It's no secret how much I love television. It has been claimed — though never truly documented — that I will walk into a darkened room and turn on the television before I will turn on a light. When my wife and I moved to our home in the suburbs, years before cable television was available within the Philadelphia city limits, I made sure that our access to the wonderful world of cable TV was secured before I called the electric and water companies for their services. Television took top priority. I wasn't going to be nearly as entertained by watching water come out of our kitchen faucet or — as previously established — by flicking a light switch.
My affinity for watching television isn't anything new. I've been watching since I was a little kid and now, I go out of my way to watch a lot of those same shows that I enjoyed in the early 60s and 70s. Some are good and have stood the test of time, like the timeless, sophisticated humor of The Dick Van Dyke Show or even the topical fun of Barney Miller. Some, like Dennis the Menace and Car 54 Where Are You?, are just awful, but I watch them just the same because they give me a warm, nostalgic feeling. I understand that the generation after me doesn't share the same pleasure I get from a decades old episode of Family Affair or The Beverly Hillbillies. Or maybe I don't. I have tried to get my son to watch some of the shows that reside in a soft spot in my heart and memory. While he appreciates the enduring wit of Jack Benny and George Burns and even the broad antics of The Honeymooners, he cringes at Don Knotts' jittery ineptitude as the hapless "Barney Fife" on The Andy Griffith Show. ("Why doesn't Andy just fucking shoot that moron?" my son has asked. "That's the reason Andy doesn't carry a gun," I'd explain.)
My wife and I have found ourselves watching reruns of The Ed Sullivan Show, broadcast nightly on the Decades channel, one of the many retro programming networks available through our cable provider. Ed Sullivan, an uptight fellow with no discernable talent, snagged the top names in show business to appear on his show — a show that lasted an incredible 24 seasons. It was a staple on Sunday evenings, with nearly every household in the country tuning in to watch. Ed's formula for each episode was to present a wide variety of acts that would appeal to every member of the family. A singer, a dance troupe, a comedian and acts straight from the circus. Over the years, tastes changed and soon the top rock groups of the day were featured alongside opera singers and fully-staged scenes from Broadway musicals. In the 1990s, a syndication package of The Ed Sullivan Show was made available to re-introduce the show to a new audience. The package condenses the original hour-long shows into 30 minute compilations featuring the same variety of acts that made the show so popular. There is usually a singer of contemporary (for the time) fame, a current (again, for the time period) rock group, a comedian and some sort of novelty act, like a magician, a tightrope walker or a couple of guys juggling flaming batons while switching top hats with each other. Some segments are in black and white, as it wasn't until 1965 that The Ed Sullivan Show was broadcast in living, garish color.
We have enjoyed watching Ed Sullivan nervously introducing acts, mispronouncing names and clumsily greeting guests post-performance. We like seeing countless performances by The Supremes, amused by the obvious perturbed expression on Florence Ballard's face behind Diana Ross's back. We like seeing early stand-up appearances by a crewcut-sporting George Carlin or a fresh-faced Richard Pryor, along with forgotten names like Jackie Vernon and Guy Marks. We marvel at the appeal of two young ladies, on their backs, juggling full-size dining room tables with their feet or a genteel-looking Asian man diving headfirst through a tiny ring of blazing scimitars. Among these many episodes, Mrs. P and I discovered an act — one of Ed's trademark novelty acts — that we must have missed as children. (The show left the airwaves when I was 10.) It was a man by the name of Arthur Worsley.
|"A bottle of beer, a bottle of beer"
We have told many people about this act. No one seems to remember it. Most people stare at us expressionlessly as our description of the performance evolves into peals of laughter, followed by embarrassed awkwardness. Recently, my brother-in-law (not that one, the other one) came over for dinner with my nephew Tish who is 14 years-old. Before and during dinner, Tish was totally captivated by his cellphone, barely participating in dinnertime conversation. Trying to engage Tish, I began to tell him about The Ed Sullivan Show reruns that we watch. Tish had never heard of the show, so I had to offer a short, sometimes disjointed, backstory of the concept of TV variety shows and who exactly Mr. Sullivan was. Tish seemed nonplussed by my explanation, having grown up in and spoiled by the era of Netflix, YouTube, TikTok and other on-demand, instant gratification outlets of entertainment. Once I was relatively satisfied that he had understood the gist of the "television variety show," I extracted my cellphone from my pocket and pulled up a YouTube clip of a grainy, black & white appearance of Arthur Worsley and Charlie Brown on The Ed Sullivan Show from 1960. I started the clip and turned my phone in Tish's direction. Initially, he looked at me as though I just told him I was about to give him a root canal. Then, with heavy-lidded eyes, he stared at the tiny screen in my hand as if he was watching paint dry. And his reaction to the clip was just about as enthusiastic. His already waning attention was lessening by the second. We didn't even make it to the classic "A bottle of beer, a bottle of beer" shtick. I had lost him. Tish had begun scrutinizing the wrought iron chandelier that hangs above our dining room table. I turned the clip off and The Ed Sullivan Show was not mentioned again.
The last new episode of The Ed Sullivan Show was presented on March 28, 1971. Citing lower ratings, a diminishing demographic and changing entertainment preferences, the show was canceled. I think I witnessed all of that at my dining room table.