In February, 1964, the husband-and-wife comedy team of Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall were starting to get their careers off the ground when their manager booked them on a TV show that could change their lives — “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Brill and McCall were thrilled, especially when they heard that they’d be appearing with one of their comedy heroes, impressionist Frank Gorshin. What they didn’t know was that, on that Sunday night, they would be seen by more TV viewers than any other comedy team in history, because of the band that was featured on Sullivan’s show that night: The Beatles.
If they did well, it could have catapulted Brill and McCall to superstardom, assuming that anyone noticed anyone else on Sullivan’s roster that evening. Unfortunately, they weren’t a smash hit. In fact, they were sure they bombed and their careers were over. But they continued to work for many years in nightclubs, Las Vegas, and on TV, appearing on “The Tonight Show” four times and becoming game show regulars, too.
David Segal wrote up the saga of Brill and McCall’s big break for a Washington Post piece five years ago. He also did it for Ira Glass’ public radio show, “This American Life,” which re-ran recently. That’s how I heard it, and you can listen to it here.
I find amazing is that, at 26 years old, Brill and McCall had no idea who The Beatles were. They were just a little older than the Fab Four’s fan base, and were more part of the previous generation’s idea of entertainment. Though they modeled their act on Nichols and May, even that seemed old by 1964. A generational line of demarcation was about to be drawn, and they were on the wrong side of it. That explains why they were so baffled when Sullivan told them they had to change their act at the last minute because the audience that night would be full of teenage girls.
My favorite line is when Segal lists the other acts on the show that night — a magician Fred Kaps doing card tricks, singer Tessie O’Shea, and even a pre-Monkees Davy Jones doing a number from the Broadway show “Oliver” — and refers to them as the kind of acts “about to be pushed aside by rock and roll.” That’s exactly right.