Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Beatles and Frank Gorshin: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Ed Sullivan Show

Fifty years ago today, in a small New York City theater, in front of an audience of 728 people, Ed Sullivan launched The Beatles, ignited a cultural revolution and unleashed the desire to create music in countless artists. The audience of 73 million television viewers included children like Steven Tyler, Richie Sambora, Tom Petty, Nancy Wilson, Billy Joel, Chrissie Hynde and Bruce Springsteen, all of them reportedly inspired by what they witnessed on The Ed Sullivan Show that night.

Everything that happened after The Beatles took the stage at CBS Television Studio 50 (later known as The Ed Sullivan Theater) on February 9th, 1964 is now part of pop culture history but another event took place on that stage in between the two sets The Beatles played that night. It was a pop culture moment-turned-funny-footnote by the presence of the Fab Four.

Frank Gorshin was an accomplished fine artist  who enjoyed drawing caricatures.
It’s also a favorite family story.

Frank Gorshin, remembered best as Batman’s “The Riddler,” was among Ed Sullivan's guests on the show that night. Comedians, a trapeze act, Georgia Brown and the cast of Oliver! plus Tessie O'Shea were there too but how many people remember those performances? She Loves Me, All My Loving and the thrilled, screaming audience in Studio 50 were the ones destined to make history’s highlight reel.

Still, the feeling was optimistic that Sunday before the show when Frank, accompanied by his fiancĂ©, Christina, manager and an agent, arrived at The Essex house on Central Park South.  He’d been invited to perform his impressionist routine, featuring uncanny impressions of Kirk Douglas, Boris Karloff, Richard Widmark and Burt Lancaster, on the longest running variety program on television. Ed Sullivan had a reputation for spotlighting promising new talent while raising the profile of even the biggest acts in show business. Elvis Presley had only been recognized as “The King of Rock & Roll" after his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Frank Gorshin as The Riddler in Batman.
This was a make-or-break moment.

Frank had already appeared in American B-movie classics like Hot Rod Girl, Dragstrip Girl, Invasion of the Saucer Men and the comedy feature film, Where the Boys Are, by the time he was scheduled to be on Sullivan so he was used to a fair amount of attention but still, the screaming fans below his hotel room window took him by (mock) surprise. “How did all of those gals and guys know I’d be here?” he joked looking out over the growing crowd on the sidewalk. In fact, he was seeing spill-over from the general mania taking place further down the street at The Plaza Hotel where The Beatles were rumored to be staying.

This was a sign of things to come.

Pandemonium had broken out on the sidewalk in front of the theater on Broadway from which The Ed Sullivan Show would broadcast. Frank took the scene in stride but comedians Mitzi McCall and Charles Brill, also scheduled to appear on the show that night, saw the massive crowds and were floored. “I swear to you, I turned to Mitzi and I said, ‘I didn’t know Frank Gorshin got so famous!’” Charles Brill recalled years later.

Once inside the theater it was clear the excitement was being generated only by The Beatles. Trying to control the crowd (and protect the egos of the other performers standing in the wings that night) Ed Sullivan jokingly threatened to “call in a barber” to shave off the Beatles famous mop tops if the audience didn’t give each act a warm welcome.

Performances went well. The audience was kind. The Beatles killed.

After a thrilling but slightly bruising night, Frank, Christina and their friends headed to Sardi’s to have dinner. Everyone in the restaurant, mostly show business industry people, had either witnessed or heard about The Beatles stealing the Sullivan spotlight even before they arrived. Still, spirits were high: that night’s show had become the talk of the town, the focus of the entertainment industry and the center of attention for millions of fans around the country – not bad for one night’s work.

Soon after his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Frank was cast in the Walt Disney classic comedy, That Darn Cat, and won the role of The Riddler on Batman for which he received an Emmy nomination. He also played The Riddler in the movie Batman and became the first impressionist to headline in Las Vegas showrooms for many years after the series ended.

Frank Gorshin with Gene Barry, Carol Burnett and Rock Hudson.
Throughout the 1970s he appeared in almost every television show that defined that era – from The Munsters, Hollywood Squares, S.W.A.T., The Untouchables and Hawaii 5-O, to Charlie’s Angels, The Carol Burnett Show, The Bold and The Beautiful, General Hospital and The Naked City.

During his long career he performed in hundreds of films, plays and television series. His role in an episode of Star Trek as Commissioner Bele, the black-and-white-faced alien, became another cult classic character he became well-known for during his lifetime. During his last year, while fighting lung cancer, he starred in Tony-nominated Broadway hit and one-man-show, “Say Goodnight, Gracie” and continued making television appearances. His last performance was directed by Quentin Tarantino, a fan of cult classics in all genres. He directed Frank in an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The master impressionist played himself in that last role and died only days before it aired.

Frank Gorshin in a scene from 12 Monkeys.
Tonight CBS will air a two-hour special, The Beatles: The Night That Changed America – A Grammy Salute. Peter Frampton, John Mayer, Keith Urban, Maroon 5, Alicia Keys and John Legend, Gary Clark Jr., Joe Walsh, Stevie Wonder and many more legendary artists will bring their formidable talents to a celebration of 50 years of music. But who will remember those performances once Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr take the stage? There’s a good chance everyone there will be beautifully overshadowed by The Beatles. It’s okay. It happened once before - 50 years ago today.