Most of us engage, from time to time, in that completely futile mental exercise of "What would I change if I could do it all over?" Of course, we can't change the past, so that is just about the silliest waste of time that one can engage in, but we do it. Maybe I should really say that I do it; and I've done it more than once. Since I've actually thought about this often, I can tell you that I think there are only two things about my life that I would change if I could: First, My parents, William and Bessie Young, would be my birth parents, instead of my great-aunt and -uncle (which would make my birth mother, with whom I had a pleasant relationship, my cousin); and, second, I wouldn't be an alcoholic (I know, I know...many alcoholics proclaim to anyone and everyone just how "proud" they are to be alcoholics, and I'm so happy for them that I could just pee, but I'm not at all "proud" to have a disease; I've had to accept the fact that I do have a progressive, incurable disease --- but that's a subject for other posts, not this one).
I had a very happy childhood. It was in strictly-segregated Oklahoma City in the 1940s and 1950s, but I didn't know that we were oppressed and deprived just because all the kids we sat next to in school or the people who lived in our neighborhoods --- including maids, doctors, teachers, postal workers, janitors, lawyers, and all --- were black, as we were. So it was just a fact of life, something that was just The Way Things Are. I grew up in Edwards' Addition, an area that I think is now known as The Edwards Community, a registered historical area. It was one of the first planned communities in the U.S. --- and, maybe, the very first one planned by and for blacks. I didn't know anything about any of that when I was growing up; all I knew was that our home and my friends on Page Avenue --- and, of course, my family --- gave me, as I said above, a very happy childhood.
And, like most families back In The Day, we had our family rituals: We always ate breakfast together as a family; we listened to Gabriel Heatter's newscast on the radio before we gathered each evening around the dinner table to eat as a family (I always recall those days when I watch the fictional Reagan clan gather for Sunday dinner on each episode of Blue Bloods); and, later, when we had a TV set, among the shows we watched faithfully every week as a family were Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners and the old game show, What's My Line? And we rarely missed The Voice of Firestone or The Ed Sullivan Show.
Ah...The Ed Sullivan Show. One of the most important contributions Ed Sullivan will be remembered for is how he bucked the system and helped promote African-American performers to a national television audience. When faced with criticism by white viewers and advertisers, Ed Sullivan refused to back down, and never wavered when southern sponsors threatened to pull advertisements because he kissed Pearl Bailey on the cheek or shook hands with Nat King Cole. Sullivan once said,“The most important thing is that we’ve put on everything but bigotry.”
Ed Sullivan passionately supported talent, regardless of race, and he introduced his huge audiences to many timeless legends over the show’s run, including such Motown acts as The Supremes and The Temptations; comedians Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor; athletes Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. From civil rights activist Coretta Scott King to Hollywood actress Dorothy Dandridge; from opera singer Marian Anderson to composer Count Basie. From jazz legends Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong to Broadway performer Pearl Bailey. The list of talented African American artists that appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show goes on and on; I thought I'd mention that mainly because this is African American History Month, and too few realize what contributions Sullivan made to the recognition and promotion of African American icons.
BUT: The performance I want to spotlight here and now wasn't by an African American. And no, it was not Sullivan's introduction of the Beatles to America --- although I did happen to see that show, and I can remember being profoundly unimpressed. I'm not sure what I expected to see, but those four guys weren't it. True, they were awesomely talented, and they almost singlehandedly changed the course of American --- and Western --- popular culture, but they just didn't ring my bell. Remember, I said that we Youngs always listened to The Voice of Firestone, and I can remember thoroughly enjoying Music Appreciation classes in Douglass High School; that might give you a hint that my musical taste leaned heavily toward classical European. As it does to this day. While I liked R & B and jazz, I just wasn't into rock 'n' roll. And the only thing I liked about Elvis was that Graceland was one of the few landmarks in Memphis that was always open to visitors of all races.
No, the Sullivan Show performance that I will always remember was by a Russsian artist --- and remember, we were still in the Cold War, so it was probably pretty daring for him even to have had that person on his show (although she was a Russian expat, I think). And it was the very first performance that he'd ever repeated on his show, the demand for a re-showing of it was so great. It was the Dying Swan rendition by the wonderful ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya; I mean, it was probably the most beautiful thing that I have ever --- to this day! --- seen on television. Even my father --- who, to put it mildly, emphatically did not care for ballet --- was transfixed. And, when Sullivan announced the next week that due to overwhelming demand from viewers across the country they were going to show a recording of that performance, my father was right there, front and center, mesmerized.
I repeat: I have never, ever, ever seen anything more beautiful on television. I couldn't find a clip from the Sullivan Show itself of this breathtaking, stunningly graceful and beautiful performance, but I did find this YouTube clip, which I trust you will enjoy. I have no comment that I could make after you see this: