A brief history of The Ed Sullivan Theater

A brief history of The Ed Sullivan Theater

Every week, at 1697 Broadway in New York City, CBS tapes five episodes of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. That address? The Ed Sullivan Theater. Home to The Late Show for 22 years, its history with late night talk shows runs even further back to CBS’s early days. Here’s a brief history of Stephen Colbert’s new home, and why it’s a relic of late night television.

Erected in 1927 by playwright Arthur Hammerstein (not the one of “Rogers &” fame, but rather his uncle), the Ed Sullivan Theater (at the time the vainly named “Hammerstein’s Theatre”) was used for plays and musicals. Apparently not very good ones, though, because Hammerstein was forced to sell the theater in 1931.

CBS signed a lease on the building in 1936 and used it for radio broadcasts. But by the 1950s AM waves were out and cathode ray tubes were in, so CBS renamed it Studio 50 and turned it into a television studio, used for filming episodes of The Jackie Gleason Show.

In 1953 a little variety show called Toast of the Town moved in. It became a “really big shoe” (in the phonetic words of its host), and CBS changed its name to now-classic Ed Sullivan Show. Ed Sullivan was there for 18 years hosting a preamble to The Late Show. Many iconic moments happened during Ed’s time there – the most famous being, of course, the 1964 performances of The Beatles. In 1967, the theatre was again renamed, for the last time (so far) to The Ed Sullivan Theater.

395089 04: (FILE PHOTO) Television variety show host Ed Sullivan (L) and boxer Rocky Marciano remove their jackets on stage during Sullivan's variety show, "Toast of the Town," in the 1950s. September 28, 2001 marks 100 years from Sullivan's birthday. (Photo by Getty Images)
Television variety show host Ed Sullivan (L) and boxer Rocky Marciano. (Photo by Getty Images)

After the cancelation of The Ed Sullivan Show in 1971, the theatre was home to many of CBS’s game shows until their lease ran out in 1981. After that basically nothing exciting happened until 1993 – just a forgettable sitcom and a kid’s show or two. The big deal that happened in 1993 was late night legend David Letterman jumping ship from NBC and starting The Late Show with David Letterman. For the brand new show, Letterman’s new home network CBS bought The Ed Sullivan Theater – and while it seems like an overly generous welcome gift, they probably had their own interests in mind. With a few touch ups here and there, the theatre was ready for its destiny: to be home to The Late Show.

394622 01: A crowd gathers outside the Ed Sullivan Theatre for the "Late Show" with David Letterman September 18, 2001 in New York City as fans returned to shows along Broadway one week after the city was hit with terrorist attacks. (Photo by George De Sota/Getty Images)
(Photo by George De Sota/Getty Images)

Letterman treated the space well – he always cleaned up the mess out front after throwing watermelons off the roof, and the grinder girls never even once set fire to the studio. Twenty-two years and one host later, The Ed Sullivan Theater is still home to The Late Show. Stephen Colbert gave the place a minor makeover earlier this year – and while it may have a sleek new look, the heart of hosts past is still there, filling the studio with the magic and energy you’ve been watching every night at 11:35.

Be sure to tune in for tonight’s show, featuring Trevor Noah and Ban Ki-moon, with musical guest Chris Stapleton, airing 11:35 et/pt on Global!



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