The history behind the Ed Sullivan theater

By Matt Collins Article may include affiliate links

The Ed Sullivan Theater was originally built in 1927 by Arthur Hammerstein and named Hammerstein’s Theatre after his father, the iconic Oscar Hammerstein.

After Arthur Hammerstein went bankrupt in 1931, he lost the building and would eventually change to Manhattan Theatre and Billy Rose’s Music Hall and then back to the Manhattan moniker again. It would eventually become a nightclub before CBS entered into a long term lease for the property and used it for radio production starting in 1936.

CBS had previously leased studios from NBC’s Radio City facility.

CBS had the theater renovated, covering many of the original walls with sleek white panels and then becoming the home of “Major Bowes Amateur Hour.”

The network would eventually convert the space for TV broadcasting in 1950, becoming known as Studio 50. Under this name, it played host to “The Jackie Gleason Show” and other programs.

In 1967, the theater was renamed for Ed Sullivan, who had previously host his namesake “The Ed Sullivan Show” (originally known as “Toast of the Town”) from the Maxine Elliott Theatre, Studio 51, on West 39th Street since 1948.

Sullivan had been using the theater for several years.

“The Merv Griffin Show” and a variety of game shows would use the space as well over the 1960s.

1965 saw the studio converted again — this time for color broadcasting. The first color version of “The Ed Sullivan Show” from the location aired in October of that year.

While the upgrades were made, CBS used CBS Television City as the home for “Sullivan” — in color — and a single color episode had aired in 1954 from another location.

After the color conversion, other CBS shows that had been produced at the nearby Studio 52 (which would eventually become known as the famous Studio 54 disco club). In the early days of color TV, it was common for many shows to share spaces because of the cost of switching over to color equipment.

CBS’s lease on the space expired in 1981 and a company called Reeves Entertainment took over the space, using it to tape a sitcom and late night show. It was also used for HD broadcasting and a Broadway show after the lease was split.

NBC also used the studio for a Phil Donahue special and, later in 1992, its election coverage.

CBS would buy the theater for $4.5 million in 1993 after David Letterman announced his move from NBC to CBS and spent several months updating the theater.

After Letterman retired in 2015, the space underwent a massive renovation that included restoring it to its original look. Changes included re-installing stained glass windows that were removed and stored during Letterman’s tenure.

Many of these changes were made possible by advances in technology that made TV broadcasting equipment more compact.

CBS also updated the marquee in front to advertise Colbert’s show and added a projection system designed to highlight the theater’s dome.

Since “The Late Show” made the theater its permanent home, the Ed Sullivan has been used for a variety of other productions.

“The Rose O’Donnell Show” used the space for a few weeks in 1996 after an electrical fire at NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Center studios.

It has also been used for “Survivor” finales based in New York.