A really big show of generation gaps

A TV commentator said the other day that with all that was going on in the world today, President Obama had to “keep a lot of plates spinning.” Those of us who stayed home every Sunday night to watch Ed Sullivan knew exactly what he meant. But would anyone under 40 get it? What would plate spinning mean to today’s college freshman?

Ed Sullivan was the great divide between generations. If you watched Ed Sullivan to see the acrobats, the Borscht Belt comedians and the tiny little dogs jump through their trainer’s hoops, you’re from one generation. If you suffered through all that to see the rock band he had on that week, you’re from another. If you’re googling Ed Sullivan right now on your iPhone, well, never mind.

There was a time when, if you could imitate Ed’s pinched voice and self-hugging arms at parties, you could say almost anything and get a laugh as long as you said the words “Right here, on our stage tonight” first.

It was with those same words that Ed would introduce a band of Romanian acrobats who would come out in their circus tights logrolling atop multicolored, 2-foot-high hollow cylinders. They’d jump and tumble for 60 seconds to calliope music and then they’d jump off a spring board to make a human tower six people high while the bottom guy balanced the whole group as he stood, legs quivering, on two of the roly-poly cylinders. It must have taken years of practice to make something like that happen and a superhuman amount of effort. This was live television. Sometimes they couldn’t do it the first time, so they’d back up and do it again. You sat there thinking, “I couldn’t do that in a million years.” But you also thought, “There’s got to be an easier way to make a living.”

After a few commercials for Chevy Corvairs, Esso gas and Marlboro cigarettes, Ed would introduce a Russian dance troupe that would fold their arms in an Ed Sullivan-ish way and then suddenly squat and kick out one leg and then the other over and over. It was all anyone did at recess at school the next day because, as everyone knew during the Cold War that if the Russians could out-dance us, they would win. Or if they got more medals at the Olympics than we did, they would win. Or if they got to the moon first, they would win. And if the Commies won, they’d systematically remove Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll music, and they wouldn’t let us wear blue jeans to school. They’d also find a way to ruin our hair.

Turns out, these are all the things our leaders wanted to do. They kidnapped Elvis for two years and put Chuck Berry in jail for three, and Buddy Holly died in an “accident,” leaving plenty of time on Ed’s show for plate spinners. They seemed to be on every single week. He’d say, “Right here, on our stage tonight ...” and out would come a guy in a tuxedo with a bunch of three or four foot-long skinny pool cues. He’d balance what looked like a dinner plate on top of the stick and give it a few quick spins to get it going like a top. He’d wave it back and forth a few times, flick it to spinning faster and faster and then set it, still spinning in a little holder on a table in front of him. Then he’d start another. And another. And another. The first plate was starting to wobble, but just at the last moment he’d run over and get it going again. And another. What was the record for plate spinning? Ten? Twelve? Twenty? We did not practice this the next day at school. We just sat in front of the TV set and wondered where you would acquire a skill like that and whether it would get you any dates.

Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at jim_mullen@myway.com

Copyright 2009, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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