‑200 Elvis played in that final appear­ance, and spec­u­la­tion as to whether he crossed paths with fel­low guests Car­ol Bur­nett and Lena Horne, watch Grace­land archivist Ang­ie Marchese’s show and tell of ephemera relat­ed to his stints on the Ed Sul­li­van Show.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Last Great Moment of Elvis Presley’s Musi­cal Career: Watch His Extra­or­di­nary Per­for­mance of “Unchained Melody” (1977)

Elvis Pres­ley Gets the Polio Vac­cine on The Ed Sul­li­van Show, Per­suad­ing Mil­lions to Get Vac­ci­nat­ed (1956)

The Night Ed Sul­li­van Scared a Nation with the Apoc­a­lyp­tic Ani­mat­ed Short, A Short Vision (1956)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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