In my last post, “Elvis the Pelvis,” I wrote about Elvis’ sensational and controversial performance on “The Milton Berle Show” (NBC) on June 5, 1956, when he sang “Hound Dog.” His playful yet sensual rendition of the blues number – his hips gyrated provocatively – rocketed Elvis to fame while also unleashing a floodgate of criticism. Elvis was too sexy for prime time TV, some said.
At the time, TV variety and comedy shows were the rage and ”The Ed Sullivan Show” (CBS) was the #1 show on TV. The host of the top-rated Sunday night show was Ed Sullivan, nicknamed “Old Stone Face” for his deadpan delivery. But Ed Sullivan made up for what he lacked in personality in instinct. He had a knack for spotting talent and promoting it. Many entertainers who began on his program became household names. But Ed was a family-minded man. Elvis Presley may have been the flavor of the day, the month, or even the year, but Ed let it be known that he didn’t consider Elvis family entertainment and that he would never allow Elvis to appear on his show.
But TV ratings are hard to ignore for TV hosts. This was 1956, the infancy of TV programming. While only 0.5% of U.S. households had a television set in 1946, 55.7% had one in 1954. ABC existed but only began to air programs like “Leave it to Beaver” in the mid-1950s. The only two TV networks were NBC and CBS. In 1956, NBC offered Steve Allen a new, prime time Sunday night aimed at dethroning CBS’ top-rated “Ed Sullivan Show.” It was NBC’s aim for Steve Allen to defeat Ed Sullivan in the ratings.
Comedian Steve Allen’s personal distaste for rock and roll didn’t cloud his business sense. He needed a ratings boost and Elvis was hot stuff. Steve had seen Elvis on another TV show, didn’t catch his name, but was enchanted by his gangly, country-boy charm. He sent a memo to his staff to find out who the entertainer was and book him for “The Steve Allen Show.” They booked Elvis for a July 1, 1956, performance on “The Steve Allen Show,” three weeks after Elvis’ performance on “The Milton Berle Show.” From the time of the memo to the date Elvis performed on “The Steve Allen Show,” Steve’s show outperformed Ed Sullivan’s in the ratings game.
Writing in Hi, Ho, Steverino!, Steve Allen recalls:
When I booked Elvis, I naturally had no interest in just presenting him vaudeville-style and letting him do his spot as he might in concert. Instead we worked him into the comedy fabric of our program. I asked him to sing “Hound Dog” (which he had recorded just the day before) dressed in a classy Fred Astaire wardrobe–white tie and tails–and surrounded him with graceful Greek columns and hanging draperies that would have been suitable for Sir Laurence Olivier reciting Shakespeare.
For added laughs, I had him sing the number to a sad-faced basset hound that sat on a low column and also wore a little top hat. We certainly didn’t inhibit Elvis’ then-notorious pelvic gyrations, but I think the fact that he had on formal evening attire made him, purely on his own, slightly alter his presentation.
“Inasmuch as Elvis later made appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, I’ve often been asked why I didn’t make the same arrangements with him myself. Here’s the reason: Before we even left the studio the night Elvis appeared on our show, Ed telephoned Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, backstage at our own theatre. So desperate was he to make the booking, in fact, that he broke what had until that moment been a $7,500 price ceiling on star-guests, offering the Colonel $10,000 per shot. Parker told Sullivan he’d get back to him, walked over to us, shared the news of Sullivan’s offer, and said, ‘I feel a sense a loyalty to you fellows because you booked Elvis first, when we needed the booking; so if you’ll meet Sullivan’s terms we’ll be happy to continue to work on your program.’
“I thanked him for his frankness but told him I thought he should accept Ed’s offer. The reason, primarily, was that I didn’t think it reasonable to continue to have to construct sketches and comic gimmicks in which Presley, a noncomic, could appear. Ed’s program, having a vaudeville-variety format, was a more appropriate showcase for Elvis’ type of performance.
“For his own part, Elvis had a terrific time with us and lent himself willingly to our brand of craziness. He was an easy-going, likeable, and accommodating performer. He quickly become the biggest star in the country; but when I ran into him from time-to-time over the years it was clear that he had never let his enormous success go to his head.”