Having participated this week in the wonderful international Beatles conference "It was 50 Years Ago Today," I felt it an opportune time to reflect on the Fab Four's first big show over here "across the pond." As you may know, tonight marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ American debut on CBS’s The Ed Sullivan Show. In the half century since, this particular program has been heralded as a hallmark moment in television history as a turning point in communication, culture, and music. Millions gathered around their rabbit-eared television sets in anticipation of February 9, 1964 program. They included future singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash. She noted, “I loved the Beatles so much it was physically painful. [That night] I sat in front of the television at least a half-hour before the show started because I was anxious that I might miss even a single second.” Surely, she was not alone in her enthusiasm of the moment.
Perhaps equally anxious were Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall, albeit for different reasons. This husband/wife comedy team held the dubious honor of performing a skit before the Beatles emerged for their second set on the show. Forced to rewrite their skit in the name of their younger-than-anticipated audience that night, the couple was overwhelmed by the frenzy of the evening. As Brill later noted, “After we finished, we stood in the wings and watched, but I couldn’t hear anything. The screaming from the audience was so intense that I didn’t even know what the Beatles were doing.” Equally overlooked in this episode was another rising star named Davy Jones, who offers a sampling of the musical “Oliver!”
Also watching backstage was young program coordinator Vince Calandra, who in the days prior served as an attaché and guide to the Beatles. During this time, Calandra had the unceremonious duty of standing in for George Harrison during rehearsals, as Harrison had a fever of 102 both before and during the show. Calandra stood there during rehearsals—wearing a Beatles hair wig and all—feeling like a fish out of water. He recalled, “When McCartney saw me with a guitar in my hand and a wig, he had a look that said, ‘I’m glad you have a day job, ‘cause you just don’t look the part.’”
While George was definitely under the weather, few audience members noticed or cared. Some 73 million viewers tuned in 50 years ago tonight to experience the Beatles’ American debut on television—that’s 45% of U.S. households at the time. Citizens here in my home of Altoona, Pennsylvania were among them. Fortuitously for all Beatles fans in the city, the town’s singular television station was CBS. Like other American cities, the households within them held mixed views about the Beatles and the so-called “British Invasion.” My own grandfather, a veteran Pennsylvania Railroad worker in Altoona, noted that night that the Beatles, their music, and their hair, were leading to the “ruination of America.” Yet, he and parents like him overlooked the fact that the music of the Beatles was purely American in the first place. As Ringo Starr remarked, “All the music we loved was in America. It came from America to England.” The Beatles merely reintroduced the United States to its own rhythm and blues that had been long neglected. Of all the factors of the 1960s that led to any “ruination of America,” the Beatles were happily not among them.
Simultaneously, young viewers wholeheartedly embraced the jubilation of the day, including future CEO of CBS Leslie Moonves. The day after the show, he said he felt “very cool” because had watched merely the program. An important page had been turned in the separation of the Baby Boomers from their parents of the “Greatest Generation.” The Beatles, in many ways, helped mark that cultural transition. As you watch the surviving Beatles perform tonight, imagine yourself not amidst the comforts of 2014, but in the smokey living room of your parents or grandparents. Imagine that you too are being introduced to the Beatles for the very first time. Live in that historical moment. It will be all the more memorable.