John Lennon once famously got in trouble for suggesting the Beatles were as popular as Jesus. This past week showed just how silly Lennon’s comment was.
That’s because the Beatles remain way more popular than Jesus!
Okay, so I’m kidding, but only a little. This week marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," when some 70 million people were glued to their TV sets to watch these four mop tops rock and bop their way through five songs.
Given the impact of the Beatles’ breakthrough performance, it’s easy to believe John, Paul, George and Ringo were the only attraction on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on that Sunday evening, February 9, 1964. Believe it or not, there was a full cast of talented guests on hand to complement the Beatles.
There was Frank Gorshin, an actor and impressionist perhaps best known as the devious Riddler on the campy 1960s TV show "Batman." There was the cast of the Broadway show "Oliver!," which included a young performer named Davy Jones, who would go on to become a member of the Beatles’ knock-off group the Monkees.
The Beatles also had an opening Irish act that night. Her name was Tessie O’Shea.
She was born Theresa Mary O’Shea in Wales in March of 1913, but her father was an Irish soldier who moved the family to Cardiff.
Indeed, it turns out that "The Ed Sullivan Show" on the evening of February 9, 1964 was not only historical, it was also quite an Irish affair.
The Beatles’ Irish roots are well-established, with John, Paul and George all having Irish grandparents. John and Paul also later recorded protest songs about the situation in Northern Ireland as The Troubles heated up following Bloody Sunday in 1972.
Then there is the host himself. Ed Sullivan was a New York Irish American, born in Harlem, where he started out as a boxer before becoming a journalist, gossip columnist and then TV host.
Finally, there was O’Shea, not so well remembered now but a Tony-winning, Emmy-nominated star in her day.
Tessie was a natural born performer whose stage appearances began when she was just six years old. Through her teens and twenties, O’Shea – whose large frame led to her signature tune “Two Ton Tessie” – was a favorite in music halls all around Britain. She also appeared in several movies in the 1940s and 1950s, including "The Way Ahead" and "The Shiralee."
“Such was her fame that in 1944, a limousine picked her up after a show at the Palladium and whisked her to Windsor Castle, where she sang for Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret,” The New York Times noted, adding that O’Shea “performed for British and American troops during the war, and when it ended she produced 'Tessie’s Big Show' and 'Tess and Bill,' which became a BBC radio series.”
Tessie O’Shea’s big break in America came in 1963, when acclaimed writer and composer Noel Coward created a part specifically for O’Shea in his musical "The Girl Who Came to Supper." O’Shea won a Tony Award for her rendition of various show-stopping tunes in the musical, one of several she starred in on Broadway.
A month after her appearance with the Beatles in 1964, The New York Times gushed over O’Shea’s one-woman show at the club Embers.
“When the clock strikes 12, a peroxide pumpkin named Tessie O’Shea turns into a boisterous Cinderella, holding court at the Embers. For one hour, the remarkably-healthy Miss O’Shea presides over a one-woman revue as bold and broad as the star herself,” The Times wrote.
O’Shea continued to perform well into her fifties and sixties. She was the star of the Broadway show "Something’s Afoot" in 1976 and earned an Emmy nomination in 1969 for her role in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
She also appeared in two popular films, "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming" (1966) and "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" (1971).
O’Shea’ s remarkable career finally slowed into the 1980s and 1990s. She eventually relocated to East Lake Weir, FL, where she died in 1995 at the age of 82.
In short, the Beatles weren’t the only remarkable performers with Irish roots on TV 50 years ago.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)
Watch Tessie sing her signature song, "Two Ton Tessie":