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August 17, 2015

If These Walls Could Talk…

One Broadway theater has stood witness to some of the greatest moments in television.

In a city of extraordinary skyscrapers, one seven-story building in the heart of Manhattan — a television studio — stands tall in singularity.

The Ed Sullivan Theater, on Broadway between West 53rd and West 54th streets, is by no means just a TV studio. The 88-year-old edifice stands proudly on the National Register of Historic Places, and its interior is a designated New York City landmark.

But its place in TV history looms as large as its architecture. For the past 65 years, it has served as a prism, richly reflecting the timeline of television broadcasting.

For the past 22 years, David Letterman hosted CBS’s Late Show here. The comedian, who retired in May, will be succeeded by Stephen Colbert. The former Comedy Central star will open his show on the same stage September 8.

Originally a vaudeville house with stained-glass windows, the building at 1697–99 Broadway was constructed in 1927 by Arthur Hammerstein in honor of his father, Oscar Hammerstein I. It later served as a venue for musical plays and then as a nightclub.

In 1936, CBS leased the building for radio and in 1950 converted it to accommodate television production, dubbing it CBS-TV Studio 50.

The Jackie Gleason Show was broadcast from the studio live on Saturday nights in the 1950s.

For 18 years — from1953 to 1971 — it was home to The Ed Sullivan Show, at first broadcast live and later on tape. Of course, it was on Sullivan’s show that the Beatles performed on live TV for the first time in the U.S., on February 9, 1964. Elvis Presley made his national television debut there as well, eight years earlier, on The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show.

By 1967, Studio 50 was christened The Ed Sullivan Theater. Through the years, it has hosted many other series, including The Merv Griffin Show, Candid Camera, What’s My Line?, Password, To Tell the Truth and Kate & Allie. But Letterman’s Late Show notched more time at the Ed Sullivan than any other program.

The star arrived in 1993, when he took his 12:30 a.m. NBC show (Late Night with David Letterman, produced at 30 Rockefeller Plaza) to CBS. The network had bought the theater from Winthrop Financial Associates of Boston to help persuade the comedian to stay in New York rather than opt for L.A. In turn, the city gave the network millions in tax credits.

Part of the package was the adjacent 13-story office building, which, in earlier days, housed mostly recording and radio studios.

CBS launched a top-to-bottom renovation of the theater, which had changed hands a few times after the cancellation of the Sullivan show and was seriously rundown.

The retrofit included a customized control room in the basement (moved from its previous location, in the audience); acoustical sails and wall padding at the stage level, to adjust for amplified sound; and expanded seating for 450 (Sullivan had slyly installed a large mirror to give viewers the illusion of a larger audience). Later, the studio was upgraded for high-definition TV.

The Letterman show used every inch of the theater: the balcony (where skits were taped), the roof and even the marquee. Separately, the stage served as a venue for live Letterman Concerts, 45-minute pop acts — by the likes of Bon Jovi, Norah Jones, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift — streamed on the CBS website.

On May 21, following Letterman’s final show, construction crews gutted the set and ripped out the seats as fans scavenged dumpsters for keepsakes. The building is undergoing renovations again this summer, this time to suit the needs of Colbert.

Though the walls of this TV temple cannot talk, many of the pros who have worked there spoke with emmy contributor Jane Wollman Rusoff. Here (in alphabetical order) are some of their memories:

Marty Allen (comedian, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show): “We went on right after the Beatles. A thousand little girls were screaming. I told Steve Rossi, my partner, that instead of singing one of his usual big numbers, to do something hip and swinging. I jumped into the audience and danced up and down the aisles shouting, ‘Hello there! I’m Ringo’s mother!’ The girls were yelling, ‘It’s Ringo’s mother! It’s his mother!’”

Pat Boone (singer, The Ed Sullivan Show): “The most terrifying moment of my career was in that theater. I was singing “This Is My Country,” but I didn’t know the bridge and had cue cards for that part. All of a sudden, those big, floppy cards slithered out of the guy’s hands onto the floor. I had to keep going! So I made up a lyric to fit the melody. Afterwards, Ed hugged me. He knew I had to improvise live on the biggest show in the country.”

Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall Brill (sketch comedians, The Ed Sullivan Show): “We were booked for the first time the Beatles were on the show,” Charlie says. “We planned to do a sophisticated scene about a couple at various stages of their lives. After the rehearsal, Ed said, ‘My audience tonight consists of 14-year-old girls. They won’t understand what you want to do. What else do you have? Show me your whole act.’

