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US remembers Beatlemania

Feb. 8: Debbie Gendler, a teenager from Oakland, New Jersey, had gone to television shows before, taking a seat in the studio audience and clapping dutifully when the “applause” light flashed. But this one was different.

There were crowds outside the studio that chilly afternoon in February 1964, hysterical crowds, and a phalanx of police officers blocking the way.

“I kept showing the ticket,” said Gendler, now Debbie Supnik, “and my mother had to fight to say to this one police officer, ‘She has a legitimate ticket. Let her through and get her in there.’ They walked me, finally, in through the front of the building, past a couple of barricades and girls who were upset that I was being ushered in and who started to pull on me, pull on my jacket.”

Someone inside directed her to a seat in the balcony. It was still early — airtime was more than an hour away. The crew was checking the lights and the cameras.

“I sat and sat,” she said, “and waited.”

She did not realise it, but she and the rest of that audience were waiting to become witnesses to history: the Beatles’ first live appearance on American television, on The Ed Sullivan Show, a variety hour that ranked as one of the top 10 programmes in the country.

She soon understood that she had been there, in person, on the night that clinched the Beatles’ place in American popular culture. It was a night she still describes as “electric”, “special” and “overwhelming”.

It has now been 50 years since the four young performers with longish hair and Liverpool accents swept through New York City on the way to a unique kind of fame that was both instant and enduring.

There were crowds that stampeded after the Beatles as soon as they landed at Kennedy International Airport. There were teenagers screaming on Midtown sidewalks, longing for a glimpse of John or Paul or George or Ringo in a window of the group’s suite at the Plaza Hotel.

There was Ed Sullivan in a Beatles wig at a rehearsal the day before.

There was a production assistant who stood in for the Beatle who skipped that rehearsal because he was ill (George, and after a visit from the house doctor at the Plaza, he was well enough to appear on the broadcast itself).

And there was Ray Bloch, the musical director for The Ed Sullivan Show.

He was so unimpressed by the Beatles that he told a reporter for The New York Times: “The only thing that’s different is the hair, as far as I can see. I give them a year.”

 
 
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