Dear Mr. Inman: The comic Jackie Mason came up in a recent conversation and I remarked that back in the 1960s Mason had been barred from “The Ed Sullivan Show” for giving Ed an obscene gesture on the air. My wife is skeptical, to say the least. Then the subject turned to other feuds Sullivan had with rock bands, including The Rolling Stones. Can you verify or confirm any of this? – R.T., Rochester, N.Y.
Dear R.T.: First, for the youngsters in the audience, as Ed used to say on his show, we should explain that Ed Sullivan was a newspaper columnist who hosted a weekly variety series on CBS from 1948-71. It was a Sunday night ritual for a generation of old people, including myself.
Ed himself was not a scintillating host, but as comic Fred Allen once said, “Ed Sullivan will be on the air as long as other people have talent.” He introduced America to Elvis Presley, The Beatles, acrobatic and circus acts from all over the world and Sister Sourire, a folk-singing Nun whose life story was made into a movie with Debbie Reynolds (Ed played himself).
The incident with Jackie Mason happened in 1964. The show was running too long (it was live), and as Mason was performing Sullivan was out of camera range. He held up two fingers to signal to Mason to cut his act short. Mason, still on camera, said “I’m getting all these fingers here tonight.” He then raised his hands with fingers held up. Sullivan, however, thought Mason was giving him THE finger, and barred Mason from the show. He was, however, back on in a year or so.
As for the rock groups, the conflict came over song lyrics. The Rolling Stones were asked to change the lyrics of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together.” They did.
The Doors, on the other hand, we asked to change the line “girl, we couldn’t get much higher” in the song “Light My Fire.” They agreed before the show, but went on the air (again, live) without changing it. They were barred from again appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”