Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014 | 2:29 p.m.
Nobody was prepared for the frenzy. New York’s Finest was outnumbered and overrun. Police officers, many on horseback, and other Manhattan authorities made emergency calls for reinforcements from anywhere they could.
It made no difference. The crowds kept growing and growing. Elvis Presley admitted that there had never been such pandemonium even at the height of his success, and he sent a congratulations telegram.
Four unlikely mop-top youngsters from Liverpool, England, led by their manager, a cheap-furniture store salesman, were making music and TV history. They’d been signed on a handshake agreement to appearances for a (paltry) $10,000 payday.
I was right in the middle of the mayhem and madness just 77 days after I landed in America as a fresh-faced immigrant from England. I’d never witnessed anything like it, and I would never see anything like it again.
The Beatles flew to New York 50 years ago Friday for their first U.S. TV appearance back in the black-and-white TV days. Three thousand fans who found out their flight details greeted them. Fifty years ago on Sunday, Feb. 9, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr started Beatlemania on live television with “The Ed Sullivan Show” at his theater at 1697 Broadway.
An audience of 700 people was there, including President Richard Nixon’s daughter, Julie, although celebrities, VIPs and fans numbering 50,000 had fought for tickets for weeks leading up to the appearance.
Viewership records were smashed, with 73 million people watching on 60 percent of TV sets in U.S. households. The broadcast would eventually turn The Beatles into multimillionaires. By then, the crowds in the streets between their Plaza Hotel suites and Ed’s theater had swelled to 30,000 and were increasing by the minute.
Top Las Vegas entertainers Allen & Rossi (Marty Allen and Steve Rossi), who both still live here, also were on Ed’s lineup that night along with impressionist Frank Gorshin (TV’s “Batman”), Broadway star Georgia Brown and the cast of the musical “Oliver.”
Shrieking fans made it almost impossible to hear them. Ed had to reprimand the audience to keep quiet and threatened to call in a barber to give The Beatles haircuts if they kept screaming.
“We were simply drowned out. It was pure pandemonium,” Steve, now 82, told me over dinner at the new restaurant Buddy V’s Ristorante in Palazzo. “We were regulars on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ and everybody knew us. That night, though, the only act anybody wanted to see or hear was The Beatles. It was a phenomenon.
“We felt lucky to get our photo with them. Nobody expected what happened, and nobody was prepared for it. Nobody had ever really seen anything like it before, and it’s probably never been seen like that ever again.”
Steve jokes that The Beatles show almost destroyed their career. “We thought we got booed by the audience on national television because the fans yelled at us because they only wanted to hear The Beatles.
“Way back then, they thought we were from the older generation. But when Marty came out with his hair all wild and said he was Ringo’s mother, the kids went crazy and screamed for 30 seconds. We went from being losers to winners instantly.
“We each had limos. Marty had one. I had mine, and The Beatles had one each. Six limos, but before we knew it, we couldn’t move. Twenty thousand teenagers mobbed the cars. A CBS photographer took our photo, and I got The Beatles to sign it three times. It’s kept in a bank vault and has been valued at $600,000.
In all, Allen & Rossi appeared 40 times on “The Ed Sullivan Show” — and all the times The Beatles appeared.
After opening commercials, Ed began his memorable introduction: “Now yesterday and today, our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agreed with me that this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles.
“Now tonight, you’re gonna twice be entertained by them. Right now, and again in the second half of our show. Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles! Let’s bring them on.”
To ear-splitting audience screams, John, Paul, George and Ringo opened with “All My Loving” followed by Paul in the spotlight singing “Till There Was You.” They wrapped their first set with “She Loves You.” To end the hourlong broadcast, The Beatles sang two more hits, “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
The phrase “overnight sensations” is an understatement. The next morning, the streets around the Plaza Hotel were so blocked with fans, there were traffic tie-ups all around town. Some set up camp outside the luxury tower. Others posed as hotel guests hoping to get into the building.
The Beatles had become prisoners in their suites unable to leave. Fortunately, with a special pass to go up to see the guys and their manager, Brian Epstein, I made it through a flying wedge of almost overpowered security.
Several months earlier before I left England, I was on the news desk of the Daily Mail. The phone rang one evening, and on the line was Brian urging me to fly with the then Gold Bugs to see them perform in a basement nightclub in Hamburg, Germany. My editor nixed the story idea, saying the newspaper wasn’t interested in rock 'n' roll.
I called Brian to recommend that he contact my pal Derek Taylor at the rival Daily Express. Not only did Derek go to Germany, but he also returned with a great story of the changed-name The Beatles and wound up their press rep and then president of Apple Records.
Another good friend, Ken Mansfield, who launched The Beatles on Capitol Records here in America, became their U.S. marketing chief as U.S. manager of Apple. He has gone on to write several books, including his experiences with them: “The Beatles, The Bible and Bodega Bay” and “The White Book: The Beatles, The Bands, The Biz.” We are still close friends to this day.
I had my inner-contacts circle thoroughly set in place. Brian and The Beatles gave me a warm welcome on the upper floors of the Plaza to finish my story for the British music newspapers of their U.S. takeover. It was only researching this story and going back through my old records when I started Go Magazine in 1965 that I realized that their debut “Ed Sullivan Show” wasn’t their first performance for the legendary Sunday-night showman.
Before that Feb. 9 debut, they taped “Twist and Shout,” “Please Please Me” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It was held for broadcast as their third appearance — Feb. 23, 1965, 49 years ago this month. The second followed just one week after the New York mayhem in a remote feed from Miami.
They returned a fourth time Sept. 12, 1965, using an Aug. 14 taping the day before their North American tour kicked off at Shea Stadium in New York. My longtime pal, promoter Sid Bernstein, now deceased, pulled off the coup that set a word-record attendance for an outdoor show at the time. On that final Sept. 12 taped broadcast, The Fab Four played “I Feel Fine,” “I’m Down,” “Act Naturally,” “Ticket to Ride,” “Yesterday” and “Help!”
I chronicled The Beatles’ U.S. success for Go and the British pop newspapers during their five-year U.S. run, which ended when John quit the band in September 1969. Today, I’m in Las Vegas often writing about Cirque du Soleil celebrating the success of The Beatles almost nightly at the Mirage with “The Beatles Love.” What an amazing half-century journey!
On Wednesday, my colleague Andrea Domanick reported that “Love” cast members are taking part in a Grammy tribute to The Beatles airing on CBS on Sunday.
The first, and only, time The Beatles played Las Vegas was in summer 1964. Two thousand fans were at the old McCarran Field as they landed from San Francisco at 1 a.m. for a drive to the Sahara, where they stayed in an 18th-floor penthouse suite. Their tickets for two shows at 4 and 9 p.m. in the Las Vegas Convention Center earned them (a meager) $30,000.
Paul and Ringo are still with us, the venerable elder statesmen of rock. John and George are sadly gone. But the memories from 50 years ago this Sunday remain. What The Beatles began five decades ago changed music, and their legacy has changed entertainment.
Nothing beats a great story, and this one had everything.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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