"So we did. He told us: ‘Take the girl from the first piece and put her in the second scene, and end with the next-to-the-last thing.’"

“We said, ‘Sure, Mr. Sullivan,’ but had no idea what he wanted,” Mitzi adds, “and this was live TV. We went on right before the Beatles.”

Charlie adds: “Those girls wanted to see the Beatles, not us. We thought our career was over and that we’d never work again. After the show [actor] Frank Gorshin took us to Sardi’s for a drink.”

Vince Calandra (production assistant–talent coordinator, The Ed Sullivan Show, 1957-71): “Sometimes we’d sneak agents and VIPs into the audience through the men’s room in the lobby and up the back stairs, so they wouldn’t have to wait on line. When the Beatles appeared for the first time, I wore a wig and stood in for George in rehearsal because he had the flu.

“Many of the stars would autograph a wall behind the curtain. When they were demolishing the studio after the Sullivan show ended, someone took the part of the wall with the Beatles’ signatures and tried to sell it for $1 million.

“When Richard Burton was booked to do scenes from Camelot with Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet, I sat in front of Burton’s dressing room to make sure he had nothing to drink.”

Jean Carroll (the late actress-comedian, The Ed Sullivan Show, from a 2006 interview with this reporter; Carroll died in 2010): “Ed would always say, ‘Do the buying-the-dress routine.’ I’d tell him, ‘I’ve done it a hundred times. The audience expects something fresh.’ He said, ‘I pay you — and Sylvia [Sullivan’s wife] likes it!’

”Just before I went on, he’d whisper in my ear to cut four minutes from the nine I’d rehearsed. I finally told him that as soon as I finished my exclusive contract, I wouldn’t work for him anymore.”

Jack Carter (the late comedian, The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, died June 28): “I did hundreds of different shows in that ancient theater. I remember when they redid the lobby. They freshened up the rugs and put some lights on the marquee. I emceed The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show, introduced the acts and did some shtick. I hosted the first TV show that Elvis was on. He came in and did his thing, but he was concerned about showing his body gyrating.

“On stage [on The Ed Sullivan Show], Ed was sweet and proper, but in his dressing room he had a violent temper: ‘You can’t do that s--t on my show!’ I’d run through my act at noon and later he’d cut it to shreds.”

Hugh Downs (panelist, To Tell the Truth): “Two contestants would pose as a famous person, while the third would be the real one, and the panel had to decide who was telling the truth. I remember three girls contending that they were motorcyclists. I won because I’d seen the actual one in a magazine. She said on the show, ‘Don’t you remember me? We went to the Caribbean together.’ Had that been true, I’d be in deep trouble because it would have started to dismantle my marriage. Fortunately, I was able to easily disprove it.”

Lou Genevrino (Broadway dancer, The Ed Sullivan Show): “When I was in the show Illya Darling, we went on Sullivan to do a scene live in which [actress] Melina Mercouri tossed plates in the air — we’d catch them on a stick, spin them around and do a silly dance.

“We were in a fifth-floor dressing room waiting to go on, so we started playing poker and didn’t hear the call. All of a sudden, our stage manager shouted, ‘Where are you guys?’ We ran downstairs to the stage. Half the number was over, and there was Melina with nobody to catch those plates. She threw the first one, and I grabbed it just in time.”

Stephen Gill (attorney who has been visiting the theater since he was a child and has an extensive collection of photos and tickets): “When I was 12, going to TV shows at Studio 50 was like visiting a magic kingdom. There was a ticket window in the lobby. You’d ask what was available, and they’d give out free tickets for the next few days.”

His recollections of The Ed Sullivan Show: “What was really cool was when I saw the Beatles and Paul McCartney was singing “Yesterday.” Up to that point, the girls were constantly screaming, but when he sang that song, you could hear a pin drop.”

John Greenfield (special effects director for NBC Universal; his father, Bill Greenfield, was the lighting director for The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s): “My dad brought me into the studio when I was about seven. There was a vending machine in the basement that dispensed hot peanuts into a paper bag. I got a bagful and brought it up to the stage and was munching away.

"Ed Sullivan walked over. I offered him some peanuts, handing him the bag. He said, ‘Why, thank you,’ took the bag and walked away. That was his sense of humor. He gave it back, but I was mortified.

“For the Beatles’ first visit, [manager] Brian Epstein handed out 45 [rpm] records from a big box to the crew. My father later told me that as Ed was walking through during a Beatles press tour, he saw one of the sets that had been designed, which said ‘The Beatles’ in giant letters, and snapped at the stage manager: ‘Get rid of that set! Everybody knows the Beatles!’”

