The Beatles and America, at 50

By Bill Castanier

Local perspectives and a shrine on the band that helped pull America out of the doldrums

‘We needed a fling after that wake.’

Lester Bangs, noted rock critic and editor of Detroit’s Creem Magazine, writing about the Beatles’ impact on America after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination

Handsomely dressed in black suits, skinny ties, pegged pants and pointed boots, and gripping their blue Pan Am bags like someone was going to ask for them back, the Beatles arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport about 1:20 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 7, 1964. Beatlemania was in full swing. Adoring fans swarmed, screamed and fawned over them at every stop.


For a generation it was the beginning of a decadelong musical and cultural journey across a landscape of war, assassinations and burning cities. But at the time it was about John, Paul, George and Ringo, memories that are as vivid today as they were then, especially for those Michiganders who by luck or grit experienced the phenomenon close up.

Although their arrival was a sleight of hand, with details choreographed down to paying and providing t-shirts to adoring fans, it hadn’t always been a sure thing. As summer turned into fall in 1963, it was beginning to look like the Beatles’ dream of coming to America might not happen.

First, Capitol Records, their American label, wouldn’t release their songs despite selling millions in the U.K. Media coverage from the likes of Time, Newsweek, Huntley- Brinkley and Jack Parr was not always complimentary.

But their manager — strong-willed, never-take-nofor-an-answer Brian Epstein — went to work. Television personality Ed Sullivan, on a serendipitous vacation to Britain, discovered Beatlemania.

Then on Dec. 10, 1963, CBS News ran a four-minute feature on the Beatles with some footage of them singing. Three days later, in one of the most understated press releases ever, it was announced that the Beatles would appear live on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sandwiched between Disney and Bonanza, Sullivan introduced the Beatles to 73 million viewers, the largest television audience to date. The group sang five songs.

On Sunday, that performance can be seen again when the two-hour TV special, “The Night That Changed America,” airs on CBS. It will recreate the time when millions of Americans — at 8:10 p.m., exactly 50 years ago to the day — tuned their black and white televisions to watch a rock band perform.

“I Want to Hold Your Hand” stayed at No. 1 for seven weeks, to be replaced by ”She Loves You.” Everyone from corporate America to screaming 11-year-old girls wanted a piece of the Beatles. Young girls bought squares of cloth purported to be their undershorts. Clairol hired cabaret singer/dancer Neile Adams (Steve McQueen’s spouse) to sport a “Beatle cut.” The band’s appearances became mob scenes reminiscent of Alan Freed’s “Moondog Coronation Ball” and young women would go to untoward means to meet the Beatles.

On the other hand, several Michiganders just happened to be in the right place at the right time for their first experiences with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison. Women look back at the time of the Beatles’ introduction to America when they were impressionable girls, guided into the next phase of sexuality by the four Englishmen. Others are still trying to make sense of how the band captivated Americans: Was it their unique personalities? What did they have that the Rolling Stones didn’t? Was it much-needed pop reprieve following the Kennedy assassination?

Whatever it was, it was built to last.

The speed skater and the mop tops

Terry McDermott, the United States’ only Gold Medal winner at the 1964 Winter Olympics, was on his way home to Essexville, Mich., but was about to be pulled into Beatlemania. Anxious to see Virginia, his spouse of four months, and to get back to work at Bunny’s, a barbershop in nearby Bay City, McDermott detoured with a layover in New York City where Sullivan had invited him to make an appearance on his Sunday variety show.

McDermott’s unexpected victory was the only high point for the U.S. in the 1964 Winter Olympics. A decided underdog against the Russian World Champion, McDermott, in his specialty, the 500-meter speed skating event, beat the Russian favorite by one-tenth of a second. What McDermott didn’t know as he dozed high above the Atlantic coming home was that Sullivan was more interested in his barbering skills than his Gold Medal.

Although McDermott was introduced to Sullivan’s 728-person audience, the real action had been backstage in the green room, which the small-town barber shared with the Beatles.

“I didn’t know who they were,” McDermott said in an interview from his Bloomfield Hills home. But the Beatles knew who he was and congratulated him on his Gold Medal.

“They were really gentlemen and not rowdy,” he said. Sullivan staged a publicity photograph of McDermott cutting the hair of one of the “mop tops,” one of many names they were called by skeptical U.S. media. Sullivan’s idea worked perfectly. The iconic photograph of McDermott cutting Paul McCartney’s hair while Sullivan and John, George and Ringo looked on in horror was sent across national wire services. At the time, Mc- Dermott and the Beatles didn’t exchange autographs. But nearly 50 years later, McDermott met up with Mc- Cartney at a Detroit concert and asked him to sign the famous photograph.

Night of a lifetime, missed

In 1964, Margot Landa Kielhorn of Evanston, Ill., was 13 and on her annual summer visit to Aunt Jeannette and Uncle Lloyd Landa in New York. She had no idea this summer vacation would be one she would never forget.

