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6 Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Rolling Stones (DVD Review)

5 Dec, 2011 By: Mike Clark

SOFA Entertainment
$39.98 two-DVD set
Not rated.

Two months ago, the same distributor brought out a DVD devoted to 11 tunes vs. these 17 (and over just four of these six shows) performed live by the Stones on the once weekly Sullivan outing — which from 1948-71 was a remarkable mix of highbrow, lowbrow and sometimes cutting-edge pop and rock. After it no longer competed with NBC’s counter-programmed “The Colgate Comedy Hour” after 1955, my family never missed it — eating Neapolitan ice cream on Sunday nights (a ritual) while we watched whatever Ed had to offer.

By the mid-1960s, there was a second and tandem ritual: listening to my ex-drill sergeant father incessantly grouse, “I can’t stand that f-ing Topo Gigio” — an allusion to the unbearable Italian mouse puppet who became such a frequent Ed guest that you almost believe there had to be a greased-palm kickback deal of some sort. When it came to the Topo, he advocated a policy of “slow death” or at least waterboarding.

I bring this up because the rodent makes two appearances on this comparable super-set — which will not only put hair on your chest but may even end up making you resemble the follicle-dominated creature Bela Lugosi plays in Island of Lost Souls, a movie now out and about in one of the year’s most lauded Criterion releases of many. As with previous Sullivan volumes devoted to the three shows that featured Elvis Presley in 1956-57 and four that featured the Beatles a decade later, this set gives you the full context (e.g. George Fenneman Lipton Tea commercials) of what it was like to see Mick, Keith, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and (for a while) Brian Jones in your living room for free. The price exacted (for the impatient Boomer-teen target audience) sitting through the litany of surrounding acts.

As we see here, they range from the tony (the young Itzhak Perlman; Laurence Harvey reciting "The Charge of the Light Brigade"; Hal Holbrook reciting, in an 1865 beard style, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Speech) to comic acts that seem to have vanished from anyone’s public consciousness (Morecambe and Wise; Lucho Navarro; London Lee). There’s a male-beefcake, watch-where-you’re-putting-your-head gymnastics act (Les Olympiades) that comes about as close to unintended gay porn as anything ever seen on live national TV. You also get an equally amazing balancing act in which a “built” blonde does all the work (a tray of five full wine glasses balance on her face as she bends over backwards) while her male partner pretty well stands there looking up her skimpy costume. I hope she got better than a 50-50 split on their salary.

By and large (and this was true more often than not for all 23 years), the comedians fare from OK to miserable — though Joan Rivers is good, Red Skelton is (as always) a matter of taste, and the final show stands out with Rodney Dangerfield in moderate form (which would still be pushing prime for anyone else) plus a funny routine by the young Robert Klein about being a substitute teacher. Music-wise, the Stones don’t have to carry all the weight: Ella Fitzgerald delivers a pair; Dusty Springfield does “I Only Want To Be with You,” which before she “went Memphis” was kind of a signature tune; Robert (or, if you prefer, Bob) Goulet offers an alternative to the same show’s “Paint It, Black”; and Petula Clark, bless her perky cuteness, has a wonderful time with “Color My World.”

Over the five years, you can see a monster evolution in the Stones — and not just because that by the time of the final Nov 23, 1969, show, guitarist Jones had recently been replaced by Mick Taylor and then found dead in a swimming pool (as the set’s grade-A liner notes by Greil Marcus naturally note). The group’s first Sullivan appearance had been in October of 1964 — only four months after Dean Martin had hilariously but not too presciently dissed them during their American network debut on ABC’s Saturday night “Hollywood Palace.” Marcus thinks it is their third appearance (February 1966) where, with 19th Nervous Breakdown and after some table-setting by ventriloquist Senor Wences, they come to resemble the Stones of the ages. (And by the way, a few of the numbers throughout are miked differently from what we’re used to hearing, which makes for a fresh experience.)

By the time of the final show, Let It Bleed has just come out, the costuming is more flamboyant and the Stones’ faces have aged a tad; it’s a whole new game when host Ed (who by this time, has let his sideburns grow longer) drags out the syllables of “Honky Tonk Women” in his introduction and was probably longing for the days when all he had to deliver was a lead-in to Eddie Fisher. One is tempted to say that the Stones had entered a new era, and yes, they had. But it was less of one than what emanated from what was immediately to come: that notorious Altamont concert (which led to the landmark documentary Gimme Shelter) was just two weeks off.

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