Fifty years ago Sunday, the Beatles set a record for American TV viewership when an estimated 73 million people (about 86 percent of U.S. households) watched them perform live for the first time on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
The Beatles appeared three consecutive Sundays on the popular variety show, but the first was the most memorable.
The pandemonium, or Beatlemania as it came to be known, that was broadcast to the world Feb. 9, 1964, was evidenced two days earlier when the Liverpool quartet landed at John F. Kennedy Airport to thousands of rabid fans.
Their first set, hard to hear over all the screaming teenage girls, featured “All My Loving,” their cover of “Till There Was You” from “The Music Man” and “She Loves You.” The second set included “I Saw Her Standing There” and closed with the then-No. 1 U.S. single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
CBS’s Studio 50 only seated 728 people, but there were about 50,000 requests for tickets. Celebrities such as Walter Cronkite and Richard Nixon managed to acquire tickets for their teenage daughters. The quest to see the show live was dramatized in director Robert Zemeckis’s first film, 1978’s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
The big winners that night were obviously the Beatles, as their first appearance became a cultural touchstone, but also Ed Sullivan and CBS. Then of course there was Anacin, Pillsbury, Aero Shave and Griffin Liquid Wax – the advertisers that got millions of American eyeballs on their products.
Locally, the Daily Republic’s TV listing for that night showed the Ed Sullivan show at 8 p.m., but made no mention of the Beatles. A day later, an editorial titled, “Are Those Wavy Haired Blokes Really Pulling Our Legs?” suggested the Beatles were actually parodying rock ‘n’ roll.
It turns out they were reinventing it.
Local residents recall that historic evening:
Beverly Mealer: I remember going to my friend Vonna’s house and her sister Vicky sitting on her knees on the floor in front of the TV, sobbing hysterically.
Tamara Beck Watson: I am one of those who sat in the living room in front of the old black-and-white TV set to take it in. Of course, the whole family had to see what the commotion was all about, too. What my family didn’t know was that I had already had a preview by catching a radio broadcast that was recast here in the states from England a week or two prior to the Sullivan show. When I heard them on the radio, I knew right away that something new, exciting, and life-changing was coming to America. After that I could hardly wait for “The Ed Sullivan Show” to air.
Leslie Winslow: I remember watching and my parents were watching, too. I had to try so hard to keep my emotions in because I knew they would think I was crazy.
Sue Forrester: I remember sitting in my living room watching Ed Sullivan introduce them. We had an old black-and-white tabletop, rabbit-eared TV and they weren’t HDTV clear by any means, but the sound was unforgettable.
Max Bryant: I had my first girl/boy party with the Beatles playing in the background.
Paula Lindsey: We watched that show, too. Since I am a lover of country music, I sat back on the couch while my sisters knelt in front of the TV doing strange things.
Donna Cannaday: I was a freshman at a sock hop and having fun, then the DJ played “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” We had never heard anything like that. We were so enthralled that the DJ played it over and over to frenzied dancers in white socks. I got so hot that I had to go outside to cool off. I was so buzzed by this new level of musical arousal. I needed that high feeling to continue so badly that I smoked my first cigarette, a Newport that I bummed from a guy. I passed out cold.
David Braker: I saw them on a fuzzy black-and-white TV when I was living with my grandparents. I just remember how disgusted Grandpa was by their long hair.
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at firstname.lastname@example.org.