Question: I'm trying to figure out where this came from. In a movie years ago, a man said, in a high pitched voice, "Topo Gigio." It became a joke in my family and we can't figure out which movie it came from. Can you? Caryn
Televisionary: I'd imagine that name's been uttered in countless movies, Caryn, and I have no idea if you guys caught the Italian film The Magic World of Topo Gigio in 1961. So I'll go even further back and explain the reference to you, then use it as a springboard for one of my fabulously informative screeds. (Well, my mom says they're informative, anyway.)
Topo Gigio, a longtime TV hit in his native Italy, was a mouse-puppet character first introduced to American audiences in 1963 on The Ed Sullivan Show. Created by puppeteer Maria Perego and manipulated by three people (a fourth provided his high-pitched voice), Topo was called the most popular mouse since Mickey. His very first performance on the show inspired an avalanche of viewer mail, and a merchandise line of puppets, toys, keyrings, cookie jars and just about anything else that could be cranked out sold like mad.
Of course, Topo Gigio (topo means mouse in Italian, while Gigio is the Italian nickname for Louis) was but one of many acts Sullivan introduced to a large American audience in his roles as newspaper columnist and TV showman. The Ed Sullivan Show, which began life as Toast of the Town, enjoyed an incredible 23-year run on CBS, debuting in June 1948 and leaving the air in June 1971. By the time it was over, the list of stars who crossed the Sullivan stage, most of whom had never been on network TV before, included Jackie Gleason, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Rudolf Nureyev, Humphrey Bogart, Maria Callas, Richard Burton, Grace Kelly, Helen Hayes, Phil Silvers, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr. and many, many more.
But that doesn't begin to communicate just how integral a part of TV Sullivan was, from its early days to the day his show was cancelled. When Sullivan started out, most of Hollywood doubted TV would last. He scheduled and booked the talent himself, deciding what they'd be paid to appear yes, kids, TV was in its infancy, so performers had to be paid to appear in those days, a situation I don't see Jay Leno facing anytime soon and had a tough time getting any big names to come on when he first started out. ("I can't see any future in TV, Ed," one producer told him early on.) In fact, Sullivan's first season actually ended up personally costing him $378 when all was said and done.
Of course, big names weren't Sullivan's bread and butter, anyway. His stock in trade were offerings ranging from novelty acts a plate spinner, chimps on motorcycles, a dancing bear, Baby Opal ("the only elephant in the world who can ski") to opera and stage performances and a whole host of other diversions. Sullivan was also the first to present many black performers on TV, including Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, and Pearl Bailey, and he took heat for it from viewers who didn't want to see "negroes" on the small screen.
All that and it came from a guy who was awkward in front of the camera, who flubbed names and details frequently and who took years to allow even the slightest expression to cross his face. ("They told me to look the camera dead in the eye," Sullivan told TV Guide of his first show in 1955. "I looked and froze. It was some freeze. It took me six years to thaw out.") It took that long for critics and viewers to get off his back, too. They called him "The Great Stone Face," "Smiley," "Rock of Ages" and "Mr. Rigor Mortis." The host initially took such comments to heart, firing off angry letters to newspaper writers who mocked him. Then he learned to use his own flaws as assets encouraging performers to imitate him, sit out in the audience and heckle him, or come on and just plain insult him. (People on his payroll termed him, among other things, "the one man in the world who can beautify a room by leaving it" and an ex-greeter at Forest Lawn cemetary.) "I think I'm getting better," Sullivan said in 1958. "At least I haven't been getting any more letters telling me to get off my own program."
As if that wasn't enough, Sullivan provided plenty of material with his own muffs. New Zealand natives were introduced as "the fierce Maori tribe from New England." A good word for an anti-tuberculosis drive became, "Good night and help stamp out TV." Clarinetist Benny Goodman was a "trumpeter" and Robert Goulet was more than once introduced as a Canadian (he's from Massachusetts). There were famous feuds and dust-ups with Walter Winchell, Steve Allen and Jack Paar along the way, but Sullivan remained a beloved icon to the rest of the country, which endured hordes of bad impressionists whose entire repertoire consisted of Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook" and Sullivan's "really big shew."
He couldn't sing, dance or tell a joke, but that didn't stop Sullivan from becoming a star in his own right while helping others do the same. "Ed Sullivan," said the late Fred Allen, "will be around as long as someone else has talent."
Not quite, but Sullivan's legacy certainly is. When David Letterman jumped from NBC to CBS, he was thrilled to have the opportunity to tape in the old Ed Sullivan Theater. CBS may have cancelled the Sullivan show because the format was creaky at the time, but elements of the variety show never really went away. Turn on Leno, Letterman, Conan O'Brien or Saturday Night Live. While you're at it, check out the ratings for American Idol.