The Beatles on “Ed Sullivan”: A Really Big Show

February 5, 2014

On February 9, 1964, Beatlemania took the U.S. by storm—that’s the night the Beatles played for the first time on the top-rated The Ed Sullivan Show. Here’s a look at that iconic episode, which aired 50 years ago this week.

Ed Sullivan ShowThe Ed Sullivan Show was a variety show, and the Beatles were one of the first times the show had booked a rock n’ roll act. The rest of the show’s running time was filled with the usual array of Sullivan performers: comedians, performances from a Broadway musical, and even a magician.

Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill were a married comedy duo, and getting a spot to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show was the big break they needed…but it happened to on the same episode as the Beatles’ first performance. The music overshadowed the comedy duo, who were so flummoxed by the audience full of agitated teenagers who wanted to see the Beatles—and only the Beatles—that they flubbed some of their lines. Prior to that episode, McCall and Brill, in their late 30s, hadn’t even heard of the Beatles—they told This American Life in 2005 that they thought all the fanfare outside the Ed Sullivan Theatre when they arrived must have been “for Frank Gorshin.”

Frank Gorshin is best known for playing the Riddler on the ’60s Batman TV series. Before that he was a stand-up comedian and impressionist. On this historic Ed Sullivan, he did impressions of celebrities running for office, riffing on the idea that actor Ronald Reagan may run for governor of California.

Cast members from Oliver! performed several songs from that Broadway show. Georgia Brown sang “As Long As He Needs Me,” and Davy Jones sang “I’d Do Anything.” Jones witnesses the young women in attendance going crazy for the Beatles and resolved to be a teen idol himself. In fact, an executive at the Screen Gems TV production company signed him to a contract based on his Sullivan performance, allowing him to get an audition two years later for a TV show called The Monkees.

Tessie O’Shea, then starring in Broadway’s The Girl Who Came to Supper sang and played “Two Ton Tessie (From Tennessee)” on the banjo.

Other acts that performed that night: Dutch magician Fred Kaps, and Wells & the Four Fays, an acrobatic troupe.

And, of course, the Beatles played five songs. The event was so hyped, and so anticipated, that Sullivan didn’t mess around and lose viewers by making anybody wait—they were the first act of the night. The songs the Beatles played were “All My Loving,” “Til There Was You,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

More than 73 million viewers were estimated to have watched the show—at the time, the most watched program in TV history.