Ed Sullivan's 'really big show' comes out on video

"It's postwar entertainment history, and it intertwines with the whole evolution of television, the birth of that box that we all take for granted."

So declares Andrew Solt, speaking of "The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show" -- two video releases ("Unforgettable Performances," for which Carol Burnett is host, and "The Greatest Entertainers," with Burt Reynolds) that have recently hit the stores.


Mr. Solt can be excused for laying the hyperbole on a bit thick. After all, he's the producer of the videos and owner of the 1,000-hour "Ed Sullivan" library: 23 years of plate spinners and double-jointed acrobats, American TV debuts by the likes of the Beatles and Bob Hope, musical and dramatic numbers from a host of Broadway performers (Richard Burton and Julie Andrews doing "Camelot," Henry Fonda and James Cagney doing "Mister Roberts"), comedy from Richard Pryor and Milton Berle, and a 10-year-old Michael Jackson wailing "I Want You Back" with his sibs -- way back in those carefree, cosmetic-surgery-free days of yore.

Still, it is, as Mr. Solt gushes, entertainment history on a pretty grand scale, a veritable jumbo-size serving of time capsules ready for popping: Elvis Presley crooning "Don't Be Cruel," James Brown melding "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" with "I Feel Good," the handy puppeteering of Senor Wences, Jayne Mansfield playing the violin.


That's right, Jayne Mansfield playing the violin.

The first in what Mr. Solt and the folks at Disney's Buena Vista Home Video hope will be a multitude of video releases, the inaugural pair of "Very Best of Ed" vids ($19.99 and 90 minutes each) are slightly elongated, slightly different versions of the two CBS specials that aired last year -- and stunned the pundits by winning huge ratings.

"Thank God for those numbers," says Mr. Solt, a producer who specializes in historical features ("Imagine: John Lennon"; "Remembering Marilyn"; "The Muppets . . . A Celebration of 30 Years" and "The Honeymooners Reunion"). "I was so surprised when the Nielsens for the first 'Sullivan' special came in. I was just hoping we'd crack the Top 20 for that week. But we were No. 2."

Clearly, Mr. Solt was on to something.

"There's definitely some nostalgia there," acknowledges the 44-year-old producer, who remembers hunkering down in front of the television with his parents every Sunday night. "But the thing about Sullivan is that great stuff is great stuff, period. . . . It was top artists in their prime, giving their all live on that stage and knowing that all America was watching. It's got the advantage for us of having not only the connection of the nostalgic value, but more importantly it's classic material."

Mr. Solt bought the "Ed Sullivan" library from CBS in the fall of 1990. From the debut of "Toast of the Town" on June 14, 1948 (the program was renamed in the mid '50s), through the final telecast 23 years later, Mr. Solt had it all. Going through the old kinescopes and video stock, the producer was struck by how little of the material had ever been seen beyond single live broadcasts.

"Literally only a fraction of [the footage] was ever rerun," he says. "There were the occasional rare Beatles performances, or Elvis performances, or something like that -- but most of this stuff was never rerun."

In large part, Mr. Solt found the archives in pretty good shape: "CBS was paying top dollar to shoot it well and archive it well . . . to keep it protected over the years. Some people said that in a few years' time, the video would have decomposed and not have been worth anything. Fortunately, we got there in time and started transferring them and making new masters. . . . It's tricky. Some of the kinescopes are fragile. But slowly and surely we've transferred now about 700 of the 1,000 hours."


For his part, Mr. Solt plans to mine the depths of the Sullivan library as long as there's an audience out there demanding more.

As for the number of future home videos, Mr. Solt is reluctant to make a prediction.

"I don't know," he says. But he does: If you break the shows down into one-act specials or thematically linked offerings, he calculates, "eventually -- I mean it sounds ridiculous to mention it -- but there's the potential, by the end of this century, to have over 50 tapes.

Really big shows to the next millennium.