Kielhorn was no stranger to the Beatles, first hearing them on her tiny transistor radio tuned to the Chicago powerhouse AM station WLS while waiting to go into Nichols Junior High in Evanston. Dick Biondi, a DJ at WLS, had cued up “Please Please Me” as early as March 1963. Like Kielhorn most 13-year-old girls, Kielhorn, now an East Lansing resident, was in love with the Beatles. But her strict father would never let her buy a Beatles record, let alone see them in concert.

But her Uncle Lloyd happened to be boyhood friends with Bobby Bonis, who had recently come off a European tour as the road manager for the Rolling Stones. Recommended by the Stones, Bonis was hired by the Beatles as road manager for their three U.S. tours. On an early Saturday morning, that relationship landed Kielhorn on a bus sitting next to one of the opening acts, Jackie DeShannon (“What the World Needs Now”), rolling to Forest Hills in Queens where the Beatles were playing their eighth concert date on the 25-stop North American tour.

She said DeShannon wore sunglasses and had her hair made up in giant juice can rollers.

“She had this husky voice,” Kielhorn said. “When we got there, we were hustled back stage. I stood there shaking, and as things got more exciting it was just pandemonium.” She and her aunt would stand throughout the entire show. Afterwards, she missed out on a golden opportunity.

“Here’s the most mortifying part. After we got back to the city, Bobby came over to talk with my aunt and I. I was so tired I didn’t pick up that he had asked me to go with him into the city to visit a radio station and then stop by the (band’s) hotel,” Kielhorn said.

“I told him I was too tired, and he said, ‘Are you sure?’ “After he left, my aunt said, ‘Are you out of your mind? Bobby just asked you to visit the boys.’” The next year, as sort of a consolation prize for not meeting the Beatles, Bonis presented her with two amazing pieces of Beatle memorabilia: a North American concert program and the album “A Hard Day’s Night,” both signed by all four of The Beatles. Cased in protective plastic, each are now kept in a safe deposit box.

The photographer

Doug Elbinger was 14 years old when he accepted a National Scholastic Award for photography in Detroit in 1964. At the ceremony, he met two photographers, one freelancer and one with the Detroit Free Press.

Following the meeting, Elbinger jumped at the chance when he was asked to be an assistant at the Beatles’ concert set for the 15,000-seat Olympia Stadium in Detroit on Sept. 6, 1964. Mostly lugging film, flashbulbs and equipment, Elbinger was near the stage when the band played its 11-song concert.

“Once it started, you couldn’t hear a thing,” Elbinger said. “Everything that wasn’t nailed down got tossed. I got hit in the back of the head with a flash cube.

“Here I was 14 and a budding photojournalist.” He laughingly tosses the practiced line, “My career went downhill from there.”

After the concert, Elbinger was hustled backstage to a press conference where he recalls the Beatles had what he thought were “very thick accents.”

“They were smoking cigarettes and making phone calls,” he said.

Although Elbinger snapped some of his own photographs, he’s adamant no one will ever see them.

“They are too blurry to show,” he said. He corrected that problem two years later at the Beatles’ third performance at Olympia, where he took some iconic photos of the band that have been reprinted in a number of books.

They will take a prominent place in his own book “Encounters with Remarkable Men,” which will be available soon on Amazon. Elbinger, who ran a Lansing photography studio for three decades, lives in Bloomfield Hills and works for an alternative energy company.

The Beatles with an Eagle

Melissa Kaltenbach, of Lansing, also found herself jammed into the aging Olympia Stadium with 15,000 other screaming fans.

Kaltenbach, who was 17 at the time, remembers the acoustics weren’t that good, a common refrain from early concert goers, but she said, “I could see them shake their heads.”

“My dad drove us down and stayed with us. He was a bit eccentric and went around picking up fainting girls,” she said.

At first, Kaltenbach couldn’t remember who went to the concert with her and her sister Lynn. But later, her sister reminded her that Glenn Frey, co-founder of the Eagles, drove down to Detroit with them from their Birmingham hometown.

“I remember dad and Glenn arguing over a song,” Kaltenbach said.

Beyond plastic

Hundreds of books have tackled the question of why the Beatles were able to capture the imagination of America. M.L. Liebler, a Wayne State University professor and poet who has taught a class on the Beatles’ impact on America and leads a summer abroad session to their Liverpool hometown, believes that to a great extent it had to do with the Kennedy assassination, which took place just 79 days before their Sullivan appearance.

“We were really down in the dumps,” he said.

Liebler credits his grandmother for her role in introducing him to music.

“Because of my grandmother, I was aware of Elvis when I was 4. I loved Elvis, especially that raw hound-dog Elvis. But then music got real lame and seemed plastic to me,” he said.

Then in late 1963, Liebler heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” broadcast from nearby Windsor on CKLW.

“I was infatuated with it and the sound was like, wow,” he said.

“When I heard that the Beatles were going to be on The Ed Sullivan Show, I began counting the hours, minutes and days from Christmas.

“I remember watching them flash their names below them on the screen. I didn’t know who was who at the time and at first Ringo was my favorite, his name so different,” Liebler said.