Lainie Kazan (singer-actress, The Ed Sullivan Show): “The first time I was on, I was so excited when I saw the marquee because I was going to appear in that theater on that show. It was unbelievable to me. My dressing room smelled of old theater, but it was wonderful. Ed never pronounced my name right: He called me Lanny.

“[Producer] Bob Precht and I had some tension. When I sang “What Now, My Love,” he told me he wanted me to end on a high note. I said, ‘Then I can’t do the show.’ My manager almost died. Of course I won the argument, but there was tension for quite a while.”

Wendy Liebman (comedian, The Late Show with David Letterman): “The floor of the stage is really hard, so I felt very connected with it and supported. When I focus on my feet, my laughs are bigger. There was a vortex of entertainment on that stage that made you feel like you were part of history.

"The dressing rooms smelled old, like the grandma smells of cooking. One time I was bumped, but I was going to come back the next week. When I was going down in the elevator, I ran into David Letterman. He was very apologetic and sincere. I’d heard that he didn’t like to talk to [guests], so I was pleasantly surprised.”

Jackie Mason (comedian, The Ed Sullivan Show): “No one ever asked me about anything technical. To tell you the truth, I never really noticed any technical issues. What do I know about technical? I’m Jewish, so I leave that to the Gentiles.

"Ed and I would rehearse our bit; I’d do my routine, and that was it. Later that night we did the show. He always had faith in me and never judged my act in the dress rehearsal.”

Johnny Mathis (singer, The Ed Sullivan Show): “The studio was absolutely tiny; most people thought it was bigger because they’d see elephants and acrobats on the show. But we were literally lined up in the wings because there was no room. You’d rehearse five songs with the orchestra, but then they’d say there wasn’t time for three of them — or not even enough time to sing one whole song, and you’d have to sing half. Many of the opera stars would have to cut their arias and just sing the high notes at the end.”

Phyllis Newman (singer-actress, The Ed Sullivan Show): “My only memory is terror, of being a very young girl doing a number in which I imitated every major star of the day, including Barbra Streisand. Mr. Sullivan had seen me do it at the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel, but I’d never performed it on TV before. All I remember is my gut.”

Julie Newmar (actress, The Ed Sullivan Show): “CBS used the Sullivan show to push their other shows. I was planted in the audience to plug my new series, My Living Doll. Mr. Sullivan pointed to me and I stood up in my $2,500 jeweled dress. He made his soporific, languid announcement that I would be on the new CBS season. But then they threw my show away. It nearly tanked because they scheduled it opposite Bonanza!

Betsy Palmer (the late panelist, What’s My Line?, died May 29): “I often filled in on the panel. I played coy and innocent, joking around with sexual innuendos, but I knew exactly what I was saying. Lenny Bruce called me ‘a hooker who looks like the girl-next-door.’”

Itzhak Perlman (concert violinist, The Ed Sullivan Show): “The Ed Sullivan Show was the reason I came to the United States when I was 13. It was something I wanted to do, and that was the vehicle for me to do it.

"Ed came to Israel looking to do a show featuring Israeli performers. I was one of them. After I was on his show, I went on tour with the other performers from Israel and then I stayed in New York. It was very exciting. It was like I was in the middle of a dream.”

Bill Persky (writer, director, producer, Kate & Allie): “Jane Curtin and Susan Saint James wanted to do a series, provided it was done in New York. So we moved into the Ed Sullivan Theater and took possession of it for six years.

"It wasn’t just a theater — it had an aura about it. We worked with the stage to allow for sets and changed the audience configuration a little. It didn’t have nearly the footage of an L.A. soundstage, so we created a set, for example, using the wall behind the stage. We made it look like a laundry room. It already had electrical lines and pipes — we just put in a couple of washing machines and dryers.

“In the basement, we saw rats running around, but we didn’t bother to name them. I spent six of the happiest years of my life in that theater.”

Chuck Ranberg (writer-producer, Kate & Allie): “My writing partner, Anne Flett-Giordano, and I were so thrilled to be working where Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleason once stood. It didn’t matter that some of the seats in the theater were broken or patched with duct tape. It didn’t matter that the writers’ offices overlooked an airshaft, one in which people from a neighboring building tossed garbage and dirty diapers.

“One night, during a taping, a rat ran across the stage. Fortunately, it was in the shadows and only a few of us saw it.

“We kept hearing about a secret tunnel supposedly used by Jackie Gleason that connected the theater to the bar next door. One day a locked door in the basement was opened and we went on a field trip through a musty hallway that led to a steep stairway — up into the kitchen of the bar.”

