Arts Fuse writer Tim Jackson recalls the impact of being in the audience of the “Ed Sullivan Show” fifty years ago.
By Tim Jackson
“Hey, you kids want tickets to see the Beatles?”
The father of my best friend’s girlfriend—who was the best friend of my sort-of-but-not-really girlfriend—was in the advertising business and his agency had a big client—”The Ed Sullivan Show.” He was given four tickets to see this new band everyone was crazy about. On Sunday, February 9th, 1964, we boarded a train from Westport, Connecticut, to New York to see the Beatles’ first-ever performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” While hysteria was in the air, and lots of jealousy among our classmates, it didn’t actually dawn on us until decades later that we had witnessed a pivotal moment in American culture.
At 14 years old, we needed some inspiration. Two months earlier, the world had changed forever, shaking our wide-eyed belief in America. I recall just before Kennedy’s assassination asking my middle school teacher to explain communism to us. After all, we had just been through a moment of possible annihilation via the Cuban Missile Crisis. In elementary school we had learned to jump under a desk and cover our faces in the event of an atomic bomb attack. I had friends whose families built bomb shelters. At 13, I had grabbed my parent’s 8mm camera and made a film with the neighborhood kids called “The End of the World” where we blew up a miniature city and came back to life as “mutants.” Asking a social studies teacher to explain who these people were who were out to destroy our way of life seemed a reasonable request. But, visibly nervous, he told us to wait until we were older and we could understand the issues better.
My father, a scrappy, self-educated Brooklyn kid, had reinvented himself, Don Draper–like, in the ad business. But he was a suitcase-hugging traveling salesman rather than a martini-toting Mad Man. His job was downsized and he was out of work by 50. My parents had voted Socialist for Norman Thomas, and the IRS mysteriously audited my father every single year. He was bitter, but never without a good joke and lots of optimism. My mother played piano, sang sea shanties, and loved most rock and roll.
We had seen the Beatles on The Jack Parr Show the year before. Parr kind of smirked at this crazy phenomenon sweeping England (“It’s nice to know England has finally risen to our cultural level,” he said sarcastically). He aired a fuzzy black-and-white film clip from England of teenage girls screaming as the band performed a snippet of “She Loves You.” I had been playing drums in the middle school orchestra, where I was kicked out for not being serious enough. In the school band I had been demoted to carrying the bass drum in the local Fourth of July Parade. I was ready for something better.
We arrived at the theater and getting to our seats was pretty smooth. Huge crowds were gathered outside, but much of the really serious frenzy took place outside the Beatles hotel. Once in the theater the atmosphere of hysteria was tangible. Fifty years later all four of us recall one essential fact: we were in 10th Row Left Orchestra.
As soon as we sat down the screaming began. If something moved in the wings someone would point at it, as if the Beatles might be wandering around backstage or crawling up in the flies. Everyone would look and scream. There was a feeling that the place might get out of control at any moment. So what does Sullivan do? Right before the show is scheduled to go on the air in front of 73 million people, he comes out from behind the curtain and says to the crowd of turbulent teens: “If you ‘youngsters’ don’t behave yourselves, I’m not going to bring the band out.” The high school principal had taken the stage!
I can barely remember any of the other acts—the Broadway cast of the musical Oliver with future Monkee Davy Jones, Frank Gorshin (I loved his impression of James Cagney), comedians Mitzi McCall & Charlie Brill, singer Tessie O’Shea, magician Fred Kapps, and acrobats Wells & the Four Fays. Sitting in front of us in the 9th row was Randy Parr, Jack’s daughter. An ongoing feud had been going on between Sullivan and Parr. Union rules required Sullivan to pay his live performers more than Paar did for filmed performances, and Ed was pissed. But when Parr showed film of the Beatles and mentioned their upcoming appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Ed was forgiving. (Paar always and rightfully claimed’ “I was first to show them in this country—not Sullivan.”) Sullivan provided Parr’s daughter with three tickets. After explaining to the audience that this was a moment of public reconciliation, she was introduced: “Ladies and gentleman, in the audience tonight—Rrrrandy Parrrrr.” What we didn’t know at the time was that sitting right in front of us were her two guests — Julie and Tricia Nixon!
Finally, our stiff-necked host introduced the “youngsters from Liverpool.” With a sweep of his arm he announced “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Beatles.” They counted off the song—”All My Loving”—and immediately the screaming drowned out the music. The Beatles were so close and full of smiles. The set was vivid shades of blue and black and grey. The stage was smaller than our school auditorium. Ringo looked precarious on that tiny riser. Paul was left-handed! The rest of America was watching a small black-and-white screen. To us, it felt a bit unreal. Occasionally there would be a lull and the music would leak through, but quickly the screams would rise again. I shouted into my friend’s ear, “Let’s scream as loud as we can and see if we can hear ourselves.” We did. We couldn’t.
Last year I did an interview with someone writing a book on the Beatles’ impact on America, and for the first time took stock of that night. There were so many musicians who say that this was the moment they decided that rock and roll was something they could do. Plus girls screamed! This music breathed life into a country that had been traumatized. I never again felt complete trust in established order after the Warren Report’s attempt to explain Kennedy’s murder. The worst horrors of Vietnam were looming. The world was changing and we were impressionable adolescents ready to go with a new flow. The Beatles led the charge. The following year, 1965, I was at The Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan came out and played amplified folk music. We couldn’t afford to buy tickets, but heard it all from outside the fence. Nothing would ever be the same.
I practiced furiously and within a year I was in a high school rock band. We opened shows for The Young Rascals. I was hooked. In October of 1966, at Staples High School, The Yardbirds, with both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page and their opening act The Chain Reaction (with Steven Tyler), used my band’s PA system to play the auditorium. Within the next ten years I shared the stage in bands that opened for BB King, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Iggy and the Stooges, The Chambers Brothers, Aerosmith, J. Geils, Manfred Mann, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band (in a Rhode Island high school gymnasium), Little Feat, the Wailers (both at Paul’s Mall) and Grand Funk Railroad at Boston University. These were heady times indeed. Sixteen years later, with Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, I was part of the 11th band to be aired on MTV.
I’m still setting up a drum kit and hauling it to the occasional gigs. Playing music has influenced my life in countless ways. Looking back it’s fair to say, like so many others, that it all started sitting in that theater on February 9th, 1964.
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed two documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His a third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 year, screens with a Q&A and live performances at the Regent Theater in Arlington on April 4th. You can read more of his work on his blog.