The Ed Sullivan Theater (alternatively, CBS Studio 50), located at 1697–1699 Broadway between West 53rd and West 54th, in the Theater District in Manhattan, is a venerable radio and television studio in New York City. The theater has been used as a venue for live and taped CBS broadcasts since 1936.
It is historically known as the home of The Ed Sullivan Show and the site of The Beatles' US debut performance. It has also housed David Letterman's tenure of CBS' Late Show from 1993 to 2015. The theatre currently houses The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the second incarnation of the Late Show franchise. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the interior has been designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The 13-story, brown brick and terra cotta office building with a ground-floor theater was designed by architect Herbert J. Krapp. It was built by Arthur Hammerstein between 1925 and 1927, and was named Hammerstein's Theatre after his father, Oscar Hammerstein I. The original neo-Gothic interior contained pointed-arch stained-glass windows with scenes from the elder Hammerstein's operas. Its first production was the three-hour musical Golden Dawn, the second male lead of which was Cary Grant, then still using his birth name, Archie Leach. Arthur Hammerstein went bankrupt in 1931, and lost ownership of the building.
It later went by the name Manhattan Theatre, Billy Rose's Music Hall, and the Manhattan once again. In the 1930s, it became a nightclub. After CBS obtained a long-term lease on the property, the radio network began broadcasting from there in 1936, moving in broadcast facilities it had leased at NBC Studios in Radio City. Architect William Lescaze renovated the interior, keeping nearly all of the Krapp design but covering many walls with smooth white panels, his work earning praise from the magazine Architectural Forum. The debut broadcast was the Major Bowes Amateur Hour. The theater had various names during the network's tenancy, including Radio Theater #3 and the CBS Radio Playhouse. It was converted for television in 1950, when it became CBS-TV Studio 50. In the early and mid-Fifties, the theater played host to many of the live telecasts of The Jackie Gleason Show.
Newspaper columnist and impresario Ed Sullivan, who had started hosting his variety show Toast of the Town, soon renamed The Ed Sullivan Show, from the Maxine Elliott Theatre (CBS Studio 51) on West 39th Street in 1948, moved to Studio 50 a few years later. The theater was officially renamed for Sullivan at the end of his "20th Anniversary Celebration" telecast on December 10, 1967.
In the 1960s, Studio 50 was one of CBS' busiest stages, not only for Sullivan's program but also for The Merv Griffin Show, as well as several game shows. In 1965, Studio 50 was converted to color, and the first color episode of The Ed Sullivan Show originated from the theater on October 31, 1965. (The program originated from CBS Television City in color for the previous six weeks while the color equipment was installed. One earlier color episode of the program originated from Studio 72 at Broadway and 81st on August 22, 1954.) What's My Line?, To Tell the Truth and Password also called the studio home after CBS began broadcasting regularly in color; previously, they had been taped around the corner at CBS-TV Studio 52, which later became the disco Studio 54. The first episode of regular color telecasts of What's My Line? was broadcast live on September 11, 1966. Line and Truth remained at Studio 50 even after they moved from CBS to first-run syndication in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Ed Sullivan Theater was also the first home for The $10,000 Pyramid, with its huge end-game board set at the rear of the stage, in 1973. Other short-lived game shows produced at the Ed included Musical Chairs with singer Adam Wade (1975), Shoot For The Stars with Geoff Edwards (1977) (which was an NBC show), and Pass the Buck with Bill Cullen (1978).
The CBS lease on the building expired in 1981 and it became a Reeves Entertainment teletape facility. As such it hosted the sitcom Kate & Allie, which ran from 1984 to 1989 (as it happened, on CBS), as well as the early Nickelodeon talk show Livewire. In 1990, David Niles/1125 Productions signed onto the lease, with the theater to house his HDTV studio and new Broadway show Dreamtime. On October 17, 1992, an NBC special celebrating Phil Donahue's 25 years on television taped in the theater. The following month, NBC News used the theater for its November 1992 election night coverage.
When David Letterman switched networks from NBC to CBS, CBS bought the theater in February 1993 from Winthrop Financial Associates of Boston for $4.5 million, as the broadcast location for his new show, Late Show with David Letterman. The existing tenant, Niles' Dreamtime, was given four weeks to vacate. Due to the economics of moving the show and the lack of a comparable available Broadway theater, Dreamtime closed. The quick sale and vacancy of the building earned the realtor the Henry Hart Rice Achievement Award for the Most Ingenious Deal of the Year for 1993.
The theater was reconfigured into a studio, with lighting and sound adjustments; the number of seats was reduced from 1,200 to 400. During the renovation the stained glass windows were removed and stored by CBS in an arrangement with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission; the window openings were covered with acoustic material. The architectural firm that did the work, Polshek Partnership, notes on its web site that "to preserve the architectural integrity of the landmark, all interventions are reversible."
In 2005, it took nearly four months to retrofit the theater with the cabling and equipment necessary to broadcast high definition television.
Letterman's successor, Stephen Colbert, continues to broadcast The Late Show with Stephen Colbert from the Ed Sullivan Theater, although extensive renovations were made between the two hosts' tenures. Removal of the Letterman set took place only a few hours after his last show, on May 21, 2015. Letterman's marquee was also removed, and was temporarily replaced by a banner promoting the Angelo's Pizza restaurant adjacent to the theater, featuring Colbert posing with a slice of pizza.
The theater underwent a full restoration to its original 1927 splendor, including the exposure of the theater's dome, which had been covered up by air ducts and sound buffers, the re-installation of the original stained-glass windows, which had been removed and placed in storage during the Letterman era, and the restoration of a wooden chandelier with individual stained-glass chambers that house its bulbs. The restoration was made possible due to advances in technology that allowed less sound and video equipment to cover up the auditorium's architectural details.
Exposed for the new show, the Sullivan's dome is lit up with a digital projection system which can be used to display many images (such as a starfield or video imagery) above the theater, including a modern-day interpretation of the stained-glass windows which features multiple iterations of the CBS eyemark and a "stained glass" repeating image of Colbert's head surrounding the dome in a clock-like pattern.
The theater served as a stage for The Rosie O'Donnell Show for a week of shows in October 1996 when several eighth-floor studios at NBC's 30 Rockefeller Center headquarters experienced complications from an electrical fire. Several finale reunion shows for the CBS series Survivor have also taken place at the Ed Sullivan Theater.
In the 21st century, the theater has hosted roof-top or marquee-top concerts by a few musicians:
On February 9, 2014, the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' first Ed Sullivan performance, CBS News hosted a roundtable discussion at the theater. Anthony Mason moderated the panel, which consisted of Pattie Boyd, Neil Innes, Mick Jones, Tad Kubler, John Oates, Andrew Oldham, Nile Rodgers and Julie Taymor. A replica of the marquee to the theater as it looked the night of the original performance also covered up the Late Show with David Letterman marquee over the weekend. David Letterman interviewed Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in the theater as part of a related Grammy tribute special which aired on CBS around the same time.
Notes: Phish performed on top of the theater's second-floor marquee at West 53rd Street and Broadway
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