It was 50 years ago today that Wayne & Shuster made their first of what would stand as a record 67 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.
If you are asking a) what’s a Wayne & Shuster b) who was Ed Sullivan and c) is Brioux, what, 100?, here are a few answers for you, wise guy.
Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster were quite simply the biggest Canadian TV stars of their day. Wayne was brash and outgoing, all eyes and ready grin; Shuster looked like a banker or a lawyer. He may have been more dialed down but this team did not really have a straight man, more like two comedians playing at different speeds.
Their long-running comedy/variety show was top-rated at CBC. But it was as Sullivan’s “good friends from Canada” that they really made their mark. If Sullivan liked you, you got put into a six week rotation along with other comedy acts like Allen & Rossi and Stiller & Meara. And you became very, very famous overnight; just ask Paul McCartney and Ringo Star what Sullivan could do for your career.
I was a year old when the duo had their Sullivan debut. I remember many of their subsequent appearances; my parents would always remind me that they were from Canada. People took plenty of pride in their success.
Wayne & Shuster became our comedy ambassadors, representing Canada to a vast American audience. But it wasn’t just that they were Canadian that set them apart. More important, probably, was the fact that they were college grads, two fellows from the University of Toronto. Most of the big TV comics back in the ’50s, like Red Skelton, Milton Berle or Jackie Gleason, were from the school of hard knocks.
Which was probably why Sullivan was such a fan. Wayne & Shuster were funny, but they also had class. Sullivan couldn’t tolerate a crude act. Their Shakespearean baseball routine (“Oh what a rogue and bush league slob am I who have 10 days hitless gone”) aimed high but connected with everybody. Mixing the Bard with America’s pastime was brilliant and very much at the heart of Wayne & Shuster’s appeal. They aimed high but always right over the plate.
CBC News plans to salute the pair tonight on The National News at 10 p.m. Look for yours truly among those paying tribute, as well as the pride of Brampton, Ont., Russell Peters, who also knows a thing or two about what success in the States can mean to a Canadian career.
The CBC News producers even tracked down Sylvia Lennick, 92, the last surviving member of that “Big Julie” sketch that killed on Sullivan. She shares great memories of the pair.
I remember seeing the two of them in the sod-turning event at the site of the current CBC headquarters in Toronto. Wayne, who probably already knew he’s never live to see it completed (he died in 1990), grumbled about how the duo had made do in 33 drafty old CBC buildings flung throughout the city. At least he didn’t live to see the whole place go condo. Shuster outlived his partner by many years, passing away in 2002 at 85.
They were two funny men who made Canada proud and it is nice to see them saluted tonight.