Joyce Randolph (actress, The Jackie Gleason Show): “On Saturday afternoon, we’d have one rehearsal with Gleason for The Honeymooners and then he’d disappear. The rest of us would run up to Audrey’s [Meadows] dressing room to rehearse, and her manager would read Jackie’s lines. We’d go through the script over and over because we had to do it live at 8 p.m. The terrible set we had was made of canvas, I think. It just hung there and moved around a lot.

“My apartment was only a block from the studio. In the beginning, I pretty much wore my own clothes on the show. I put them on at home and wore them [to the theater]. It certainly was convenient.”

Carl Reiner (comedian-writer-producer): “The office building next to the theater housed the National Youth Administration Radio Workshop — the government put on radio shows with out-of-work actors and musicians. In 1939 and ‘40, when I was 17, I did radio plays and introduced operas and concerts for $22 a month.

On The Late Show with David Letterman: “They always had a pre-interview so Letterman would know what to ask me about. He’s such an intelligent interviewer. He can do [U.S.] presidents, as well as anybody. Dave has changed a lot over the years. Since he married and had a kid, he’s become a different guy… mellowed out.”

Joan Rivers (the late comedian, on The Ed Sullivan Show, from a 1998 interview with this reporter; Rivers died in 2014): “One of the nicest shows I ever did was when they interviewed all of us that were on Ed Sullivan and brought us back to the theater where he did the show. It was wonderful to sit on the stage that you were on 25 years before. So many memories flooded back.”

Eva Marie Saint (actress, What’s My Line?): “I was the mystery guest and put on a ‘Noo Yawk’ accent. Tony Randall was on the panel. We had done One Man’s Family together on television and would kibitz [off stage] and do all these strange voices. So when I did that crazy voice, he recognized me right away.”

Susan Saint James (actress, Kate & Allie): “The theater was in disrepair, but Jane [Curtin] and I loved being there because we were our own little universe. We didn’t have a lot of network presence there. It was fun to be shooting right in town, not in Brooklyn or Queens. Our dressing rooms were kind of ratty, gray with peeling paint. They looked like prison interview rooms.

“The balcony wasn’t fixed up; we had to get special permission from the fire department to let anybody sit up there. The stage was rat-filled — and we taped in front of a live audience! Whenever the lights went down on a permanent set and we moved to another one, the rats would walk across the unlit part of the stage. Not little ones… great big ones!

“When my granddaughter was five, I walked her by the theater and said proudly, ‘This is where your grandmother used to work.’ She was like, ‘Okay.’”

Jerry Stiller (comedian, The Ed Sullivan Show): “In the early days, Ed Sullivan used to pronounce our names ‘Stiller and Mara.’ We were so happy that he liked us that we never corrected him. We later found out that in Ireland, Meara is pronounced Mara. The most amazing thing to me was when we did the Sullivan show 10 days after my wife Anne had our son, Ben.”

Jay Thomas (actor-comedian, Late Show with David Letterman): “That theater is a magical place. Every Christmas for about 20 years, I’ve come on [the show] and tried to knock a meatball off a 20-foot Christmas tree by throwing a football at it. I beat the hell out of that studio — Ed Sullivan would not have liked it. I broke lights, scenery. Dave hit the meatball twice; I hit it all the other times.

“Every Christmas on the show I also told my Lone Ranger story [about Clayton Moore, who played the Lone Ranger, once coming to my rescue]. Dave calls it ‘the greatest talk-show story of all time.’ One year they spent like $50,000 and we did a re-creation of it.”

Lily Tomlin (actress-comedian, The Garry Moore Show): “I interviewed with the producers, but they were very disappointed that I didn’t do any impressions. So as I was leaving, I said, ‘If I could do anything on television, I’d do my barefoot tap dance.’ They said, ‘Can you really do that?’ I said, ‘Of course,’ and left. I’d never done a barefoot tap dance. So I went home and unscrewed the taps from my tap shoes, taped them to the bottom of my feet and put on shoes big enough to hold my feet with the taps on them. I went on the show and tapped up a storm!”

Leslie Uggams (singer, The Ed Sullivan Show): “First of all, you had to make the cut. As late as Saturday afternoon after rehearsal, people would be finding out whether or not they would be doing the show. They’d sit in the audience waiting for the producer to decide. Unless you were a major star, everyone was nervous about making it or not. Luckily, I always knew ahead of time that I’d be on. It was live television and kind of wonderful; everybody had to bring their A-game.”

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