- — EDITOR’S NOTE: Retired Herald Managing Editor Wally Wachter recounted his own 1966 brush with Beatlemania in this installment of his “The Way We Were” column, which was originally published in 1984.
The U.S. invasion by Britain’s Beatles just 20 years ago this month had as much impact as the discovery of America by Columbus and the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.
It produced a new breed of youngster whose loyalty to the unkempt musical foursome grew into a national mania which bordered on a new religion. It produced a new kind of music, at first offensive to most adults’ ears, but captivating the inner rhythms of dormant teenage musical tastes.
All at once styles took a new twist. Young boys, emulating the appearance of their new-found heroes, let their tresses grow to shoulder-length and below, much to the consternation of their elders who were slow to accept the new way of life. Barbers, with a sudden lack of things to do, began tearing their own hair out.
The long-hair issue probably caused more rifts in family life than any issue in decades. And looking back, it appeared to be a misunderstanding on the part of the elders who failed to appreciate that the kids had found themselves some heroes they wanted to be like – like we had our Babe Ruths, Red Granges, Jack Dempseys and Frank Sinatras.
The Beatles stirred the musical interest within the kids that we were unable to do with our prodding and nagging to get them to take piano, or violin, or trumpet lessons. Suddenly there was an urge on the part of all youngsters to want to play guitars. And guitar sales zoomed.
The younger boys and girls in the neighborhood fashioned guitars out of wood and rubber bands, borrowed their mothers’ wigs and staged Beatle shows in neighborhood garages. The constant blaring of record players repeating time after time “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “Eleanor Rigby” “She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” and other Beatle offerings was among other things that miffed the parents.
Seeing and hearing the Beatles in person, and comparing them with the many other rock ’n’ roll groups that tried to cash in on their popularity, won me over. And it was quite by accident.
My musical tastes leaned mainly to the classical although I was a big-band era bug. I abhorred the rock ’n’ roll beat and often appeared as a square to my kids because I wasn’t up on the many, many rock groups that were forcing themselves on their musical scene.
I reached the highlight in ignorance, my kids think, when on a trip to San Diego I lunched with several friends from the San Diego newspaper. In their company was a man whom they introduced to be the manager of The Jefferson Airplane.
Not wanting to appear stupid, I asked no questions. But I wondered all afternoon as I sipped my martini and nibbled at my sandwich why an airplane had to have a manager. Or was this a new airline?
When I related my experience to my wife and kids at the hotel, the youngsters made me feel as stupid as I tried to appear not to be. “That’s the top rock group in the country,” they exclaimed.
It was only a tight traveling schedule that saved me from being forced to call the manager and try to promote some tickets for the appearance that night at the huge San Diego Civic Center. Anyway, the program had been sold out for weeks.
The appearance of the Beatles at Cleveland Stadium in 1966, on their second or third visit to the United States, was when they made believers out of me. I attended the concert as an afterthought after I became convinced that the mania had invaded and become deeply entrenched in my own household.
“The Beatles are coming to Cleveland! Please, Dad, can you get tickets for me and my girlfriend?”
This is how my 15-year-old daughter, caught up in the Beatlemania that was sweeping the country’s teenagers, greeted me when I got home from work one evening in late spring 1966.
Her pleading was urgent. The concert was only two months away. She heard on a Cleveland radio station that tickets were selling fast and soon would be all sold out. She applied constant pressure.
The Cleveland rock radio station was sponsoring the appearance and was daily bugging the young fans in between the loud musical noises that time was of the essence as a sellout was near.
Having been a frequenter of Cleveland Stadium for baseball and football games, I knew that the ballpark seated 80,000 people and there was no way they were ever going to fill it unless the Beatles were going to play the New York Yankees.
I played it cool for about a week, bribing my daughter to do household tasks that she would never tackle before. Finally I succumbed to the prodding and pleading.
I called a friend at the Cleveland station. “Sure, we can fix you up. I’ll send two tickets in the mail,” he said. “We’re having a press conference with the Beatles before the performance. Would you like me to make reservations for you?” he almost begged me.
I declined the invitation, figuring that these invaders from Britain were not my cup of tea. How many times since I wish I hadn’t.
The day of the concert arrived. I had taken the day off because I had promised to drive the two young fans to Cleveland. When I awakened about 8 a.m., my starry-eyed daughter and her friend already were dressed and waiting.
“What time is the concert,” I asked.
“It’s at 7 o’clock tonight, but we want to get close to the gate so we can be the first ones in,” was the reply.
To appease them, I figured we would take a leisurely drive, stop somewhere for brunch and kill some time before I took them to the stadium. I asked my 12-year-old son, Skip, along to help me spend the hours I had to kill until the concert was over.
We stopped to eat. They all ordered heavy, but ate nothing. Finally I yielded to their urgency and took the two girls to the stadium where the crowds had already gathered.
What to do the next 10 hours before we were to pick up the girls? We went to Cleveland-Hopkins Airport to watch the planes come in and take off. My son appeared uninterested. We returned to downtown Cleveland and had dinner. I suggested a movie. My son wasn’t interested. Then like a bolt of lightning it hit me: This kid was a Beatles fan, too.
“Did you want to see the Beatles, too?” I asked. “I would, but I think it’s too late,” he confessed. “Let’s go,” I said, and we drove down toward the stadium. I had to park in a garage on Third Street, about seven or eight city blocks away. It was about a half-hour before concert time and the crowds were still around the ticket booths.
It wasn’t too long a wait before I had our tickets. The seats were even better ones than I had procured for my daughter two months earlier. The stadium then was less than half-filled.
The stage was about at second base. A high white fence had been erected around the field to keep the fans penned in their seats.
I sat through an hour of about the most boring entertainment I ever experienced, while others around me were screaming with delight. A couple or three bouncing rock groups, with names like “Red Rubber Ball” and other nonsensical nomenclatures took turns performing to set the stage for the Beatles.
Finally they took the stage – Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lennon. The screams, the stomping, the yelling from the youngsters around us was deafening. Young girls were moaning and sobbing. The crowd appeared to be in a trance.
It didn’t take the Beatles long to convince me that they were top-rate entertainers. They were master showmen. Their instrumental prowess and stage presence far exceeded that of the groups that preceded them on stage. Their own musical compositions bordered on genius. The Beatles had made an admirer of me.
Suddenly, as the concert was drawing to a close, an unexpected surge converged from the stands like flood waters rushing over a dam. The high fence around the field was trampled to splinters by the thousands of teenagers rushing onto the field and toward the stage. Police were frantic trying to stop the stampede, but without success.
The son of the chief stadium groundskeeper who sat behind us began uttering words I hoped my son was not listening to. He had to have the field in shape the next day for a baseball game.
My first impulse was to glance at the seat where my daughter had been sitting. She was gone. My son and I joined the stampede, not to mob the Beatles, but to find her and make sure she was safe.
The Beatles were escorted off stage to safety. We found the girls at stageside, glassy-eyed and in a state of confusion, still reaching and pledging their love of Paul McCartney to an empty stage.
My daughter had lost a shoe. We waited until the mob had cleared and then asked an attendant if anyone had found a shoe.
He took us to a part of the stage and said, “Take your pick.” There were hundreds of shoes there. We looked through all of them and couldn’t find the missing one. My daughter did find a little stuffed doll that she named “Paul McCartney” and cherishes to this date.
Kathy walked shoeless six blocks to the car, but she didn’t care. She had seen the Beatles. It was a night that she and Skip have never forgotten.