Back in 1964, The Ed Sullivan Show was way past my bedtime.
I was just six years old, and the popular variety show — hosted by “the great stone face,” Ed Sullivan — aired live Sunday nights at 8 p.m. ET on CBS and CBC in Canada.
If I was good, my parents let me stay up to see Topo Gigio, a little Italian mouse Sullivan often had on midway through his show. When the puppet said, “Eddie — kees me goodnight,” that was the cue for millions of six-year-olds and other kids to go to bed.
On Feb. 9, 1964, Sullivan did not have Topo on his “really big shew.” Instead he had booked four lads from Liverpool, the Beatles, who performed five songs over two sets and were featured the following two weeks.
The booking cost Sullivan $10,000.
Back then, the word Twitter would have sounded like the name of the latest dance craze, Facebook a new title from Dr. Seuss.
There was no social media, no Internet, no Google. Yet everyone knew the Beatles were going to be on Sullivan that Sunday night. Their catchy hit records, especially She Loves You and I Wanna Hold Your Hand, were constantly being played on Top-40 radio stations across North America.
An estimated 73.7 million viewers saw them that night, a record audience at the time and still among the biggest TV draws ever as a percentage of the population.
I was one of those viewers, thanks to my parents, who were as curious as everyone else to see what “Beatlemania” was all about.
We gathered around the 19-inch, black and white Marconi TV set in our living room. Sullivan hushed the audience packed into Studio 50 that night on Broadway and 53rd in Manhattan. (Home, these past 20-plus years, to Late Show with David Letterman.) He mumbled something about how his theatre was “jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation” and how “these veterans agreed” the city had never seen anything like it. Then, suddenly, Sullivan blurts, “Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles!”
“Close your eyes” they sang, launching straight away into All My Loving.
“Remember, I’ll always be true.”
I was too young to pay attention to any of the lyrics. What I remember is my dad saying, “Look at all that long hair!”
Mine started to grow that night, along with the hair on the heads of a lot of other baby boomers. Feb. 9 is a day that will live in infamy for barbers.
Ringo won over this six-year-old that night. You couldn’t miss him, sitting in the back, up high on a riser, with all those 15 large arrows pointing at him. He shook his head to the side as he drummed and just looked like he was having the best time ever.
More impressive to this greying boomer today is how poised and note-perfect the Beatles — all under 25 — were on their big night. The standout, musically, might have been lead guitarist George Harrison, so sick with the flu that he missed rehearsals right up until the day of the performance.
The other lasting impression that night was the screams from the young girls in the studio audience. The Beatles on Sullivan may have been the hottest ticket ever for a TV taping, with 50,000 requests for the 728 seats.
Sullivan himself had joked on a previous show that if anybody out there had a ticket, he needed one.
Several celebrities reached out to try to squeeze their daughters into the building.
Those scoring tickets included CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. Composer Leonard Bernstein was not so lucky.
One who was lucky — surprisingly — was Randy Paar. Sullivan received a request from former Tonight Show host Jack Paar, asking for a ticket for his daughter. The two men were emotional and competitive TV rivals, with Paar “scooping” Sullivan by airing a film clip of the Fab Four a month earlier on his prime-time program.
Sullivan took the high road and sent Paar three tickets, ending the feud. Paar’s daughter took Richard Nixon’s daughters Julie and Tricia. Sullivan even dedicated the Feb. 9 show, on air, to “Johnny Carson, columnist Earl Wilson, and Randy Paar.”
The Beatles made one final appearance on Sullivan in September 1965. A week later, the series switched to colour broadcasts — forever locking the Beatles Sullivan appearances in a black and white time vault.
CBS marks the occasion of the first show this Sunday at 8 p.m. — 50 years to the hour of that Sullivan debut — with The Night They Changed America: A Grammy Salute to The Beatles. Both surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, will perform and share memories. Eurythmics duo Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart reunite for the special. Alicia Keys, John Legend, Keith Urban and Maroon 5 are also set to perform.
The special is produced by “Rac” Clark, son of Dick Clark, whose American Bandstand never fully recovered from the “British Invasion” of popular music started by the Beatles.
Like many others, Clark senior didn’t see Beatlemania coming. A plaque on the Los Angeles studio where Bandstand taped its later shows records that the series moved there from Philadelphia on an interesting date: Feb. 10, 1964.
The Beatles never appeared on American Bandstand.
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.