In 1955, The Ed Sullivan Show was one of the most popular television programs in America. Those of us born in the age of cable, let alone the age of the Internet, can hardly imagine the cultural impact of a show like this. As Marty McFly was reminded by the 1955 version of his uncle in Back to the Future, re-runs were not an option. People tuned in and watched what was on. Ed Sullivan famously hosted Elvis, the Beatles, and every other rock band you’ve ever heard of. He also invited Edith Piaf, Louis Armstrong, Harry Belafonte, Carmen Miranda, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Nina Simone. Dozens of opera stars, including Maria Callas, were on the show over the years. In 1958, a thirteen-year-old Itzhak Perlman captivated viewers in one of the most celebrated moments in the show’s history. And in 1955, at the height of the show’s influence, Sullivan invited George Balanchine and a sample of his world-class dancers to perform pieces of his famous choreography for The Nutcracker. If you have seen a ballet, it is probably this one. And if you have seen this one, you have probably seen it done the same way that the American public saw it beamed into their living rooms sixty years ago. In an age when a miniscule fraction of programs was available to the American public compared to today, ballet was playing on the show that nobody missed, and not just once. Margot Fontyn and Rudof Nuryev performed a pas de deux from Swan Lake in 1965. In the same year, dancers from the Royal London Ballet performed a piece from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Performers from the Joffrey Ballet were on in 1966, as was Nadia Neriana. Jacques D’Amboise was featured in 1970. The list goes on and on, and performers returned over and over again.
You can do a quick Google search and find that there have been a few moments of high culture on American television in more recent decades, but not many. The virtuoso violinist Hilary Hahn was on the Conan O’Brian Show in 2010, for example. But nothing has the market share of Balanchine’s moment in 1955. Moreover, distractions proliferate even when we try to focus on taking in some culture. I admit that even as I learned about this televised Nutcracker performance in an American Experience documentary, I was texting with a group of friends and looking in on Facebook and Twitter a few times. I take to heart one of many poignant things Pope Francis noted in his recent Laudato Si: “The great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload.” The same goes for the great culture-makers.
Ross Douthat reminds us in his Bad Religion of the two great American religious icons of the twentieth century, Fulton Sheen and Billy Graham. Fulton Sheen dominated the airwaves in the Ed Sullivan era too. Here again, Gen-Xers like me can hardly imagine it — Millennials even less so. Bishop Sheen’s various television programs drew in tens of millions of viewers per week. With a lot less to choose from, lots of people (including lots of non-Roman Catholics) were sitting on the couch receiving morality lessons from a man who, even then, seemed dressed for another age. Of course, there is plenty of religion to be had for those who are looking for it today, just as there is plenty of ballet and classical music. But these once popular offerings have been relegated, first to their own channels and now to a niche of the Internet. Just ask a random stranger on the street if he can name a famous ballet dancer or a Catholic leader besides the pope. Ask also if he can name a single prominent Protestant besides Billy Graham, whose 1957 crusade at Madison Square Garden aired nationally on ABC, beating out The Perry Como Show and The Jackie Gleason Show. Neither Sheen nor Graham were preaching easy zeitgeist. And George Balanchine wasn’t offering dumbed-down dancing. The Nutcracker is a magical story set to phenomenal music. It is a way into high culture that is at once accessible and sophisticated. Sheen and Graham did a similar thing for Christianity.
What we have seen in our cultural deterioration, among many other diagnoses, is the artistic and moral equivalent of “more is less.” With more media than ever before, there is an ever-diminishing concentration of any one thing, let alone any truly wonderful thing. Those of us still enraptured with traditional cultural offerings and/or traditional religion often do not help our cause. It is old hat now to note the futility of trying to compete with the style of the day. Switching to contemporary music in worship (let alone swapping changeless doctrine for secular aporiai) is no real alternative. Likewise, encouraging people to come and listen to Beethoven symphonies in t-shirts and jeans just seems silly. Nice try, but you’re better off selling me on the fancy clothes and then reminding me of the sorts of things I do if I wear them. God forbid we seem like snobs or prudes; but God help us if we simply go with the flow. Our present cultural stream may be dumping into one giant cesspool; but the cultural landscape of Ed Sullivan reminds us that it need not be the case. At the very least we can remind the world that there once was a time — and a very recent time at that — when things were different.