Later, Lennon would become his stalwart, attracted by the sound of his voice and the Rickenbacker guitar.

“My grandparents at first never warmed to the Beatles, but when they heard them sing “Til There Was You” from “The Music Man,” well, when they heard that, they were not so bad,” Liebler said.

Pen pals

Sitting at her home in Flint, Ellen Jones had the same thought — that maybe her parents would like the Beatles as much as she did when they sang “Til There Was You” on Sullivan’s show.

For Jones, director of public affairs at Lansing Community College, hearing a Beatles song today takes her to a time when “I felt my own power in a way. It was something that no one could take away and the beginning of my developing my own identity in the world.”

Fueled by Beatlemania, in early 1965 Jones connected with a British pen pal from the back of a Beatles fan magazine. Her pen pal, Babs, was quite daring and a fan of Paul. Jones recounts how one day she got a letter from Babs and, as was her habit, she went into the bathroom for privacy to read the letter. In the envelope was Paul McCartney’s autograph. She nearly fell off the stool.

“Babs had gone to his house in London and stood outside and got his autograph,” she said.

Pen pals were quite the rage in the ‘60s, and Lauren Ciesa’s experience was not unlike Jones’. As a fourth grader in Kalamazoo, Ciesa began writing pen-pal letters to a boy in Liverpool. Just before the Beatles would come to the United States, Ciesa said he received a letter with all four of the Beatles’ signatures.

Initially, it didn’t make a big impression on him even after he watched the first appearance of the band on The Ed Sullivan Show. After the second show, though, he checked out the letter and found it was the Beatles’ signatures.

Ciesa, founder of Ciesa Design in Old Town, has the autographs framed. Even though he has friends who would “kneel before them,” he says, “I like them, I’m not a fanatic.” In fact, at that time he said he was “more of Stones fan.”

John McMillan, an MSU graduate and professor of history at Georgia State University, has written what might be the seminal book on the Beatles-Stones divide. He said that although the Kennedy assassination might be one answer to the Beatles’ success, he never found it to be “truly satisfying.”

He writes in “The Beatles Vs. The Stones’ that one reason the Beatles were so successful is that while they all had different personalities, they played as a collective group. He also cites their stage banter (honed during hundreds of concerts in dance halls in Liverpool and Hamburg) as an important factor.

“They were able to develop a personal rapport at news conferences and they were well-choreographed and rehearsed. Plus America had a consumer culture they were able to take advantage of,” he said.

Day at the museum

To get an idea of exactly what that consumer culture was, you only have to drive nine miles from Lansing to Dimondale to see the Spector-Walker Beatles Collection containing more than 5,000 items.

Vicki Spector-Walker and her husband, Jim Walker, have amassed Beatles items of every conceivable kind — maybe not the kitchen sink, but there is a Beatles toilet seat in a tiny bathroom.

In this mighty collection is everything from Beatles mothballs (who knew?) to Beatles bobbleheads of every size and material, along with hundreds of original works of art featuring the band.

Although the Beatles only produced 12 albums, there are more than 100 albums on display featuring knockoffs of every imaginable type.

One that isn’t a knockoff, but that is rare and quite bold, is the Beatles’ infamous “butcher” cover, which was recalled after an outcry about posing dismembered dolls alongside cuts of butchered meat.

When the Beatles first arrived in New York City, their manager, Brian Epstein, might not have had the merchandising effort down to a science, but he soon learned that licensing and peddling Beatles merchandise could be more profitable than selling music.

On a recent tour of the Spector-Walker museum home, the first stop was the kitchen with album covers as a backdrop, then on to the master bedroom filled floor to ceiling with Beatles memorabilia. The Walkers have a marriage made in Beatles heaven. She met Walker, who is Scottish, online while buying a George Harrison (her favorite) item from him. They began talking. He made a trip to the U.S. that ended in marital Beatles bliss. The couple gives guided tours by appointment.

Spector-Walker said her life changed after seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.

“I went out and got a Beatles haircut and drove my parents crazy,” she said.

Walker said his mercantile interest in the Beatles began when he traded a magazine for a Beatles poster, which he soon discovered was an original pre-Beatlemania poster that he flipped for $12,000. He has no regrets since it allowed him to pay some bills and buy more Beatles memorabilia.

Spector-Walker said she began displaying her collection in 1993 after having her home interior repainted. “I decided: What good is a collection if it is kept in boxes?” she said.

Walker said it took a full year to put everything in cabinets and to arrange the exhibits.

The couple talks with practiced ease about any item in the collection, which helps provide context for the vast number of items.

For example, a question about what appears to be a simple clock radio brings the answer, “It was an illegal use of a Beatles song as a wake-up tune and Sony withdrew it from the market.”

Walking through, you might run across a George Harrison puppet or a case filled with a collection of English teapots in Beatles caricatures. Turn around and there is a “Flip Your Wig” game in mint condition. If the couple could have their own song, it likely would be “Love Love Me Do.”

All Spector-Walker knows is, “I was alone for 25 years and George Harrison brought us together.”