The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Bill Eggert

February 8, 2014

BILL EGGERT | The Beatles’ debut: It was 50 years ago today

— Today marks an eventful anniversary in popular culture.  

Fifty years ago today, also on a Sunday, marked the American television debut of the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

At 8 p.m. on Feb. 9, 1964, an estimated 73 million viewers turned their televisions to the popular CBS variety show hosted by the stiff, uncharismatic but beloved Ed Sullivan.

Sullivan, born in the Harlem section of New York City, was a former boxer, sportswriter, gossip columnist, and then TV show host of the highly rated variety show, which featured all the big entertainment acts, national and international, around the world.

On any given week, you could see jugglers balancing spinning plates on 3-foot-long poles, stand-up comedians from a pre-hippy George Carlin to impressionist John Byner, and puppets like Italy’s Topo Gigio and ventriloquists like the Spanish Senor Wences.

Celebrities would attend the shows, and Sullivan would bring up the house lights and ask them to take a bow to the applauding audience; anyone from movie star Fred Astaire to golfer Sam Snead.

Sullivan’s most popular acts were musical: opera stars to classical musicians to rock and rollers like Elvis Presley, the Supremes, the Doors and the Rolling Stones. But the biggest ratings score was that February night in 1964 when the Beatles debuted.

Hot on the heels of their No. 1 chart hits, Sullivan and the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, sealed the deal with a handshake for three straight weekly appearances on Sullivan’s program for a then-impressive $10,000.

The CBS studio on Broadway (now the home of David Letterman’s talk show) was packed with reporters and hundreds of screaming teenage girls awaiting the Beatles’ performances.

Other acts on the bill that night (including Pittsburgh native impressionist Frank Gorshin) were barely tolerated by the hysterical teens waiting for the Beatles’ return sets throughout the show.

And when the Beatles did sing, complete with electric guitars, they could be barely heard over the screaming audience of girls.

However, the bottom line was the show was a rousing success. Everyone was talking about it the next day at school and at work.

Many sociologists, television pundits and media studies scholars have long debated the huge impact and cultural shift the Beatles made that night in 1964.

The Beatles launched a sonic boom of rock revolution that ushered in the British invasion of musical groups like the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, and Peter and Gordon.

Incredibly, at that time, the establishment critics (like the one at The New York Times) saw nothing of value regarding the Beatles; a passing fad at best was the assessment.

In retrospect, several factors contributed to Beatlemania here in the States. The Beatles were an exotic commodity: a British import that almost spoke our language, but with those cool British accents. The “Fab Four” also were cheeky lads; charismatic with a quick wit.

Additionally, those distinctive Edwardian suits they wore, along with Cuban-heeled boots and especially their Moe Howard haircuts, and rock had a new style.

Another consideration was that the country was only about 70 days away from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and was looking for a diversion from the grief as well as the winter weather.

On a personal note, the three Eggert boys were accorded the opportunity of what to watch on the family TV from 8 to 9 p.m. that Sunday evening of Feb. 9.

For us it was no contest. We chose the exciting episode of “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on NBC. During the commercial break we flipped the channel to see what all the fuss was about on CBS, seen said fuss, and flipped back to Patrick McGoohan and a far more interesting group of Englishmen, who were fighting the tyrannical King George 200 years ago.

The next day at St. Benedict Grade School, the cafeteria was abuzz at lunchtime about those Beatles. However, we did not really care; we had been riding our horses on the moonlit marshes with the mysterious Scarecrow and his masked men.

Bill Eggert is a Johnstown resident. He writes an occasional column.

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