We’ve got a reeeally big show headed to the internet.
A massive trove of digitally restored clips from “The Ed Sullivan Show” will arrive online during the next three years, reviving more than 10,000 long-buried performances and guest appearances from the iconic variety show.
The global streaming project launched last week with seven clips on YouTube and other platforms — a Motown-dominated batch of videos that includes performances by Diana Ross & the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5 and Temptations and Gladys Knight & the Pips.
They’re the tip of a cultural iceberg contained in the “Ed Sullivan Show” archives: The Sunday night program ran from 1948 through 1971 on CBS, piping the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, Hollywood glitz and Detroit’s Motown sparkle into American living rooms alongside Broadway, opera, vaudeville, comedy and novelty acts.
Amid the blossoming rock era, the show served up its share of cultural milestones — Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones — while providing a then-unprecedented prime-time launch pad to black performers, including the first nationwide glimpse of an 11-year-old Michael Jackson in 1969.
Ross and the Supremes were among the Sullivan show’s prolific guests during the ’60s. From their December 1964 debut in black-and-white performing “Come See About Me” through their full-color bow five years later with “Someday We’ll Be Together,” the group appeared 17 times.
“If it wasn’t the Supremes, it was Richard Pryor or Alan King, one of the old Borsch comics, or a scene from a Broadway show or Henry Fonda reading the Gettysburg Address,” said Vince Calandra, a longtime show staffer. “It was a smorgasbord, but it was America. It was simple, but it was big.”
Universal Music Enterprises acquired digital rights to the Sullivan catalog in a deal with SOFA Entertainment, which bought the show’s library in 1990.
“’The Ed Sullivan Show’ is iconic for essentially creating this format and for providing a forum some of the most influential voices and cultural moments of all time,” said UME President and CEO Bruce Resnikoff. “We believe there is an incredible opportunity to introduce this show and these unforgettable appearances to new audiences around the world.”
Two decades into the digital age, the Sullivan archives were among the most significant cultural caches to have sat sidelined from the web.
Videos from the iconic variety show have circulated on bootlegs for decades and in specially themed DVD packages released by SOFA. A handful of show material made its way online over the years — the Beatles’ historic 1964 performances are posted on the band’s official YouTube channel, for instance — and SOFA posted tidbits online over the years.
But the company largely resisted the internet, quick to police its copyrights and yank unauthorized versions of show footage from the web. So the videos premiering today mark a breakthrough for a historic catalog of Americana.
“This is the end of the rainbow,” said Calandra. “People must see these clips. They have to. Not only will they enjoy them, but they’ll understand what it was like back then, especially for families.”
Sullivan was particularly affectionate of Motown and its roster of young Detroit talent, Calandra said. The bond came with a key personal link: The host was tight with Motown choreographer Cholly Atkins, an old friend from their days at New York’s Cotton Club.
“Motown could do no wrong on our show. I mean, they were a well-oiled machine. They were like the New York Yankees,” said Calandra. “The choreography, the arrangements, the musicians, the costuming, (it) was always first class all the way.”
The platform provided by Sullivan proved crucial to the label’s crossover success, and came at a critical time in the bigger civil-rights picture. Oprah Winfrey has famously pointed to the Supremes’ debut appearance in ’64 as a life-changing moment — a realization for a 10-year-old black girl that big possibilities were within reach.
“I had never seen black women on television ... or anywhere for that matter, who conveyed such glamour and such grace,” Winfrey said in 1993.
Calandra recalled the Supremes’ September 1968 rehearsals for a performance of “Love Child,” the trio’s groundbreaking single about an out-of-wedlock birth in the inner city. As they worked through the number in gowns and big hair, Motown chief Berry Gordy stepped in.
“This doesn’t look right,” Calandra recounted Gordy saying. The plan was quickly revamped, and the group was outfitted in sweatshirts and jeans.
“So instead of having this unbelievable set with the crystals and the chandeliers, we came up with this simplified look of ‘Love Child,’ ” Calandra said. “And it was amazing.”
His lingering memory of the Jackson 5’s debut in 1969 was a “cute and talented” 11-year-old kid cutting loose around the studio during rehearsals, continually having to be wrangled by show staffers. Much like the Beatles five years earlier, Calandra confessed, he didn’t foresee the superstardom that lay ahead for Michael Jackson: “Who knew this was going to happen?”
“If could tell you that I thought the Beatles were going to be the Beatles, or Motown was going to be Motown, I’d really be lying to you,” he said.
But Calandra is certainly well aware now of the enduring, game-changing impact of the artists who made their way to “The Ed Sullivan Show” stage. And he hopes the thousands of videos set to make their way online can introduce the legacy to new fans.
“The show has been off the air for 50 years now. There’s an audience of people that aren’t not familiar with it, and they really should have a look,” he said. “Families should really sit around and say, ‘Hey, this is what it was like in the ’50s and ’60s when we would get together with the TV dinner and watch the Ed Sullivan Show at eight o’clock.”